In the European Union, we are more or less used to having a vast variety of foods readily available to us. Food is transported to our stores from all around the globe and we have plenty to choose from. Even though we generally acknowledge that the most sustainable way to eat is to eat locally-grown food, and that the most ethical diet is the one that does the least harm to the smallest number of living creatures we, as a society, seldom live up to this knowledge.

We are quick to forget that, when we grab a bite in a restaurant or shop or food in a supermarket, we as buyers become a part of multiple large industries that span the globe. Where and what we buy and eat has political and social implications and we still have personal responsibility for our choices, although we, as individual consumers, are indeed just a very small part of those industries.

Across the field of general food production there is a vast ocean of very profound ethical, social and political problems churning, one that we, not just as individuals, but as a society, don’t like to think about – at least not to the point where we would change our behaviours.

This article is not meant to address all of these issues in depth – it’s aim is to barely touch upon the range of ethical and political problems associated with food production and, thus, to illustrate the main things we, as consumers, should bear in mind every time we order dinner or go shopping for food. 

This vast number of problems can be divided into three groups: Problems affecting our fellow human beings, problems affecting non-human conscious beings and problems that affect ecosystems across the globe, although most of those problems intersect. Another important point is that there are foods that could be made ethically and sustainably but are not, and also those that can never be made ethically (ones which we, in fact, should not even be calling ‘foods’). The line between both of those groups is the nature of the source. If a product is not plant-based, it cannot be made ethically and always has a bigger ecological cost, too. 

If we put the question of animal-derived products aside for a bit, let us ask what is ethically most problematic about plant-based products? Two of the interconnected, undoubtedly profound problems are slavery and child labour. Child labour in producing plant-based foods is still used in harvesting bananas, other (usually, but not necessarily, so-called ‘exotic’) fruits, sugar and cocoa; less than thirty percent of children are paid for the job they’re doing. Especially in the case of cocoa, thousands of children and young men are still abducted and forced to work as slaves every year. Children and adults alike working on the banana plantations are also often exposed to dangerous agrochemicals (mostly pesticides) and are prone to injuries at their workplace. Workers on banana plantations are often paid unfair wages. Indentured servitude-like working conditions are recently being mentioned in regard to tomato production in the EU, but those practices are present around the globe. It is symptomatic of the fact that our society isn’t more concerned with the people who are working for our food in general, no matter where are they from. 

Another big problem involving plant-based products is unsustainable production. The product that we hear most about is palm oil, the production of which is contributing to the destruction of rain forests (mostly on the island of Borneo in Indonesia), since we’re cutting it down to make room for palms and killing numerous creatures in the process. In the last sixteen years, more than one-hundred-thousand orangutans have been killed and, along with them, numerous non-human animals from other species. 

One of the biggest problems, from the ecological standpoint, are crops that we’re growing as food for livestock. Thirty-three percent of croplands are used for livestock feed production (agriculture as a whole uses about fifty percent of all habitable land), which means very poor distribution of resources. We could use this land to feed people, but we don’t and, at the same time, we’re destroying natural habitats, including mass destruction of rain forests. Most importantly, this kills hundreds of thousands of animals living there. At the same time, fifty to seventy percent of readily-available fresh water is used to irrigate crops for livestock. 

Another big issue is transport, though this is not specific to plant-based foods. Enormous amounts of fruits and nuts are transported into the EU every day by ships and this poses a serious ocean pollution problem. 

Food politics is a rising theme and it’s of crucial importance that we do address the aforementioned problems like child labour, slavery, poor working conditions and environmental issues. But the problem is that those debates are, as it seems, again in the service of carnism: The more we talk about food politics, the more we talk about plant-based foods that are not made ethically and/or sustainably. But they could be. We could have ethically-grown tomatoes, bananas and cocoa. There’s a problem with the type of production, not in the product itself. At the same time, there is so much more suffering and so many more adverse effects on the environment in industries that are making animal-derived products. Yet, somehow those issues are still widely under-addressed and not taken seriously. That is by no means to say that the problems in specific plant-based food industries are not to be taken with the same urgency, but many of those problems are also present in the animal-based food industries that, at the same time, can never be ethical, no matter the type of production, because they are grounded in exploitation and the killing of billions of conscious beings.

So, plant-based foods that are not produced ethically are, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg of unethical practices that are prominent daily in the global food production that fills our supermarkets. With animal-derived products we still have a devastating problem of child labour; ’The types of child labour in the livestock sector identified in the literature are work activities in poultry, animal traction, animal slaughter and work related to animal husbandry, but mainly general animal care and herding’, an FAO study has found. Worker abuse is also rampant: Slaughterhouse workers, for example, have higher rates of depression, alcohol abuse, PTSD, PITS and suicide. Slaughterhouse workers are put in the position of having to kill thousands of animals, day after day, and this is a form of psychological violence we’re subjecting members of our society to. Another problem there is that this line of work brings along a social stigma and isolation. It’s a job that is not well-respected in our societies and workers in slaughterhouses can suffer from social exclusion, too. 

On the other hand, fishing is among the most dangerous jobs in the world. According to some research,100 out of every 100,000 fisherman and fisherwoman will die in a year, making the work in the fishing sector the most dangerous of all. One of the biggest issues, when talking about impact on fellow human beings by animal agriculture, is also the unfair distribution of agricultural land. As it happens, 82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals who are then eaten by Western countries, The Vegan Society states, so animal agriculture is, in fact, a big contributor to world hunger. 

 

The livestock industry as a whole also has devastating environmental effects. It produces up to thirteen percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is the largest source of water pollutants, generates almost two-thirds of all ammonia, contributing to acid rain and the acidification of ecosystems, is responsible for up to ninety-one percent of Amazon rainforest destruction, is responsible for the desertification of land (thirty percent of land is turned into deserts and animal agriculture is the main culprit for that) and is producing vast quantities of nitrogen that is causing death zones in oceans. Fishing is the reason that thirty-to-sixty percent of all of the fish populations are now fully exploited; fishing causes massive extinction among marine species and brings disaster to marine ecosystems, more than pollution or global warming, as we can read on the webpage World Day for The End of Fishing.

But the biggest issue here is the fact that animal agriculture enslaves and kills 65 billion land animals and that fishing kills trillions of marine animals every year. Products that are enslaving beings that are conscientious and can suffer, that are grounded on exploition and killing for the profit, can never ever be ethical, no matter the conditions or ways of production. It can never ever be ethical to make our fellow human beings kill those creatures, our fellow Earthlings, for what many consider to be no good reason (yes, a plant-based diet is healthy for all stages of our lives) and then isolate them for doing so. 

We can see food ethics as a point of entry for addressing wider issues still present in different industries and sectors of modern societies. Slavery, child labour, worker exploitation, environmental degradation and pollution and animal exploitation are still widely present in many industries and we, as consumers and as societies as a whole, will have to be prepared to make some serious changes, if we want to live without taking advantage of fellow human beings, non-human beings or at the expense of the environment.

So, what can you do to about those issues? You can choose local, plant-based foods, generally buy fewer products (as little as possible) and only from known sources, products that are sustainable and ethical. And most importantly: You should (publicly) speak about these issues. Act politically, if that’s an option for you. Change must come on a personal, but also on a societal, level.