Food ethics

I use the term, 'Food ethics' to refer to a group of issues related to the responsible consumption of food the way I understand it.  So, things like sustainability, organics, carbon footprints, fair trade,  all of which are becoming buzzwords in the environmentally friendly, socially aware, slow movement that is itching into the mainstream.  You can explore all this below and in the following sections. But, basically, it is about making ethically sound food choices, choosing food that is produced with a wholesome and respectful approach so that it is ultimately better for everyone involved along the way, as well as for the planet.

Adopting sustainable methods of food delivery and consumption are at the forefront. This means selecting food that is produced naturally, often organically and locally, often traditionally. It also implies social responsibility and fairness (fair trade), which means fair to the producer and to the workers, to the future generations, to the species we exploit, and to the planet.  Biodiversity and sustainable farming practices are key issues. Out with industrial food and factory farming.

Food ethics requires thinking about our community, but also thinking globally, knowing where and how what we are buying is being produced. When it comes to pork and vegetables in season, then it comes down to being in contact with local farms, or at least in tune with nature enough to know what we should be eating.   We need to look at our ecosystem as an organism of which we are a part. Likewise, when it comes to the farm, we need to see it as an organism, and learn to work with nature, reject monoculture and pesticides, and encourage the farmers that work so hard at making this work.

Food ethics encompasses the study of all these issues.  We need to realize that as these concepts are slowly becoming mainstream, it's not new, we're off track, we should never have lost touch with such basic values. And so now, with this emerging knowledge and dialogue, action must follow. The first step is education, and in many respects, we are still there.  Once equipped with these tools, we can make responsible choices, and with our purchasing power, then encourage the right people. Also it is essential that our governments set up proper food industry practices with regulations and labelling. There is however action we can take on as individuals day to day to be proactive and do our part. This generally implies shunning industrial food, and encouraging the small, local family farm, and fairtrade when it comes to imports from third world countries. For some people, it also means Vegetarianism or even a lifestyle of 'simplicité volontaire'. I think the main thing is to be aware, to consider these issues and be personally responsible for your choices. Any small change makes a difference.  Like Equiterre says, 'Changer le monde un petit geste à la fois'. 

For the real scoop, Read Michael Pollan, my hero, and a very down to earth and articulate authority on the subject. You can visit his website at http// See book review for "The Omnivore's Dilemna" below. my hero, and a very down to earth and articulate authority on the subject. You can visit his website at http//:. See book review for "The Omnivore's Dilemna" below.

Sustainable vs. Industrial: Have you ever wondered exactly how sustainable agriculture is better than industrial?


Going Carbon Neutral: Calculate your carbon footprint and contribute to offset the effects of the greenhouse gases caused by you! David Susuki gives you all the info you need.

The A to Z of Sustainable agricultural issues..


Some interesting articles on food politics and sustainability :

Food politics in 2006, where we are at:

Local and sustainable:

Gourmet on Sustainable: A Gourmet Magazine article simply spells out why you should choose sustainable food and how.

On Factory farming and Grass-fed cattle


Other informative sites: Check out their fish list as a good reference to what fish you should and should not be eating. More on sustainable fish sourcing. : A little hippy dippy, but lots of great info and links on going green. A Québec site that promotes responsible shopping. : A recipe book with enticing recipes that promotes sustainable food sources. Grass-fed meat basics About buying local, sustainable food and farming.


Chefs collaborative . A grand American association of chefs who work together to educate, promote and promote sustainable food, lots of great info.


Eat locally... Find your 100 mile radius at to give you an idea.


Finding sustainable food sources near you and more. See their Eatwell guide, and their blog.



Books to read :  (see reviews below)

'The Omnivore's Dilemna' by Michael Pollan.

Another great book that is sure to shake you up is "The Way We Eat" by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, also reviewed below.

"The Eco-foods Guide" by Cynthia Barstow, covers all the topics in a less intensive and academic way than the other two, it's more of a quick, useful guide.

Here are book reviews that appeared in the nytimes for two great books on food ethics issues. And check out Jo Robinson's article on factory farming, "grass-fed basics".

'Echoholic' by Adria Vasil, a Canadian guide to eco-products and information.

'Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, A year of food life', by Barbar Kingsolver:  One family's tale of their journey back to the rural farm and away from industrial food, the joys and struggles of eating local and living sustainably.


