The ethical eating movement has been gaining momentum in recent years as more consumers become aware of the practices involved with industrial food production. A human experiment at Stanford University suggests that ethical eating goes beyond the moral implications of buying food. Students there who learned about the ethics of food production made healthier eating choices.
Unsustainable food production
In Western countries food is cheap and abundant, but the environment and people in undeveloped countries pay the price for it. To keep prices low, food production, from farming to fishing, has become industrialized and subsidized by governments. The rest of the world can’t compete with western countries using technology and artificially low food prices to aggressively pursue market share and profit.
Often the people at the bottom of the supply chain, the ones those at the top depend on–suffer most. According to a study by Agritrade, growers in west African nations that account for 70 percent of global cocoa production get merely 3.5-6 percent of the value of a chocolate bar—down from 18 percent in the late 1980s. The share of cocoa profits for manufacturers increased from 56 percent to 70 percent in the same time frame.
Ethical eating debate
In addition to unsustainable food production, other issues around ethical eating include the treatment of livestock, use of pesticides and antibiotics and crops modified with genetically modified organisms (GMO). An ever-smaller number of food manufacturers accounting for most of the food supply also has ethical eaters seeking food produced locally.
The debate about ethical eating often involves vegetarians and meat eaters mocking each other. But can an awareness of one’s personal morals and how they relate to food production help a person develop more healthy eating habits? Researchers at Stanford found that a class on the ethics of food production was more effective than a course on human health for getting students to eat healthier.
Ethics and eating behavior
Researchers designed an experiment comparing how eating behavior changed among students taking either a Food and Society course or human biology courses about obesity, health psychology and community health assessment. The Food and Society syllabus included excerpts of popular books such as Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and documentaries such as Aaron Woolf’s King Corn.
In class, students discussed the environmental, ethical, social justice, cultural, political, and agricultural issues related to food and food production. Students were also required to write an editorial and create a video relevant to those issues.
Students completed a food questionnaire at the beginning and end of the courses. Those who took the Food and Society course reported significant improvements in their diets. The greatest improvements were seen in increased vegetable consumption and decreased consumption of high-fat meat and dairy foods.
Food ethics and weight loss
The researchers suggested that it could be possible to change dietary behaviors more effectively in younger people by focusing on the ethics of food production, rather than the biology of nutrition.
There is certainly no shortage of information about healthy eating and exercise for people who want to lose weight. But obesity rates continue to rise. Healthy eating takes planning, desire and discipline. Perhaps the moral implication of food choices is the missing piece to the motivational puzzle.