One reason why the CECs are not a comprehensive blueprint for an ethical food system is that they were developed primarily as a tool for participants in markets: a tool for consumers to decide which products to buy, a tool for producers and processors to use in changing their production practices, and a tool for distributors and retailers to inform sourcing and stocking standards in ethically desirable ways. Because regulation by states and global trade agreements help to shape markets, this tool may also be effectively used to inform or reform regulations and the enforcement discretion of regulators.
However, while we hope that this tool will be useful in accelerating market-based change of the food system, this does not mean that we think market-based change alone can solve many of the ethical problems associated with the food system. Indeed, this tool should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the presently dominant system of food production and provisioning.
We recognize that the contemporary food system, which involves substantial trade across globalized markets, is, at once, an extraordinarily productive triumph and a source of staggering harms. Since 1961, the world population has doubled. This rate of growth, unprecedented in human history, features prominently in the narrative of the modern industrialized food system and gives rise to legitimate concern about how best to feed such a sizeable human population. As we grapple with the population problem, its long shadow often eclipses an even more staggering upward trend: the growth of international food commerce. Over the same period, the tonnage of food shipped between nations has increased fourfold and the value of international trade in food has more than tripled.
For those living in high-income countries, this long-distance food system offers the reassurance of well-stocked shelves and the delight that comes with an abundance of options regardless of the season. But the force of the global food system often displaces local economies, traditions, cuisines, varieties, and forms of agriculture. All too often, farmers producing for export sacrifice the use of their land to feed an insatiable global craving for more and varied foods, from staple commodities to sudden superfoods. At the same time, rising numbers of low-income urban dwellers in both developing and advanced economies live in undercapitalized neighborhoods that are unable to provide the kinds of margins that supermarkets have come to rely on, sharply limiting access to diverse and healthy food options. The global food market has undoubtedly succeeded in providing affordable abundance to many, but its successes have come with costs and have carved gaps of substantial ethical concern. Only some of these ethical concerns can be addressed through market-based action, and even then, only in part.
Thus, we acknowledge that the CECs do not form a blueprint for comprehensive change or ethical reform of the global food system. Comprehensive ethical reform requires policy change at the national and international level, and, arguably, reorientation of some economic goals. Ethical improvement of the food system also hinges on participatory and direct action strategies, community engagement, and multi-stakeholder dialog about the ethically important features of the food system and its significant impacts. In the opinion of some, including a number of the experts who consulted or worked on this project, radical change to the structure of markets and political systems, including international governance, is also essential.
Although this tool is primarily designed to accelerate market-based shifts toward a more ethical food system, organizations and individuals focused on driving more sweeping forms of change–including those who favor community-based, sovereignty-oriented, and extra-market measures for satisfying human food needs–may also find it valuable. This tool can and should also be usable by proponents of place-based, human-scale, and sovereignty-oriented food systems to assess the ethics of the alternatives they are working to create, guard against harms, and to catalyze consideration of ethical dilemmas inherent in the task of equitably and sustainably feeding a growing global population.