Questions and Queries

What is food ethics?
We’ve told you that following the Two Strategies is a simple way to make your diet more ethical. But what does that mean? 
Ethics is about shoulds. When we talk about ethics, we’re talking about what people should do. What actions should we perform, as individuals? What kind of world should we collectively be trying to make, and why? How should we try and bring about that world?   
Food ethics is the study of what we should do when it comes to food: what should we do as individuals, as communities, as societies, and as a global community. Many people who think about ethics have different theories about what we should do, and use different concepts. 
Some focus on human rights basic entitlements to safety, sustenance and equal dignity that all human beings have, simply in virtue of being a human. Some focus on justice — making sure that people are treated fairly; that they have the resources, opportunities or outcomes that justice demands; and that the benefits and burdens of economic and social cooperation are fairly distributed throughout individual societies and throughout the world. Some focus on systematic disadvantage and structural injustice — the ways that some groups (e.g. racial and ethnic groups, gender-based groups, class-based groups, and other groups) are systematically disadvantaged as a result of interlocking social, economic and political conditions. Some focus on how power is distributed in the food system, with some arguing that governments and corporations have too much power, and some arguing that important decisions about food and agriculture should be made at a local level by communities themselves. When thinking about ethics, some people focus on well-being or utility (happiness), and think that maximizing overall well-being or happiness is generally the ethical thing to do. Others focus on our ethical responsibilities not to cause harm, and our ethical responsibilities to alleviate harm and suffering where we see it.  
There is significant disagreement about all of this: disagreement about whether people have human rights, about what exactly justice demands, about who should have power over which food system decisions, and disagreement about how much morality demands of us, when it comes to helping others and relieving their suffering. 
Nonetheless, we can agree that many of the problems in the food system are ethical problems:
  • Some of the animals raised for food do not have good lives. That humans do not always give the animals in their care good lives is an ethical issue, even if we don’t agree about the appropriate response.
  • One billion people in the world go to bed hungry each night. To some, this is a massive violation of the human right to food. Others might not agree that there is a right to food, but can still appreciate that this is a humanitarian disaster and we have an ethical responsibility to help.
  • Many farmworkers, even in high-income countries, do not make a living wage, work in unsafe conditions, lack access to basic services like health care, and lack power to change these conditions because of their immigration status. This is an ethical issue.
  • Climate change has already harmed current generations of people and will harm future generations of people. Some see this as a massive injustice: people in some societies and some generations have engaged in economic activity that has benefited them but will harm others. 
Food ethics is an academic field: food ethics scholars get deep into the weeds of theories of ethics. But food ethics is also a practical activity that people throughout the food system do every day — consumers, activists, farmers, workers, policymakers and others. 
As a practical activity, food ethics involves recognizing trade offs and making those trade-offs thoughtfully, in light of relevant values and principles. Sometimes there are trade-offs between worthy objectives. For example, if I keep a bowl of fresh fruit on my countertop rather than keeping the fruit in my fridge, I’m more likely to see the fruit and snack on it, instead of snacking on cookies or chips. But keeping the fruit out on the counter rather than in the fridge will probably encourage it to ripen — and then spoil — faster, which may lead to increased food waste. So there’s a trade-off between two worthy objectives, improving my health and reducing my food waste. 
And at a policy level, when we’re thinking about food and agriculture, there can be trade-offs between worthy objectives such as improving public health, reducing environmental impacts, enabling free choice, protecting income and job opportunities, and protecting animals. For example, putting a high tax on beef would reduce beef consumption and beef production. This would likely have positive environmental impacts, particularly reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which would be good for future generations of people. But a big reduction in beef production would cause ranchers and others who work in the cattle industry to lose income, lose their jobs and maybe lose their ranches. Such a tax would cause some people to shift from eating beef to eating chicken; this might mean that more animals are raised in confinement conditions and killed for food, as it takes more chickens to produce the same amount of meat as one cow. Given these trade-offs, would a tax on beef be ethical? This depends upon which positive and negative effects matter more; in other words, it depends upon your underlying values and ethical principles. 
Activism about the food system is often infused with ethical language and goals. For example, advocates of food justice seek better working conditions and higher wages for farmworkers and fast food restaurant workers, for everyone to have access to healthy, affordable food, and for decision-making about food to be more democratic. And advocates of food sovereignty work to secure the rights of small-scale and landless farmers, peasants, and indigenous people, and argue for greater local or regional control over food and agriculture. Instead of globalized food systems controlled by multinational companies and by agreements made between national governments, the food sovereignty movement proposes smaller-scale food systems that are democratically controlled at the local and regional level. Some argue for communal control of land, water, and seeds, and respect for the farming practices of peasants and indigenous peoples. 
As you can tell, food ethics can get complex, and involve quite a lot of disagreement. With our Two Strategies, we’ve cut through that complexity. We’ve given you two simple dietary changes. If many people followed the Two Strategies, this would address some of the most urgent problems in the food system — problems that we all can agree are ethical problems. 
Shouldn't governments and businesses be solving these problems, not individual consumers?
The Two Strategies encourage you to change what you eat, in order to change the food system. But should the onus really be on individual consumers to change the food system? Rather than expecting consumers to choose the best products themselves, shouldn’t governments pass policies and regulations that make food production more sustainable and humane to animals? Shouldn’t farmers and food companies make sure food is produced in ethical ways?