April 23, 2006

'The Omnivore's Dilemma,' by Michael Pollan

Deconstructing Dinner

Review by DAVID KAMP

Life is confusing atop the food chain. For most animals, eating is a simple matter of biological imperative: if you're a koala, you seek out eucalyptus leaves; if you're a prairie vole, you munch on bluegrass and clover. But Homo sapiens, encumbered by a big brain and such inventions as agriculture and industry, faces a bewildering array of choices, from scrambled eggs to Chicken McNuggets, from a bowl of fresh strawberries to the petrochemically complex yellow log of sweet, spongy food product known as the Twinkie. "When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer," Michael Pollan writes in his thoughtful, engrossing new book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety."

Nowhere is this anxiety more acute, Pollan says, than in the United States. Wealth, abundance and the lack of a steadying, centuries-old food culture have conspired to make us Americans dysfunctional eaters, obsessed with getting thin while becoming ever more fat, lurching from one specious bit of dietary wisdom (margarine is better for you than butter) to another (carbs kill). Pollan diagnoses a "national eating disorder," and he aims to shed light on both its causes and some potential solutions. To this end, he embarks on four separate eating adventures, each of which starts at the very beginning — in the soil from which the raw materials of his dinners will emerge — and ends with a cooked, finished meal.

These meals are, in order, a McDonald's repast consumed by Pollan with his wife and son in their car as it vrooms up a California freeway; a "Big Organic" meal of ingredients purchased at the upmarket chain Whole Foods; a beyond-organic chicken dinner whose main course and side dishes come from a wondrously self-sustaining Virginia farm that uses no pesticides, antibiotics or synthetic fertilizers; and a "hunter-gatherer" feast consisting almost entirely of ingredients that Pollan has shot dead or foraged himself.

Even if the author weren't a professor of journalism at Berkeley, and therefore by definition a liberal foodie intellectual, you could guess how this scheme will play out: the McDonald's meal will be found wanting in terms of nutrition and eco-sustainability; the Whole Foods meal will be decent but tainted with a whiff of corporate compromise; the Virginia farm meal will be rapturously flavorful and uplifting; and the hunter-gatherer meal will be a gutsy feast of wild boar and morels, with a side of guilt and some squirmy philosophizing on what it means to take a pig's life.

But for Pollan, the final outcome is less important than the meal's journey from the soil to the plate. His supermeticulous reporting is the book's strength — you're not likely to get a better explanation of exactly where your food comes from. In fact, the first quarter of the book is devoted to a shocking, page-turning exposé of the secret life of that most seemingly innocent and benign of American crops, corn.

The species Zea mays, for all its connotations of heartland goodness and Rodgers and Hammerstein romance ("as high as an elephant's eye"), has been turned into nothing less than an agent of evil, Pollan argues. Expanding on his articles for The New York Times Magazine, he lays out the many ways in which government policy since the Nixon era — to grow as much corn as possible, subsidized with federal money — is totally out of whack with the needs of nature and the American public.

Big agribusiness has Washington in its pocket. The reason its titans want to keep corn cheap and plentiful, Pollan explains, is that they value it, above all, as a remarkably inexpensive industrial raw material. Not only does it fatten up a beef steer more quickly than pasture does (though at a cost to ourselves and cattle, which haven't evolved to digest corn, and are therefore pre-emptively fed antibiotics to offset the stresses caused by their unnatural diet); once milled, refined and recompounded, corn can become any number of things, from ethanol for the gas tank to dozens of edible, if not nutritious, products, like the thickener in a milkshake, the hydrogenated oil in margarine, the modified cornstarch that binds the pulverized meat in a McNugget and, most disastrously, the ubiquitous sweetener known as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Though it didn't reach the American market until 1980, HFCS has insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of the larder — in Pollan's McDonald's meal, there's HFCS not only in his 32-ounce soda, but in the ketchup and the bun of his cheeseburger — and Pollan fingers it as the prime culprit in the nation's obesity epidemic.

Against this backdrop of cynicism and big bellies, Pollan finds his hero in Joel Salatin, an "alternative" farmer in Virginia who will sell his goods only to local customers. A cantankerous self-described "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic," Farmer Joel has ingeniously marshalled the rhythms and symbioses of nature to produce a bounty of food from his hundred acres. For example, his cattle graze a plot of grass for a day or two and are then succeeded by several hundred laying hens, which not only nibble on the clipped grass but pick grubs and larvae from the cowpats, thereby spreading the manure and eliminating parasites. The chickens' bug-laden, high-protein diet results in fantastically flavorful eggs, while their excrement enriches the pasture with nitrogen, allowing it to recover in a matter of weeks for the cows to revisit.

