What Is Ethical Food?
August 1, 2013

What Is Ethical Food?

The term ‘ethical food’ can mean different things to different people depending on personal beliefs. While beef from a local organic farm might count as ethical food to a conscientious meat eater, it likely wouldn’t for a vegetarian. Despite these differences, however, a broad consensus has formed around a few core principles, and many people seem to agree that ethical food is both sustainable and local or Fair Trade certified.

There has definitely been a shift in public preferences toward sustainable food in recent years. Many people consider food that has been produced in a way that minimally impacts the environment to be ethical food. Minimizing impact typically includes such factors as reducing waste associated with production, conserving water, recycling, composting, and using biodegradable materials.

Keeping track of all those factors can be a lot to ask of the typical consumer, and in the end many find themselves asking whether it actually makes a significant impact in the end, or if it isn’t perhaps just the latest marketing gimmick used to hike up prices. Yet a quick trip to any grocery store, even Walmart, will show just how prevalent organic food has become these days – and how much more expensive. Many people have derided the label ‘organic’ as simply an excuse to charge a higher price. If that’s true, then is eating at a sustainable restaurant just the latest iteration of the organic label both profiting from being included under the umbrella of ethical food?

In the United Kingdom, the Sustainable Restaurant Association rates establishments “against a wide range of criteria covering 14 areas of sustainability,” according to their official website. In the US, organizations like the Green Restaurant Association work with establishments to put together a sustainable menu, but consumers are largely left to trust what restaurants tell them, especially if they live outside cities like New York or Chicago.

Many people also consider the Fair Trade system to be a hallmark of ethical food. The system essentially creates a price floor for growers so they won’t be financially devastated if the price of their crop drops dramatically. The Fair Trade program functions with the goal of establishing higher wages, better working conditions, and incentives for sustainable farming.

However, more and more small growers are encountering barriers between themselves and the seemingly benevolent system. The inspections and certifications that are needed to earn the Fair Trade logo are expensive, forcing the Fair Trade organization to favor an increasingly exclusive circle of larger growers. Gawain Kripke, Director of Policy and Research at Oxfam America, stated a few years back that broad international trade reforms would probably benefit farmers in developing countries far more than the Fair Trade system is able to do.

The ideas surrounding the cultivation and consumption of ethical foods seem often to revolve around attacking what is commonly referred to as ‘Big Agriculture,’ or simply ‘Big Ag,’ as much as it does around supporting small, sustainable farmers. An increasing number of organizations have cropped up to service this growing anti-Big Ag movement, however, the effectiveness of these efforts remains to be seen.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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Brett Smith is a freelance journalist from Buffalo, NY. When not writing about science, medicine or other newsworthy topics, he enjoys Upstate New York by camping and hiking in the summers and snowboarding in the winters. Like most Buffalonians, he eats chicken wings year round.

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