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Author: David Kaplan
Editors: J. Baird Callicott and Robert Frodeman
Date: 2009
Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Food poses a variety of philosophical issues such as the ethical treatments of animals, the moral and political dimensions of genetically modified food, hunger and obligations to poor, and the role of food in gender and personal identity. Yet food has received scant attention in the philosophical literature compared to subjects like science, technology, and the environment, perhaps because food is perceived to be too physical and transient to deserve serious philosophical reflection or because food production and preparation have traditionally been regarded as women's work and, therefore, unworthy topics for male philosophers. As contemporary philosophy continues to challenge conventional notions of what constitutes “real” and “serious” topics of analysis, and as a feminist “hermeneutic of suspicion” yields important insights previously ignored in mainstream scholarship, philosophers have shown an increasing interest in the moral, political, metaphysical, and aesthetic dimensions of food.

Since World War II changes in the technological and cultural landscape have affected views of food and eating. In the mid-twentieth century the methods and machinery of industrialization were applied to food production, culminating in the so-called Green Revolution, which brought forth great increases in agricultural productivity in both the industrialized and developing worlds. In addition to yielding more food, the Green Revolution also spawned social and environmental changes and raised questions about the appropriate use of land, environmental harms, effects on women, hunger and trade policy, and the ethical treatment of animals.

Further changes in the technological and cultural landscape in the industrialized global north have spurred an increasing awareness of the effects of industrial agriculture, the dubious nutritional value of highly processed foods, the potential health and environmental risks of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and foods, the globalization of food trade and production, and food scarcity and steep price increases in staples brought about by the increasing affluence in China and India and the deepening impact of the biofuels industry on the market for maize.

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Almost everything humans eat has been processed in some way; technologies and techniques transform raw, whole plants or animals into food. Food-processing techniques include cooking, drying, fermenting, slicing, peeling, and butchering. More technologically complex forms of processing includes pasteurizing, canning, freezing, irradiating, and artificially sweetening. Some processed food contains additives, substances designed to help prevent spoilage and contamination or to make food look and taste better. Some processed foods include dietary

A Traditional Market in Taipei, 2008. Food is not a topic that has been traditionally philosophized about, A Traditional Market in Taipei, 2008. Food is not a topic that has been traditionally philosophized about, but advancements in technology and culture throughout the world are quickly changing this fact. Rising costs and shortages of food are a major battle being fought by organizations around the world, and other issues, such as nutritional value of processed foods and genetically modified products, have become issues of debate. SAM YEH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

supplements with nutritional properties, such as vitamins, minerals, proteins, herbs, or enzymes. Among the benefits of food processing are improved preservation, increased distribution potential, fortification, consumer choice, and convenience. Among the harms and risks often associated with processed food are reduced nutritional value, adverse health effects, pollution, and the amount of energy expended in processing.

By contrast, so-called natural foods are purported to be free of artificial ingredients and are often less processed than conventional food. Natural foods—if they are really natural—do not contain artificial food additives, coloring, flavoring, or sweeteners. Nor do they contain refined flour, refined sugar, or hydrogenated oils. “Whole foods” are even less processed or refined. Proponents of a “whole-food diet”

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claim it is more healthful than a processed-food diet and results in less harm to the environment.

“Raw foods” are “whole foods” that have undergone little or no processing at all. A “raw-food diet” is one composed of entirely uncooked whole food. Advocates of such a regimen believe that increasing the intake of raw foods produces significant health benefits. They claim that it promotes weight loss, prevents disease, and helps mitigate the effects of chronic illness.

“Organic foods” are supposed to be grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products are not supposed to be given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic foods are not necessarily whole foods, nor are whole food necessarily organic. The term organic refers to the method of growing food or raising livestock, not to the amount of processing it undergoes.

According to the 1995 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board, organic agriculture is an ecological production-management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. Organic agriculture is based, in theory, on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on practices and materials that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony and health within the farm and beyond.

Organic agriculture aims to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, and people. Champions of organic food claim that reducing or eliminating the use of agricultural and industrial chemicals leads to cleaner air, water, and soil, and yields more nutritious, more healthful, and better-tasting food. Critics claim that the health and environmental benefits of organic food are questionable, that it is costly to consumers, and that the slippage in standards for organic production and lack of regulatory oversight leave consumers unsure whether or not their food is as “organic” as advertised.


