As regular readers of this site know, I am a big supporter of what, over a year ago, I started calling “Ethical Food. I thought I had a neat idea, but after writing a few articles, I discovered I was not the first with this notion of buying and eating ethically produced food. At the time it was a description almost unheard of in the U.S., but in use by a few people in Australia and many more in the United Kingdom. It has since become a fairly common term in the U.K., even drawing the attention of a few well know writers for the Guardian newspaper.
Today I came across a report, which says Ethical Shoppers in Europe overall are becoming the norm, rather than the exception. It is another report that requires a hefty purchase in order to read the full details. I did find a summary here that appears to be written by someone with access to the entire report.
What appealed to me about “Ethical Food” was that the term seemed to encompass something more than just organic, sustainable or local. If food was ethically produced it could encompass a more flexible definition of healthy, responsible eating. It seemed to me that food could be ethically produced, but not necessarily organic. What came to mind was a local grower of peaches and tomatoes who, for the 9 years he has grown his crops, has never used chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides. But, he could not call his produce organic because he could not afford to pay the cost of being officially certified. To me his produce was responsibly grown, local, sustainable, and healthy to eat, ethically produced food at its best.
There were several questions about the whole idea that gave me pause and to a certain extent, still do. How would “ethical food” be certified and labeled? You know how I get tied up in knots sometimes about labeling! How could food that is organic be prevented from being automatically labeled ethical? If beef is humanely raised is it automatically ethical food? As the list of questions goes on, it becomes apparent that ethical food is really a general idea, open to differing interpretations. It sounds good, but does it really say anything definite? It is more of a concept, although a good one, than a definite set of criteria than can be enforced, certified, or labeled.
Now comes news that a new term is being championed by a few to try and encompass all things responsible and healthy with food. The term is SOLE Food. Sole stands for Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical, food. The idea is that a SOLE food designation would be more specific than current terms in use. It would not include food that may be local, and sustainable, but not organic. It would exclude dairy products that may be technically organic, but not humanely produced. Or any other number of combinations of production that meet what I think of as ethical food in one area but not in another. To be considered SOLE food, it would have to meet the specific criteria of being sustainable, organic, local, and ethically grown or produced,
At first look this is an intriguing idea, but as with many things in this vast world of ours, there are potential issues. One example of this is the well known restaurant in Philadelphia named Sole Food. Another is this company, in business since 1987 selling a therapeutic foot cream. The idea of sustainable, organic, local and ethical food is a commendable cause. But, how does even that account for my tomato and peach grower? He is local and sustainable, but not technically organic.
It can get complicated, but this is nothing a certain amount of common sense and enforceable labeling can’t sort out. Hopefully someone smarter than me will put together the right combination of descriptive terms and standard labels that will allow the consumer in a hurry to know for sure what they are buying. If anyone reading this is from one of the European areas where Ethical Food is now mainstream, I would love to see your comments on how it works for the average consumer there. Do you think taking it a step further to the promise of SOLE food is a good idea? If any of you U.S. residents have an idea why Ethical Food, has not been able to catch on here, I would love to hear that also. If the U.S. can’t adopt the idea of Ethical Food, how will we ever embrace SOLE Food?
For now I will just remain skeptical of some of the products in the big box stores with a big “Organic” label, but no other information about how or where the food was grown or produced. And this summer I will buy and enjoy the sustainably grown peaches from the local grower even if they can’t be called organic. He will however, have to find other customers for his chemical free tomatoes as I grow plenty of those in my own garden!