What should we eat? A weekend on food and ethics

This weekend I write to you from lovely Burlington, VT, where I’ve been attending and presenting at their annual Food Ethics Workshop.  It’s run by the philosophy department and supported and attended by food systems, nutrition, sustainability, law and other interesting folks.  It’s also even publicized by their local coop food market; that’s how Burlington rolls.

A poster of the University of Vermont Food Ethics conference, MAy 12--13, 2017.

In addition, I stayed at a hotel where they combine seating and plant cultivation in one handy location.  That’s cool.

A gray fabric covered bench, with a small potted plant embedded in it.

My talk was on problems with the notion of “intuitive eating” and the values involved in so-called “unhealthy” eating.  Tracy and I have both blogged about this issue (here and here); these posts have been among the most-commented-on for the blog.  So there’s something compelling that draws peoples’ attention to moral values attached to foods.

For now, I’ll defer discussion of my paper and also a fine paper given by Laurie Ristino of Vermont Law School on using systems and design theory to help solve food sustainability problems.

The two other papers in the workshop,  given by Alexandra Plakias of Hamilton College and Bob Fischer of Texas State University, focused more directly on moral (and other sorts of) responses to certain kinds of eating.  Alex was looking at how our reactions of disgust work– are they just visceral “Ewwws” or do they indicate some moral stance with respect to the thing we’re disgusted by?  One issue that we may all be facing sometime in the Earth’s future is entomophagy.  What’s that?  The practice of eating bugs.

You should now silently thank me for not inserting a photo to illustrate; you’re welcome.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the idea of eating insects provokes for loads of people a strong disgust reaction.  However, there are at this moment startups (see here and here) and research groups figuring out how to make insects a regular part of our protein intake, given the need to feed billions of people sustainably, now and in the future.  In trying to understand what disgust reactions are about, Alex was opening up some space for thinking about possible other attitudes we could take about some things we may be currently disgusted by.

Bob ‘s paper was also concerned with the morality of eating– in this case, eating animals.  He’s written a ton about this topic (check out his website if you haven’t already) and is a very strong advocate for not eating animals.  He recounted in his paper how, in his philosophy courses, that students sometimes respond to the discussion about treatment of animals by saying “I see that eating meat is wrong, but I’m not going to stop.”  How does one continue a moral conversation when that happens?

Well, we can use other means, like telling stories, talking about lots of concerns that make for meaningful lives.  Bob talks about Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals and how Foer uses stories to convey strong and resonant messages about what’s important to us (in addition to information about factory farming, etc.) to make a case for not eating animals.  I will definitely use Foer’s book (and some of Bob’s work too) the next time I teach my philosophy and food course.

So that’s the upshot on my very pleasant philosophy of food weekend.  Some final thoughts to share with you, dear readers:

I don’t eat insects.

I do eat meat.

For now, I’m not feeling compelled to start eating insects.  But I am (and have been for some time) troubled about eating meat, for the very good reasons that are out there.  I have a host of reasons for not changing my eating habits, but they’re seeming a bit excuse-y right now.  I’ll be blogging more about my shifting relationship with meat as food.  For now, I’d love to hear from you:  what is your comfort level with meat eating (if you are a meat eater)?  No judgment– I’m just looking to hear your thinking and feelings on the subject.  Thanks as always for reading, and see y’all next week.  I’ll leave you with a lovely view of Lake Champlain…

view of Lake Champlain in Burlington VT on a sunny day with blue skies and a few clouds


14 thoughts on “What should we eat? A weekend on food and ethics

  1. I am a meat eater. I did try going vegan (raw vegan) 10 years ago and it and started lose my hair as a result. My health in other areas suffered as well. I don’t believe there is a “diet” that fits all of mankind. Some people can thrive on it, and others, like me cannot, especially with my level and amount of exercise I do. I am committed to not eating factory farmed, meats and fish, but I don’t think I can even go veg again. For me its a health issue and that is important, especially as I live with chronic illnesses on top of my activity level.

    1. And I do eat it daily. I tried the meat free days, meatless Mondays, etc and it only left me eating more of other foods (after I stuffed myself silly with veggies) and lethargic.

    2. I wouldn’t say that a failed attempt at being s raw vegan would be a test case for all approaches to being vegetarian. There are lots of healthy ways of getting sufficient nutrients on a vegetarian diet. Raw vegan is probably the most challenging and there is a lot between eating meat and following a raw vegan diet. In the end it’s your choice but if it’s only because raw vegan had health implications there are other veg options.

      1. I only raw vegan because I cannot eat soy and interesting enough, I can’t tolerate nor do I actually *like* beans. I tried soaking them, sprouting, etc, but they just don’t agree with me. I am also lactose intolerant so anything other than butter is out. During my raw veg phase, (9 months) I lost sooo much muscle mass and I was weak because I was trying to use nuts as my pain protein source. I stayed on it longer than I should have because I gave in the the propaganda surrounding the raw vegan lifestyle.

