‘Eat our way to a better world’

Considering food ethics with Ruth Faden.

Meatless and vegan meat options like these available at Cronig's are one of the ways that bioethicist Ruth Faden says we could reduce greenhouse gases while getting the protein we need. — Gabrielle Mannino

Bioethicist Ruth Faden might change the way you think about food.

She spoke to a group gathered at the Hebrew Center on Thursday, July 19, as part of the 2018 Summer Institute Speaker Series. Faden talked about food ethics with a focus on two things — forced labor and beef production.

“What is it about our social institutions that make it so very difficult to live even minimally decent lives?” Faden asked. “Food looms large.”

Food ethics is the philosophical study of rights, duties, harms, fairness, and justice in the way we produce, process, distribute, and consume food. Faden is the founder of John Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. In her 20 years leading the Berman Institute, she transformed what was a faculty interest group into one of the leading bioethics programs in the world.

When it comes to food production, Faden said forced labor is a problem. “Forced labor is a euphemism for modern-day slavery,” Faden said. She referenced the 2016 Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Associated Press for its coverage of seafood in Southeast Asia. Men and women were held in cages and made to catch, clean, and process seafood against their will.

“When Human Rights Watch revisited this in 2018, they found that horrific conditions still exist in Thailand — the fourth largest exporter of seafood globally,” Faden said.

It’s hard to get a handle on how many people are working against their will in agriculture and seafood, but there’s an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million people, according to Faden. Factors of intimidation, violence, and immigration reprisal play a role. For some, there’s no way out.

“Forced labor is ethically straightforward,” Faden said. “It’s clearly morally condemnable. No organization wants to rely on forced labor in their supply chain, and no consumer wants to buy food produced by slaves. It’s so clearly wrong.”

But it’s a complicated problem to solve. Most forced labor occurs in regions in Africa and the Asia-Pacific. An estimated 5 percent of U.S. farmers are victims of forced labor. So what can we do if we want to avoid purchasing food produced by slaves?

Faden stressed that it’s hard, and no large organization can be 100 percent sure there’s no slavery in its supply chain.

There’s a website called knowthechain.org that helps consumers look up the origin of food items they pick up. The tool is new, and not easy to use, but it’s the type of resource that has promise, and needs to be put in place, according to Faden.

“You can also support the good corporations,” Faden said. She recommended Unilever, the owner of Ben and Jerry’s and Heinz. Fair-trade labels are also worthwhile, especially in coffee and in chocolate. There’s a new initiative called the Equitable Food Initiative, which focuses on produce and certifying farms in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Central America free of forced labor and other violations of human rights. They’ve been in operation for about a year, and certified 26 farms. Costco and Whole Foods are two participating corporations in the Equitable Food Initiative.

“That doesn’t mean they’re only purchasing food from those 26 farms, but it’s an important beginning,” Faden said.

Faden referenced a report that came out about a week ago, which rated large supermarkets on five different issues in reference to ethical production of food. Surprisingly, according to Faden, Walmart did the best.“There were no A’s and no B’s, but Walmart got a C-,” Faden said.

She segued the conversation to beef production: “Unlike slavery, this topic is ethically complicated.”

The first point she had her audience consider was simple. Beef production is bad for the environment and climate. “The big thing here is greenhouse gases,” she said. Cows eat grass, they excrete gas, which contains a significant amount of methane, into the environment where it is a greenhouse gas — the most significant driver of climate change.

“About 15 percent of that is from cattle alone,” Faden said. “That makes agriculture only second to energy in terms of releasing greenhouse gases.”

Agriculture is also responsible for 70 percent of freshwater use. One four-ounce hamburger requires 450 gallons of water to create, according to Faden.

If we were all vegetarians by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions would reduce by 55 to 60 percent. If we were all pescetarians by 2050, that number would reduce by 40 percent, according to Faden.

“But everyone in the world becoming a vegetarian is a bridge too far,” Faden said, referencing the relationship society has with beef — it’s a source of pleasure, and the demand is only increasing. In the U.S., the increase is due to the reduction in price over the past two years, and the popularity of paleo and keto diets. In China, beef is a restricted food by class, but as the nation becomes wealthier, more of its people want to eat like the rich. The same goes for India, where the meat industry is skyrocketing.

