Those who know me personally know how I endlessly bang on about the importance of eating ethically, which is normally an incoherent long-winded ramble that after a while makes the captive audience members’ eyes roll back into their skull. Not this again ¬– I can hear themselves thinking – when will he shut up and let us be free.
So I thought it would be best to write in a coherent fashion why it is that I do what it is that I do. For myself, ethical consumption is far from superficial fads like the never ending wave of super foods, or the organic train which everybody is jumping on board these days. Eating ethically is an educated & practical philosophy of love – for local farmers & local retailers; for my body, mind, & spirit; and for the beautiful planet that we inhabit. And I believe a good cause should entirely speak for itself, without the need for a preacher incessantly preaching – so for those who aren’t too familiar with the ethical eating lifestyle, I hope that this article will shed some light on the subject (and perhaps even change a few peoples consumption habits too).
There exists many opinions and thus misconceptions about what is considered to be ethical consumption, and its necessary to draw some lines in the sand for a more clear cut definition of what is and isn’t. For example, is shopping locally more ethical than buying organic? Do vegetarians/vegans, have a moral high ground to stand upon? Let us clarify these notions just a little.
Oh, Veganism – such a juicy/extremely touchy subject. What a great place for us to begin! For many, the heart of veganism is a very kind, empathic belief that animals should not be slaughtered for human consumption. At all Vegans heart is ethics; it has been very successful in exposing many of the horrors of industrial animal agricultural practices, as an example. For those who haven’t been exposed to any pro-vegan media before, Earthlings (2005) is an evocative (and extremely graphic) documentary that would make any meat-eater reconsider their meat-eating. It’s well worth a watch – but tread with caution friends, as it isn’t a flick for the faint hearted. You have been warned.
I personally owe veganism a huge thank you as it was a large catalyst in my quest for the search for ethical food. After 6 months of strict veganism my health started to deteriorate quite severely in a number of different ways (even with careful dietary planning & supplementing), and it got to a point where I truly had no choice but to finally give up the gag. So I wondered to myself – is it at all possible to consume animal products with a crystal clear conscience?
Or let me rephrase that question entirely to demonstrate a point: is buying non-animal products from large-agribusiness retailers, like produce markets or Coles & Woolies, somehow less ethical than purchasing meat or dairy from small scale producers? Watch the video below for a quick insight into the workings of Australia’s ‘big friendly giants.’
The vegan movement reminds us all that at the heart of climate change is animal agriculture (check out this link from the Cowspiracy documentary website, dropping them #facts (& decent documentary to chow-down, might I add)) – yet laying sole blame in animal agriculture is missing the point. Whilst animal agriculture contributes an enormous amount of greenhouse emissions, industrial agriculture couldn’t have be designed worse – and whether it’s animal or vegetable production the entire industry is based on sales targets, which inherently ignores the impacts that industry has on climate or farmers!
Agriculture is flawed as it dissects nature in its attempt to produce yields solely for human benefit. This is the crux of the problem: reductionism. Nature cannot be easily simplified, and to do so is to work against nature when we should be working with her – monocropping is a perfect example of this. Planting one species for endless acres is detrimental for the environment for numerous reasons – it obliterates soil life (and soil life equals healthy plants, which equals healthy people, as the saying goes); it requires heavy machinery (that requires fuel) for harvesting that compacts the soil which creates conditions for soil erosion; pests & diseases will god-damn thrive (!) in a monocrop field unless extensive synthetic chemicals are applied; so, it also creates chemical dependency, which poisons our precious pollinators and the excess chemicals runoff to pollute the water table. The list truly goes on.
The Great Dust Bowl of the 1930’s in America was caused by the common agricultural soil-slaughtering technique, deep tilling (turning of the soil). After little rain and heavy winds, Americas most fertile topsoil blew away and in the storms wake, all that was left was desert. A single inch of Topsoil could take 500+ years to rebuild, and thanks to our mate mindless agriculture, the southern US Plains will never be farmed again.
Removing animal agriculture still leaves us with the gigantic headache that is agriculture. A far better solution would be to redesign food systems entirely. Disciplines like Agroforestry, Permaculture & Holistic Management provide excellent design solutions (both economic & ecological) for transitioning from the current model of large monocropping to sustainable small scale farming. If you’re interested in sustainable methods of farming & designing – check out a Permaculture Design Course somewhere near you.
Of course it isn’t an easy feat to achieve redesigning the entire food system, granted. It would take decades to make the transition to an ethical sustainable farming model – but the entire global community will be facing great economic/ecological challenges in the upcoming decades, and frankly there isn’t much of a choice but to revamp the entire system. It’s either that or…extinction, perhaps?
