Culinary Modernism: A Defence of Processed Foods

This excellent article by Rachel Laudan is an argument in favour of culinary modernism, and against Luddism. It is, in effect, a defence of processed foods. Laudan is an historian, by the way, as well as a foodie. The article is a terrific read.

“A Plea for Culinary Modernism”

The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

Posted in ethics

Synthetic Meat Gets Cheap(er)

Check out: Cost of lab-grown burger patty drops from $325,000 to $11.36. As this blog entry from Science Alert reminds us, the notion of synthetic meat made the news in a big way back in 2013. (See my: Ethics of the World’s First Synthetic Burger.) Today, advances in the technology mean that the price (or rather, the cost of producing, which is not quite the same thing) a pound of synthetic beef has dropped dramatically.

Posted in ethics

Labour in the Food Industry

Check out this piece by Stephen Lurie, writing for Vox: You care about where your food comes from. Shouldn’t you care about who grew and picked it?

Lurie is arguing that the food you consume embodies a certain set of values, in particular values related to how the workers who harvested and processed that food are treated. You implicitly endorse those values when you purchase and consume. The values, you might say, are baked right in. So you get to choose what values to endorse by the choices you make. So far, Lurie’s is a familiar theme: conscious consumerism.

But, Lurie notes, the ability to engage in conscious consumerism is limited. For example, “While fair-trade products attempt to eradicate poverty abroad, consumers don’t have much of a choice to support a living wage in this country.” Labour, and in particular wages, amounts to the most under-attended-to ethical issue related to food today.

Posted in agriculture, choice, ethics, fairtrade, labour

Abusing Chickens on a Massive Scale

perdue_chickensYou won’t like it, but you should read Abusing Chickens We Eat, by Nicholas Kristof for the New York Times. It’s the story of the conditions under which chickens are raised (at one farm in North Carolina) for the massive chicken processing company Perdue. The picture it paints is not pretty. Nor is the video accompanying it. “Most shocking is that the bellies of nearly all the chickens have lost their feathers and are raw, angry, red flesh. The entire underside of almost every chicken is a huge, continuous bedsore.”

These chickens are emblematic of the the internally-inconsistent views most of us have with regard to animal welfare. As Kristof puts it: “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.”

Posted in ethics

Starbucks, Monsanto, and the Right to Know What’s in My Latté

latteA piece I published over at my other blog (the Business Ethics Blog) has been earning me some push-back, to put it mildly, from fans of GMO labelling. The piece I wrote is called “Why Neil Young is wrong about genetically modified food labelling”. It’s a response to an open letter that Canadian folk-rock singer Neil Young recently sent to Starbucks, complaining about the company’s participation in a lawsuit aimed at getting Vermont to repeal its new labelling requirement for genetically modified foods.

I argued (as I have before here here and here and here) that requiring such labelling is a bad idea.

It’s worth noting, along the way, that the name “Monsanto” is part of the larger story, here, because that company is also part of the lawsuit. But even whispering that name sends some people off the deep end. (I’ve criticized the company myself, which is something that didn’t stop people from assuming that my critique of Neil Young meant that I’m in Monsanto’s back pocket.)

So it is perhaps not surprising that a few kind and generous (ha ha!) people on Twitter have not liked my conclusion. And rather than grapple with the argument I provided, or with the issues more generally, many decided to swear at me, to attack my character, and to impugn my motives. All of this without knowing me, and apparently without knowing anything about who I work for.

For the record, I’m an ethics professor at a publicly-funded university. I get zero dollars, in any form, from Starbucks or Monsanto or big biotech or big agriculture. The arguments I present constitute my best attempts at sorting out hard problems. If you don’t like my conclusions, then the right thing to do is to figure out where the argument leading to those conclusions went wrong. As I always tell my students, the greatest favour you could do for me is to show me errors if I have made some. I mean this quite seriously: when I first started working on the question of the ethics of GMO labelling, and started working through the issues, I actually expected to reach a more anti-GMO conclusion. My biases were in that direction. I expected I would end up arguing in favour of labelling. But a careful examination of the relevant facts, along with the relevant moral principles, pointed me in the other direction. Mandatory labelling is misguided, and in the absence of mandatory labelling, food companies are not ethically obligated to engage in labelling on a voluntary basis.

The issue of GMO labelling is regrettably politicized, and this means that people often aren’t open to hearing reasoned arguments. That’s a shame. The issue is too important to decide based on prejudice, ignorance, and team spirit.

Posted in ethics

Ethics of the World’s First Synthetic Burger

So, the world’s first synthetic burger has been cultured, minced, fried and consumed. (Mark Post, the scientist who conceived of and grew the synthetic burger, had announced a year and a half ago his near-term intention to produce and test a lab-grown burger. Apparently he’s a man of his word.)

The verdict of the taste test? Roughly: ‘needs seasoning, but not bad.’

What about the ethics?

