An ethical approach to food

Our food system is in crisis. Private labels are ruining Australian farmers. Choose free-range pork and poultry. Eat less meat. Stop eating meat. Are any fish still sustainable to eat? Ban GMOs. Labelling is the problem. We need CCTV in abattoirs. Misleading certification schemes make it impossible to trust free range. Eat slow, whole foods. Shop at farmers’ markets. Only eat organic. Ban live export! Save live export! Don’t eat sugar. ColeWorths is the real problem…


But how do we solve them?

Let’s step back for a moment from immediate and pressing concerns around seasonal, local, organic, safe, fair, humane food, and consider the confusing array within an ethical framework, such as one that the fabulous Cristy Clark has called ‘ecotarian‘. All of our concerns about the industrial food system can be better understood (and so addressed) if we are led by a coherent ethical approach, rather than atomised ‘problems’.

According to Socrates, people will do what is good if they know what is right, and therefore be happy. But how can we know if we can’t see the means of production of our food (and myriad other items we consume, even if not corporally)?

If we ask ourselves ‘is this organic?’ we are wondering whether there are synthetic, artificial inputs in the form of harmful pesticides or fertilisers, but we haven’t asked ‘how far did it travel?’ or ‘how much were the workers paid?’ We may in fact also be worried about food miles, workers’ conditions, and the treatment of animals, but ‘is this organic?’ didn’t open up the space for those other concerns. The same is true of ‘is this free range?’ or ‘is this GMO?’ and many other such questions about the history of our food before it gets to our plate.

But when we ask ‘was this produced ethically?’ we are required to think about ‘is this right?’ and ‘is it good to eat this?’, which requires consideration of the environmental, social, cultural, political, economic, and physical impacts of our choices. We must consider the entire ecology of the choice – and I include human welfare in my definition of ecology here.

If we take an ethical approach, and in particular the hedonist ethic I have spent some years trying to understand and follow, then a narrow focus on food miles, organics, or heritage breeds is too limiting. These are the cornerstones, the seeds if you will, that make for a fecund garden of ideas to nourish a healthy world. But on their own, each one is but a luscious zucchini, a wayward tomatillo, a cheeky piglet.

An overarching, well-articulated ethic is to local potatoes like permaculture is to veganism. We need systems thinking – what are all the constituent parts? Who are the key players in the system – the seeds, the nurturers of the seeds, the carers of the seedlings, the micro-organic activity of the soil in which the seeds grow, the people who want to eat the zucchinis and all of the potential players in the web of those who will see that the produce makes it from paddock to plate.

Choosing to eat organic, local, seasonal, free-range, fair-trade or vegan diets are all legitimate and important parts of changing our food system, but on their own, they don’t address systemic problems.

But the problem with following an ethic in today’s world is that the supply chain – that long set of links that goes from the production and harvesting of food through to the processing, transport and sales – has grown so long and obscured that you can find yourself eating horsemeat when you ordered beef.

Join me over the next few months as I explore how to demystify the supply chain and participate in transforming our food systems, from production right through to consumption.

And welcome my new title as I re-launch this long-running blog as Tammi Jonas: Food Ethics today – it’s not just me tasting terroir, it’s all of us.

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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.

15 thoughts on “An ethical approach to food”

  1. Very much looking forward to reading your breakdown of the supply chains. I hope to add to the no doubt lively and engaging discussion.

  2. Great post Tammi, as per usual. A clarion call for the now.
    I take your point about the supply chain however I’d add that the positives of such a chain is that you CAN trace the food back to its source.
    Whether this is a result for a concern of the public or the fear of litigation from the supplier/producer is undecided however with this model the source of product is very easy to unravel-esp in this country. Just ask any producer which supplies the big duopoly and they’ll confirm all the regulatory hoops they have to jump through to comply at their own cost.
    The negatives are that as it is so highly mechanized to effectively distribute food as quickly as possible, that it makes it difficult to recall foods as they have already been consumed-as in the horse meat scandal and many botulism outbreaks with burger meat in the US.
    Distribution is a necessary evil, an unpalatable fact for many small scale producers and one which often hamstrings them from reaching the mainstream consumer

  3. Thanks, Steve. 🙂

    What you describe is exactly what we should both be grateful for in terms of food safety especially, but also tear our hair out over as the information is simply not made available to consumers in most cases. As a producer, I know that my pork can be traced back to us in the event of a disease outbreak due to how many times our ID is applied, but as a consumer, I know that you will typically never know where the vast majority of the meat (and other produce) you see in supermarkets is grown. That’s some of what I’ll be writing about soon – that the information exists, but is not passed on efficiently if at all.

    And yes, distribution is most definitely the weak link in regional food systems especially. But a lot of us are working on that!

  4. A good start at articulating the complexity. Add also that only some of us are lucky enough to be faced with these dilemmas. A large number of people in Australia do not have enough to eat. This is not a sexy topic and many Australians just have no idea of the extent of poverty.
    Some of us have the choices you mentioned but a low income, mental illness, living in an area with little public transport and only a Coles or Woolies does not give one any choice.
    In fact some of these choices are only possible in trendy, inner city suburbs of major cities.

    Local government and State planning or lack of further hampers the choices that can be made.
    As this is a hobby horse of mine I will stop here. look forward to next instalment

    Are you aware of Sydney Food Fairness Alliance


  5. Thanks for dropping in and raising the issue of hunger in Australia, @Bmpermie. I’m always conscious of choice and how much or little any of us have, but also of how choice gets used as an excuse by the duopoly or those less invested in ethical food… but I totally accept that there is a shamefully large population of those without sufficient access to food, let alone ethically-produced food, and admire the many organisations working to address this. I am aware of the fantastic work of the SFFA, as well as the AFSA and others, and in fact will be at this Friday’s EcoCities Food Forum where issues of access will be discussed in addition to the plethora of other ethical concerns.

    You’ve prompted me though to add to my list of posts to research one on access and equity specifically. I know that Australia’s food deserts and proportion of the population in poverty are nowhere near as significant as the US’s, however, for anyone to go hungry is one too many. Thank you!

  6. What a great step Tammi and so very timely. It’s a big subject and one that many have a stake in without necessarily taking into account all the other aspects. There’s a lot of research involved in the issue of food production and it can be difficult to pull it all together – I’m glad that you are going to give it a go on our behalf. I look forward to it.

  7. yes its time to be thinking big picture ethics – and of course that goes beyond food but reaches into all pockets of consumption: housing, clothing, transportation, entertainment…. lets get ethical! (I’m looking forward to reading your food installments)

  8. Great to see all the issues so succinctly listed in one post. And Bravo you for taking it on. As a fellow producer, I too have concerns about taking this out to the whole community and lifting the level of societies health through the food they eat. I’ll be following with much interest.

  9. I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this really complex set of issues.
    I’m new to your blog, but have enjoyed poking through old posts.

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