Conversation: Ruth Faden and Ali Berlow

On making ethical choices in how we eat.

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Ali Berlow, left (AB) is a founding editor and publisher of this magazine, a food activist and host of Cook's Notebook on WCAI. Ruth Faden (RF) is the founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Ethics and an expert on the ethics of food. She lives seasonally in Chilmark.
AB: What is a food ethicist?

RF: People who work on the ethics of food are studying the rights, duties, and  harms associated with the ways in which we produce, process, and consume our food. We’re asking: Who gets harmed? Who benefits? Are there anybody’s rights that are going to be infringed or violated by doing X or Y? Are people being harmed as a consequence? Is the environment being harmed? Are future environments being harmed? And, of course, there are questions of fairness — who wins and who loses, and in what relations of power do they stand with one and other. 

The American food system would be very poorly graded. It would not do well.

AB: Do you have a priority list of urgencies?

RF: Near the top of the list are concerns about the environment. To think about a sustainable food system — a food system that can meet the needs of the growing global population within the planetary boundary. The reason why we’re not doing well from an ethics point of view is that we’re desperately behind in terms of the changes we need to make in the ways we make, process, and distribute our food.

This is something that not everyone values equally, but it’s hard not to be concerned with the way in which farm animals are treated, which is  profoundly unethical. There’s been real progress in this territory, but not nearly as much as it could be.

Another territory we’re not doing so well on: how we treat our farm laborers. In this country, we are worse than other parts of the world in terms of quality of life and rights. We have small farmers and ranchers who are desperately trying to hold on, who are being squeezed in massive integration by big agrobusiness.

We have deep ethics worries about the future of farming, ranching, and fishing, from the people who are still trying to hold onto a way of life that they value, and so many of us value.

Environment and climate, farm workers and ranchers and fishers, treatment of animals: Big problems.

AB: What policies could you point to that are illustrative of the unfair labor practices that persist for agricultural workers?

RF: There is a whole range of concerns. To the extent that they are not here legally, they are very vulnerable. Even people who are here legally, our labor protection does not extend to farmers in the same way. I want to emphasize: There are any number of farmers, ranchers who are very concerned about the living and working conditions, who treat their workers fairly. The problem is that there are many who don’t, or arguably can’t, because their economic margin is so small.

People who are farm workers should be able to have — at the most basic — reliable bathroom breaks, access to health and medical care, a decent wage, community, housing that is not dehumanizing and damaging to their family structures. They need materials explaining what they’re entitled to and opportunities for grievances in their own languages.

It’s not every farmer, every ranch, but there are enough with egregious enough treatment that it’s a really big problem. At its most extreme, we’re talking effectively about slavery. Now that’s a very small percentage globally, but it’s not gone. No form of slavery is ever ethically acceptable, ever. Period. The U.S. has not eliminated that problem, but it is a very small number. How could we still have forced labor in the U.S.? These are people who just don’t have any meaningful opportunities to escape. They’re desperate and worried about being deported; a whole range of things.

AB: Let’s jump to the consumer side: consumers who are interested in making the right choices.

RF: It’s really difficult for consumers generally. One of the things that we’re working on is the general conundrum that each of us faces as a consumer. You can call this the “Evil is everywhere” problem, and I don’t mean that to be trite, but if you look at any consumer product critically, and you do enough research, somewhere along the line, there is something that is ethically problematic. And we can’t live our lives like that. There’s nobody who’s going to worry about every single purchase. That’s not a reasonable expectation.

The orientation that I have is that we all want to be good people; we don’t want to inflict harm on others and we don’t want to contribute or be implicit in contributing to climate change. The best we can do is educate ourselves, identify what matters to us most — maybe it’s climate change, maybe it’s labor rights, maybe its animals, children. You pick the territory that matters to you the most; where you can have the most impact, where in a reasonably efficient way, you can be able to act on your moral commitments

We rely heavily right now on certifications and labels. There’s tons of them and they’re not all equally great. Another thing we’re trying to do is to help consumers identify those “certs” that are more reliable than others. In the slavery territory that we were just talking about, it’s really quite difficult. The fair trade labels for cocoa and coffee are worth paying attention to. There’s something called the Equitable Food Initiative that is in the practice of certifying farms in North America, Canada, and Mexico, to certify that farms are free of forced labor and other violations of human rights. For example, right now, Costco and Whole Foods are working with the EFI — those are big retailers! So it might become relatively easy for consumers to identify produce in Costco that comes from farms with the equitable label. Right now there are only about 30 farms in North America. It’s going to take a while to scale up.

