Food Ethics: An Embarrassment of Choices

Food ethics is becoming a highly controversial field. Find out how our food choices affect world hunger, animal welfare, a fair society and the environment.

Food is life.  What each species eats drives ecology and the web of life.  In fact, for the animal kingdom, it might be more accurate to say that ecology describes who eats who.

In his classic book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan explains that the problem we have as humans is that we can eat virtually anything we want.  Our bodies have evolved to be able to digest and process just about every kind of food in the world.

Everyone knows that some food choices and combinations are healthier than others over time.  Despite this, in the short run, we can eat just about anything from soup to nuts on a given day, and our bodies will keep going for the time being.


Most other species aren’t like that.  Koalas, for example, can only eat eucalyptus leaves.  Koalas don’t ask themselves what they’d like for lunch today.  As long as they manage to come up with a few of their favourite leaves, they’re happy campers.

This works out well for koalas because they’re practically the only animal that can eat these leaves. They have a natural monopoly. Nature often favours this kind of specialization.

However, some animals, like humans, bears and pigs, can eat whatever they want.  We’re called omnivores, and our strategy is to roam around various habitats hunting and gathering and spreading out around the world.


The thing that makes humans unique is our mind.  We’re called homo sapiens because the Latin word sapiens means “wise.”  We can also translate it as “understanding,” “sensible,” or “rational.”

Unlike other animals, we can understand our actions and their moral consequences.  This leaves us in a predicament where, on the one hand, we have a wide range of choices as to what we can eat while on the other, we’re smart enough to know the implications of every one of those choices.

That’s where the field of food ethics comes in.  We can all make ethical decisions about our food choices.  What should those choices be?


Broadly speaking, food ethics revolve around four issues.  These are nutrition, animal welfare, fairness to farmers and the environment.  

We’re planning to publish lots of stories on all of these topics as new discoveries crop up (pun intended). Still, for now, we’ll introduce each of them with a basic overview.


Nutrition is an ironic subject.  The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 815 million people or about 10% of the humans on Earth are suffering from chronic undernourishment.   

The irony is that, at the same time, roughly 20% of people living in OECD countries are obese.  So, 10% of us go hungry every day of their lives while 20% of us are overfed.

Surprisingly, it’s not the wealthy who are overweight in OECD countries.  It’s generally the less educated (and therefore lower income) who tend to be morbidly obese, especially women with limited formal education.


In the west, healthy foods are expensive and processed foods are cheap. Processed foods contain empty calories to make them more appealing, so low-income people gain weight.

The solution to our nutritional irony is two-fold.  We need to educate first world people on better nutrition.  That’s what all those food labels on packages and calorie counts on restaurant menus are for, but they fall on deaf ears.

People ignore those notifications, and the food business is determined to do as little as possible to make them helpful. People need to take the initiative to learn and apply the expert consensus on proper nutrition for themselves.  A local dietician is the best place to start.


The other half of the solution to our nutrition irony is global cooperation.  We need better ways to get nutritious food to the millions of people who desperately need it.  

Most wealthy countries have foreign aid programs, and NGOs do what they can with what they have.  The UN World Food Program coordinates a lot of this work.

Even so, to really tackle the issue, we need to get away from this dependency mentality.  The best approach is to help small, local farmers in the developing world increase their own yields and feed their own communities.  


We also need to work with pregnant women and young mothers to see that they and their babies are adequately fed.  Finally, we need to globally monitor and reduce threats to food security.  

These include local market fluctuations, droughts and severe storms.  Once detected, the global community has to respond quickly to stop famines before they can get started. 

Animal Welfare

Our second food ethics issue is animal welfare.  This area is becoming highly controversial in OECD countries.  A small but fast-growing minority of people in the developed world now believes that animal agriculture or using animal products in any form is unethical.

When we look at factory farming and the so-called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs for short), we can easily see their point. Thousands of animals live out their miserable lives on crowded lots without ever grazing or ranging in a pasture.