Salatin seems to have found the secrets of sustainable agriculture. The shocker is that he doesn't want to be part of any national solution. He's an off-the-grid crank who hates the government, home-schooled his kids and declares to Pollan: "Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?" But Pollan, a nice-guy writer whose awe of Salatin is palpable, lets the farmer off lightly, saying that his provocative words "made me appreciate what a deep gulf of culture and experience separates me from Joel — and yet at the same time, what a sturdy bridge caring about food can sometimes provide."

If I have any caveats about "The Omnivore's Dilemma," it's Pollan's tendency to be too nice. He doesn't write with the propulsive rage that fueled Eric Schlosser's blockbuster "Fast Food Nation," nor does he take a firm stand on figures like the "Big Organic" pioneer Gene Kahn, an ex-hippie farmer from Washington State who decided that the only way to sustain his company, Cascadian Farm, was to sell it to General Mills. Pollan wryly notes that Kahn drives a late-model Lexus with vanity plates that say ORGANIC, but he calls Kahn "a realist, a businessman with a payroll to meet." Does this mean that Kahn is striking the right balance between mammon and the mission, or does Pollan think he's a hypocrite?

Likewise, I wish Pollan would stick his neck out and be more prescriptive about how we might realistically address our national eating disorder. We can't all go off the grid like Salatin, nor can we just wish away 200 years of industrialization. So what to do? Is the ever-growing organic-food industry already on the right path? Or is more radical action needed? Should the Department of Justice break up giant, soil-exhausting factory farms into small, self-sustaining polycultural organic farms? Perhaps it's greedy to demand more from a book already brimming with ideas, but what can I say? I'm an American, and I'm still hungry.

David Kamp is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and GQ. His book about the American fine-food revolution, "The United States of Arugula," will be published in September.

May 28, 2006

"The Way we Eat" by Peter Singer and Jim Mason


Eat Your Vegetables (May 28, 2006)

You're standing in the market, a half-gallon of organic milk in your hand. Your purchase is informed by the collective buzz — a research study you've read somewhere, dinner table chat, the lyric prose on the carton ("A choice that leaves you feeling good inside and out") and its cartoon happy cow. There's the urge to do the right thing. You feel a tad smug as you put the carton into the cart.

Not so fast, say the Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer and his co-author, Jim Mason, a lawyer, in "The Way We Eat." The demand for organic milk is increasing 20 percent a year. Pressure for growth means some organic producers are achieving corporate scale, replicating the problems of pollution and disease that plague the overcrowded feedlots of factory farms, and require yet more land to raise more organic grain. There's an incongruous global warming factor: through burping and flatulence, "cattle may be responsible for close to half of the world's methane emissions." As for the dairy industry's claims that milk is a health drink, Marion Nestle in "What to Eat" is skeptical: "Well, yes, but sometimes a food is just a food."

More than similar titles and accident of publication date unite Singer and Mason's and Nestle's books. Singer and Mason see food through the lens of animal suffering and environmental degradation; for Nestle, it's health, safety and the food industry. Taken together these important books represent a call to action for the state of the soul of American food.

Singer and Mason, authors of the break-through book "Animal Factories" (1980), ask this question: Are inhumane farming practices too high a price to pay for cheap food? Their conceit is to follow the food; they visit three American families, eat with them, shop with them, then trace the content of their meals back to their origins in farms and factories. They begin in Mabelvale, Ark., with a family of four who eat a meat-and-potatoes Standard American Diet (a k a SAD). Grocery shopping at the family's local Wal-Mart sends the authors directly to a factory chicken farm. Their report on the horrors committed in the name of cheap meat could persuade you never to buy an industrial chicken again. They even hire themselves out to a turkey farm as artificial inseminators. That experience could cause you to rethink Thanksgiving: "It was the hardest, fastest, dirtiest, most disgusting, worst-paid work we have ever done." During the pages on their visit to a beef factory farm, we realize we should worry less about whether to eat that hamburger and more about what the hamburger has eaten, which may include chicken litter that contains "fecal matter, dead birds, chicken feathers and spilled feed," not to mention beef and bone meal. Theirs are not new stories. We know how veal is raised, yet we tend to forget in the soft glow of our favorite Italian restaurant. A baby male calf, ripped from its mother, faces "16 weeks of confinement in semi-darkness, in a bare wooden crate too narrow to turn around." The authors, mindful of the moral weight of this accretion of information, are wise enough to maintain a restrained tone, rarely becoming judgmental or resorting to cheap shots. With facts like these, they don't need a wagging finger.