We haven’t gotten to the animal discussion. There’s certified humane, for example —  as a label that is a pretty reliable indication that certain criteria of animal welfare are respected.

AB: So in the “choose food initiative” that you are helping to lead, labeling is one of the projects, is that correct?

RF: I’m leading this with others — it’s a very cooperative project.

The idea is how to make it easy for consumers to be able to select both food types and specific food products and brands that align with their own values. You may care more about the environmental and climate impact of your food purchases. Someone else may be concerned about animal welfare or labor practices or impacts on small farmers and ranchers.

So what is needed is an easy way for people to be able to look at classes of products and also particular products/branded types, and say OK, I want to make sure that what am I buying is, for example, in an acceptable ethical range for impact on the environment and climate. What we’re trying to do in our Choose Food work is figure out how to do that. How to make it simple — consumer friendly apps signaling to consumers where they should purchase what, marketed by whom. It could be really tailored to the moral value preferences of the individual. And make it easy and, hopefully, affordable.

AB: What would you urge people to do?

RF: What I urge people to do, if they are concerned about the environment, climate change, and animal welfare, is to eat less beef. If you already eat very little, fine. If you eat a fair amount of beef every week, there’s actually some very interesting modeling studies that show that if we could just get Americans who are in the top two-fifths of beef consumers in the country, to reduce their beef consumption to about what the rest of Americans eat, that could really be good for the climate. This is especially so if what you substitute for the beef are plant-based proteins, rather than another animal source of protein.

That would be better for the planet, and that would be better for their health.

It’s not asking anyone to give up that barbecue on July Fourth, or the big standing roast on Christmas Day. But reducing beef consumption, doing things like meatless Mondays or “vegan until dinner,” all of these things help. If everybody were to do it, it’d be good for the environment, good for the planet, good for you and your health, and there would be fewer beef cattle in production.

Most of the beef produced in the U.S. is produced in concentrated animal feed operations, which are pretty brutal for the beef cow, and in some ways even worse for chickens and pigs.

Now, if you have some resources, then I would say to you: Buy certified humane or some other good-label certified. But you can’t ask that of everybody, because it’s more expensive right now.

So if you say well,  — and this is where the ethics come in: In my own life, I will eat fewer animal products and only from producers committed to humane treatment. you can do that. But you can’t will the whole world to do that, because it’s way too expensive for most people. And also, humane conditions are not likely to be able to produce animal meat efficiently enough from the standpoint of planetary demands and planetary boundaries.

So there’s a conundrum: You can help the world by eating less beef, and for that matter, less pork and chicken. And if you’re concerned about animal welfare, and you can afford it, buy only certified humane, or other appropriately labeled meat products. But those approaches are not sufficient to deal with the big planetary boundary constraints that we’ve got, in terms of environment and a growing population.

AB: I just want to take a tangent from that, and say that the food industry seems to be responding to “eat less beef” with the plant-based burgers and “clean meat,” the laboratory-grown meat.

RF: Yeah, they’re having issues with that — what to call it.

AB: Yeah. But let’s talk about the plant-based burgers that look and taste like meat. I haven’t had them myself.

RF: You haven’t?

AB: No, have you?

RF: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

AB: You enjoy them?

RF: I do — they are tasty. So let’s talk about them. There are two big strategies right now, and they’re both potential technological fixes for what I was just describing:  We need to feed a growing world population; we have real constraints with the limits of this planet to be able to produce protein in the form of animal meat, and dairy and eggs. Protein is really essential to nutrition and human well-being. It’s not just protein, but there are other micro nutrients that are easily and readily available in animal meat, that are available from other sources, but not as easily. If you have a very poor country … it’s not like everybody needs to eat less meat. Some people are eating too little meat and would be better off eating a bit more.

