Sources of Calories and Diet-Industry Ethics

This is interesting, and confirms my non-scientist’s suspicion. It turns out that (at least according to this one study) calories count, but not where they come from. The basic finding is that if you’re trying to lose weight, what matters is your total caloric intake (and output), rather than whether your calories come mostly from carbs, protein, fats, etc.

And if the exact source doesn’t matter much, then it doesn’t make much sense to force yourself not to eat things you enjoy just because they contain whichever nutrient (carbs, protein, fats, etc.) some supposed diet guru tells you is evil.

Of course, this study doesn’t prove that certain sources of calories don’t have a biological tendency to promote fat storage, etc. That might still be true. What the study does support is that in the lives of real people trying to lose weight, the source of calories doesn’t matter nearly as much as the total calorie count does. And surely that’s what really matters.

This finding raises interesting ethical questions, naturally, for those who promote particular diets, especially ones that have as their foundation an attempt to demonize particular sources of calories. If you’re promoting a low-carb diet, for example, this new evidence should give you pause.

Posted in calories, diets, ethics, health, nutrition | 7 Comments

Backyard Chicken Ethics

Photo credit: Trish Tervit

As far as food goes, you can’t get much more “local” than raising chickens in your own backyard. But many cities forbid the practice. Zoning laws generally prescribe where you can and cannot raise animals for food. But such laws are not uniformly enforced, and when they are enforced the reason is not always entirely clear.

See this recent story by David Rider, for the Toronto Star:
Toronto’s backyard chicken farmers wait for the sky to fall

The story explores the plight of those Torontonians who opt to raise chickens in their backyards, a practice forbidden under Section 349 of the city’s Municipal Code. The focus is on the 3 chickens raised by Trish Tervit and her daughters.

What are we to think, ethically, of this lawless behaviour? I’m sympathetic. The ban on backyard agriculture is exceedingly broad, and (as far as I can see) goes beyond whatever public-policy objectives those who drafted it could reasonably have had in mind. Limits on the number of chickens raised, or chicken “density,” perhaps, would make sense. An outright ban does not.

It’s also worth noting that this is an example of the very best kind of law-breaking, namely the rather open form of law-breaking in which the law-breaker violates what she sees as an unjust law, and does so publicly, happily risking the consequences of her behaviour. It is, in other words, a minor form of civil disobedience.

What values lie behind this bit of backyard activism? In Tervit’s words, “…it’s teaching kids a little about where their food comes from, that there are ways to sustain yourself, and that chickens can walk around and eat grass and be chickens, as opposed to other ways egg production takes place.” So the objective, here is educational — generally, a worthy kind of goal. But the bigger point, here, ethically, is that when the relevant behaviour doesn’t hurt anyone else, there shouldn’t be a law against it in the first place.

(For more on these themes, see my earlier posting on “What’s the Point of Urban Farming?”)
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Disclosure: Trish is a friend of mine. The eggs are delicious!

Posted in agriculture, kids, law, local, urban farming, values | 2 Comments

Paula Deen’s Ethics

Paula Deen is under fire for failing to announce promptly enough that she has Type 2 diabetes.

My first impression:
The kind of food Deen promoted was unhealthy 5 years ago.
It was unhealthy the day she was diagnosed.
It is still an unhealthy style of cooking today.

Her having diabetes doesn’t change any of that.

Information about her on health is personal information, and she’s under no obligation to reveal it. The real question is whether it was socially-responsible of her to promote such food in the first place.

Posted in diets, ethics, health, media | 2 Comments

Pricing Whales

Is it a good idea, or a bad idea, for whale advocates to put their money where their mouths are?

From Wired: A Market Proposal for Saving Whales

Despite the best efforts of activists, more whales are killed now than two decades ago. To people who think killing the majestic creatures is wrong, it’s a tragic state of affairs — but perhaps markets could sort it out.

That’s the premise of a controversial proposal floated Jan. 11 in the high-profile journal Nature. Hunters could buy the right to kill whales. Conservationists could pay to save them….

The idea has something to be said for it. After all, it’s easy to say you care about saving some species, but when someone else’s livelihood depends on harvesting that species, you need to have more than a preference that they stop. And besides, there’s the chance that this scheme just might work where other tactics have failed.

(People who don’t think of whales as food may wonder why this topic fits the mandate of the Food Ethics Blog. But the purpose of most modern whaling is in fact to acquire whale meat.)

