Ethical Considerations Surrounding Food Choices
Presented by Marie-France Boisvert, 31 August 2014
Good morning. I’d like to preface this reflection by saying that I am neither vegetarian nor vegan. This isn't directly relevant to what I'm going to say, but I feel like it'll colour your judgment, so I just wanted to come out and say it.
I want to talk about the economics of food choices, and about the ethical implications of those choices. Specifically, I want to talk about the difference between individual choices, and collective choices.
So to start, some context.
This December, I will be completing an undergraduate degree in Agricultural
In economics - agricultural or otherwise - you collect and analyze data, monitor economic trends, and develop forecasts. You might focus on topics such as energy costs, inflation, interest rates, farm prices, rents, imports, or employment.
Agricultural economics, specifically, is a science degree; it involves biology and chemistry courses, environmental sciences and animal science, and there's a heavy emphasis on natural resources. The difference between an economist and an agricultural economist is that an agricultural economist will have, for example, a deeper understanding of the nitrogen cycle, and be able to explain the difference between the digestive systems of a turkey, a sow, and a heifer. And the agricultural economist will also spend a lot more time thinking about market failure.
Market failure is when something exists, and there are people who want to buy it, and people who want to sell it, but they all can't come together for some reason. An example of this is unpolluted air. There are a lot of people, myself included, who would love to buy their own personal section of clean air. But of course, I can’t. You can't sell individual portions of clean air. Either everybody has clean air, or nobody has. In other words, clean air isn't a private good. It's a public
good. It's a collective responsibility, and unless people, collectively, get their act together, the market for clean air doesn’t exist. It's a market failure.
Ok so, keep market failures in mind, because they're going to come up later. Now, let's talk about food.
The thing about food is: if you're alive, you have to make choices about it.
Historically, food choices have been about the challenge of securing enough food to avoid hunger and starvation. It's been about survival. Humans have an advantage, in that we are omnivores. That means that our digestive systems can absorb a high variety of foods. That's an advantage in terms of survival, but it might be perceived as a disadvantage in a non-survival situation, because we have to choose. People living in developed countries like Canada are more likely to suffer from problems of overconsumption than they are likely to be suffering from hunger. Today's food consumers have access to more food, and a wider variety of food, than at any other time in history.
So recently I was explaining to a friend that I was going to be speaking here today.
Marie-France: I'm supposed to be writing a speech.
Friend: oh yes? what for?
Marie-France: for church. I'm supposed to talk about ethics of food choices for 8 to 10 minutes
Friend: food choices like buying organic and local foods etc?
Marie-France: sort of? More like - the fact that we eat things means that we make implicit ethical choices, and that there is no correct answer to the question 'what is the right choice'
Friend: don't eat babies
Marie-France: That's a good rule of thumb, actually! In general, if you avoid doing things that are illegal, you're already on the right path.
So, that’s a bit… silly… But the thing is, agricultural research and technological developments have dramatically increased food availability in the developed world. And in part because of these changes, and because of a general reduction in food prices over the past 30 years, we’re in a position to ask questions about our food that are more than just “is this
Because we have so many foods to choose from, and none of them have zero social, environmental and health impacts. It’s impossible to live in the world without having an impact on it, and we’re in the unfortunate position of having to decide how much impact is okay.
And there is no definite answer to that question. Yes, some moral, ethical choices are obvious, like: don't eat babies. Don't waste food. Use the smallest possible amounts of pesticides and herbicides. Pay agricultural workers a living wage. But other choices are not so obvious. No one agrees on the definition of "organic." No one agrees on the definition of "sustainable." There is overwhelming evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms, but people still don't like them. And of course, there is the question of animals and animal products.
Okay so I'm coming back to market failures. Now, I need you to imagine something.
Imagine that you’re a farmer. Imagine you’re a vegetable farmer. Picture it, picture the land and the weather and checking on the fields sometimes several times a day. Imagine - let's be specific - imagine you grow squashes. You’re really good at it. You grow a lot of squashes, enough to make a living. You sell them to Loblaws, and Loblaws sells them all over Quebec and Ontario.
Now, as a farmer, you have a lot of things to worry about. In fact, here’s a list of things you might be worrying about:
land prices insects
what kind of machinery should you be using
what prices will Loblaws be offering you next year crop failure
what price are you paying for crop failure insurance
And while you are worried about all this, you are very aware of something: you are aware that you are using environmental resources. You're using water, and you're using land, you're using pesticides, you're using machines that compact soil and indirectly cause land degradation.
And the thing is, you don't want to cause environmental degradation. But if you don't use the most efficient equipment, and the highest-yielding seeds, and pay your workers the lowest possible wage, your competitors are
going to, pardon this image, eat you alive. They’re going to get the Loblaws contract next year. And if you shut down your operation, some factory farm is going to take your place, and wreck the land even more, and offer your employees worse working conditions.
So this is a kind of market failure. You, the farmer, want to use more sustainable methods on your land. But you can’t.
The only thing that can make a difference for you is a collective decision to impose more sustainable methods. It is policy. It is a nation-wide policy limiting factory farming, limiting carbon emissions from certain types of agricultural practices, limiting pesticide use. It is policy guaranteeing living wages for agricultural workers.
You would think that food is an individual choice, an individual responsibility, and it is, on the consumer end. But on the other end, food production impacts a lot of people, and a lot of resources, and can really only be changed by collective decisions. And by collective decisions, I don’t mean boycotts and campaigns - I mean: policy and laws. Just like how eating babies is against the law.
Of course, few of us are currently in a position to immediately create agricultural policy. But we have the power to eventually get there. We can educate ourselves, and we can educate others. We can read, we can investigate, and we can ask questions.
I like agricultural economics, sort of for the same reason I like Unitarian Universalism - I'm not handed an answer here, and furthermore, I’m told that there are no correct answers. Or maybe I’m told that there are several correct answers - I’m not totally sure. But when I am here, I am respected in my individual right to make up my own mind, and I am simultaneously bound to recognize our collective UU principles and core values. One of which is: taking action in the world.