Between ecotarianism and ethotarianism is conviviality.

As we commence RoadTripUSA, I’m thinking a lot about food. Okay, I always think a lot about food, but there’s something quite specific I’m thinking about and it’s around ‘ecotarianism’, pleasure and conviviality…

In America we’ll eat a lot of good food and a bit of bad food. To judge good and bad I weigh up flavour, texture, ‘wholeness’, seasonality, regionality, sustainability, animal husbandry, workers’ rights, and to some degree, health (though food that’s ‘bad’ for you because it’s fatty, etc, is something I don’t spend much time thinking about regarding our family as our lifestyle of predominantly whole foods nearly always ensures a well-balanced diet – but that’s another post). Making choices that ‘tread lightly’ and treat food and producers respectfully is what I understand by ‘ecotarian’, a fairly new term, discussed on the ABC recently by Cristy Clark.

Like most people, sometimes we compromise our usual principles and eat what we consider ‘bad food’ to greater or lesser extents. Road trips inevitably include some potato chips and sometimes a meal from Subway or a local takeaway, and on Friday nights at home we’ll occasionally order pizza or pick up fish and chips. When we make these choices, we’re still able to avoid factory-farmed pork and chicken rather easily.

When travelling, we usually let our standards slide on ethical meat – we tend to just eat everything as a way of understanding culture better – and that includes pork and chicken that is most likely factory farmed. The traceability issues we face at home are compounded overseas where we’re even less certain of our food’s origins. We continue with our usual habits of not eating too much meat generally, but we do like to try all the local specialties. In America, we’re usually with my family or friends, so keeping to ecotarian principles is pretty easy as we generally know the provenance of the food. However, eating out presents a greater challenge unless dining in one of America’s many wonderful SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical) focused restaurants and cafes.

This trip to America is different to a visit ‘home’. We’ll be driving through a number of unfamiliar regions, and there’s a world of interesting local dishes I can’t wait to sample, including such nommish delights as pulled pork in the South… but the odds of there being much free-range pork on the menus in Alabama are pretty slim, I reckon. Chicken will pose a similar problem, and thanks to America’s preponderance of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly known as ‘factory farms’, even beef poses an ethical dilemma unless you know the provenance. I could go on about dairy, seafood, fast food franchises, processed snack foods… you get the picture, but I’ll use pork as my primary example given our plans to be free-range pig farmers.

Will we eat pork in the full knowledge that it isn’t from ‘happy pigs’?

Yes, we will.

We won’t eat a lot of it, but we’ll eat it. There are a few reasons why – more than simply ‘I really want to try that because it looks really delicious’, though I can’t pretend that’s not part of the decision-making process. There are a few key reasons why we will compromise our usual ethics, but the core one is conviviality. That is, while traveling, I don’t want to be ‘that person’ who makes everyone uncomfortable by listing all the things we don’t eat, or by turning down food that someone has offered us in their home with, ‘oh, we don’t eat factory-farmed pork’ every time. Such a response not only tells your host you don’t want what they’ve offered, it infers they have done the wrong thing in offering it to you. I would rather leave ethical food discussions to this blog and other writings, and to conversations that are not taking place in the presence of such food.

At home, standards are easy to maintain. We buy or grow the food and we cook it. When in someone else’s home, I don’t ask if the pork is free range if that’s what’s on the menu. In fairness, my friends all know how we are and are pretty unlikely to give us factory-farmed meat, but if they did, I’d eat it. The animal is already dead and cooked at this stage – in my opinion to refuse to eat it is wasteful and disrespectful of the life it gave as well as inhospitable towards one’s hosts.

Mind you, it’s not only when a host offers us something. There’s food on airlines, lack of choice in small country grocery stores and the usual road trip compromises. Or the myriad ‘hidden’ food ethical dilemmas, such as monoculture GM soy in the ingredients or factory-farmed eggs in some muffins at a diner. While our ethic enables us to avoid many such things, we would be miserable trying to completely avoid the horrors of industrial agriculture – sometimes the pleasure principle is achieved by not agonising so much and knowing you’ve done your best.

As I write these things I’m still sorting out the questions around hypocrisy and being complicit in an unethical food system. But the way I’m thinking about it is to understand ecosystems beyond their biological components – to include the social aspects as well.

If farming had not moved outside of ecosystems – as we all know industrial agriculture requires enormous external inputs and must find places beyond their boundaries to process their outputs – we wouldn’t have the severe negative environmental consequences we face today. But in addition to choosing food that comes from a healthy ecosystem, we should generally choose food that is still intricately linked to communities – that both sustains and is sustained by communities. When we conceive of an ethical approach to food this way, we must consider the human social interactions as well as those between humans and other animals or humans and the earth.

I guess rather than calling it ‘ecotarianism’ then, you might call it ‘ethotarianism’, because it’s about a consistent ethic of respect and pleasure. I’ve often said we should all be hedonists – in the tradition whereby one’s driving principle is to seek pleasure, both for oneself and for others, and taking one’s pleasure should not withdraw it from others, whether they are human, animal or vegetable.