But at least 3 problems occur to me:

1. As the Wired article points out, one fundamental problem has to do with the moral status of whales. If whales are as sentient as many people think they are, then creating a market in them is akin to creating a market in humans — and hence seriously morally problematic.

2. Moral status of whales aside, the scheme might set a dangerous precedent. Anyone wanting to squeeze money out of activists could in theory start hunting the activist’s favourite critter, and insist on being paid to stop.

3. There’s a worry about the relative bargaining power of the whale hunters and the activists. If whalers are currently making $20 million / year, activists might say “sure, we can match that.” But what’s then to stop whalers from asking for $25 million next year?

Posted in ethics | 4 Comments

Horse Meat Controversy

CTV News reported yesterday that a hidden-camera video has spurred new calls for a ban on horse meat in Canada:

Animal rights groups are calling for a ban on the sale of horse meat after disturbing video at a slaughterhouse in west Quebec was sent to the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition.

The footage was shot with a hidden camera inside Les Viandes de la Petite Nation near Montebello. It shows a parade of horses being stunned with what’s called a captive bolt pistol.

At one point, a worker can be seen stunning a horse and waving goodbye. Under Canadian laws, one shot is supposed to render the horse unconscious but it often doesn’t happen. Captured on video, is one horse being stunned 11 times….

Of course, nothing in the story explains why horses should be thought of any differently from cows or pigs. The fact that they’re pretty, and that we humans easily forge emotional bonds with them, shouldn’t much matter. Or should it? For an alternative point of view, see this NYT review of LOVING ANIMALS: Toward a New Animal Advocacy.

Posted in ethics | 2 Comments

The Ethics of the Cost of Ethical Food

It’s bad if high prices get in the way of eating a) well or b) ethically, and there are plenty of myths about both. And today alone I’ve read two interesting pieces on the price of food.

First, the NYT’s Mark Bittman asks, Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? The answer, Bittman says, is “no.” Or at least, it needn’t be cheaper. A nutritious home-cooked meal can pretty easily be cheaper than a trip to McDonald’s, but more people need to stop thinking of cooking as a chore.

The second piece was by Rob O’Flanagan, writing for the Guelph Mercury: Bemoaning the high cost of ethical food

In quite recent times I’ve become a more conscientious consumer of food, avoiding processed food, junk food and sugary food, careful to buy local, raw, organic, fresh, chemical-free, free-range, Ontario-grown . . . all of those terms that presumably differentiate between evil and ethical food.

But the cost of it all is starting to bug me….

“At the farmers’ market it is assumed one is willing to pay a premium for certain things,” says O’Flanagan, “But are we being unfairly made to pay more?” A lot of people buying at the farmer’s market, says O’Flanagan, aren’t paying extra for better nutrition; they’re “paying for status”. That’s roughly the line that Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax, takes: buying organic (etc. etc.) is, at least for many people, essentially a form of status-seeking.

But of course, that realization doesn’t make all arguments about better-and-worse ways to produce food simply disappear. There are still reasons to pay attention to food ethics, and in some cases, at least, good reasons to be willing to pay more. O’Flanagan says he’s willing to do his part, but warns that those who sell what he considers “ethical” food mustn’t engage in price-gouging:

I’m willing to do the right thing by buying ethical food. I expect vendors to do the right thing and not price the stuff through the roof.

Part of the problem, though, is that consumers are pretty limited in their ability to detect price-gouging. Most of us don’t understand very well the business models of the businesses (large or small) that we buy our food from. (See my recent blog entry on the not-so-obvious factors that go into the Price of a Cocktail.) In many cases, producers of a given product don’t have much real choice about what they charge — they need to cover their costs, but they can’t charge more than what consumers are willing to pay (which is in part determined by the forces of competition).

One last thought: when you pay extra for what you take to be ethical food — and in many cases that’s a highly dubious label — you absolutely must consider what economists call the “opportunity cost” of that food. That is, every dollar you spend on food that someone tells you is more ethical is a dollar you’re not spending on education, on art, or on donating to worthy causes. That’s not a reason not to buy “ethical” foods. But it is a reason not to reach reflexively for your wallet every time someone tells you this or that product is “more ethical.”

Posted in consumerism, ethics, farmers markets, local, marketing, organic, prices, values | 3 Comments

Price of a Cocktail

Of all the ethical issues involved in producing, transporting, marketing, and selling food, pricing is one of the least-well explored. Issues of pricing are essentially absent from the academic literature on business ethics, for example, presumably because for “standard” products, and especially for commodities (like oil or coffee or wheat), businesses simply don’t face any decision about pricing. The market price is the market price, and there is little opportunity to deviate. And if there’s no choice to make at all, then there isn’t any ethical choice to make.

