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What is food ethics?

Food ethics is at the heart of everything our organisation does, but what does it mean?  Food Ethics Council member Richard Norman, Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, explores this question, and looks at how food ethics is relevant to us all.

 

 

We all know what food is, but what about ethics? The word may sound rather forbidding or only relevant to experts or the specially committed, but in fact we all regularly make ethical decisions about food. Here are four every day examples. 

Example 1: ANIMAL WELFARE 

Some people are vegetarians; they have decided not to eat meat. If their decision was driven by the simple fact that they don’t like the taste of meat, it is not an ethical position. If they follow a vegetarian diet because they think that meat-eating involves unacceptable suffering for the animals which are reared for food, then their reasons are ethical reasons. They think that it is wrong to eat meat. 

Example 2: SAVING THE PLANET 

Some people are committed to eating ‘organic’ food. They believe that industrialised farming methods, involving widespread use of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers, wipe out wildlife such as birds, insects and wild flowers, destroy the soil, and are unsustainable in the long run. This concern to protect the natural environment is an ethical commitment. 

Example 3: HEALTHY EATING 

Many people are increasingly worried about the rising levels of obesity  and other harmful effects which they attribute to the consumption of processed foods and additives. Theirs is an ethical concern, not just for their own health but for the health of people generally, especially that of the young. They may advocate stricter regulation or clearer labelling to tackle the problem. 

Example 4: FAIR TRADE 

A high proportion of our food and drink is produced by farmers in other parts of the world whose standard of living is much lower than ours and who are struggling to survive and to lift themselves out of poverty. Many people think it unfair that such a small proportion of what we pay for our food finds its way back to the primary producers, and they support certification schemes which provide an assurance that farmers receive a fair price for what they produce. They have taken an ethical position. 

Many people do not take any of these positions. They may have various reasons for not doing so. For example, they may: 

  • Dispute the facts about animal suffering, and argue that good animal husbandry can ensure that animals raised for food have good lives. 
  • Argue that modern industrialised farming methods are essential to feed an ever-growing world population and promote human well-being. 
  • Contest the need for regulation and argue that people should be free to make their own choices about what they eat. 
  • Claim that ‘fair trade’ is not really fair – that farmers and workers in developing countries do not receive enough of the benefits; or they may believe that fair trade entrenches inefficient farming practices, and a free market economy is more likely to raise people out of poverty in the long run. 

These too are all ethical positions. So we cannot avoid ethical choices, even if we make them unthinkingly.  

INDIVIDUALS cannot avoid ethical choices whenever they go to the shops to buy food. 

BUSINESSES are presented with ethical choices whenever they decide what to buy and sell, how they source their products, what prices they pay and what prices they charge. 

GOVERNMENTS cannot avoid ethical choices about whether or not they should intervene in the market to deal with concerns about human health, animal welfare, environmental protection or trade justice. 

What makes these choices ethical choices? 

VALUES

First, they are ethical because they involve values.  The choices we considered above, for instance, involve matters of:

  • Well-being – what will be good or bad for humans and animals, for their health and welfare?
  • Autonomy – how far should people be free to make their own choices about what they eat?
  • Justice – are our ways of producing and consuming food fair to everyone? 

These are not simply matters of personal taste and preference. They are values because they have general application. We can describe them as principles: reasons for regarding practices as right or wrong. 

ARGUMENTS

Secondly, because they involve reasons and values, ethical choices can be argued about – they are contestable.  In particular, they often involve conflicts between different values. It is not enough simply to take a stand on animal welfare, or human health, or fair trade. To make truly ethical choices, we have to ask ourselves whether there are other values that are also relevant. We have to weigh up the competing values, and make what are sometimes tough choices – between human health and autonomy, for instance, or between well-being and fairness. 

CONSEQUENCES

Thirdly, making ethical choices also involves thinking carefully about all the consequences of different practices. That may mean having to make long-term predictions. Modern agricultural techniques may produce cheap food, but are they sustainable in the long run? Fair trade schemes may help farmers in the short term, but do they perpetuate inefficient practices which stand in the way of long-term productivity? 

Taking food ethics seriously, then, requires that we do not simply take a stand on some one ethical position – such as vegetarianism or organic farming or fair trade. It requires that we try to take into account all the different values involved in our food choices, looking at all the consequences, weighing them up and trying to decide what is right, all things considered.