Ethical food is a term that I started using in 2006. It is a description of food production that has been used in New Zealand, Canada, and Europe, but not really in the United States.
It is comforting to believe that food raised organically is by default raised ethically. Unfortunately this belief is becoming a bit outdated, even quaint. Generally, the opinion was that the vast majority of farmers that are raising produce and animals, or producing products organically are farmers that by default are using the responsible, sustainable practices that gave birth to the organic food movement.
This may have been mostly true when organic food was the domain of only the small local grower. Now, there are monster agri-businesses that are producing organic food. On the surface this is a good thing. I mean, the bagged lettuce industry is huge and it is certainly better to have a good portion of it produced organically, rather than conventionally. This is especially true when you learn about the many chemicals that are used on conventionally produced lettuce. The bagged lettuce industry has also been successful in getting the price of organic lettuce close to that of conventionally produced lettuce.
Before the entrance of these big companies into the organic food business, organic food was almost uniformly produced by small farmers who were doing it because of their strong belief in the goal of a chemical free, ethical, and sustainable way of life. This was a good thing. Now with the entrance of the big players, organic food is surfacing on the shelves of all grocery stores. It is also being sold at prices that are lower that organic food has traditionally sold at. This is also a good turn of events…. in some ways.
The suspicion that is raised in my mind is that these huge growers are keeping costs down not just with economies of scale, but by using many of the same agri-business techniques that have given western societies artificially reduced food prices for so many years. Less expensive, conventional, food producers use shortcuts to keep prices down. Many conventionally produced products are also heavily subsidized by the U.S. government in an effort to keep prices low. I am concerned that in order to produce food that is certified organic and close in price to conventional food, it is done in an unsustainable, unethical, way that is not good for the land being farmed, the workers farming the land, or consumers purchasing and eating the food.
Maybe it is time for us to make “ethical food” an official food label. Along with the “GMO Free” and “Organic” descriptions these labels can help make our food buying decisions better informed.
For those wanting a more in-depth look at this issue, there are two books I would recommend.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan is becoming a classic and is an easy, interesting read. Although Pollan can be stridently, but usually accurately, critical at times, (he even takes the grandmother of organic food stores, Whole Foods, to task), his book is a must read for anyone interested in modern methods of food production. Pollan is aghast, as we all should be, at what he reports on in his book.
The Way We Eat – Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Pete Singer and Jim Mason is, in some ways, a more difficult read than Pollan’s book. This is a very serious look at our food and lifestyle choices, but one that may just be lifestyle altering for some readers. This book’s guidelines of transparency, fairness, humaneness, social responsibility, and actual needs in food production are well explained and justified. The authors also get in depth on the issue of both general food costs and the comparison of conventionally vs. ethically produced food.