To begin, it’s important not to be distracted by the notion being bandied about that lab-grown meat is going to feed the world. That’s not going to happen any time soon. The energy and other inputs for the process that results in synthetic meat is still liable to be very significant. So this process is not liable to result in a cheap new source of calories; but it may well result in a cheap(er) new source of meat, and that is going to be important, especially if we are to satisfy the growing demand for meat products in developing nations such as China. I suspect that if (or when) synthetic meat becomes important here in the West, it will be as an ingredient in frozen egg-rolls or as an additive in taco beef, and so on. It’s probably best to think of this new product making its primary inroads “at the margin,” as economists put it. Don’t expect to see a pound of this stuff sold at your local butcher any day soon.

The really big benefits, ethically, have to do with animal welfare and environmental impact. Peter Singer, the philosopher most directly responsible for the growth of the animal welfare / animal liberation movement, has referred to Post’s new dish as “the world’s first cruelty-free burger.” Modern animal agriculture is widely recognized as resulting in an enormous amount of animal suffering. Yes, yes, boutique shoppers do have access to meat from animals that have been grass fed, otherwise coddled, and then humanely slaughtered, but that’s not how most of the world’s meat is produced — not by a long shot. And animal agriculture is increasingly recognized as environmentally dreadful. Pig farms produce enormous quantities of untreated manure; beef feedlots produce vast amounts of methane. And so on. But the fundamental environmental problem with animal agriculture comes down to physics: animals are a relatively inefficient way to transform vegetable calories (mostly) into calories of meat product. The energy wastage is enormous. Lab-grown meat, if it can be scaled up and produced with the same ruthless efficiency that typifies other factory-made foods, promises to solve that problem.

(Note: the $330,000 price tag attached to this burger is a red herring. That reflects a lot of R&D costs, and bears no relevance whatsoever to the cost of the lab-grown meat we could be consuming a decade from now. Compare: the fact that a new heart drug cost $800 million to develop means that the “first pill” can be said to cost that much, but that doesn’t mean that the mass-produced pills to follow will be expensive at all.)

Are there ethical objections to lab-grown meat? A few possible ones come to mind, though I don’t think any of them is compelling.

Let’s start with safety. Will lab-grown meat be safe? Well, that remains to be seen, I suppose. But we have the technology to test new products for safety. We can test for the relevant pathogens, and so on. And there’s no particular reason to expect that lab grown-meat won’t be just as safe (or unsafe!) as meat grown other ways.

Some will worry about the amount of animal product inputs that will be required to make lab-grown meat. Some news sources are reporting that Post cultured his meat in fetal bovine serum, which comes from the blood of calf fetuses. This raises the spectre of millions of pounds of lab-grown meat being cultured in millions of gallons of fetal bovine serum, requiring the slaughter of untold millions of calves. But this worry shouldn’t be exaggerated: fetal bovine serum is seriously expensive, so while it may have been used in the production of this burger, we can safely assume that any mass-produced burgers will be cultured in a suitable artificial substitute medium.

Others will object to any quantity of animal inputs: after all, synthetic beef is still cultured from beef cells, and those ultimately come from a cow, a living being. If you’re a hardcore proponent of animal rights (as opposed to animal welfare) then you might well object that synthetic meat is still, well, meat, and that it has to be cultured from cells drawn from a real animal. But anyone taking that line will eventually find themselves counting how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Finally, some will object to lab-grown meat simply because it is “artificial.” But that’s a spurious distinction, and an aesthetic objection masquerading as an ethical one. Much of what we eat now is already artificial in all the senses that make any difference. And there’s no particular reason to object to things simply on the basis of their artificiality.

Of course, ethical optimism also needs to be tempered by a realization that there are a lot of scientific and technological steps between growing enough meat for a single barely-edible lab-grown burger and producing synthetic beef (or chicken or pork or fish) on a mass scale. But on the whole, I think the development of lab-grown burgers is an excellent thing, from an ethical point of view. Or at least, very promising.


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(I’ve blogged before about synthetic meat, in blog entries entitled “Who wants test-tube meat?”, “Ethics, Ideology, and Synthetic Meat”, and “Would You Like Your Synthetic Meat GM or Non-GM?”).

Posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, biotechnology, ethics, factory farms, meat, natural, science | 4 Comments

Ethics of Small Choices

whats_in_my_coffeeYesterday, on my Business Ethics Blog, I published a short blog entry about an ethical dilemma faced by a coffee shop.

The dilemma — and disagreement between co-owners — was whether to offer the standard range of sweeteners and whiteners with their coffees, or whether to impose a vision of what counts as healthy additions for coffee. Oversimplifying: should they offer artificial sweeteners or not?

It’s a real-life case. And it sounds like a small matter, but with the recent politicization of and moralizing about food, the question not surprisingly became a bone of contention for the people involved.

My argument is essentially this:
1) The evidence is thin for any health advantage for “real” sugar. In fact, “real” sugar is known to be unhealthy, whereas for artificial sweeteners the question is still up in the air.
2) The quantities involved are tiny, so relax.
3) If it’s even a close call, go for consumer autonomy — the freedom to choose.

That’s not to say that a coffee shop can’t make “all natural” a part of its branding, and choose condiments accordingly. It’s just that no one should confuse that with making a clear-cut ethical decision.

Posted in choice, ethics, health, marketing, natural, nutrition, restaurants, values | 5 Comments