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).

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Genetic Engineering: An Open Science?

Food is one of those topics that generate impassioned debates. Not only are there many important food-related topics for people to sink their teeth into, but all of us have a very personal stake in food since it is something that we consume daily and have deep cultural connections to.

Genetically modified (GM) food is one of the more polarized food topics. The mixed opinions on it are played out through the media, in popular books, on ballot initiatives, and at kitchen tables, indicating both a public concern for the impacts of food production as well as a fundamental disagreement about the impacts and risk of GM foods.

Many progressive food advocates have adopted a categorical opposition to all forms of genetically modified food, demanding labeling and warning against unintended impacts on human health and the environment. On the other side of the debate—from those supporting Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds to those who cautiously accept that genetic engineering might play a role in improving our food system—many argue that these charges are overblown and not grounded in factual evidence of the risk from GM foods.

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Article on Chomping Climate Change

I wrote some reflections on Chomping Climate Change about the presence of the livestock-climate issue at the People’s Climate March this past Sunday. The blog is run by Jeff Anhang, Environmental Specialist with the World Bank Group.

Mark Bittman on the externalities of fast food

Mark Bittman’s latest New York Times article, which focuses on the externalized health costs of the fast food industry: The True Cost of a Burger


Stockholm Food Forum: Nutrition, Health, and Sustainability in Our Global Food System

The first annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum brought together over 600 world leaders and experts earlier this month to “help develop goals, strategies, and guidelines to meet the interconnected challenges of hunger and malnutrition, chronic disease, climate change, and environmental degradation,” all while attempting to bridge the divides between business, science, and politics. Pretty awesome, multidisciplinary approach to some of the key problems that have arisen with our ever-evolving global food system. This video with professor Timothy Lang of City University London touches on some of these important issues. In this clip, he states that without significant changes in consumer dietary habits, we will not be able to live within our environmental limits or ensure public health. He underscores the importance of governments in promoting this vision through policy such as sustainable dietary guidelines – which would be somewhat similar to the nutritional dietary guidelines that were created decades ago.


Recently released paper outlines nuances of a sustainable global diet

Since the release of Tara Garnett’s discussion paper in April entitled What is a Sustainable Healthy Diet? there has been a healthy discussion of this important issue on the Food and Climate Research Network (FCRN). The paper is definitely worth reading, as it calls for both nutrition and sustainability in our global food system, with a focus on the need to assure access to food, to reduce food wastage, and alter global eating habits. The chart below contains an apt characterization of how we might think about diet and sustainability:

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Freak Storms, De Blasio, and the Food-Climate Issue in NYC

Typhoon Haiyan and the increasing occurrence of other extreme weather phenomena in recent years are evidence of the impact human activity has on the climate [see IPCC report]. This underscores the dire need for collective global action to slow and even reverse climate change. Incidentally, delegates from around the world are meeting in Warsaw this week for COP19, the main UN climate change conference of 2013; the destructiveness of Haiyan underscores the importance of these talks.

But if past climate talks are any indicator of the progress we can expect out of Warsaw, then prepare to be underwhelmed. One problem with these talks is that nations tend to be unwilling to compromise their economic growth (or the business interests of their companies) for climate mitigation, even though climate change will put an immense strain on future economic activity and cost more to mitigate down the road. In other words, nations are willing to pursue short-term gains, even if it means jeoporizing the well-being of their future economy and the future world in general.

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