Signs of the dietgeist: Ethical eating everywhere

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.

Dear Bonnie,

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.

Kind regards,

[Ethicurean n00b]

And here’s what I said:

Hi there:

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!


9 Responsesto “Signs of the dietgeist: Ethical eating everywhere”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    I was interviewed for the Post piece as well, but by a female person, not Peter Carlson. So apparently Peter Carlson has help from researchers to write his magazine column? But now that I read the column, and see that there is nothing of real substance in it, I can understand how it was based on work by a researcher rather than someone who put real thought into it.

    Bonnie, I’m guessing it was the reasearcher who put the quotes around “food politics blog” and Carlson merely repeated them, having spent not one nanosecond wondering what they implied.

  2. Greg deJong says:

    Indeed, a basic question on this topic yields an industrial crop of answers—and questions!

    In my limited (~1 year and counting) experience ‘going ethical,’ the first challenge was to understand the fundamental flaws of our food system; Pollan et al. have brought reams of new (and old!) dietary and agricultural knowledge to the cultural forefront, impossible to ignore. Immediately next was to not feel too guilty about my gastronomic history, instead realizing I had come into important and timely knowledge.

    Then came the need to truly commit to it and not make exceptions—which put a strain on my social life both in the logistics of eating anywhere-but-at-home and of sharing my new understanding with others (who, like embattled smokers, and perhaps anyone, are quick to become defensive of their perceived vice, ignorance, complicity).

    Lately, the issue of food has been getting more urgent attention from popular media, at least related to prices and the (age-old) neglect of starving nations. Ethical eating, to me, must include proximity, and should the widespread adoption of community gardening happen (by choice or otherwise) then perhaps that disparity will begin to improve.

    But, for the present, and despite a natural contempt for our ruinous, predatory media, it is a small chore for the ethical consumer (incl. eating) to simply encourage the dissemination of our new ways, both to uncommitted reporters and to reluctant friends/family. Some of us will learn on our own, others by accident.

  3. I like your answer, Bonnie! I’m going to link to it.

  4. Derric Meister says:

    I would put myself in the category of the reporters and journalists at this point. I don’t know much about the problems of our food supply and would basically call myself ignorant.

    Despite the general sense of the questions from the Australian reporter, making it difficult to answer I’m sure, your answers were definitely illuminating. I’ve recently watched The Meatrix (which I see on the left side menu here) for a class I’m taking and the fact that your answers coincided with what was said in the short film, reiterated the entire point about our food having problems, for me.

    I’m not quite at the point as to become an ethicurean, however, and there are still questions rolling around in my mind. I’ll post them here (not expecting any answers, but hoping to find them soon). Honestly, for myself, I know that I am fit and feel like I eat healthily enough. How much damage does a factory farmed animal do to the body? What would eating ethically do for my health? I guess it depends on chemicals and feed used, but how much of a difference is put upon people eating right for themselves as to animal cruelty, for eating ethically? Or is it all a combination that add together and that’s what eating ethically is? How is it possible to satisfy all those combinations, like you said in your answer to the Aussie reporter? It all seems so much more imposing than I thought.
    It’s funny because, like I said, I’m pretty ignorant about the processes that our food go through, but it’s obvious that there are still more people that have no idea, or even any thoughts about it. At least I support the whole notion of eating ethically, right? I agree with Ed that, while The Washington Post article did feature and help advertise for the Meatpaper, it seemed pretty insipid. The writer seemed to care more about the weird stories and pictures than about the actual subject matter, which is a shame. More attention is coming, I’m sure, and I’ll hopefully do my part too.

  5. Eric Siebert says:

    I, like Derric, have recently watched the Meatrix and incorporated its message into my preexisting knowledge of the situations these animals are kept in.  To put it simply, it does not sound good.  Along this line, I find your point on eating ethically to be quite fascinating.  You mention that it largely depends on what one views to be ethical, whether it be protesting the inhumane treatment of the animals to be slaughtered for food as focused on in The Meatrix, the support of local farmers, or whether one finds a combination of factors to be a compelling reason to eat ethically.  It is a very valid point in the sense that the issue of ethics is very subjective, and all an individual can do to eat ethically is to organize their meals so as to align with their own personal set of ethics. One of the most important things I guess is just to try to limit our intake of processed and genetically modified foods, and should we decide to take this path, to educate whoever we can and persuade them to do the same.  Like Greg, many of us are relatively new to this knowledge and have eaten in ways we wish we hadn’t for a good chunk of our lives, but it is never too late to change our ways.  Following such a change, all we can do is hope that this knowledge is spread so that at the least, everyone can make an informed decision and decide what eating ethically means for them.

  6. Ess says:

    For Derric Meister who asks, “How much damage does a factory farmed animal do to the body? What would eating ethically do for my health?”
    From Sustainable Table comes this info (hope it helps):

    Human Health Benefits A growing body of research indicates that pasture-raised meat, eggs, and dairy products are better for consumers’ health than conventionally-raised, grain-fed foods. In addition to being lower in calories and total fat, pasture-raised foods have higher levels of vitamins, and a healthier balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats than conventional meat and dairy products.
    Studies have shown that milk from pasture-fed cows has as much as five times the CLA (a “good” type of fatty acid) as milk from grain-fed cows. iii And meat from pasture-fed cows has from 200 to 500 percent more CLA as a proportion of total fatty acids than meat from cows that eat a primarily grain-based diet. iv
    Free-range chickens have 21% less total fat, 30% less saturated fat and 28% fewer calories than their factory-farmed counterparts. v Eggs from poultry raised on pasture have 10% less fat, 40% more vitamin A and 400% more omega-3′s. vi

    If you, like the average American, eat 67 pounds of beef per year, then switching from conventional beef to pastured beef would reduce your yearly calorie intake by 16,642 calories! ix

  7. *grin* Good answer. “Eathing Ethically” is a lot like spandex – once you know what you want to put in it you can wrap it around most anything. :)

  8. Emily H. says:

    The “food politics blog” was indeed weird, as was the “food studies” reference. I also thought the concluding line was curious, and couldn’t tell if he was being facetious or just totally oblivious.

  9. Emily H. says:

    One more thing…

    To add to Ess’s response to Derric: Factory-farmed animals also consume large amounts of antibiotics and pesticides (from their feed), and what remains in the body is stored in their fatty tissues. So if you’re eating factory-farmed meat on a regular basis, you’re presumably building up pesticides and antibiotics (and hormones) in your own body.