Recently I had a chance to attend one of the free public events hosted regularly by the University of London’s Institute of Philosophy (it’s good to keep an eye on the list of upcoming events). Tied to the launch of a new book, “The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think” by Julian Baggini, this evening discussion was set to address the questions of food ethics from the perspective of a range of disciplines – philosophy, anthropology, food science.
After a short interview with the author, two guest speakers – an anthropologist from the University of Nottingham Naomi Sykes and the head of Nordic Food Lab Ben Reade – gave presentations addressing cultural and social aspects of food and eating with specific focus on the issue of ethics. It was an engaging discussion tackling a diverse set of problems, but what I found especially valuable is how it problematised many of the common ideas and understandings of foods’ ethical attributes, largely taken for granted and with no much scrutiny on the part of consumers. First, Julian Baggini emphasized the unprecedented availability of ethical alternatives on the current food market and the industry’s visible move towards progressively more ethical sourcing and production of foods – the fact that the four top-selling chocolate brands in the UK now all have fair trade labelled varieties speaks for itself. He commended the fact that there is now plenty of previously unavailable opportunities for consumers to express their moral commitments by actually eating particular foods rather than avoiding them, as was very much the case just several decades ago when concerns over husbandry practices, for example, could only be alleviated by swearing off eating meat altogether (now you have the luxury of choosing free-range, dolphin-safe and the like).
Not all the perplexities of food ethics have been resolved though, to which a dietary experiment Naomi once engaged in with her family testifies. Having set the goal of only eating products grown and produced within the 10-mile radius of where they lived, Naomi and her family quickly realised what a restricted diet that must be with one of the first victims of the experiment being such “habitual”, “mundane” and seemingly ubiquitous products as coffee, chocolate, wine. To stress the complexity of the relationships between cultural, social and ethical aspects of choosing and consuming foods, Naomi gave a fascinating presentation on the problem of managing wild deer populations, which are on a continuous increase not least due to the cultural aversion to eating venison in the UK. This results in thousands of culled deer being exported every year to the countries where venison is a valued menu item, while other types of wild game are being imported to the UK to satisfy population’s demand in meat. Apart from resolving this environmental tension, bringing venison into food fashion would also mean having an additional source of healthy, free-range and local meat which is just what many ethical foodies are desperately looking for.
Another important locus of ethical tension was highlighted by Ben Reade as well as one of the audience members during the Q&A session both of whom spoke about how ethical imperatives may be easily and understandably overridden by concerns over basic subsistence and getting one’s daily bread. Talking about the prospects of insect farming and Nordic Lab’s recent expedition to Africa aiming to discover and popularise new culinary knowledge, Ben stressed that the primary ethics should be that there is enough food for everyone on the planet which I find hard to dispute. Finally, Julian has contributed to the discussion by questioning the virtue of seasonal foods, extolled by the proponents of green consumption. He pointed to the controversy behind the idea of seasonality by juxtaposing seasonal and local produce – the two are not always in a positive correlation, and the issue of transportation is what becomes really important when it comes to calculating products’ environmental impact. Seasonality, he argued, refers to the idea of being in tune with the rhythm and dynamics of nature and is therefore much more about aesthetics rather than ethics of eating.
All in all, this 2-hour long discussion has once again stressed the complexity of the issue of food ethics. While unable to provide definitive answers to many of the questions raised, it underscored the importance of subjecting popular notions about virtuous food attributes to constant scrutiny and refinement.