The Washington Post had a nice, if slightly bemused, article on Meatpaper in the Style section today, about how the magazine believes "that meat, and the endless variety of rituals, symbolism and taboos surrounding it, can tell us a lot about our fellow humans." (For some reason the Post refers to me as the "author of a 'food politics blog'" as if those three words had never been strung together before.) In the afternoon I talked to a Canadian reporter for a story she is doing about ethical carnivorism. And then later, we got this email. It's a question we hear often enough that I thought I would share my reply. Feel free to chime in with your own ethical algorithms.
I am doing a feature for [Australian magazine] on ethical eating. This weekend I will be doing an experiment on eating ethically for the whole weekend. I was hoping someone would be able to offer advice on what they classify as ethical eating - maybe a list of guidelines I should follow according to the Ethicurean eating movement.
Look forward to hearing from you.
And here's what I said:
Sounds like a fun story. It's not hard to eat ethically, but it does involve doing some legwork. You need to know what your values are, and if you are not buying directly from the farmers, what exactly the labels on food mean. Everyone has their own set of ethics that they may prioritize slightly differently. Maybe you want to help rebuild local-food infrastructure, and support drought-stricken Aussie farmers, so you would choose local non-organic produce over certified organic produce from far away. Or you think it is immoral to treat sentient beings such as pigs as if they are mere protein widgets in a massive factory: you would then eat only pork from pigs raised outside, with room to engage in natural behaviors. Perhaps you think its unethical to eat animals at all: it's easier than ever to be vegetarian. Maybe you are concerned about the effects of pesticides and herbicides on the environment and on farmworkers' health, even those far away: you would stick to certified organic produce.
And if you are concerned about ALL those things — like we are — you can start by avoiding processed food, factory meat, genetically modified food, and chemically dependent crops. Then start educating yourself: talk to the people who grow the food you are buying and ask them why they do it the way they do. If you can't buy direct from the farm, then make sure you understand what supermarket labels like "organic" and "free range" and "natural" mean. They often don't cover the things you think they do: for example organic beef in the U.S. can be raised in a feedlot on a diet of organic grain, rather than out in pasture eating grass as much as the climate and season allow. Some "humanely raised" labels allow beak clipping for chickens and tail docking for pigs.
I wish there were an easy answer. But if there were, we wouldn't have felt the need to start this blog in order to chronicle our own thought processes!