But still, people have pretty strong intuitions about prices, and in particular about what constitutes a fair price; but those intuitions aren’t always underpinned by a good understanding of the relevant businesses.

In that regard, it’s useful to read this interesting interview with the owner of what happens to be my favourite Manhattan bar, Ward III: From Behind the Bar: My Cocktail Costs How Much?. The interview doesn’t deal explicitly with ethics, but it does say a lot about the hidden operating costs that turn $1.95 worth of ingredients into perhaps a $12 cocktail.

Now, the pricing of cocktails isn’t exactly a burning social issue. Fancy cocktails at über-hip bars aren’t exactly necessities of life. But still, the basic economic lesson embodied in the above interview holds true for other foods and beverages. The lower limit of what a vendor needs to charge to stay in business is determined by a complex combination of overhead costs; and what they can charge is limited by the twin forces of competition and consumers’ willingness to pay.

Posted in alcohol, marketing, prices, restaurants | 1 Comment

Store Does End-Run Around Egg Safety

Here’s a chuckle, and a caution:

Store sells cartons, gives away eggs

A health food store in eastern P.E.I. is looking for a way around health regulations after provincial officials told them to stop selling eggs they buy from local farmers.

The eggs haven’t been inspected, and officials say that violates health regulations. Mary and Chris Mermuys of Turning Point Health Food in Montague have been selling eggs from local producers for seven years, but were only told last week to stop.

The eggs are still available at their store, but they say they’re giving them away. If you want a carton to carry them in, however, it will cost you $2.75.

A lot of people are bound to cheer this ingenious end-run around what they see as bureaucratic red tape.

But ask yourself: is this the sort of behaviour you want adopted by businesses, generally? Should businesses do an end-run around rules that they happen to disagree with? Would we cheer a bigger company using the same tactics? How about a pharmacy distributing pharmaceuticals in the same way?

Posted in certifiction, ethics, health, law, marketing, safety | 3 Comments

Canada Geese for NYC Homeless: Yes

This is such an obviously-good idea that I’m not sure why it’s even news.

Activist says feeding homeless with geese ‘ethical’

A Virginia-based locavore activist says New York City is doing the “ethical thing” by sending its culled Canada Geese to a slaughterhouse to feed the homeless.

Jackson Landers, a self-professed conservationist who hunts for his own food, told CTV’s Canada AM on Friday that the city’s decision to capture the birds and send them to food banks in Pennsylvania “gives some sort of meaning to (their) deaths.”

Hmm, I wonder if migratory birds count as “local”?

Posted in activism, animal rights, animal welfare, sustainability, wildlife | 1 Comment

Is Smaller More Ethical, or Less?

The food world’s fascination with small-scale production of bespoke edibles shows no sign of waning.

See, for example, this piece by Emma Sturgess, for The Guardian: From small seeds grow big ideas

There are David and Goliath battles in all fields of business, but in food David seems to be putting up a particularly gutsy fight. In recent years, small-scale food producers have become both more numerous and higher-profile, helped by the rise of farmers’ markets and the ease of setting up a technological shop window to sell to the world….

Small certainly has its charms. Many of my favourite businesses are the small-and-independent kind. But small is also generally inefficient.

Back in February, on my Business Ethics Blog, I wrote about The Ethics of Inefficiency.

This vague association of the small with the ethical misses the fundamental truth that, when it comes to production methods, size brings efficiency. Mass production tends to be efficient in its use of energy, materials, and labour. There are of course tradeoffs and exceptions: it’s entirely possible for a factory mass-producing something to be highly efficient in the use of labour, but to be highly inefficient in the use of, say, water — especially if water is had at no cost. But generally, mass production is efficient; that’s its raison d’etre….

The general point is that smaller is generally less efficient, and inefficiency means (by definition) less output per unit of input. It means getting less for more. In a world focused on conservation, that’s crazy. It’s also worth pointing out what the inefficiency of small-scale production generally means for the standard of living of those who engage in it. As Tim Worstall points out, inefficiency of labour generally amounts to poverty. Small-scale farming may be romantic, but in most places of the world it is a recipe for staying poor. It’s fine if you choose to produce inefficiently, and hence to earn less, as a lifestyle choice for yourself. But it’s not something to be wished on other people.

Posted in agriculture, ethics, factory farms, farmers, industrial, sustainability, values | Comments Off on Is Smaller More Ethical, or Less?