How ethics might change our food system

“What to eat?” can feel like a daunting question, given the vast range of food choices available and the competing food recommendations we are exposed to. More than merely being a mundane question we ask ourselves when we’re hungry, this is a question with wide-reaching ethical implications—implications that are the very focus of Global Diet and Sustainability.

If only food were about eating what tasted best to us, but no, every food choice is a weighty one when framed in these broader ethical terms. And to further complicate matters, the impacts of food choices are often both positive and negative, leaving us with few completely ideal choices.

Even though ethics are not cut and dry, with a lot of room for subjective interpretation of values, ethical reasoning can help us navigate this tricky food landscape by equipping us with the analytical tools to make dietary choices that minimize negative impacts and maximize positive ones.

Beyond being about flavor or even how food makes us feel, the deeper philosophical question of “what to eat?” should give ethical consideration to the well-being of key stakeholders affected by these choices: 1) the individuals who consume the food (how the food impacts their health), 2) other people within society (those impacted indirectly from the production and/or consumption of a given food), 3) the natural world (the flora and fauna that are impacted as human population expands to produce more food), and 4) animals raised as food (who are themselve both subjects through their sentience and objects through their ultimate fate to become food).

Weighing in these ethical considerations, it is clear that the the typical Western diet, high in animal-based foods, is not what we should be eating. I would take this a step further to say that a plant-based diet is superior for the individual and for the rest of the world. This idea of ‘superiority’ could be measured in a number of ways, but here I mean that as a general rule, plant-based foods are better than animal-derived foods in terms of their impacts on the well-being, integrity, and longevity of people, animals, and the natural environment.

Even though this ethical imperative to consume plant-based foods is just one dietary guideline among many that we should live by as we make individual and collective food choices, it goes a long way in addressing some of the major ethical issues involved in our global food system.

Human health

Consuming high levels of animal-derived foods, especially over a long period of time, is associated with the obesity, chronic disease, and cancer—in other words, the leading causes of death and morbidity in the US. While foods derived from the bodies of animals contain calories, protein, and micronutrients, even moderate consumption can be dangerous to human health because of their cholesterol, excess calories, lack of fiber, and promotion of cancer cell growth. While most people are familiar with risks of obesity, stroke, and heart attack associated with meat, fewer people are aware of the link to cancer. Within the medical research community, the mechanism of transmission is well understood; animal proteins boost irregular cell growth, in large part through the body’s production of a substance called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1).

Vegan diets are higher in fiber, void of cholesterol, and do not lead to high levels of IGF-1—in fact, the higher nutrient density of plant-based foods is cancer-preventing rather than cancer-causing. In my opinion, the single best articulation of the health benefits of a plant-based diet is The China Study, by T. Collin Campbell; drawing upon over fifty years of research into the correlation between diet and chronic disease, it concludes that a whole foods, plant-based diet is the best way to prevent—and reverse—chronic disease. Another good source for insightful, accessible information in this area is Dr. Michael Greger’s NutritionFacts.org.

The bottom line is that eating animals is associated with some of the main causes of death and disease in our society, so a plant-based diet is superior. To boot, doctors, dieticians, and health institutes have confirmed that a plant-based diet is safe, healthy, and beneficial in all phases of life; with the exception of vitamin B12, a plant-based diet can provide an ample supply of all nutrients needed for human health. Unfortunately, we have a deeply-entrenched, cultural bias for consuming meat. The government, which should have an obligation to protect public health, is plagued by a bizarre conflict of interest whereby the USDA is simultaneously tasked with issuing nutritional guidelines and promoting livestock and other food industries that produce unhealthy foods.

Well-being of society: Sustainability and climate

We might take a step back from the individual and consider the well-being impacts that food production and consumption has on society more broadly. The individual health impacts add up to a huge economic drain on our economy, as we spend more per person on healthcare expenses than any other country, with skyrocketing levels of obesity and chronic disease. But beyond causing people to lead shortened, crippled lives because of the foods they put in their bodies, there is a broader issue of human well-being related to ecology and sustainability.

Meat and other animal-derived foods are incredibly resource intensive, requiring vast swathes of land and enormous quantities of water, soil, fertilizers, and other inputs. In short, raising animals as food is wasteful, as animals must either graze on land, which yields far less food per acre than plant-based foods, or farmers must grow grains, such as soy or corn, so that cows and other livestock animals can consume that food. Cycling calories through animals is not the most efficient way to produce food.

Livestock is also a key driver of climate change, primarily because of 1) methane from ruminant animals such as cattle, 2) carbon dioxide released from clearing wilderness areas to plant livestock feed or graze cattle, and 3) nitrous oxide from manure. Many people don’t make this connection to climate change because they equate greenhouse gas emissions to tailpipes and smokestacks, but, in fact, livestock accounts for more emissions than produced by all transportation vehicles in the world. While the UN and climate scientists have long known about livestock’s role in climate change, national governments and the general public have only recently started becoming concerned about this issue.

So again, plant-based diets are superior to animal-based diets; they use less land, water, and other resources while putting far fewer emissions into the atmosphere. These are not insignificant points.

Wildlife, nature, biodiversity

Related to the last point, because livestock requires so much more land to produce a given quantity of food, this is driving wilderness loss. There is a mass species extinction underway, due in large part to humans converting natural lands into livestock production—either growing feed crops or grazing animals on the land directly. A whopping one-third of the earth’s surface is dedicated to livestock, and this area is growing rapidly as dietary patterns shift in developing countries.

So if we as a civilization want to minimize or even reverse the spread of human activity into wilderness areas—a process known as “land-use change”—the single most important thing we can do is to consume foods that demand far less land. In this sense, plant-based diets are superior, as they produce more food on less land, preserving the natural environment and mitigating climate change.

Animals: Considering the well-being of other sentient beings  

Many animals suffer in livestock production. While industrial methods of confinement are responsible for much of this suffering—pigs that can’t turn around in their cage for their entire lives, chickens who live crowded on top of one another in dark poultry barns, or dairy cows who are constantly connected to milking machines—there are intrinsic forms of suffering and death that arise from all forms of livestock, including the small-scale, “humane” varieties. One could ask if it is ethical to take a dairy cow’s calf from her, sending them to a veal operation, or if it can ever be justified to take the life of any conscious animal, who has an intrinsic interest in their own survival.

Many say veganism ought to be the moral baseline for the ethical treatment of animals. This might sound radical, but in light of what raising animals for food actually implies, it makes perfect sense. If one makes the judgement that animals matter due to their sentience, and are therefore worthy of ethical consideration, then it would be hard to justify killing them or confining them to situations that cause them to suffer. But for all of the advances that have been won globally in terms of human rights, animal rights are by no means mainstreamed. Worldwide, over 60 billion animals are involved in livestock annually, and this number is only growing. So in terms of animal well-being, a plant-based diet is superior hands—and paws—down.

The great rift between ethics and meat

Any one of the arguments outlined above are sufficient grounds for one to shy away from meat consumption—to make the judgement that consuming these foods is unethical and that one should therefore adopt a diet centered around plant-based foods. But when one takes all of these arguments together, the imperative to move away from a meat-centric diet becomes overwhelming.

If one claims that ethics matter in their food choices—and that the well-being of people, the planet, and animals are all important factors in their ethical judgements about “what to eat”—then there is little room for meat, eggs, and dairy products in our diets—and especially not at the high levels of consumption we maintain in the US and much of the world. Unfortunately, people’s values and actions do not always align, so good people continue to have ‘bad’ diets.

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