Food Ethics

January 10, 2010

My day job cranks up tomorrow. Classes begin at MSU. I’m a professor of food ethics, and people quite reasonably wonder what that is. As for the ethics part, I usually introduce myself at farm gatherings by explaining that people become philosophy professors because they really wanted to be a good old-fashioned fire and brimstone preacher when they were growing up. They aspired to the ministry because they wanted to sermonize, to be able to tell everybody else what they ought to be doing. But they just couldn’t accept the burden of being a moral example themselves, so they became philosophers instead.

As for the food part, food ethics has become kind of hip in recent years. It was pretty much unknown when my friend Ben Mepham published a book with that title in 1996. Before his retirement, Ben was a professor of nutrition at the University of Nottingham. He did quite a bit of work on controversies over the use of infant formula in developing countries, and also published on risks of recombinant bovine somatotropin, better known as bovine growth hormone. But that‘s a story for another time. I met Ben in 1992 when he invited me across the pond to speak at one of the first ever academic conferences on ethics and agriculture. His 1996 book was informative but not scintillating. It had essays on topics like nutrition, food safety, pesticides and genetic engineering, but most of those essays were written by scientists and they did not get beyond pretty technical issues.

Ben went on to play a fundamental role in founding the Food Ethics Council in the United Kingdom. That group, I think, deserves a fair amount of the credit for attaching meaning to the phrase ‘food ethics.’ They conducted studies on the accuracy of food labels, especially as they relate to the promotion of good causes such as fair trade, animal welfare or better health. The phrase has expanded to include concern about the environmental impact of food production and distribution as well as questions about the connection between diet and obesity. Less clearly ethical themes like ‘slow food’ have also been added. Nowadays the phrase food ethics really does come dripping off the lips of many people who want to tell us how we ought to eat (though in fairness, most of them are quite willing to stand as moral examples themselves—the expression ‘smug alert’ from South Park comes to mind).

So while lots of activists are pretty sure they know what food ethics is, those of us who are professors of it are actually rather confused. For example, we would tend to include questions about hunger, food security and their links to poverty. But we are painfully aware that there are real trade-offs and tensions between production and distribution systems that are beneficial to the poor and those that are preferred by middle class shoppers at the weekly farmer’s market. And speaking for myself, I can’t resolve those tensions in any simple or totally satisfactory way. It’s actually in the tensions and the attempts at resolution that the ethics part comes in for me, rather than in committing to the idea of doing good through my dietary choices.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one at it. The University of Florida philosopher Richard Haynes and I got the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society started over twenty years ago.  A European group followed in 1999. Princeton did a major conference a few years back, (I wasn’t invited). And other philosophers are blogging about it, too. Indeed, even the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations has recognized the importance of food ethics. When people ask me why I took my job at Michigan State in 2003 despite being perfectly happy teaching at Purdue, I tell them that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped MSU create an endowed chair in agriculture and food ethics, and I couldn’t stand the thought of  any of my friends having it.

Now I hasten to add that I am all for the new food movements like local, slow and organic. I know what a food-mile is. And I am blogging for a community supported agriculture group, after all! I’m just saying that food ethics tend to be more complicated than many of the activists who use that term seem to think that it is. So I hope readers can put up with us philosophers picking a few nits about food ethics. More will come.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University