01.01.2010

The Ethics of Eating

The Ethics of Eating: Depleting Fish Stocks Buying Locally Environmental Degradation Food Miles Living globally is not all it's cracked up to be. Imported foods may be cheaper, but they will be sprayed (often with chemicals that are banned in Australia and more developed countries), and rely entirely on fossil fuels (from the chemicals used for pest control, fertilisers used and transport). This global approach is destroying many communities around the world, as they are pushed to produce cheap food for export, rather than grow food to sustain themselves.
.Earlier this year I wrote an article called "How To Eat", and now, in the mellow, "let's stop and take a bit of a look" mood of January, I thought it was timely we delve a little deeper into some of the consequences of what and how we eat. Eating in the 21st century is no longer a simple thing. It is fraught with many choices, and each of those choices has its consequence.

The ethics of cost
Our entire food system today is geared towards cheap food - this is the end goal, and any means are justified to achieve this. This does not simply mean cheap food to you as the consumer, but in many cases, cheaper food inputs to the producers, so profit is greater. Food in today's construct is really a tool to generate profit, rather than a fundamental requirement for healthy people.

Buying cheap food is one of the easiest ways to support a farming system based on fossil fuel, as imported foods will often cost less than we can grow here in Australia. The true cost of food takes into account many things - protection of biodiversity, the need to conserve top soil, clean waterways, healthy ecosystems and respect for life, to name a few. When you pay more for organic or sustainably farmed food, this is what you are paying for. Yes, I agree some organic food is overpriced, but nonetheless, real food costs more than we are currently paying for it.

Many of our farming systems rely now on the "close your eyes and you won't see it" approach. Only problem is we can't help but now see our degrading soil (all that topsoil blown away over Sydney earlier this year), our dying rivers (all those chemicals running off into the Swan River), our dying fish stocks, and everywhere, unhappy and certainly unwell people, even with our abundance of cheap food.

Stand up for real food, grown as sustainably as possible - for me this means organic or biodynamic, and though not a perfect system, I believe it's the best blueprint we have to move forward. Remember, to ask to see the certification - this is your guarantee. If not organic, look for a greengrocer who knows where the food comes from, who grows it and how they grow it, and looks for growers who use as little spray as possible.

The ethics of buying locally
Living globally is not all it's cracked up to be. Imported foods may be cheaper, but they will be sprayed (often with chemicals that are banned in Australia and more developed countries), and rely entirely on fossil fuels (from the chemicals used for pest control, fertilisers used and transport). This global approach is destroying many communities around the world, as they are pushed to produce cheap food for export, rather than grow food to sustain themselves. Here, organic is not always best - I do buy some imported organic dried fruits and grains, but draw the line at bringing frozen organic fruit and vegetables from the other side of the world.

If you want to develop food security, supporting the local farmers who grow real food (food that actually can sustain and nourish a human body, as opposed to pretend food) is critical.

The ethics of what we eat
Wow, a huge topic, one I'd like to go into much more deeply in the coming year. There are many who consider a vegan or vegetarian diet an ethical diet. I disagree. I do passionately agree however, that eating an animal that has had no respect or honour paid to it is entirely unethical. That's not how animals should be farmed today - grain feeding or finishing (this means they are raised on grass, then finished on grain) is a way to get a cow to slaughter quickly with as much weight as possible - the means to a cheaper end product. You all know the stories, chickens, pigs, it's all sad and it's all disgraceful.

But animals can be raised humanely and this is what happens within many organic and certainly all biodynamic farming systems. They cost more, because they take longer to grow. This means they have been allowed to eat their correct food and for many, this is grass/pasture and not grain. This means they have been allowed to express their pigness, cowness, sheepness or goatness. They get to be who they are. This means they are also killed and butchered with respect.

Animals, in fact, are a critical part of real, healthy farming systems, chewing the grass, turning the soil (pigs are great for this), fertilising the soil - one beautiful, closed loop. What we overlook when we simply state that eating animals is wrong is that everything we eat is life. We kill no matter what we eat. When you grow vegetables, who will stand up and say that vegetable is not alive? I can tell you, I've grown a lot of vegetables, and I think they are. On an easier to comprehend level, I know I've had to kill bugs, rats, snails, slaters or moths just to be able to eat my vegetables (albeit in an organic and environmentally conscious way).

For those who believe being a vegetarian or vegan is honourable because you don't kill an animal, then I would hope to hear you tell me you only buy organic foods. Because if you're buying conventionally grown foods, you are supporting a farming system based on fossil fuels, the use of chemicals to kill every bit of life under and above the soil - in effect that any means justify the end.

And who are we to define what is conscious? Is the life of an aphid any less valuable than that of a cow? Or a micro-organism in the soil? If you buy soy products, I would hope they are organic and made from whole soy beans (rather than protein powder or isolate) because otherwise you're supporting huge amounts of land being cleared overseas to grow it (in many cases, jungle and prime forest), the destruction of communities and it's most likely it will be Genetically Engineered soy.

Look, I'm sorry to be so harsh, but it's just we need to look at things a little more deeply. I know we can't continue to eat meat and animal products the way we have been - every single meal, all the time. This is certainly not sustainable at all, but we do need to reconsider what ethical eating really is all about.

The Ethics of Fish
We've spoken about fish just recently, but a quick reminder. Our fish stocks are in trouble, so seek out fish that are sustainable. Check out the Australian Marine Conservation Society for a downloadable booklet of what is. If you live in WA, you can find a list on my website. Don't eat farmed fish (even if it's organic), don't eat salmon (unless you go overseas to a place that has sustainable, wild salmon then go for it), don't eat imported fish or seafood. When you go out to dinner ask them where it's come from, and how it's been grown.

Finally, there's a wonderful quote from the American farmer-poet Wendell Berry, "Eating is an agricultural act", and it is. But it's also an environmental act, a political act and the stakes in the game have just got higher. I know life is busy, but it's time to stop and take stock, because much of what you are buying does not have the capacity to nourish you, or support the community and country in which you live. You can join me over the coming year here at NOVA, and through my blog and become an activist for real food. The consequences are many, and will ripple through.

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