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Author: Gavin Van Horn
Editor: Bruce Jennings
Date: 2014
From: Bioethics(Vol. 3. 4th ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 8
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Ethical concerns about the provenance, production, and social impacts of food are matters of increasing public attention. Industrial forms of agriculture became dominant in the twentieth century, allowing for large-scale food production but increasing farmers' reliance on fossil fuels, chemically and capitally intense inputs, and crop specialization. As these agricultural models have been exported from developed nations to other parts of the world, objections have been raised about biodiversity loss, threats to native seed varieties, and the deracination of small-scale and subsistence farmers. Discourses about the ethics of food production and consumption reveal that formerly fringe lifestyles, such as veganism, are attracting greater notice. Concurrently, social and structural critiques informed by local forms of agriculture are challenging the political and environmental legitimacy of the agrofood industry. These emerging food movements and food-related concerns highlight how deeply embedded ethical values and practices are in various food systems.


The story of the alternative food movement is tightly linked to a dramatic shift in farming practices that occurred during the twentieth century. Globally, at the end of the twentieth century approximately twice as much land was used for domesticated plant production as was used in 1900, with humans consuming 35 to 40 percent of the planet's terrestrial biological production. In the United States, following the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, soil conservation was a national priority, albeit a temporary one. Particularly after World War II, agriculture moved away from soil conservation, mixed cropping, crop rotation cycles, and small-scale animal husbandry toward fossil fuel-based farming practices and national policies that encouraged greater swaths of land farmed with less human labor. Since 1935 average farm size in the United States has grown threefold, while the number of farms has decreased by approximately two-thirds and the population of farmers has decreased by a factor of ten. Key to this transition have been the chemical and industrial processes developed during and for the German war efforts, which included the Haber-Bosch method for creating ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a major factor in overcoming the limits of nutrient depletion in soil. Something of the magnitude of the effects the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process had on agriculture was captured by the historian J. R. McNeill (2000, 26), who observed that “our food is now made from oil as well as sunlight.”

While increasing amounts of land came under production, by the late 1940s and with particular intensity in the 1960s scientific experiments in grain selection and crossbreeding began in earnest with the hope of achieving greater yields for staple crops, such as rice, wheat, and corn. These experiments, spearheaded by the plant pathologist Norman Borlaug and other researchers, led to what became known as the “green revolution,” and these new agricultural models were exported and used around the world. Meeting the food needs of a growing global population was a primary rhetorical justification. As worthy a goal as decreasing hunger and malnutrition may be, however, green revolution promoters tended to focus on a single goal (increasing crop yields) while discounting the social and ecological integrities of local, indigenous systems. Like the increasing corporate consolidation of agriculture in the United States, the green revolution was informed by an ideology that equated production (increasing quantitative growth) with goodness. Unable to compete in a global marketplace driven by economies of scale, small farmers in Mexico, India, China, Indonesia, Russia, and many other parts of the world were often displaced by what “amounted to the largest and Page 1226  |  Top of Articlefastest set of crop transfers in world history” (McNeill 2000, 223).

The opposition between conventional and alternative agricultures (including various types, such as sustainable agriculture, agroecology, biodynamic farming, and per-maculture) arose in this context and represents much more than distinctive types of farming practices. Informing and guiding these practices are contrary ethics—one driven by quantitative production and efficiency measures, the other driven by values regarding the collective, long-term, and local quality of life for human and biotic communities. These fundamental ethical differences were described in 1990 as a “paradigmatic gulf’ by the sociologists Curtis E. Beus and Riley E. Dunlap (1990, 593), who outlined key points of disagreement and argued, “It is impossible to separate clearly the practices and technologies which make up agriculture from the beliefs and values that underlie them.” In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries this conflict of values—food production as a technological production problem or a qualitative social one—has perhaps been most evident in the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the related subject of seed patenting, as discussed in Gregory E. Pence's The Ethics of Food: A Reader for the Twenty-First Century (2002).