Now to peddle back a bit here before I move on: Organic foods. The term ‘organic’ is just as loaded as veganism is and it bothers me endlessly. Major supermarkets are now stocking extensive organic produce – which from a health perspective is a positive thing (I guess. Rolls eyes.) though it’s missing the point, again. Organic simply means no application of synthetic chemicals. That’s it. It doesn’t mean it’s good for the planet. It certainly doesn’t imply that the produce is ethical or natural. Organic produce could very well be broad-scale monocropping, harvested with heavy petrol guzzling tractors – which is about as far away from sustainable as straight up free pouring oil directly onto precious coral reefs.
What about organic imports vs non-organic local produce? I may decide to purchase organic cacao from a fair-trade farm in South America – but the food mileage (the distance the food has travelled) and the embodied energy (means taking into account all aspects of production & transport of a product) in the cacao would be through the darn roof, son! Is it better than to purchase food that isn’t organic yet has travelled only a short distance, or buy packaged imported produce that jetted half way across the world?
To sum it all up, being vegan or eating strictly organic isn’t inherently ethical as ethics themselves are quite complex. It may be a step in the right direction but it is quite the cheeky little fallacy to assume that because you don’t consume meat or GMO’s (or whatever) that somehow your consumption habits are more positive than others. We have to take a holistic look at our consumption of food & produce – but that also includes where our fuel & electricity is sourced, or where/how our clothes are made to take it a step further. One thing here is clear though, if you support commercial farming through your shopping habits, you are directly supporting the degradation of the environment. And a degraded environment (and boy is it degrading!) isn’t exactly fantastic news for the animals inhabiting our mother earth.
Alright, back to supermarkets. Remember that video from a couple o’paragraphs ago? Good. Retail giants in Australia have grown to be able to force farmers into paying less than what it costs them to produce food they grow. But how is it possible for farmers to sell food for the same price or less than it costs to produce? A great question to ask, dear reader! – & the answer is government subsidies and humongous bank loans. According to the UN, large agribusinesses in Europe receive 80% of subsidies & 90% of research grants – whereas 70% of the world is fed from small scale farming! (Ahmed, 2014). David Holmgren (2002) – co-creator of the concept Permaculture – writes, ‘As prices fall, even farmers who follow the recipe perfectly and get high yields of good quality receive barely enough to cover costs.’ (p. 217). The cherry on the cake folks, is that ‘Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness.’ (Ahmed, 2014)
To backtrack just a little on myself – in Australia, farmers are only subsidised around 3% (Keogh, 2015). It differs from place to place and there is a lot of conflicting data on this subject. The point here is still valid, nevertheless: whilst small scale farming feeds most of the world the industry unfairly favours the big-players.
As for the issue of farmer debt – as Tolzek (2015) writes ‘Drought may be badly affecting parts of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, but debt sticks around for longer and is arguably a bigger threat to farming families.’
It’s worth noting that agricultural workers in Australia commit suicide at a rate 1.6 times the average of employed people throughout the nation. In Queensland the rate is about double in comparison to the rest of Oz; it’s higher for people under 34 and the suicide rate isn’t in decline either. Reasons given for the high rate of suicides amongst agricultural workers are ‘occupational issues related to the farming industry, economic and financial problems, and stressors related to changing climatic conditions’ (ABC News, 2014).
So whilst our food is relatively affordable, the cost of cheap food turns out to be a fair bit. And speaking of cheap food, why is it that organic food is perceived to be more expensive than non-organic?
It’s a strange presumption society makes by thinking local organic produce is dearer than conventionally farmed food. If you live in Melbourne it ain’t a valid excuse. Retailers like Terra Madre, Friends of the Earth, or CERES sell in bulk and are often cheaper than supermarkets. Terra Madre sells organic Yogurt 1kg for $4! (I wasn’t bribed into penning that plug but for with prices so low – they inadvertedly did!) I’ve bought end of the day produce from CERES for pennies & cents. And these outlets supply seasonal produce which is super important – consuming food that is in season is often cheaper and is far more natural (and thus ethical).
The price of local organic food would actually drop if governments & industry got behind the cause. If economic incentives shifted from conventional to organic farming it would increase the ability for farmers to meet consumer demand – as currently demand outweighs supply (Langley, 2014). And if research grants were aimed at developing alternative sustainable models of farming as opposed to continuing to fund research for ridiculous unsustainable hi-tech solutions, organic food prices again, would decrease.
All the more reason to support local organic food.