Intensive farming, or the industrialization of agriculture, became the norm in twentieth-century North America, Western Europe, and other developed regions of the world. During the latter half of the twentieth century, this model was exported—some would say imposed on—much of the rest of the world. Industrial agriculture involves highly productive systems based on the use of systematic plant breeding (since the 1990s augmented by genetic engineering); monoculture crops; fossil-fuel energy; farm machinery; artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; and mechanized irrigation, processing, and long-distance transportation of both bulk raw foods and packaged processed foods. Intensive agriculture has resulted in higher yields, increased productivity, greater availability, and lower prices, but it has also raised significant health and environmental concerns stemming from the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, all of which can pollute the air and soil and contaminate water supplies. These contaminants often enter into the food supply, posing health risks to humans and animals and threatening aquatic habitats and ecosystems. One of most intensive aspects of “intensive farming” is its liberal use of energy, especially the fossil fuels that contribute to increased atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide, which in turn cause global climate change, and marine acidification, all with unknown consequences.

Industrial agriculture also exposes the soil to the erosive effects of wind and rain, often leading to a severe loss of topsoil. Erosion has other harmful effects: It washes vast amounts of silt into bodies of water, damaging plant and animal life, and it increases the amount of dust, which is an air pollutant and a carrier of infectious diseases that can cost nations financial and productivity losses. If production is to be sustained, nutrients lost to erosion must be replaced, usually by chemical fertilizers, which compromise water quality and biodiversity and diminish the quality of the soil.

Industrialized agriculture involves the planting of monoculture crops, which are single crops grown over thousands of kilometers of land. Such vast monoculture planting threatens the loss of the genetic diversity represented by “land races,” the local varieties of crops once grown on smaller scales on those lands. Monoculture crops create an ecological vacuum that insects and diseases exploit, further reducing the quality of the soil while increasing the possibility of crop failure. These declines in agricultural genetic biodiversity, which in turn reduce natural species biodiversity, have consequences throughout the food chain. Farmers must increasingly rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to compensate for the resilience formerly afforded by genetic diversity.

The industrialized production of livestock, poultry, and fish, also known as “factory farming,” has many of the same benefits and harms associated with intensive farming. The benefits include efficiency, high yields, widespread availability, low prices, and contributions to local and national economies. Among the harms are the abuse of animals, environmental hazards, health risks to farm-workers, and food-safety problems. Industrial livestock production uses vast amounts of water, fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizers, and field machinery; it involves elaborate technologies such as food manufacturing, packaging, refrigeration, and transportation. The environment surrounding factory farms is often heavily polluted by animal wastes and offal, which foul the air and seep into groundwater and surface waters.

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By contrast, “sustainable agriculture” aims to produce food indefinitely without causing environmental degradation. Sustainable agriculture may or may not be the same as “traditional farming,” which often has a claim to be sustainable because forms of it have, in fact, been sustained for many hundreds of years; it attempts to combine responsible environmental management, high levels of farm productivity, respect for animals and workers, and support for rural farming communities. Sustainable agriculture might augment or replace traditional methods with postindustrial technologies such as drip irrigation or highly bred perennial polycultures.

In the 1990 “Farm Bill” the U.S. Department of Agriculture defined “sustainable agriculture” as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific applications that will, over the long term, satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural-resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

Farmers who take a sustainable approach substitute knowledge for pesticides and fertilizers. They use crop rotations and other adjustments of the agricultural system to solve problems. Among the benefits of sustainable agriculture are soil enrichment, which produces healthy plants that resist disease; the growth of cover crops (ancillary crops that cover the soil during otherwise fallow seasons), which retard erosion and control weeds; and the use of natural predators to help control pests. Sustainable farming minimizes the use of inputs of pesticides and fertilizers, thereby saving money and protecting the environment.


Trade and the globalization of agriculture are increasingly “delocalizing” the origin of food and the political authority over food policy. Transnational agribusiness and the global political and financial institutions that support them exercise great influence over food production, with growing consequences for food security and safety and the social fabric of communities. One social consequence of intensive agriculture is the consolidation of small farms into large, monocrop operations. As industrialized farming replaces human labor with machinery, each year millions of people are displaced, disrupting societies based on rural farming and swelling the population of urban areas.

The globalized food trade tends not to improve the lot of poor countries; to the contrary, if often aggravates poverty in those nations countries as subsidized foodstuffs from industrialized nations artificially drive crop prices down. Local farmers cannot compete with the factory-farm imports, so poor countries are forced into dependency on wealthier nations for food. A further consequence is that traditional, local diets are being replaced by a globalized, homogenized, animal-sourced diet of supermarket foods infused with high-calorie sweeteners and vegetable oils. These dietary changes and lifestyle changes have led to the globalization of the unhealthy European and North American diet, with attendant rises in rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Two food movements have emerged in response to the increasing globalization of food production and commerce. One is the local-food movement. Its proponents maintain that locally and sustainably produced food enhances the economic, environmental, health, and well-being of communities. A locavore is someone who aims to eat only food grown or produced within a short distance from his or her home—preferably within a radius of 100 miles. Local food networks of small farms, community gardens, seed banks, community-supported agriculture, coops, and farmers markets enhance local relationships among farmers and communities while providing alternatives to global food production.

