The Ethics of Eating

The implications of our food choices are far-reaching. The quandaries are real. How can we start eating our way to a better world?


Sometimes, decades of food advocacy, personal ethics, health-seeking, and conscious eating all come down to a single, simple salad.

At least, that’s the moment I felt them combine. Gazing down at my plate recently, I took a really good look at what I’d assembled, and experienced a rare moment of victory.

I could trace the origin of every lettuce leaf, heirloom tomato slice, and curl of peeled carrot (it helps to be an organic farmer myself). I could recite the names of those who’d made the cheese, raised the pigs that resulted in the bacon, grown the fresh herbs, and pressed the oil in the dressing.

Having traversed an edible landscape that took me from a vegan diet to paleo eating — with loud political marches and fiery blog posts along the way — I was struck in that salad-filled second with quiet gratitude, and also with relief.

After trying so hard, for so long, to eat ethically according to my shifting principles, I felt like I had finally managed to pinpoint for myself an answer to one of life’s slipperiest and most personal questions: How should I be eating? 

This salad represented my one-meal answer. And yet I knew with my very next meal, my feeling of quandary would return. And it would keep coming back, both haunting and humbling me for the rest of my life.

Because the truth is, there’s no such thing as a perfect meal. And there’s virtually no way to eat 100 percent ethically and sustainably all the time.

With a surging public interest in topics like farm-to-table dining, humanely raised meat, and the environmental impact of agriculture, it seems that a lot of us are asking ourselves more challenging questions about our food choices — and struggling to find answers we can live with.

Perhaps the real question is this: What does it really mean to eat ethically, especially if some of our values and priorities conflict with one another?

Ethics Are a Road Map, Not a Destination

When it comes to eating, “ethics” can encompass a wide range of values, from environmental concerns to economic issues. Ethics can relate to how farm workers are treated or whether food is sourced locally, meaning it’s fresher and leaves less of a carbon footprint in transportation. Ethics may also include the question of whether “industrial organic” is a boon or a boondoggle (it’s usually some of  both).

Choosing a single ethical framework that determines how everyone should eat is about as easy as asking Americans to pick the nation’s best state. Strong opinions abound, to put it mildly. Similarly, principles that determine one person’s food choices might not work for everyone.

My ethics, in other words, might not be yours. But we can both be right.

As a farmer and food lover, I care deeply about sustainable-agriculture practices, humane meat production, fair wages, and local sourcing. Someone else might care more about political spending by large food companies, or the need for greater access to quality food in low-income areas.

Another eater might care for just one overarching ethical principle, like the effects of cattle ranching on climate change, or the importance of hunger relief.

Our ethical positions aren’t always perfectly aligned with one another. But a lot of us want the same basic things: health and sustainability — for our individual bodies, our communities, and our shared food systems.

Even though user-comment wars might erupt on the Web whenever a controversial food story is posted, let’s face it: We just want to feel good about what we’re eating.

“People are aware of food issues to an extent never possible before social media,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, an influential author whose books include Eat Drink Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

“The range of issues is enormous and can be incredibly challenging to weigh. I advise people to pick their issues. I don’t think it’s possible for most people to make ethical choices in everything they eat, but some are better than none, and more are better than less.”

The Caring Conundrum

For some, trying to choose their bedrock values brings on a kind of paralysis. Faced with issues as global and profound as social justice and climate change, you might find yourself standing in the grocery store, frozen with indecision.

You really want those sumptuous-looking avocados, but how far did they travel (more food miles equals greater environmental impact), who picked them (fair wages? child labor?), and are they truly organic? It’s enough to make anyone wish that food started coming in pill form — fair-trade, sustainable pills, of course.

But that might cost us our souls. “Food should never be a joyless experience,” says food activist Sandor Ellix Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation. “You can have a sense of what your values are, and you’ll likely put some thinking into issues like food miles and energy costs. But at the same time, don’t lose that excitement for what you’re eating. For me, above all else, food is a sensuous experience.”

Ethics and principles are better used to heighten our relationship with food, not replace it. In fact, enjoyment can be a value in itself.

When I glanced down at my salad and remembered that both of the women who provided the bacon had hugged me at the farmers’ market the week before, it made me look forward to the meal even more. My principles about local sourcing transformed into a warm feeling of community connection, and that turned even a simple salad into the type of sensuous experience Katz values.

Nurturing those relationships also leads to greater knowledge about the origin of each ingredient, and that can help define what’s important to us, notes Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.

“You don’t want to be in a constant state of worry about your food choices,” she says, “but there’s satisfaction in being an informed consumer. Ask questions, do some research, think about issues. There’s no need to drive yourself crazy. But you might find greater peace of mind if you apply some kind of ethical view toward what you eat.”

Course Correction

Even with a well-articulated ethical approach to what you buy, cook, and eat, there can certainly be some potholes along the high road. And you might take some U-turns, too.

For example, I was deeply involved in animal rights in my 20s. I was a devoted vegan. I even tried to turn my cats into vegans. It didn’t work so well — they went on a brief hunger strike.