Instead, they’re confined in cruelly cramped spaces and given feed that their systems can’t digest properly, like nothing but cheap feed corn for cows and chickens. 


Employees shoot them full of growth hormones to force them to gain weight, and when they get sick, the onsite vet shoots them full of antibiotics.

Their lives are “nasty, brutish and short.”  There’s no question that they suffer depression, pain, sensory deprivation and chronic illness.  Animal suffering feeds us all in these conditions.

Thankfully, at least so far, not all animals are raised on factory farms.  Outside the United States, CAFOs are less common and far less ruthless.  


Here in Canada, for example, the National Farm Animal Care Council sets codes of practice for the treatment of agricultural animals.  They develop them based on input from all stakeholders, including consumers and animal welfare groups.

Underlying all of this is a starker moral question.  Do we have the right to kill an animal for food at all?  Since we’re such adaptable omnivores, why should we choose to eat animals when we don’t really have to?

The sad truth is that all eating involves death of some sort. It’s not just that a plant-based diet means killing plants, which, after all, aren’t capable of suffering the way animals do.

when we clear fields we destroy habitat

Growing crops entails clearing land.  When we clear fields, we destroy habitat and the harsh truth is that many wild animals die in ugly ways from this, especially predators.

To maintain cropland, farmers have to kill pests and varmints.  Agriculture kills large numbers of animals, whether it is plant-based or animal-based.  

And, of course, in the wild, predators kill prey animals for food.  There’s a kind of poetic justice in the end, though, because when predators die, scavengers eat them.

nobody has the right to tell anyone what to eat

My only answer at this stage in my own journey, and I know it’s inadequate, is based on autonomy.  In my view, nobody, other than perhaps a dietician, has the right to tell anyone else what to eat.  

 Omnivores shouldn’t tell vegetarians that they have to eat meat.  By the same token, vegetarians shouldn’t tell omnivores that they can’t eat meat.  

That’s where we’re going to leave the debate for this overview. Still, we promise to get back to it in much more detail in future stories.

Fairness to Farmers

Our next food ethics issue is fairness to farmers.  We’ve already covered the need to encourage local farmers in developing countries to increase their yields and supply their own communities.  

There’s a broader issue driving this topic. These days, we’re all part of a global food system.  

When my parents were young, it wasn’t unusual to receive a single orange as one of their Christmas presents.  Fresh fruit in the winter was a luxury, if not an extravagance.

fresh produce from everywhere in the world

Today, when I walk into my supermarket in mid-winter, the first thing I see is a vast selection of fresh produce from everywhere in the world.  It’s easy to avoid asking myself how all these delicacies I’m free to buy and eat got here and who produced them.

Whether the question is easy or hard to avoid, I should be asking it.  Most farmers would agree that western countries have a “cheap food policy.”

For example, in 1960, an average American family spent 17.5 percent of their household budget on food.  Today, that figure is about 10 percent.  It’s still hard for households to make ends meet today, but that’s because of housing and utility costs, not the grocery bill.

provide enough money for the people who produce it

The ethical issue here is whether this vast selection of affordable food provides enough money for the people who produce it.  Overall, the answer is no.

In developed countries, farm profits have not kept pace with incomes from other occupations.  For example, in 2018, here in Canada, net farm income fell by 45%.  

Income inequality has caused farming to decline from being the most common occupation in Canada in the 1950s to a mere 1.7% of today’s workforce.

farming is a mere 1.7% of today’s workforce

In developing countries, the issues are even starker.  Only a percent or two of people in OECD countries are farmers.  In contrast, in developing countries like Madagascar, it’s closer to 75%.

In both rich and poor countries, poverty is most common in rural farming areas.  Another food ethics irony is that the majority of the world’s hungry are the people who produce our food.

So our cheap food policies don’t work for a great many people either locally or globally.  Are there choices we can make to ensure that more of our food dollar is going to the families who produce what we eat?  The short answer is “yes.”

food dollars to families who produce what we eat

Readers will have heard of locavores or the 100-mile diet. There may be limits to how practical eating locally is in a wintry country like Canada.