The slow-food movement was started in Italy by Carlos Petrini in the late 1980s as counterforce to the global corporate fast-food juggernaut. This movement champions the consumption of locally grown food that uses land-race seed stocks and traditional methods of production in the particular ecoregions in which they evolved. Its proponents claim that this regional form of agriculture protects the environment; promotes local traditional culinary practices and lifestyles; enhances relationships among farmers, communities, and environments; and yields superior-tasting food.

Critics of the local-food and slow-food movements argue that newly industrialized export-oriented farmers in developing countries are harmed when consumers refuse to support international food production and trade. The moral obligation to alleviate suffering abroad, they argue, takes priority over the obligation to mitigate environmental degradation and to support local “hobby” farmers, who have many economic alternatives that are unavailable in less affluent parts of the world and who are producing expensive fad foods for fashion-conscious, high-end bourgeois consumers in the developed world.

Critics also note that transportation is only part of the total environmental impact of food production and consumption. Thorough environmental assessments of food include analyses of methods of production and amounts of energy used. Often the total energy used in food produced and transported great distances is less than that expended in local production. Proponents and critics alike agree that food and agricultural practices should be

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subject to more stringent moral and political scrutiny in order to promote food safety, nutrition, and taste while protecting farmworkers, food producers, animals, and regional biodiversity.


At the turn of the twenty-first century, one of the most hotly contested issues in the ethics of food is the advisability of using foodstuffs such as maize to produce biofuels. Partly as a consequence of this shift in the commodities market, food prices doubled between 2007 and 2008, threatening many poor people throughout the world with chronic hunger, malnutrition, and even starvation. Unlike the controversy over slow and local foods, this debate does not involve individual consumer choice because ethanol, made mostly from maize, is added indiscriminately to gasoline, and ethanol-free gasoline is not offered to consumers as an ethical alternative, even at a higher price. Rather, this is a collective moral issue, to be dealt with at the level of public policy enacted in response to popular outrage over farmers converting food to energy rather than making it available for people to eat.

Critics of the biofuels industry point out that ethanol produced from maize may require more energy to produce—in the form of tractor fuel, petroleum-based fertilizers, the energy involved in distilling it, and other energy-intensive inputs and processes—than is contained in the ethanol derivative. At best, the net energy gain is marginal. Second, other nonfood, less energy-intensive crops such as switchgrass can be used as the raw material for ethanol and other biofuels. The current U.S. policy of encouraging rather than discouraging the growing of maize for ethanol production has been criticized as pork-barrel legislation favoring the economic interests of farm states while masquerading virtuously as a means of achieving U.S. “energy independence.”

Another cause of the steep worldwide rise in food prices from 2007 to 2008 is the growing prosperity of the Chinese and Indian populations, which has led to an increased global demand for meat. Producing meat, except on lands incapable of producing crops, involves feeding animals food that might otherwise be available to hungry humans. Only about 10 percent of the “feed” consumed by cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals in factory farming is converted to meat; or, put the other way around, 90 percent of the food value of feed crops consumed by animals for meat production is lost. This indeed can be construed as an individual moral choice. Animal ethicists argue that if the slaughter of sentient beasts cannot penetrate the conscience of the mass of meat eaters, perhaps the prospect of massive human hunger, malnutrition, and starvation will.

A problem remains, however: what economists call the “free-rider” issue. Morally motivated consumers may choose to be vegetarians, but their choice may register such a weak signal in the global marketplace that if many others do not make the same choice, food prices will remain unaffected. In that case government-enforced remedies are the only workable alternative. A luxury tax, for example, might be put on meat to discourage consumption and thus ease price pressure on agricultural commodities, diverting them from animal feedlots and onto the plates of hungry poor people.


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Comstock, Gary. 2002. Vexing Nature? On the Ethical Case Against Agricultural Biotechnology. New York: Springer.

Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), P.L. 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603 Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1990. NAL Call # KF1692.A31.

Holland, Alan. 1997. Animal Biotechnology and Ethics. New York: Springer.

Jackson, Wes. 1985. New Roots for Agriculture, new edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. First edition, 1980.

Kaplan, David M., ed. 2009. The Philosophy of Food. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Korthals, Michiel. 2004. Before Dinner: Philosophy and Ethics of Food. New York: Springer.

Shiva, Vandana. 1992. The Violence of the Green Revolution: Ecological Degradation and Political Conflict in Punjab. London: Zed Press.

Shiva, Vandana.2000. Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Singer, Peter. 2006. The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. New York: Rodale.

Thompson, Paul. 1994. The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics. New York: Routledge.

David Kaplan

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3234100135