Does “Buy Local” Have a Neoliberal Slant?

Here’s an interesting-looking recent article appearing in the scholarly journal,

You can read the full document for free here: Public health promotion of “local food”: Constituting the self-governing citizen-consumer, by Colleen Derkatch and Philippa Spoel

This article explores how the recent and growing promotion of local foods by public
health units in Ontario, Canada, rhetorically interpellates the “good” health citizen
as someone who not only takes responsibility for personal health but, through the consumption and support of “local food,” also accepts and fulfills her responsibilities to care for the local economy, the community’s well-being, and the natural environment. Drawing on Charland’s concept of constitutive rhetoric, we analyze a selection of public health unit documents about local food to develop a textured account of the complex, multifaceted forms of health citizenship they constitute. Our analysis reveals that,despite their appeals to environmental sustainability and community well-being, these materials primarily characterize the ideal health citizen as an informed consumer who supports the interests of the neoliberal state through individualized lifestyle behaviors, consuming goods produced and distributed through private enterprise. By exhorting individuals to “buy local,” public health discourse therefore frames responsible health citizenship principally in consumerist terms that constrain the range of available options for citizens to engage in meaningful action vis-à-vis their food systems.

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You Say You Want Ethical Food, But Really You Want Cheap Food

People today are increasingly demanding restaurant food that is ethical, interesting, and of high quality. Or at least, that’s what they say they want. True demand, in the economic sense (which is the sense that counts in the food industry) is what matters here. In other words, it’s easy to say you want x, y, and z when some reporter or university researcher or PETA rep with a clip-board gets in your face. But when you’re in line at McDonald’s, you may choose differently.

Check out this short piece on that topic:
Millennials are lying about what they want to eat, and it’s destroying fast food

“…All of these efforts flopped, and there’s an important reason: Millennials are lying about their food habits.

Millennials say they want food that is high quality, free of additives, and sustainable, but they aren’t always willing or able to pay for it….”

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Guide to Food Labelling

Food labelling is a very. big. issue. Some labels matter a lot. Some matter less. Some labels are required by law. Some are not. Some labels have clear, precise, even regulated meanings. Others are purely a matter of convention, and others mean very little at all.

One of the most important kinds of labels, naturally, are ones mandated by regulations. But what those regulations require, and what the labels mean, is not always clear. So some of you will be interested to see this FDA Food Labeling Requirements Ebook, published by label company supplier I haven’t read the book yet, and can’t attest to its accuracy, etc., but it looks useful.

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The Moral Hierarchy of Food

This piece focuses on the way in which an obsession with food is in some sense replacing (or parodying?) religion, for some people.

The new religion: How the emphasis on ‘clean eating’ has created a moral hierarchy for food

Professor Gillian McCann “argues that the rise in food movements has coincided with a decline of religion in society, with many people seeking familiar values such as purity, ethics, goodness. But these movements also tend to encourage behaviours that have steered a generation away from religion: Judgment, self-righteousness, an us-versus-them mentality.”

As my pal Andrew Potter would likely point out, here, most of what we observe in this moral hierarchy of food is consistent with another hypothesis, namely that the holier-than-thou aspect is yet another instance of the basic human drive toward status-seeking. In other words, part of the way one person makes herself feel special, feel superior, both in her own eyes and in the eyes of others, is by finding new and exotic ways to differentiate herself in terms of diet.
This was parodied nicely in the episode of the Simpsons in which Lisa tries use her veganism to impress her new boyfriend, who replies, “I’m a level 5 vegan — I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow.”

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Testing GMO Foods

This piece is terrific. It’s about the testing that genetically modified foods go through in Canada, and the misconceptions people continue to have in that regard. It should be considered required reading.

The Right Chemistry: Marketing genetically modified foods requires substantial testing

Marketing a novel genetically modified food requires evidence that its chemical composition is substantially equivalent to the non-GMO version of the product, which can be demonstrated by subjecting a sample to chromatographic and spectroscopic analysis. These instrumental techniques produce a series of signals representing individual compounds that can then be compared with those from a conventional version of the food. Any significant difference would require labelling.

Such testing is not required when novel, conventionally produced foods are introduced into the marketplace…

Note also the great anecdote about the guy who shuns tomatoes because he’s not sure “which ones” have fish DNA that might trigger his allergy to fish. The correct answer, of course, is “none of them,” since there are no GM tomatoes on the market, let alone ones with fish genes.

Ethically, educating yourself is a prerequisite for participating in public debate.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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