Eating is such an intrinsically biological impulse. As living things, our bodies feed in specific, regular patterns, where our guts extract nutrients and vitamins from the tasty morsels we‘ve polished off and digested, and send these precious goodies out into our bloodstreams.
Once on the loose in our blood vessels, these molecules travel to our various bodily systems, where, on the cellular level, they turn into the very energy that fuels actions we living things tend to do, such as breathe, blink, respirate, pump, move, beat, metabolise, and so on.
Also inherent to eating is a psychological and deeply human sociocultural sense of gratification. As human beings, we will sometimes eat something because of the way it tastes, some of us might set regular dates to dine with a certain friend, and others might cook a special dish for a certain family member as a ritual—in each of these instances, the end result is usually because this particular act or manner of eating gives us pleasure.
Eating matters to us not only because it allows us to survive and even to propel ourselves forward on our individual evolutionary paths as organisms, it also enriches our unique experience as humans.
If eating comes so naturally to us, why then should we pin the idea of ethics unto it? How can something so intuitively bound to our genetic makeup as living, social beings even have a moral implication?
Why eating conscientiously matters
Something we have to accept as a fundamental truth within this particular field of awareness is that everything in the physical universe is connected, and that in turn, our actions, most especially our food choices, both directly and indirectly affect our surroundings.
Since it is both a biological and human psychological imperative that we eat at the times, manner, and portions our bodies and our minds would most need or prefer for us to eat, we usually do so out of tradition, habit, or social need than of anything else.
Each time we reach for a breakfast bowl of cereal, grab a chicken wrap to-go at noon, and whip up a salmon steak and arugula and romaine salad for dinner, we’re putting our personal and economic vote toward the industries that produce these very food items we consume.
And really, it’s no secret that the mainstream source of food in most communities, big agriculture and factory farming, is one of the most problematic industries in the world.
Large-scale agriculture is steeped in a long history of unethical and environmentally detrimental practices, like raising and slaughtering entire herds and flocks of animals inhumanely, or using farming methods like monoculture cropping that result in soil erosion, quality degradation, and loss of biodiversity.
Likewise, it’s this industrial complex whose major players are wont to drive the excessive genetic engineering of crops and animals, abuse pesticides, antibiotics, and other biologically hazardous chemicals to grow their livestock and produce, and, more often than not, treat their employees poorly.
What’s more, factory farms are massively dependent on fossil fuels for their supply of inorganic fertilizers, irrigation systems, crop drying and processing activities, and to transport their products to buyers and distributors in various remote locations.
The impact of the food and farm industry on humans, plants, animals, and on the earth and its ecosystems is so jarring, that if we mindlessly continued our patronage of big agriculture and farming, given prior knowledge of the breadth and depth of the industry’s standard operating procedures, we would not only be hurting ourselves irreversibly—we would also be contributing to the endangerment of the lives of the humans and living creatures around us, and for generations to come.
This is where the need to differentiate between right and wrong, as well as our freedom to choose what kinds of foods to purchase and eat, both come in.
Basic tenets for eating ethically
Utilitarian philosopher, writer, and animal rights pioneer Peter Singer laid some excellent groundwork for approaching the intersection of food and ethics with “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” which he co-wrote with Jim Mason and released in 2006. The following are Singer and Mason’s five principles for ethical eating and promoting sustainability through our food habits.
- Transparency: We have the right to information on the origin and source of the food eat.
- Fairness: Food production should not push any form of cost on others.
- Humanity: Causing animals to suffer unnecessarily is wrong.
- Social Responsibility: Labourers and workers in all levels of agriculture and food production must be paid decently and made to work under humane, decent conditions.
- Needs: Life, health, and self-preservation must always be our top priorities—if we assumed that each and every other being on this planet values these things in the same way, conscious or not (like in, say, the Buddhist verses), food ethics becomes mighty clear to us.
If you’re interested in committing to an ethical diet, below are some important questions regarding the origin of your food that you might want to ask the store, vendor, or restaurant staff before buying a food item or meal.
- If you’re thinking of buying or eating a meat, poultry, or dairy item, was the animal treated humanely? Did it get any antibiotic and chemical injections? Was it able to roam free in a pasture or in the wild?
- If you’re thinking of buying or eating crop produce, how was the crop farmed and grown? Did the growers engage in any soil-protective and soil rehabilitation practices? Did they use heirloom seeds to grow it to aid biodiversity?
- Is this meat or produce certified organic? Did the labourers who grew and slaughtered the meat or harvested the crop in order for me to enjoy it receive a fair wage for their work? Where is this food from, and how much fossil fuel was spent for it to grow, mature, get slaughtered or harvested, and then get sold to me?
- Does this food help me support my health and happiness, as well as that of those around me? Does buying it help contribute to a food system that’s sustainable and kind to nature?
Depending on factors such as age, location, economic background, and even consciousness level, we each have a unique life situation and context framing our dietary realities. What may be easy for one person to do, such as picking a prime cut of local, organic, fair-trade grass-fed bison from the nearby farmers’ market, may not be the case for the other, who might live in a “food desert” where the most conscientious choice for meat available is farmed salmon.
To simplify, summing up this food and ethics conversation amounts to nine short words: We eat to live. Let’s live and let live.
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