        Eventually I realized my protein requirements are pretty high with my fitness level. If I was less active, I’m sure I can survive on less than 100 g day (probably 80-100).

      2. That does sound rough. I couldn’t do it without soy and legumes. I can see how limiting that would be. You’re right about not one way for all. People tolerate different food differently and need to find what works for them. Hanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Such a pretty town and such a great workshop. I’m so sorry to have missed it this year. The papers sound great. I think people build this up to be such a momentous change and get bogged down in the details of getting everything right. Should I be a vegetarian? A vegan? How about fish? What about wool and honey? And it’s so big and so complicated that we default to the status quo.

    How about we focus on doing less harm? Eating less meat? Never eating factory farmed meat? Aiming for x number of vegan, vegetarian meals a week/or a day?

    And then pick something you can live with.

  3. Rarely do I find the animal flesh tastes good but our treatment of it–marinade, sauce, spice–which appeals to me.

    Humans require essential fats (rarely talked about) and essential proteins (although I cannot recall hearing the name for protein deficiency, kwashiorkor, spoken aloud). The other macronutrient categories seems to be optional–if our gut biome gets the fibre needed for them to provide us some essential vitamins (micronutrients). I wonder if any portion of animal flesh is essential for human nutrition. Perhaps it is the most convenient source of some nutrients.

  4. Lovely photo of the lake.

    I am a meat eater but my meat consumption has dropped to only 3-4 times per month in past 15 years. I didn’t really think about why but it may be tied to cost. As a child, I grew up eating balanced meals, which included meat for nearly every dinner.

    Meat tends to be lean and not deep fried.
    I don’t think about whether or not if it’s factory farmed, but more: which country did this meat come from?

    I do believe in eating as much of the animal as possible…or making other products from it. I am against sport fishing (throwing fish back into the water..come on, the fish’s mouth is damaged already), sport hunting for sake of trophy catches. It is an enormous waste of Nature when that happens.

    When I eat meat, per dinner it’s about 1 fistful of meat. That’s all.

    When we went to Europe last year, we ate a lot of meat because the local dishes we wanted to try were meat…I found I got constipated because it was less choice veggies and fruit daily..

    So for practical, digestive reasons I can’t eat much meat anymore. My system seems to have lost efficiency in processing meat if I eat it for several consecutive days.

    No I am not vegan and never will be. I drink milk, have plain yogurt, cheese and eggs.

    I choose to eat meat because to taste the world’s diverse cuisines, it helps as..a guest in the country or in someone’s home, to eat abit of meat if they have prepared it well.

  5. I don’t count anything off limits, but in recent years I’ve realised that my diet has become increasingly plant based… I still eat occasional chicken and sometimes fish, but only if I can find organic & locally sourced. Fundamentally (which goes for plants too), I want the way my food is farmed to be done with care and consideration for the earth and soil, which is ultimately what nourishes us. I feel I have a personal responsibility for making conscious food choices, with as little damage to the environment and the lives involved as possible. I’m sure I still have plenty of blind spots, but change feels good, and my body feels good too…

  6. Fascinating post thank you. I still eat chicken & fish, but only organic. I have an acquired allergy to red meat from a tic bite, so must avoid beef, which I’m very glad about, as I do believe it’s an environmental disaster. But I do eat A LOT of nuts, veggies & quinoa, which all have a cost somewhere in the world. Eating ethically is v hard! I grow green leaf veggies in my garden, but must also feed a fast-growing, fast-moving teenage surfer boy son…

  7. I think food choices are deeply imbedded in class status. Poor and working class folks eat what is accessible & affordable. Once I had a bit more choice with food because of income we moved to picking things easier on the environment and looking at food ethics. As someone raised on hunting & eating meat as part of a subsistence diet I’ve thought a lot about what it means to buy meat. I’ve raised chickens & goats & ate them.
    It’s definitely worth contemplating

  8. I don’t know what I’m doing – but just decided to stop eating beef several months ago. i follow too many vegan accounts on instagram and I was just overwhelmed. I accidentially/purposefully had some asada a few weeks ago and felt awful. So, while I still eat chicken it’s on my mind to stop that and just start cold turkey. Or, stop, rather. I stopped Diet Coke October 2013 cold turkey and never went back. I can/should/will do that soon too.

  9. I have greatly reduced my meat consumption. As a strong follower of the yogic path I see vegetarianism as my future. I am not there just yet.
    Most of what we do eat comes from a local farmer who I love and needs the support. She is trying very hard to make a small farm sustainable.
    I feel great using mung beans as protein, but I just can’t quite give up chicken wings or a nice steak.
    So I’m slowly changing my habits. We will see where it ends up.

  10. It is interesting to balance eating habits with what is ethical for the environment. Personally, I choose to eat as a locavore — eating meat, plants, insects, dairy, etc., all from my local areas. To me, the best way to do my part in climate mitigation is to eat from a geographic radius; this way, no fossil fuels are wasted transporting meats from distant parts of the country. Thanks for this article. You handle nuances with great legerdemain.

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