In a previous post I briefly discussed the difficulties of trying to eat healthily with all the pseudo-scientific claims about what is healthy. The topic of food ethics is, perhaps, even more convoluted. Vegetarians, vegans and environmentalists all have a view. There is Fair Trade and non-GMO (Monsanto is evil, apparently). With all this clamour there are so few unambiguous truths and I feel I would need several PhDs and two lifetimes to be able to sift through it all.
Vegans and vegetarians are quick to point how badly animals are treated. I suspect that some of their claims exaggerated. Sensational videos showing the worst forms of animal cruelty are more likely to make an impact, after all. I am, however, also convinced that we don’t treat our animals well enough. The actual living, breathing, suffering animals are just too far from the conscience of the masses for most farmers to have a real incentive to treat their animals better.
GMO foods seem to be universally misunderstood and are maligned more on the emotional impact of the idea of gene modification than anything else. Yet, absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence. A myriad of modifications can be made to foodstuffs with relative rapidity and only a finite number of tests can be performed. If we miss something the consequences could be great.
Fair Trade products have very lofty goals. They are there to end the exploitation of labour. But it is virtually impossible to prove Fair Trade actually achieves its goals. You can be (reasonably) sure if you buy a fair trade product that the people who produced were paid a reasonable wage. But how many people may now do not have any employment at all?
Something that has always worried me about ethical food is this: it is a snob product. Rich people pay for the good feeling of having bought something ethical (and healthier and tastier and more natural – somehow these things always go together). The vast majority of people do not have the luxury of inspecting the distribution chain for their products – they buy what they can afford. Perhaps eating ethically, like fashion and new technologies, is something that starts with the rich and is then moved to the masses (in a more affordable form). But perhaps a fully organic, free-range, fair-trade based food economy cannot be sustained without a global drop in living standards. I am hoping for the former option because the latter will not come about by a drop in the living standard of the rich – it is the poor who will have to pay.