The 5 Rules of Ethical Eating

The ethics of what you eat go beyond just meat and veggies.

June 24, 2014
Ethical Eating

Adapted from The Ethics of What We Eat

When we buy food we are taking part in a vast global industry. Americans spend more than a trillion dollars on food every year. That's more than double what they spend on motor vehicles, and also more than double what the government spends on defense.


We are all consumers of food, and we are all affected to some degree by the pollution that the food industry produces. In addition to its impact on over six billion humans, the food industry also directly affects more than fifty billion nonhuman land animals a year. For many of them, it controls almost every aspect of their lives, causing them to be brought into existence, reared in totally artificial, factory-style production units, and then slaughtered.

Additional billions of fish and other sea creatures are swept up out of the sea and killed so we can eat them. Through the chemicals and hormones it puts into the rivers and seas and the spread of diseases like avian influenza, agriculture indirectly affects all living creatures.

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All of this happens because of our choices about what we eat. We can make better choices. Before we reach specific conclusions about how we should eat, we will outline five ethical principles that we think most people will share. These principles do not encompass everything that is morally relevant, but they can help us to decide all but the most contentious ethical issues.

#1. Transparency: We have a right to know how our food is produced.
If slaughterhouses had glass walls, it's often said, we'd all be vegetarian. That's probably not quite true—some people can get used to almost anything. But transparency is increasingly recognized as an important ethical principle and a safeguard against bad practice. Consumers should be able to get accurate and unbiased information about what they are buying and how it was produced.


#2. Fairness: Producing food should not impose costs on others.
The price of food should reflect the full costs of its production. Then consumers can choose whether they want to pay that price. If no one does, the market will ensure that the item ceases to be produced.

Meanwhile, if the method of producing food imposes significant costs on others without their consent—for example, by emitting odors that make it impossible for neighbors to enjoy living in their homes—then the market has not been operating efficiently and the outcome is unfair to those who are disadvantaged. The food will only be cheap because others are paying part of the cost—unwillingly. Any form of food production that is not environmentally sustainable will be unfair in this respect, since it will make future generations worse off.

#3. Humanity: Inflicting significant suffering on animals for minor reasons is wrong.
Most people, even those opposed to more radical ideas of "animal liberation" or "animal rights," agree that we should try to avoid causing pain or other forms of distress on animals. Kindness and compassion toward all, humans and animals, is clearly better than indifference to the suffering of another sentient being.

#4. Social responsibility: Workers should have decent wages and working conditions.
Minimally decent treatment for employees and suppliers precludes child labor, forced labor, and sexual harassment. Workplaces should be safe, and workers should have the right to form associations and engage in collective bargaining, if they so choose. There must be no discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or disabilities irrelevant to the job. Workers should receive a wage sufficient to cover their basic needs and those of dependent children.


#5. Needs: Preserving life and health justifies more than other desires.
A genuine need for food, to survive and nourish ourselves adequately, overrides less pressing considerations and justifies many things that might otherwise be wrong. In contrast, if we choose a particular food out of habit or because we like the way it tastes, when we could have nourished ourselves equally well by making a different choice, then that choice has to meet stricter ethical standards.

Drawing on these principles, let's look at some of the food choices.

Factory-Farmed Food
Let's start with factory farming. We have seen how it inflicts prolonged suffering on sows who spend most of their lives in crates that are too narrow for them to turn around in; on caged hens; on chickens kept in unnaturally large flocks, bred to grow too fast, and transported and killed in appalling conditions; on dairy cows who are regularly made pregnant and separated from their calves; and on beef cattle kept in bare dirt feedlots.

In supermarkets and ordinary grocery stores, you should assume that all food—unless specifically labeled otherwise—comes from the mainstream food industry and has not been produced in a manner that is humane, sustainable, or environmentally friendly. Animal products, in particular, will virtually all be from factory farms, unless the package clearly states the contrary. Don't be fooled by terms like "all-natural" or "farm fresh." They are often used to describe factory-farm products.

An overall verdict on factory-farmed meat, eggs, and dairy products: We don't need them. What factory farms do to animals, nearby residents, and the entire planet's environment, they do because people are accustomed to eating these animal products and can't imagine a meal without them, or because they like the way they taste. These are not ethical justifications, given the harm these practices cause.

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Organic Food
Organic labeling schemes are never perfect. Making the standards for organic certification easy to apply in a consistent manner involves taking a philosophy of agriculture, or even a way of life, and reducing it to a checklist of points that can be verified by inspectors.

Big corporations have gone into organic farming and pushed the rules to their limits. Some small farmers may be following the spirit of organic farming better than these big corporations, but for various reasons, including the cost of certification, their products may not carry an "organic" label. Nevertheless, in most cases buying organic means less chemical fertilizer runoff, fewer herbicides and pesticides in the environment, more birds and animals around the farm, better soil conservation, and, in the long run, sustainable productivity.

The welfare of animals used in organic agriculture will be at least somewhat better than those kept in conventional factory farms, although on some big organic farms the difference may be marginal. Organically-produced food is more expensive than conventional food, but voting with your dollars and supporting more environmentally-friendly agriculture is important, and for those who can afford it, organic is a good choice.

Local Food
The recommendation "Buy local!" is too simple a principle to provide sound ethical guidance. There are various reasons why, other things being equal, it is better to buy local food. The most important is reducing the use of fossil fuels. Greater transparency is another.

But other issues arise:
• Delivering small quantities of local products to many different markets may use more fuel than trucking a full load to a more distant supermarket.

• Consumers who drive to outlying local farms or markets instead of doing one-stop shopping at a supermarket may use as much fuel as would have gone into bringing the products from more distant growers to their supermarket.

• Food production in another country may be less energy intensive than domestic production, and the difference may be greater than the energy used in shipping the food thousands of miles.

•We should also consider the benefits that trade brings to farmers in distant countries who are much poorer than our local farmers.

The most one can say is: "Buying local food, when it is in season, is generally a good thing to do, but sometimes there are stronger ethical reasons for buying imported food."

Fair Trade
Fair-trade schemes ensure that more of your money gets to the people who actually grow your food; the higher earnings benefit their communities and encourage sustainable farming methods. Choose fair-trade products when you buy coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, and other items for which there are fair-trade brands in your store. If your store doesn't stock fair-trade items and you know that they are available, ask the store to stock them. 

For more to make smarter food choices in the grocery store, avoid these 11 food label lies.