Even so, going to farmer’s markets and getting to know the people who produce the food you eat encourages fairness in our food system.  You can also make some discrete inquiries into how the farmers you deal with treat their animals.


What about farmers in other countries?  Avoiding (not boycotting) imported food discourages commodified monoculture farming.  You can also make a point of buying fair trade products, especially coffee and chocolate.

Commodified farming operations exploit people in the third world.  When we buy local and fair trade products, we free them to return to small family farms.  Then they can concentrate on boosting their yields to supply their own communities.


Although the operators (I choose not to call them farmers) of gargantuan feedlots and CAFOs deny it, farming requires large tracts of land.  In fact, farms are occupying more real estate than ever before.

Whereas a typical farm in the 1960s sat on about 100 acres of land, today’s Canadian farm encompasses closer to 800 acres and up to 2,000 acres in our bread basket province of Saskatchewan.

Globally, we use about half of our habitable land to produce food.  However, if everyone in the world adopted the typical diet of an American, we would need to convert 138% of our habitable land to agriculture.  Of course, that’s impossible.


I’m not picking on Americans.  An Australian diet would demand 158%, an Argentine food regimen would consume 162%, and Canadian foodways would use up 130%.  None of that is sustainable.

Our world population is forecast to increase from 7 billion to 10 billion people by 2050.  It seems that most of us assume that as developing countries improve their standard of living, all these people will be entitled to enjoy a western diet as well.

Where will we get the land to accomplish that?  Besides, there’s another consideration.  We are also in the midst of rapid species extinction in our wilderness areas.


To combat the global extinction crisis, the UN has set a goal of preserving 30% of the world’s land, freshwater and oceans by 2030.  We can’t press all of the world’s habitable areas into food production and preserve natural habitats at the same time.

The way out of this predicament is what the UN calls sustainable development.  Our food choices will play a big part in that.

We can’t sustain our current western diet and avoid mass starvation on the one hand or species extinction on the other.  Eating copious amounts of meat is a significant threat to sustainability.


Livestock takes up 80% of our agricultural land, yet it delivers only 20% of our calories.  That’s because we feed most of our plants to our livestock. 

We can feed them nothing but surplus corn. Animals can live out their lives confined in tiny pens with growth hormones coursing through their veins. Even then, they can only convert a fraction of those plant calories into meat calories.  

Meat production is inefficient from a caloric point of view. This adds fuel to the fire of our vegetarian readers, who insist that this is another reason we should give up human consumption of meat entirely. 


We definitely have to go to more plant-based diets. This will improve our nutrition in western countries as well, which would help with the epidemic of obesity.

 The science of whether a completely meat-free diet is healthier than a plant-based diet, in the long run, is less clear cut.  Again, we promise to return to this issue in future stories with more details.

The other environmental issue is climate change and not because of cow farts.  As with most industries, modern agriculture is addicted to fossil fuels.


It’s not just the diesel fuel that tractors and other farm implements burn.  Producing modern chemical fertilizers also requires enormous volumes of fossil fuels.

Bringing all that beautiful produce to my supermarket involves long-distance transportation.  It may be an eighteen-wheeler, a banana boat, a freight train or an airplane. 

No matter what mode we use, a lot of fuel gets burned along the way.  That means that we’re emitting carbon into our air.


So what is a fair-minded well-intentioned, fairly bright omnivore to do in this confusing and complicated world?  There’s no one simple answer to food ethics, and anybody who tells you differently is trying to sell you a bill of goods.

What we can do is find out more. We should all investigate our own nutritional needs.  

We can discover how our local farmers operate and, in turn how our community treats its farmers.  We can seek out alternatives to our heavily meat-centred diets and where to buy food locally.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Food Ethics Council
National Farm Animal Care Council
Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO)
Agricultural Biodiversity Under Threat Worldwide
Predators Decline First From Human Land Use
Soil Biodiversity Now Tracked Globally


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