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"I think that the metaphor of seeing ethics in terms of a supermarket array of consumption decisions is all too pervasive in contemporary society," says philosopher Paul B. Thompson

Healthy is no longer enough. How we evaluate food must now consider justice for small-scale agricultural laborers, the impact of industrial farming practices on animals, and the downstream effects of genetic modification. Understood within what is now a global obesity epidemic, such concerns have prompted a renewed interest in food ethics. But eating is not just about consumption. How, when, and, of course, what we eat engage questions that are as much about culture and tradition as they are calories. In his most recent book, From Field to Fork, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press, philosopher Paul B. Thompson investigates how we build food systems in developed economies and the complicated social and moral questions that surround how we produce, distribute, and consume our food. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University. A leading voice in agricultural ethics for more than three decades, Thompson incorporates his work as an applied philosopher into his frequent collaborations with farmers, scientists, and environmentalists. In our conversation, we explore the consequences that accompany everyday choices about what we eat.

From Field to Fork carves out space for philosophy in a national conversation about food dominated by nutritional science and agricultural economics. Is there room for ethics in our deliberations on food?

It’s important to notice that people gravitate toward the idea of “food ethics” quite naturally. While much interest in food is grounded in personal health and aesthetic enjoyment, our food environment has become saturated with suggestions that we can “do good” by consuming foods that are “fairly traded,” “humanely produced,” or in some other way grown and marketed with methods that promote ethically important ends. In 2006, Michael Pollan framed The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a set of moral choices about what one eats. At the same time, even personal health and aesthetic motives are only a half step away from concerns that have historically been understood to have an ethical dimension. I wrote From Field to Fork in part to expose how thinking of ethics only in terms of how our acts can harm others—a pattern we see in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty—shapes but also limits the way that we might understand food ethics. If we think of ethics as an activity—as something people do, rather than something people have—we come to the idea that thinking more critically about the total food system could have implications that go far beyond our dietary choices.

Your suggestion of an enlarged role for food ethics challenges the conventional emphasis on enlightened consumer choice. As you mention, Americans are increasingly supportive of fair-trade coffee and humanely raised chickens. Can we make this easy? Will informed purchase lead to an ethical diet?

I certainly don’t want to discourage people from supporting ethically laudable ends through their purchase behavior. Yet even a moment’s reflection alerts us to the trouble that rides along with thinking that our more informed purchases make us more ethical. The creators of South Park nailed the problem when they parodied Prius drivers by announcing a “smug alert.” Food ethics should lead to an awareness of the many ways in which our consumption activity is implicated in ethically problematic practices and institutions. It will not be possible to fix all of these problems with better shopping.

How are these practices and institutions “ethically problematic”?

Farmers and other food industry firms necessarily see themselves as competing for the food consumer’s dollar. On the one hand, this competitive structure has driven them to find ways that cut costs, and many of these savings are passed on to consumers. On average, Americans spend less of their household income on food than any other nation. From an ethical perspective we benefit twice over. We spend the money we save on food on other goods that can improve our quality of life, and eating cheaply is especially important for those with low incomes, because they spend a higher proportion their weekly budget on food. Making food less expensive conforms to an egalitarian ethic that emphasizes improving the lives of those who are relatively less well off. On the other hand, producers often cut costs in places that they shouldn’t. They achieve lower production costs by maximizing the return on their machinery and supplies, for example, and that may impose costs on animals, in the form of compromises to their well-being, to the environment, in the form of reduced biodiversity, or to future generations, in the form of declining soil fertility. It can even introduce false economies by shifting the costs that consumers bear from their food dollar to their health care budget. But because we buy food all the time, short-term thinking leads us to economize on our food, rather than taking a broader view.

So I’m definitely not against enlightened consumer choice, but enlightened consumer choice alone will not address these larger structural problems. What is more, simply spending more on food just shifts the burden right back on the poor. Food ethics requires a conversation on how we should tackle these complex problems above and beyond the way we change our personal diets.

Let me follow-up with a recent headline. The popular grocery store chain, Trader Joe’s, announced that in the near future all the eggs they sell will be cage-free. This appears to be the proper ethical choice for the store and its customers, correct?

