Food systems can be complex structures. Particularly when they stretch around the world to bring foodstuffs to our tables that would have been unknown to most people only a couple of generations ago. Indeed, today we routinely enjoy an immense diversity of fresh and preserved foodstuffs, shipped and flown from the four corners of the globe. Yet while we shop for food, prepare it for consumption and enjoy the gastronomic delights it delivers, how many people as citizens transformed into consumers by the modern consumer marketplace give much thought to the ethical aspects of the foods they eat? Such matters are of course bread and butter to the food ethicist. But for most people, price is the biggest determinant of choice while moral considerations rarely influence opinions about food and purchasing habits. Why should this be so?
Imagine a game of Blind Man’s Bluff played in a supermarket, but instead of the blindfolded player searching for other players to be ‘It’, the objective of the game is to pick food products that are genuinely ethical. Of the tens of thousands of products on display, how many of them would qualify? What criteria might the player use to decide if a product is ethical or not? Such questions habitually occupy the philosophical deliberations of the food ethicist, yet when it comes to food shopping most people are little different from the blindfolded player. They may not be physically blindfolded, but effectively their knowledge of food itself – actually their lack of knowledge – renders them ill-informed about how food is produced and brought to the marketplace. Significantly, they will likely be very much in the dark about food-related moral issues.
Take a case in point:
Chocolate is undoubtedly one of the most delightful of foodstuffs and people commonly attest to loving the confection. The addictive flavour of chocolate is partly a consequence of a bitter-alkaloid compound called theobromine, which has been linked to reduction in blood pressure and protection against bad cholesterol. Importantly, chocolate also causes the release of neurotransmitters called endorphins which trigger a sense of pleasure. Yet, while chocolate lovers tuck into their favourite bars or boxes of soft-centres, how many know that some cocoa producers – from South America to West and Central Africa and the Far East – are not paid fairly for their produce? How many also know that in some instances indentured child labourers and even slaves are exploited in the cultivation of cocoa plantations?
Cocoa production is just one part of a global food system riddled with ethical issues. Some are tackled head-on by schemes such as those run by the Fairtrade Foundation, which works to ensure that those who grow and harvest cocoa receive an equitable proportion of the sale value of chocolate and that employment practices are honest and just. Indeed, Fairtrade itself represents just one dimension of food ethics being applied in practice. There are many others. Too many to mention here. However, if we look closer to home, other food ethics issues stare us unswervingly in the face.
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that human beings have the right to food necessary to their health and well-being. British citizens are though witness to more than 1,500 food-banks in the UK with around 9.7 million adults and 4 million children daily experiencing food insecurity. This is clearly a food ethics issue. The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen revealed in the 1980s that people don’t go hungry because of food shortage: they go hungry because they can’t afford food. The existence of food poverty in the UK is not a choice made by people. It is directly a consequence of government economic policies, which is morally contemptible.
Other food ethics issues which touch consumers via the food they eat include farm animal welfare, the preservation and sustainability of food production resources, particularly the soil, the increasing corporate control of food systems with the consequent loss of traditional and ecological approaches to food production, and the increasing globalisation of HFSS (high fat sugar salt) foodstuffs – the so-called junk food – associated with increasing levels of diet-related disease. The list can go on.
Of all the food ethics issues that face us, the one that should now be of most concern is that of global climate change. Global food production is one of the main contributors to climate change, which must be addressed urgently. Disconcertingly though, it is still a political elephant in the room for many governments. The Fairtrade movement, which is a tried and tested agent of ethical change, might however provide the essence of a model for addressing climate change issues. This is something to ponder during Fairtrade Fortnight, so here’s a thought experiment. Reflect on the proposition that food businesses of all kinds and consumers as well, could agree that a share of the retail price of foodstuffs should continually be invested in climate change mitigation measures across all food supply chains. Could it work? Could it be a way forward? Decide yourself and in doing so you will begin to enter the world of the food ethicist.
By Ralph Early, is a Food Scientist, Food Ethicist and Trustee and Council Member of the UK's Food Ethics Council and Food Writer