So, if we’re talking about solutions to this challenge, there are three things that are happening right now, at the level of agro-science. One is let’s figure out ways to produce beef as we know it now, that will result in a lower environmental impact. An example of that would be current research suggesting that if algae of a certain type are introduced to the feed cycle of beef cattle, they will produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Lots of technological interest and advances in creating a better beef production process from the standpoint of the environment. Very important work.

Another is let’s see if we can create actual beef and animal products without having to raise and kill cows. We use cell engineering to do this. That’s what you were referring to as clean meat, cell-based meat. It’s still unclear what this kind of meat will end up being called and labeled.

This product would truly be beef, it is truly beef. And it’s being made right now. You don’t need to have ranches anymore. You don’t have to have beef cattle roaming around anymore. Right now, you still need a certain amount of  material that comes from fetal calves, that’s part of what is needed to create the medium for the cell cultures. But the end result is this product will taste like beef, because it is beef.

It’s just that the technology of using stem cell science has been able to essentially culture the beef in a processing plant. Everybody’s watching that market.

The third technological approach is to create plant-based beef. This is to make beef completely from plants — you have no animals involved at all.

Entirely vegetarian if you like. But technology is employed that helps us understand why meat tastes good to people and then, that’s translated into a proprietary formula that produces something that tastes really good. There are two separate questions: Does it taste good? and does it taste like a burger?

It’s a whole separate path than the old-style veggie burger, which really never tasted like burgers. And if you liked it, you liked it, but you didn’t like it because it made you feel the same kind of happy way that eating a really good beef burger does.

So people who are in this third industry — their aim is to have their products taste so good that people will want to eat those preferentially, and not solely because it’s better for the planet

So the first path of trying to produce beef cattle that have a lower environmental footprint, it’s obvious what’s going on there. And the questions are all: How much better? How much can you shrink the environmental footprint of beef cattle? Can you shrink it enough?

These other two technological approaches are going for triple whammies, from an ethics point of view. They’re trying to find a way that’s better for the environment, that’s better for animals — because you don’t need to put them into concentrated animal feed operations — you wouldn’t need those. And it’s also better for human health.

AB: So what are the questions on this still?

RF: The open questions are: How are they faring on all three of these points?

The evidence is looking right, but we have to know more.

The claims of the win on the environment are probably right, relative to beef current modes of production. Then the question will be when we get to a better way of producing beef, how will it look? And I think the people who know this territory, who are watching it, still think that most cell-based meat and plant-based meat will be better, all things considered, for the environment. Whether it’s better for human health, two different claims are being made. The plant-based people are saying: Look you don’t have the cholesterol found in the animal fats, so that should be better for you, but they’re still trying to get around the — well, it’s got to taste good. And to taste good, it’s got to be fatty. That’s part of the mouth feel of a burger is that juicy stuff.

AB: Totally!

RF: If you get a super lean burger, it doesn’t taste nearly as good as a burger that’s really fatty. So there’s a not-insignificant amount of fat in the two key product lines right now. Those are Impossible Burger and Beyond Beef and both are trying to not only to get the fat content down, but to use fats that are better. Probably it’s healthier for you than eating a beef burger.

On the cell-based meat and health, here is what they are aiming for, and can claim: There’s a certain amount of food-borne illness. And that has a lot to do with how the food is raised, exposures that can result in contamination, spoilage, that we worry about. Because this cell-based meat is essentially manufactured in a factory that can keep to very high standards, it probably will succeed in reducing the risk of food-borne illness dramatically. So that’s one health plus. Advocates are also thinking they will be able to engineer the meat in ways that makes it generally  healthier for people, time will tell.

On the animal welfare side, the plant-based people, clearly, they’ve got it — no animals are involved at all. So they’ve got a clear win there.

Now with the cell-based plant approach, there will be many, many, many fewer animals in production to the extent that the sector takes off.

Currently, they have this need for fetal calf material, and they’re trying to get rid of that as well.