In fact, your dollars probably won’t be missed in the slightest by the big friendly giants. Coles isn’t going to go out of business if they don’t receive your weekly hundred bucks. But spending a $100 at a farmers market on some local goodies might be the difference between a small producer being able to pay the rent on time or not. Your dollar counts more than you realise – it can make a world of difference when in the hands of those who need it.
And before we call a wrap, there is that whole thing of health & organic produce that we haven’t delved into. That point alone could be a bloody thesis paper in itself, so I’d just like to briefly discuss a small part from one of the great nutrition bibles Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (please, read this book. Please) – for your health!
Fallon informs us that unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal physiological function of the body. Natural organic eggs from hens fed on grass and insects have an equal balance of the fats Omega-3 & -6 at a ratio to 1:1 – which is beneficial. Yet commercial farmed factory eggs can have up to nineteen times the amount of omega-6’s to -3’s. She writes that an excess of omega-6’s can lead to ‘inflammation, high blood pressure, irritation of the digestive tract, depressed immune function, sterility, cell proliferation, cancer and weight gain’ (Fallon, Enig, Murray & Dearth, 2001).
Organic food is typically richer in nutrient content & more importantly is free from toxic residues, Sally also writes. Given that what we eat determines our health, and Australians diets are typically poor, it is no wonder that heart disease, cancer, degenerative diseases & mental illness (to keep the list short) are commonplace these days when ‘these diseases were also extremely rare only a generation or two ago’ (Fallon, Enig, Murray & Dearth, 2001 p. 1). The best form of medicine is in the food we feed ourselves, so we should be feeding ourselves clean healthy produce for our own health’s sake– as Hippocrates famously wrote ‘Let food by thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.’
I could keep rambling for forever on this topic. It’s important to me. But I don’t always live out my ethics and it ain’t worth belittling yourself over breaking the food regime whenever that occurs. Though I stick to it where circumstances allow it, because –
I don’t want to contribute to exploitative agricultural practices that damage our precious earth.
I don’t want to contribute to companies that are completely corrupt – companies that in turn, are in part responsible for the deteriorating un-wellness of our farmers.
I don’t want to be a mindless consumer.
I do want to contribute and support local farmers – the people who work against all odds, who do not earn a fortune off their labour, but do it for the love of growing food.
I do want to be healthy and happy and vibrant and full of life all the time! And
I do want to be a positive force in this world.
Eating ethically is so much more than hashtags or jumping on the latest trend-mobile headed to over-priced consumerville. It’s a big fat middle finger to the unethical corporate giants that value wealth over humanity & nature & common sense.
But above all, it’s showing that I really do give a damn about this incredible planet we live on – & each and every one of its beautiful (and delicious!) inhabitants.
Joshua Muir is a Certified Permaculture Designer & Teacher from Australia, globetrotting the world designing urban environments under his primary project, HIVE Co-Operative. He first studied permaculture at CERES Community Farm in Melbourne, completing a second PDC and started construction of a garden forest at Odanadi Orphanage in India – and recently was a teacher at Rak Tamachat Farm in Central Thailand.
Joshua’s goal is to design & create a society that is replicable by anybody in any climate with little finance; to bring theoretical permaculture into manifestation through harmonizing nature with functional design – to bring balance back into cities and settlements and ultimately to build a society based on love.
ABC News,. (2014). Fact check: Does a farmer die by suicide every four days in Australia? Retrieved 1 December 2015, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-10-16/farmer-suicide-rates-bob-katter-fact-check/5805450
Ahmed, N. (2014). UN: Only Small Farmers and Agroecology Can Feed the World. The Permaculture Research Institute. Retrieved 30 November 2015, from http://permaculturenews.org/2014/09/26/un-small-farmers-agroecology-can-feed-world/
Fallon, S., Enig, M., Murray, K., & Dearth, M. (2001). Nourishing traditions (2nd ed., p. 11). Brandywine, MD: NewTrends Pub.
Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture. Hepburn, Vic.: Holmgren Design Services.
Keogh, M. (2015). Australia still at the bottom when it comes to farm subsidies.. Farminstitute.org.au. Retrieved 1 December 2015, from http://www.farminstitute.org.au/ag-forum/australia_still_at_the_bottom_when_it_comes_to_farm_subsidies
Langley, S. (2014). Australia’s appetite for organic foods at record levels | Australian Food News. Ausfoodnews.com.au. Retrieved 1 December 2015, from http://ausfoodnews.com.au/2014/12/10/australias-appetite-for-organic-foods-at-record-levels.html
Tlozek, E. (2015). Farmers say debt a bigger threat than drought. ABC News. Retrieved 1 December 2015, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-01/farmers-say-debt-a-bigger-threat-than-drought/6740282