Food ethics can take us beyond the simple cause and effect thinking that characterizes a utilitarian endorsement of the “better shopping” strategy. In fact, I think that the metaphor of seeing ethics in terms of a supermarket array of consumption decisions is all too pervasive in contemporary society. As an environmental philosopher, I’ve advocated the “systems perspective” and suggested that a focus on outcomes and consumption generally tends to overlook features that can drive a system toward collapse. But one weakness of the systems approach is that it has very little resonance with the experience of an ordinary person. I am hopeful that food ethics may provide some baby steps toward remedying that situation.

Part of the problem is that the consequences of our choices are often hidden. For instance, recent economic studies suggest that pasture-based, or free-range, agriculture is less efficient than large-scale agricultural operations. Should this matter?

This is a good example. There are environmental issues associated with the total burden of animal production—greenhouse gas emissions, water and soil pollution and the impacts from producing feed—and here, efficiencies matter. Yet pasture-based production of beef and milk can be better for animals, and can have it’s own environmental benefits in utilizing grasses and boosting soils. No one—and here I include consumers, economists and animal scientists—should assume that these trade-offs and tensions can be easily negotiated. I certainly don’t know what the best system is, and I suspect that what makes sense in one place might not make sense somewhere else.

Is the creation of a single ethical framework one of the limitations in our understanding of food systems?

This question suggests that there may be some limitations to the approach that philosophers and other moralists have been peddling for the last 200 years or so. I do think that food ethics has the potential to broaden the appeal of critiques that feminists and critical race theorists have made for the last 25 years. I hope others will follow up on that connection.

Questions about the virtues of various agricultural practices blend easily into long-standing beliefs about the goodness of the farmer. We can trace this tradition back to our nation’s founding where many thinkers and statesmen, especially Thomas Jefferson, held up the agriculturalist as the ideal American. Is there a way to connect the dots between history, values, and contemporary ethics?

Most Americans know that Jefferson praised farmers, but they have no idea why. Jefferson did not think that farmers were “more moral” in every dimension, but he did think that they made better citizens. The reason is that because their livelihood was tied to the land, they had a more natural ability to align their own household interests with that of the nation. Manufacturers and traders could easily relocate elsewhere, and many did in the revolutionary years. Farmers had to stick with it and they had to make things work once independence had been won. There was thus a sense in which farmers could “see” a connection between their household (as a system) and the nation (as a system). Today we have to go further and see our households and our country as elements of both local and global ecosystems. Maybe it’s too much to ask from food ethics, but we have to start someplace.

Perhaps that starting point can focus on the future of our food systems. In a paper on food security, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright noted how peculiar it is “to live in a world where hunger is an endemic problem for half the planet while diet books are best-sellers in the other half.” Is food security as much a moral imperative as it is an economic question.

I like the reference to Albright, because one thing that everyone can see about food is that we, and everyone else, needs to eat. One of the things I wanted to do in From Field to Fork is get people beyond the point of thinking about food simply in terms of feeding hungry people, though. Yes, it’s that, but it’s ironic that many of the global hungry are actually farmers. That should be a tipoff that we have a systems problem.

Let’s circle back to individual behavior. When we talk of limitations in our food systems these are, to state the obvious, large-scale issues. It is all too easy for otherwise engaged citizens—intimidated by the size of the challenge—to throw their hands up in despair.

We face real shortcomings to be sure, but there are a number of initiatives underway to reform and improve our food system: food hubs, community supported agriculture, fair trade, urban farming, the list goes on and on. The point of ethics is to integrate a systemic and reflective conversation on the goals and the means that are pursued by agricultural scientists and entrepreneurial reformers, alike. Let me give you one more example from history. Abraham Lincoln laid out the moral foundation of our current agricultural system when, speaking as a presidential candidate in 1859, he said, “Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure.” As President, he acted on this principle in creating the Department of Agriculture. This is a federal agency dedicated to farm policy, agricultural research, and food safety. Those obligations are well known. But the department is also charged with community development and hunger relief at home and abroad. Lincoln’s presidential actions implied a more reflective perspective: he brought slave agriculture to an end, it’s productivity and profitability notwithstanding. Many of our current problems can be traced to a single-minded pursuit of productive efficiencies in our food systems. It’s the single-mindedness that food ethics hopes to counteract. And it is in this setting that individual choices and behaviors do matter. At the moment that food goes into our shopping cart (not to mention into our mouths) we all just do the best we can. But we should also resolve to have a larger and more open-ended discussion about where and how change needs to occur. That’s where ethics, as a practical guide for sustainable choices and a barometer for social justice, can help.

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