“It’s no small thing to try to intervene and change something with thousands of years of value and tradition,” Faden said. “This is one of the reasons why the ethics of meat is so morally complicated.”

If you think it’s OK to eat meat, Faden said, you still have some difficult questions to consider about animal welfare and cruelty. Most beef cattle are raised in concentrated animal-feeding operations, CAFOs, where stress, pain, and distress are commonplace.

“We try not to think about what their lives are like,” Faden said. “We eat with blinders on.”

Certifications like Animal Welfare Approved, and Certified Humane, are good labels to look for when browsing meat products, but even so, there are more moral conundrums to consider.

Beef that receives those certifications come from smaller, local operations. There are no CAFOs on Martha’s Vineyard, Faden reassured. Our local beef comes from small operations, where animals are raised on grass, and able to graze the land.

“But this looks worse for the environment,” Faden said. “It’s better for the animals, no question, but pasture-raised beef isn’t better for the environment than industrialized.”

It’s because the planet isn’t big enough. “It can’t be done,” Faden said. “Even if we tried to create more grazing land, we’d create a phenomenal environmental problem. It literally is not possible to feed what people want in beef globally, and do it in a humane way.”

So what’s the solution? We can be vegetarians, substitute beans for beef, or reduce our general intake of beef. “Or we can find a technical, scientific fix,” Faden said.
According to Faden, there’s a small army of scientists, investors, entrepreneurs, and chefs betting on a scientific fix. They are looking at a couple of different approaches, one being the gene-editing of cows to reduce flatulence.

“Some people are asking, Can I sign my partner up for this gene editing?” Faden joked.

Another approach is alt-protein, which is the creation of plant-based meat in a laboratory.

“Think of a cow as a machine,” Faden said. “The cow eats grass, and through a remnant system converts grass into a protein that we can consume by way of its body. The question scientists asked is, Why can’t we create a way to replicate that production process in the lab? What do we need the cow for? Why can’t we go straight from plant protein to meat?”

They’ve created the Impossible Burger, and it’s gaining popularity across the country.

“The scientists at Impossible Burger identified the molecule in animal meat that makes it savory and sizzly,” Faden said. “It’s called heme, and it exists in plants and animals, but mostly animals. Scientists figured out how to isolate that heme protein from soy plants.”

Impossible Meats use 1/20th of the land, one-fourth of the water, and could reduce greenhouse gases by 85 percent, ounce for ounce. Impossible Meats and Beyond Meats, another source of alt-protein, are available in supermarkets across the country. They’ve also been created for pork, chicken, and seafood.“Cronig’s carries them, and Cronig’s is always out,” Faden said.

Alt-protein proponents see this as a triple win — for the environment, animal welfare, and human rights, according to Faden. And then there are those who object.

“There are 1 billion people worldwide whose jobs depend on the fishing and ranching industry,” Faden said. “Think about what Martha’s Vineyard would look like without farms. It’s unimaginable. One person’s ethical miracle could be someone else’s Franken-protein.”

During the Q and A portion of the discussion, one community member brought up population size as a suggested solution.
“We could just have fewer people on the planet,” he said. Faden said she has a colleague who believes it’s unethical to have more than one child.

Another community member said she thinks alt-protein is “really weird.” “Why not just eat peas? Why do you have to mush them up and turn them into something else?”

Faden agreed, but then suggested, “Because it just might work.”

For more information on the 2018 Summer Institute Speaker Series at the Hebrew Center, visit mvsummerinstitute.org.


  1. Unethical to have more than one child.. and morality of meat eating. Give me a break. Some things are so silly only an intellectual would believe them .

  2. In college I took a (required) meat management course which included field trips to slaughtering facilities on and off campus. From a Plexiglas shielded observation platform I saw the process from beginning to end including the drawing of cattle by means of a chainsaw. The spattering of blood and the pattering of bone chips against the Plexiglas had a salutary effect on the students. Ruth Faden’s remarks make sense to me.

  3. The process involved in an Abbatoir is one thing but to eschew meat because of methane flatulance is another. It has been a long time since butchering was primitive and distasteful Hanley. I suggest your experience was 50 years ago. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was written in 1906–a bit before you.

    • For the record, the field trip described was in the mid 70s at the Cornell School of Agriculture in Ithaca NY. Slaughtering animals is a procedure that changes little over the years.

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