The ethics and politics of food. Why does what we eat matter?

In my last post on this site I responded to three questions that arose from the book by David Kaplan on food philosophy:

What is food?

How do we experience food?

What is good taste when it comes to good food?

In this post I will be discussing the ethics and politics of our interaction with food leading to the final question

Why does what we eat matter?  

What are our ethical obligations when it comes to food? The book suggests that it may be unethical to consume GMOs, irradiated food, cultured meat, and food from animals. Everyone should weigh ethical considerations in context of their moral codes, BUT Kaplan seems to have a bias against technology when it comes to food. He draws the line between plant selection and genetic engineering. Lines also separate radiant energy from heat and gamma rays as well as separating fermentation from cell culture.

What role do ethics play in the application of pesticides and fertilizers on crops? Technology has eliminated plagues of locusts in wealthy nations but not in poor ones. Has technology gone too far in crop production, or not far enough? Healthiness and safety of foods also deserve ethical evaluation. Food additives merit Kaplan’s concerns, but does their role in preventing food waste count for anything?  What roles should machinery and chemicals play in foods? Convection and conventional ovens with induction stove tops cause no concern, but similar technologies in processing plants are suspect. Why?

Our first ethical obligation described in Food Philosophy is to feed ourselves when possible. It appears to be an imperfect obligation when it comes to eating fast food. Our second obligation is to others radiating out from our families to friends to feeding the poor. It is obvious that cannibalism is an unethical practice. Our third obligation is our responsibility to future generations. Global climate change as an existential threat to humankind is a conviction Kaplan and I share. Will the survivors in the latter half of the 21st Century praise or condemn our actions?

How do food and politics mix, or do they? Like almost everything these days, politics has poisoned the well of rational conversation. Discussion about food is no exception. One of the times I miss most from living in Southwest Florida is every Monday evening at the food pantry. The volunteers are a cohesive group who feel a moral obligation to help others who are in a less fortunate position. Almost all volunteers are church-going folk who take Biblical admonitions to feed the poor to heart. The political spectrum is well represented. Liberals converse with liberals and conservatives with conservatives. Our leader tries to keep crosscurrents to a minimum. For the most part he succeeds, but some animosity seeps through. Regardless, we remained a cohesive group as we distributed food to those who needed it.

The whole concept of feeding the hungry is at the heart of political controversy. Are the hungry merely lazy people who won’t work to feed themselves or their families? Do food pantries serve a need for those who have fallen on had times? Or is the system created in a food emergency exploitive, failing to address the social and economic interests of the disadvantaged population. This is an issue near and dear to my heart. I have read much on the topic and find that the issues tend to be described in terms of right and wrong. Studying these issues requires much more nuance. The best analyses I have read on the topic come from four important books:

Pressure Cooker

How the Other Half Eats

Black Food Geographies, and

Food Justice   

Speaking of food justice. What has it become? In its purest sense food is a basic human right. Others see the food justice movement as an opportunity to force healthy-eating standards on the poor. Dietetics as a profession has come under fire for its lack of diversity in the USA. Too often, healthy diets represent a white, middle-class fare not taking norms from other cultures into account.

But I digress. Let’s get back to Kaplan’s book on Food Philosophy. He questions the industrialization of food crop production as well as raising animals for food. He also questions industrialization of seafood capture and transportation. By now faithful readers of this blog will anticipate my response to the author’s questioning of industrialization of food processing and preservation.

Population growth between 1900 (1.5 billion) and 2000 (7 billion) affected how we grew, prepared, manufactured, and distributed food in America. The country transitioned from a rural economy to an urban one. A political fault line runs between rural and urban states. 1.3% of Americans grow our food today; 10.5% work in agriculture and the food industry. How are we to feed the country without industrialization of our food supply? Will workers in cities forsake their office jobs to go back to working on organic farms? Will the coming AI age force displaced workers to reconsider living in decaying cities? Can we go back to early 20th Century living conditions with 21st Century values and cultural expectations? How will the technology of a century ago feed our population and prevent climate change? I think we need to think this out again.  

Why does food matter? Food matters for many reasons. It is our source of nourishment; it sets the table for social engagement. Food is a source of pleasure and a source of guilt. It also presents both ethical and political challenges. We are NOT what we eat, BUT what we eat becomes part of us. Our food choices become part of our identity. Other people’s choices can limit our freedom. Marketing of food can create a demand for a specific food item or category of foods. More often, food marketing exploits one of our underlying traits, such as desires for convenience, saving time, or saving money.

Our geographical heritage and culture help preselect our dietary preferences. Our mealtime choices reflect inner values and unconscious thoughts rather than careful, rational ones. Weight stigma terrorizes us as we continue to make unwise choices. Gender inequality places an undue burden in the preparation of meals. Vast social changes in our society have lead to increased reliance on processed and ultra-processed foods.

Kaplan concludes Food Philosophy by asking us to say “No to food conformity, yes to food counterculture, no to false needs, yes to true needs, no to technologies of consumerism, yes to technologies of creativity.” I have no difficulty with the statement, but my concepts of conformity, counterculture, needs, and technologies of creativity are diametrically opposed to his. Is he right? Am I right? Or are we both right in our own way?  

A parting shot. “Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” ― Konrad Lorenz

Coming soon: Does America have a cultural food icon and a food philosophy? by Linn Steward

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