Eventually, my own body rebelled, too. Despite every attempt to combine foods properly, I ended up anemic, constantly sick, and plagued by fatigue. Other vegan friends who ate exactly the same diet were thriving while I was tanking.

You don’t want to be in a constant state of worry about your food choices, but there’s satisfaction in being an informed consumer.

I was so exhausted that I tried a hamburger, just to rule out meat as a possible solution. Immediately I felt better — and so sad about consuming animals that it took months before I didn’t shed tears while eating dinner.

Still, I continued eating meat. I felt the need to honor my health rather than a rigid set of principles. Eventually, I found a compromise: Eat meat, but fight for humane treatment of animals raised for meat and rally against factory-farming practices.

My ethics and principles needed to evolve, but they didn’t have to be discarded. By allowing myself to be more open-minded about what “animal rights” could encompass, I didn’t have to cry while eating my burger. My cats were happy, I was healthy, and I’d found a new direction for my passion.

That type of shift seems to be fairly common as people navigate their way through food choices, and it’s probably a good thing. It forces us to take a closer look at whether our principles are working for or against us.

Mike Phillips, a Minneapolis-based chef who focuses on humanely raised meats, says that even though he grew up around farmers, he didn’t become passionate about the farming profession until he visited a farm that was raising grassfed cows. The animals walked up to the fence to be petted.

“These were happy animals, and I’d never seen that,” he recalls. “That sparked my curiosity, and it changed how I thought about meat.”

From Idea to Fork

As we explore the issues and possibilities related to ethical eating, we’re likely to experience moments when something just clicks.

Maybe you feel a sense of injustice when you hear about the effects of pesticides on farm workers, or a taste of real community (and real eggs) when you start shopping at the farmers’ market, or both.

Suddenly, the food on your plate isn’t just a way to keep from feeling hungry; it’s a reflection on how you want the world to be — delicious, sustainable, and fair.

“When you talk about food ethics, it feels like such a vague concept,” says Robin Emmons, founder of Sow Much Good, a food-justice organization in Charlotte, N.C. “But at a very fundamental level, it’s about our common and universal needs. What’s important to you? And how does that influence what you eat?”

These choices can be challenging, but ultimately, employing a few guiding principles for what you eat feels empowering. With some thought and practice, you can actually make a difference in the world — and live true to yourself, one delectable meal at a time.


On Eating for Pleasure: Q & A With Sandor Ellix Katz

Sandor Ellix Katz is a self-described “fermentation fetishist” who travels around the world to extol the virtues of fermentation and sustainability. He’s the author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods and The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processesfrom Around the World, which won a James Beard Award in 2013.

Experience Life You travel quite a bit, so how do you make sure to eat ethically when you’re on the road?

Sandor Katz | True, my life is crazy, so it’s not easy. At home, I focus on eating what’s in my garden, and what my neighbors produce. When I’m out in the world, at a supermarket, I don’t buy anything that’s significantly processed. But that category can be slippery. What I mean is that I don’t buy fragmented foods that are so far from their natural state that no one recognizes them.

EL Is there any situation where you skip thinking about ethics or values when it comes to your food choices?

SK | If I’m eating at someone’s house, definitely. I’m not quizzing them about where they got this ingredient or that one; that seems rude. I’d say that in any given situation, when I’m deciding what to eat, I’m not sure ethics is the first consideration. I’m driven by my stomach, what cravings I have. I do think that I consider nutrition, and where the food came from, and whose labor went into it. If it involves animals, I want to know how they were treated. Those questions do come into my mind, but they’re not the first set of questions I’m asking. Instead, it’s more about what’s fresh and tastes good and is seasonal.

EL | How important is it for you to follow seasonal eating?

SK | That’s the challenge, isn’t it, to be seasonal and local? For that, you have to figure out how to work with things that are abundant, and, of course, fermentation is perfect for that because it allows you to extend the season of those foods. Personally, though, I love the challenge of making use of those resources in multiple ways when they’re available. You have to think: How many different ways can I prepare this one type of vegetable or fruit?

EL | What do you think is the role of pleasure in eating? Can that be aligned with ethics?

SK | I really don’t think there’s any inherent contradiction between food as pleasure and food as an ethical choice. I think you can combine rational decision making with the excitement that comes with taking pleasure in food. It’s important to bring our values into the mix so that we’re cultivating a food system that aligns with our principles, but food shouldn’t be a joyless pursuit. You should think of the flavors and textures and feel a sense of anticipation there.

EL Are there any universal principles when it comes to ethical eating?

SK | I’m not sure that there are. People have different values, and they bring that to their food choices. Some people are vegans because they’ve embraced the values of not harming any lives; others don’t consider that value at all in the same way. For example, someone might be vegan because he or she feels that meat production harms the environment. Same end result, but different values going into it. Some people think a lot about people’s labor and whose energy is going into their food, so it’s about power relationships. I think people are coming at food decisions from several angles, so there’s no single food movement. But there’s a growing awareness about ethical eating that’s very compelling.

is an organic farmer and co-owner of Bossy Acres, a CSA in Northfield, Minn. She’s the author of Indoor Kitchen Gardening.

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