The big open question for these two approaches is are they truly win, win, win? That is winning on environment and climate, winning on human health, winning on animal welfare, and by how much, relative to the technological fixes that people are trying to develop to reduce the carbon footprint, and other environmental impacts of beef cattle.

So that’s the space right now. There are all kinds of dramatic predictions about what percentage of the “beef market” will be taken over by either of these alternatives.

AB: What other ethical considerations enter this conversation?

RF: A big debate right now is how to think of these foods from the standpoint of values that people are increasingly concerned about — food being “natural” or “whole.” These are clearly processed foods, but if you think about it, most of our foods are processed — even fruits and vegetables, if you don’t buy them at a farmers market, have been minimally processed or sometimes more than minimally processed.

So the question to me as someone who does food ethics, is not a zero-sum: processed = bad; not processed = good, but rather: Is the way in which the food is processed better for our health or worse for our health; better for the environment or worse for the environment? And this is the debate that people are starting to engage in, with both of these two technological approaches to creating alternatives to eating traditional beef. They’re definitely processed foods.

So, how this will all eventually sort out, Ali, is unclear.

From an ethics point of view, if these are triple wins, that’s really, really important.

AB: Interesting. All right, let’s jump out of the food industry sphere for a second. Let’s talk about more local/regional food systems through the ethical lens — Martha’s Vineyard, super, hyper-local.

RF: Let’s start there. So, there are ethics debates about eating locally. The ethics arguments in favor of eating locally are so obvious, but they are worth stating. People value what farming contributes to a community — open space, supporting your neighbors and their livelihood, nurturing an agrarian tradition that in some cases, on the Vineyard, is hundreds and hundreds of years old. And they want to support the continuation of a way of life that is valued not only by the people who are living it, but also by all the rest of us.

I can see the Allen Farm from my house. I’m not far from Beetlebung Farm. It adds value to my life, that these farms are here. I want to support my neighbors. It’s the same motivation that lies behind going to buy at a local anything vs. a chain. It’s that small business — the move to give your patronage to small local businesses. And also there’s stewardship of the earth: Small farmers who are in your local environment are taking care of the earth in a very important way, that is valuable to all of us.

From an environmental standpoint, there is also an argument that there’s an environmental impact that comes from moving produce halfway around the world.

There are all kinds of positive arguments for eating locally.

There are also some ethics arguments against. Come on, let’s be real: There are lots of people around the world, not just your neighbors, who are depending for their welfare on your buying their food. Somewhere out there is a real person, with real children, who benefits when you buy tomatoes from Mexico, as opposed to tomatoes that come from a mile away.

So, we have to accept and acknowledge that life is complicated, and there often are values that win and values that lose, people who win, and people who lose. People who make choices, on balance, it depends on what community you are in. I think on Martha’s Vineyard, the arguments are overwhelmingly in favor of eating locally if you can. Locally grown food, as we know, oddly enough, is often more expensive. So again it raises the question: Who should be doing the supporting?

I gave a talk on food ethics as part of the Summer Institute/lecture series last year. There was a local farmer who stood up and said, “Look, I raise tomatoes. My farm depends on selling outrageously overpriced tomatoes to rich people in the summer, but I need to charge those prices in order to hold onto my farm.”

This is the reality of a community like ours. My own view is if you can afford to buy those tomatoes in the summer, you should, if you value your local community and the world with farms and farmers in it. But it can’t be a moral obligation on everyone to eat locally when it’s just too expensive to do so.

Now again I want to emphasize, there are some compelling, or at least really good, moral arguments that say you can’t always eat locally. You can’t feed the world that way. Local agriculture is rarely to scale. If you’re looking for ways to feed the world, local agriculture won’t get you there. You can’t feed billions of people this way.

AB: And I think looking at the systematic things that contribute to those costs of local food, that is something that I think everyone can do.

RF: Yes, it should not be the case that the farmer described has to face the economic pressures he faces — that should not be the state of affairs. For many people in many places it’s possible to have a local food economy that is affordable, where the products are affordable, and the farmers make a decent living. And that should be the goal.