The second family Singer and Mason visit, in Fairfield, Conn., call themselves "caring carnivores." The authors ultimately prefer the term "conscientious omnivore," and though both labels may make you wince in recognition, many of us will identify with them. The family members here are given to saying things like: "Well, bacon's so wrong on so many levels." Yet that doesn't keep them from buying naturally raised Niman Ranch bacon from Trader Joe's, or Applegate Farms' uncured, antibiotic-free Genoa salami. Like the rest of us, they try to shop locally. They take stands, abandon them, feel guilty and just do the best they can. When we follow the bacon to a Niman Ranch pig farm in North Carolina, we behold a happy sow, ranging free. "That single sow has as much space as a typical factory allocates to 700 sows confined in gestation crates," the authors report.

Following salmon to a fish farm leaves us less sanguine. Raising salmon, as we've suspected, has a lot in common with raising chickens. When the authors call a mini-chapter "Do Fish Feel It?," their affirmative answer includes disconcerting examples of how octopuses and squid can learn to open jars, and how endangered sea turtles are killed in the process of harvesting shrimp. Here's their moral absolute: "If there is uncertainty about whether what we do will cause serious harm, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the being whom we might harm." We're relieved when they declare the risk of causing suffering to oysters, clams and scallops to be "vanishingly slight." I come from the cooking end of the spectrum, where food in all its rituals and tradition of preparation matter, and I panic as I read on. From their unassailable perch on the moral high ground, what have Singer and Mason left me to make for dinner?

When the authors drop in on their third family, vegans in Olathe, Kan., we observe parents and two daughters committed to ethical eating. Their diet features the family favorite: "brown and wild rice stir-fried with tofu and red cabbage," plus soy, soy, soy, masquerading as everything from roast turkey to Häagen-Dazs. The wife has written a book on vegan parenting. Though Singer and Mason make a serious case for vegans (it takes 13 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef), they're realistic enough to admit this will probably never be a popular option. "Personal purity," they write, "isn't really the issue. Not supporting animal abuse . . . is."

Their search for an ethical food chain illuminates the food world. Yet as the authors pile the moral baggage on our shoulders, we begin to sag under its weight. All those jar-opening squid, all that non-fair-trade chocolate made by African kids who've never been to school, the "irresolvable tension" of jet-shipping strawberries out of season. There's a slyness in their presentation; they know the answers, but let us make discoveries for ourselves. They build their cases slowly, like the philosopher and lawyer they are. Because their arguments belong not to the lofty air of the philosophy classroom but to the warm hum of our kitchens, their work is vital, urgent and disturbing.

For Singer and Mason, the loveliest phrase in the English language may be "family farm." For Marion Nestle, the most unsavory would probably be "processed foods." For her this means "adding value" through clever (and expensive) marketing, tricky packaging and the employment of harmful salt and sugar. If you find the supermarket increasingly alien, that's because it is. A bewildering 20,000 new products appear on grocery shelves each year. Take Whole Grain Cocoa Puffs, for example. Even sweetened with Splenda (Nestle is not a believer) and with its scant one gram of fiber, this so-called healthy cereal still has the same calorie count of the original. Deep into the more than 600 dense pages of "What to Eat" is a chart showing how added value works: a raw Idaho potato costs $.79 a pound; Terra Yukon Gold chips, $10.21. But Nestle is not the food police. This professor of nutrition and public health at New York University and well-known author of "Food Politics," likes her potato chips just fine. With a calculator in hand and a scientist's skepticism, Nestle shoots straight though food industry hype. She pulls no punches: "The science is complicated," she admits. Then she parses that same science for us with good-humored common sense backed up by file drawers of research. She shakes her head over the American diet: "One third of all vegetables consumed in the United States come from just three sources: french fries, potato chips and iceberg lettuce."

Her book is radiant with maxims to live by: "All margarines are basically the same," she reports, "mixtures of soybean oil and food additives. Everything else is theater and greasepaint." She prefers a bit of butter. She's dismayed that there are more than 400 kinds of yogurt, a product she calls "a fast-selling dairy dessert with the aura of a health food." Most flavored varieties are loaded with sugar. Nutritionally, she finds "the focus on protein is silly — Americans are anything but protein deficient." On chicken: "if you eat the skin, you might as well be eating a hamburger."

Despite their decidedly dark view of where we stand, in terms of eating well, both books give reason for hope. Both see the environmental baby steps taken by McDonald's as steps, nonetheless. If Singer and Mason's stories of animal abuse make you weep — and they will — they also might make you reconsider your position on sirloin. The food world is fraught with ethical choices. As Nestle puts it, "you cast your vote for your choice of food environment every time you put something in your shopping cart or order off a menu. If enough people vote with you, changes will happen."

Dorothy Kalins, founding editor of Saveur magazine, is a contributing editor at Newsweek