But this complicates the question – the choices are in fact even more difficult than simply seeking ethically produced food – because sometimes the pleasure of various participants will be at odds. A clear example is when I’m offered a plate of pulled pork from unhappy pigs by a relative in the South – it’s too late to give that pig a happy life, but I can still be gracious to my host. Wherever possible, I avoid putting myself in such a position, but once in it, choices must be made, and mine will be to eat what I’m offered.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community.

9 thoughts on “Between ecotarianism and ethotarianism is conviviality.”

  1. Great blog post – you’ve perfectly summed up my position – a position that can at times seem difficult to justify to less flexible vegetarians. Thanks for an insightful read 🙂

  2. Great post. When one really starts to dig deep and make thoughtful food choices you begin to realise that the situation is extremely complex and a simple black or white stance might just be reactionary.
    I make similarly informed choices about my food but one that is right up there and often overlooked is the sensual pleasure eating it gives me. For every so called bad choice I might make is often accompanied by a release of endorphins, which I assume are beneficial to my health.
    The pleasure of eating is paramount to me. I dont buy into to what I believe is a certain perscribed medicalisation of our diet. Good this bad that etc. I feel we are collectively being made to feel guilt about our food choices of course I’m not talking about questionable animal treatment, gmo’s or worker exploitation here, just the types of food. There’s nothing wrong with eating chips, as long as you dont live off them.
    (I was shocked to hear AA Gill say today at the Sydney writers fest that he couldn’t give a shit if an animal he is about to eat had a good life or not. I know he has a penchant for histrionics but his massage was clear-he could not be bothered by it at all)
    You also address a common conundrum for people who are travlleing but feel like they are being compliant or hypocritical.
    I mean if all your choices are limited you still have to eat right?
    Also I think its bad manners to refuse the hospitality of ones host even if it means compromising some of the choices you live your life by.

  3. Thanks all.

    Steve – as usual, I totally agree with you on all counts. The sensual pleasures of eating are ruined by breaking food down into numerical units of the nutritional qualities, and the virtues of a primarily whole foods diet include not needing to discuss our meals that way. I’m stunned by what you heard AA Gill say – that dramatically lowers my esteem for him. It’s one thing to make choices every day on the merits of the situation, and entirely another to simply ‘not care’ about animal welfare.

  4. thanks for this.

    The compromises need to be made sometimes and i think can be made with an open mind and understanding of what is behind the compromise. It really isn’t possible to eat only in an ethical and eco-friendly way 100% of the time, not without being ‘that person’. Did you read Helen Razer on this recently? She’s a right PitA but sometimes gets it right – she told a story about someone opening her pantry and openly JUDGING her for this or that food choice. WTF?

    Anyway, I’m sure you’ll have a great time, eat wisely and well as much as you can, compromise for all manner of reasons when you need to and come home with excellent stories.

    Re Steve’s comment on AA GIll – I have a friend who recently made a similar comment about animals and happiness. She outright scorned anyone who even gave a shit about how an animal was raised. I admit it made me quietly wonder about her and question her view on the world.

    Be happy and sensual in your food choices and have a great trip!

  5. Hi Tammi, I am so pleased you wrote about this issue of compromise and the convivial aspect of sharing food. One of the reasons I will never become vegetarian, despite my undying respect for the ethical position, is the way strict vegetarianism puts distance between one person and another. The most morally impeccable vegos I know are also a bit isolated by it, in that there are many occasions they won’t join others to eat because it would involve having to eat stuff they can’t bring themselves to ethically. They’re great cooks and have people often to their house – so food shared with them is almost always done on their terms. I totally respect this (and suspect the isolation is perhaps, for them, not unwelcome) but have come to realise it’s the main reason I couldn’t choose that life for myself.

    Equally I agree about meat. At home we eat meat from one reliable source of ethically produced meat – but if I stuck only to that rule it would mean no eating at our local Thai restaurant and getting to know the couple who run it, would mean almost never eating with our families outside our house, or at any of the other cheap and cheerful culturally interesting restaurants I love.

    I am interested in the way many people who are beyond reproach in their defence of animals have absolutely no concern for the damage they do to their human relationships in refusing to accept what is offered at a shared table.

    However, I do think that wealthy, highly educated ‘gourmands’ who care nothing for the suffering of animals in providing their posh dinner are closing their minds more than most, in a way that is pretty indefensible. David Foster WAllace’s ‘Consider the Lobster’ is a wonderful piece of writing on this.

    Anyway – a big ramble, but thanks for the post.

    PS – AA Gill certainly could never use the defence of conviviality – his childish misanthropy was on highly polished show everywhere at the SWF last week. Sometimes highly entertaining, but quickly very tedious. He was really like a showoff three-year-old when I saw him.

  6. Tammi, you’ve summed me up completely! I feel and do EXACTLY what you say in this post. So I call myself a FLEXITARIAN and do my best with what I’m offered to eat. Thanks for the insightful words.

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