Well, yes. Policy and regulation are essential. There are many ways that local, state and national governments can protect farm animals, can protect workers, and can make agriculture more sustainable. We should push for these policies and regulations. Food producers have a responsibility to produce food in ethical ways, and we should hold them accountable.
But changing how our food is produced won’t solve all our food system problems. We need to change what we consume, and how much of it we waste, not just how we produce our food. Even if our meat is produced in more sustainable ways, eating less meat — and producing less meat — is still environmentally beneficial. Even if our food is produced with less waste involved, we consumers should still reduce our own food waste, because consumer food waste is a significant part of total food waste.
There are ways that governments and the private sector can encourage the adoption of plant-based diets and encourage consumers to reduce food waste. For example, governments could adopt policies about meat alternatives in school lunches, and food retailers could increase the availability of meat alternatives in stores and restaurants. Awareness raising campaigns and commercial marketing could inform the public about the environmental benefits of plant-based diets. Some have suggested that governments could reduce consumer purchases of meat by adopting taxes on meat, or specifically on red meat, which has the largest greenhouse gas footprint. Additionally, governments could shift subsidies that currently incentivize the production of crops used for animal feed and use public funds to support farmers producing plant-based food for human consumption. Similarly, governments can help to reduce food waste by imposing organic-waste-to-landfill bans or mandating that businesses which generate edible excess food redistribute or redirect this food to charity (rather than trashing or even composting it). Governments can also regulate date labels to reduce consumer confusion about when food is safe to eat. State and local policies can be enacted to promote nutrient cycling in the food system by encouraging scrap feeding of livestock and establishing municipal compositing programs, or reducing barriers to operating community compost systems.
Will enough people actually change what they buy and eat?
The Two Strategies encourage you to change what you eat, in order to change the food system. But you might worry that the choices we make as individuals aren’t impactful enough to change the food system, and that too few people will actually make a positive change. After all, most people choose what to eat because of price, quality, taste, convenience, and health and nutrition. Ethical and environmentally sustainable products are a priority for some people, but they’re in the minority. Even when people say they’re willing to pay more for ethical products, their buying behavior may tell a different story. When put to the test in the checkout line, only 10-16% of people are willing to pay more for ethical food products.
The difference between what people care about and what they’re willing to act on is called the “intention-behavior gap”. It’s understandable that this gap exists, because the choices we make at the grocery store are based on lots of factors. Is it on sale? Do I like how it tastes? What about my kids — will they eat it, too? Is it healthy? Can I pop it in the microwave? What’s the use-by date and will it go bad quickly? Do I recognize this brand?
But that’s the beauty of the Two Rules: people who are most motivated by price, health, and convenience can follow the Two Rules, using our tips. You can follow the two rules without spending more money or more time. And most people can follow the Two Rules without any negative effects on health. 
Taste, admittedly, is another matter. Some consumers just like the taste of meat more. But plant-based alternatives to meat are getting better and better. These new alternatives are a great-tasting option for plant-based eaters who miss their juicy burgers.
Another worry is that asking consumers to buy better products won’t work because consumers don’t know which products are ethically better and which are worse. There is a bewildering array of certifications and feel-good labels on food. Consumers can’t know what they all mean, or which ones are credible. 
Not all certifications are equally good. Not all certifying organizations are transparent about how they evaluate food items, or whether they get financial incentives from food companies. Sometimes the data are limited or the evaluation methods aren’t scientifically sound. Certification labels on food packages can be hard to understand, especially if they aren’t self-explanatory. All this confusion can make you feel like you need a PhD in food ethics just to pick out a can of tuna!
But making more ethical food choices doesn’t have to require expert knowledge. Here again the Two Rules come through. Following the Two Rules doesn’t require knowing details about how your food was grown or about the company that made the food. You don’t have to research food certifiers or learn to decode food labels. 
Relevant research:
What if I want to do more?
We’ve intentionally kept it simple with just Two Strategies, but others have compiled a more comprehensive list of rules for eating more ethically (e.g., Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Peter Singer).
If you want to go beyond changing your own diet, and are willing to spend time and effort, consider getting involved in food activism or other ways of changing the food system. This is a good place to start to learn about issues and this and this to get ideas about food system activism.  
If you are interested in issues about food system workers and migrant workers, you might consider the Coalition of Immokalee Workers or Migrant Justice. Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. HEAL Food Alliance brings together groups from various sectors of movements for food and farm justice to grow community power, develop political leadership, and expose and limit corporate control of the food system.
If you are interested in issues about natural resources and environment, you might consider the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition or Food and Water Watch.  
A good organization for animal welfare issues is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Food First works to end the injustices that cause hunger through research, education, and action.
Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED) is a queer and transgender people of color-led organization that partners with young folks of color to build food and land co-ops.
There are many great organizations working to end racism and injustice in the food system, including the National Black Food & Justice Alliance and Roots of Change. The National Black Farmers Association is a non-profit organization representing African American farmers and their families in the United States. Soul Fire Farm is a Black, Indigenous, and people of color-centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. 
The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance works to enhance Native food systems, to support sovereignty, sustainable economic development and other aspects of wellness in Native Communities 
You might also consider getting involved with a local Food Policy Council that works on food issues in your area.