Assorted thoughts on food ethics

[Content note: this post does contain some discussion of dietary concerns with respect to nutrition, etc and may be triggering to some]

Over the past couple of years I have been making various sorts of effort to make my food consumption more ethical, both in terms of broad environmental concerns, and in terms of issues of cruelty. I’d like to talk, in brief, about some of the many (many) issues around food production and consumption today, and the ways I’ve been struggling to reconcile all kinds of competing concerns.

Starting a few years ago, my husband and I decided to switch to only buying ethically produced meat. In this case, for us, “ethical” mostly means free range, (i.e. non factory-farmed). (To be perfectly transparent here, I don’t believe that eating animals is inherently unethical. Although I understand that many people believe that consent standards should be upheld for animals as well as people, I simply don’t see it that way – I am also in favour of (thoughtful, comppassionate-where-possible) animal testing for medical purposes. I absolutely privilege human life over that of other animals. I know this ins’t clear cut and others disagree, but that is my stance.)

So, we stopped eating meat at restaurants at all, and only bought free range stuff (which, because it’s more expensive, also meant that we reduced our meat intake fairly significantly). I also decided at this time to stop eating fish entirely, because everything I know about the fishing industry, whether you’re dealing with fish-farms or otherwise, suggests that it is just straight-up destroying the planet in a big way.

I felt weird about deciding to switch to ethical meat (and also free range eggs) without doing anything about how I dealt with dairy, since factory-farming animal cruelty issues are at least as bad for dairy as for beef. But at the same time, especially with the reduction of meat consumption, dairy was (and is) the primary source of fat in my diet, and I desperately need that to be healthy, so I didn’t really have a better solution.

As time passed, I also became increasingly uncomfortable with the extreme privilege involved in being able to buy “ethical” meat. On the one hand, I think that the more people who cut factory meat out of their food consumption, the better. On the other, I really hate the idea that this decision is made much easier for those who can choose to switch to other meat, as opposed to having to cut it out of their diet completely (whether for access or affordabilty reasons). And eventually, I decided to just go vegetarian.

This plan went… very poorly. It didn’t take long before my energy levels started dropping off, my fainting spells (which I have been prone to since adolescence, but which I had gotten under control with B12 supplements) re-emerged, and I just generally felt hungry all of the time with cravings I just couldn’t fill. I did my best to eat more protein-rich plant-based foods, but it didn’t ever seem to cut it.

And to make matters worse, I realized that I was eating way more (unethical, remember) cheese and other dairy to compensate, which ran entirely counter to the point of the endeavour in the first place. The way my body processes food makes it very difficult (and prohibitively expensive) to remain healthy without meat, it turns out.

So, I am back to eating meat, though still sparingly, again.

In the meantime, I started reading more about the ethics of food consumption with respect to the human labour involved. Issues of fair trade, and certain kinds of food that are sometimes harvested through straight-up slave labour came onto my radar, and made me feel even weirder about my ethical food choices privileging the living conditions of animals above those of people.

The major offenders with respect to food and human labour issues seem to be coffee, cocoa, sugar (when imported from South America, which most of the sugar in Canada isn’t, actually), and bananas. Cocoa is the only one of these things that we buy regularly, and so today we went out in search of places near our house where we can buy fair trade cocoa – it turns out there’s a couple of convenient places, and once I got over the sticker shock (I will definitely by eating less cocoa, y’all), I was glad about it.

We are also still buying free range eggs, and although I decided I am not so concerned about it, hubby wants us to stick to free range meat as well (though I may sometimes decide to get meat when eating out. Who knows?).

Right now, I just sort of generally feel a bit lost in terms of making better decisions around my personal ethics and food. There are small things I can do and have been doing, but honestly my knowledge and awareness of these issues is all so surface level that I can’t even be sure that the choices I’m making are good ones. (The snubbing of factory-farming is particularly complex for me, as I’m quite sure that the carbon footprint per pound of meat is probably lower than free range. I know that best solution is major reductions in worldwide meat consumption, so at least reducing my own meat intake helps with that a bit… but it’s not a thing that leaves me feeling great or anything.)

Anyway, I have enrolled in an edX course on the topic, “The Ethics of Eating”, which is offered by CornellX. I am hoping to get a better sense of the facts and statistics around a lot of these issues, and the ways they interact with each other. And it definitely seems like the course will be providing a variety of perspectives on what constitutes an ethical decision with respect to food, the treatment of animals, the environment, etc. so maybe I will come to some better clarity on these questions in the coming weeks. Expect to hear more from me on this, I guess!

I’d also like to hear about how other people have dealt with these sorts of decisions, your own personal struggles, ethics, and values when it comes to food choices.

3 comments

  1. I’d love to read more from you on these topics. I don’t consume food ethically in any way (yet) although my family has been buying free range eggs for a long time, but I feel that’s hardly enough to count?? :P I am very interested in a non-vegan perspective on how to be ethical toward animals when it comes to food consumption. So if you keep blogging about it, I will keep reading.

    1. Oh that’s really nice to hear. This post was a little outside of my normal wheelhouse, so I wasn’t sure what kind of response to expect. Glad at least someone is interested :)

      1. Oh and not just how to be ethical toward animals! I’m also interested in your perspective on human rights and how to be ethical to fellow human beings in the process too, of course.

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