Public concern has been raised not only about the ethics of manipulating genetic materials but also about their potential impacts, including biological contamination of wild and domesticated plants, direct and indirect threats to wildlife, public and farmworker safety, and disruption of sustainable local farming practices. Since the 1990s transnational corporations that specialize in biotechnology and chemical, pharmaceutical, and agriculture interests have rapidly consolidated the commercial seed industry into an oligopoly sometimes referred to as the “big six” (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, and BASF). The largest four of these corporations in 2008 controlled 56 percent of the global seed market, 85 percent of transgenic corn patents, and 70 percent of noncorn transgenic plant patents in the United States. According to the anthropologist Devon G. Pefia (2002, 10), one of the dangers of such consolidation is that farmer autonomy is severely undermined, creating a contract workforce of “bio-serfs.” The large seed conglomerates have been litigious about their proprietary rights. For example, Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, sued the Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser in 1998 for patent infringement after it was discovered that he had grown Monsanto-patented genetically modified Roundup Ready canola, which had cross-pollinated with his crops. Schmeiser lost the case in 2004 by a 5–4 decision in Canada's supreme court.

One should bear in mind that genetic manipulation has always been essential to agriculture. Indeed the domestication of wild plants (beginning in the Near East around 8500 B.C.E. with barley and wheat)—which by definition includes the alteration of genetic traits through selective breeding—made agriculture possible. There are those who continue to champion the alteration of plant genetics as critical to meeting food needs but who also promote plant selection that is intended to mimic local ecosystem processes and functions. A prominent example is the Land Institute, a Salina, Kansas, nonprofit research organization founded by the biologist and geneticist Wes Jackson (2010) that seeks to develop a viable mixed-crop perennial polyculture that would emulate the biological functions of North American prairies. The difference between GMOs and plant selection is thus not the modification of the genome. Modern GMOs are ethically contentious because of what is being selected (e.g., so-called terminator seeds, which produce sterile second-generation plants), the degree of genetic manipulation (e.g., transgenic organisms), and the exclusive rights to control and commodify the products of such genetic manipulation.

The sheer scale of conventional agricultural in the early twenty-first century involves a global system in which farms, farm labor, and the resulting crops are more easily viewed as abstract entities that can be exchanged, traded, and patented with little consideration given to the environmental and qualitative social impacts of such decisions. The dominant trends in agricultural production are increasingly scrutinized by those who, echoing the ethical objections of the prominent agrarian writer Wendell Berry (1977, 33), question the wisdom of the “substitution of energy for knowledge, of methodology for care, of technology for morality.” How, where, and why humans grow, eat, exchange, sell, and celebrate food are ethical issues that express different individuals' and communities' understandings of the relationship between humans and the natural world. Are humans part of a larger biotic community and subject to its constraints, in need of working within an inclusive and interdependent system? Or are human populations destined to continually attempt to overcome such constraints through adaptive technical ingenuity, remaining one step ahead of the next crisis? For those who find conventional forms of agriculture ethically objectionable, attention to the production, distribution, and consumption of food involves engaging the values expressed through the food system, sometimes with the intention of reform and sometimes with the intention of dismantling the conventional food system altogether.


Like other practices that may be grouped into the alternative food movement, interest in organic food production can be viewed as a response to the increasing Page 1227  |  Top of Articleindustrialization and globalization of food systems. More specifically, while fossil fuel-dependent farming has enabled higher yields per acre, it has also often required intensive water use and chemical treatments (e.g., synthetic pesticides and fertilizers) to prevent losses and ensure that such yields continue. In this context, punctuated by occasional food scares linked to tainted products, organic food has come to connote a healthier form of consumption that decreases risk and supports more holistic, sustainable forms of agriculture.

Organic farming has historically been associated with avoiding all use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and building soil fertility and structure through time-honored techniques, such as crop rotation and composting with animal manure. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries organic farming has come to involve specifications for the humane treatment of animals and the rejection of antibiotics, growth hormones, and GMO crops. The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 empowered the US Department of Agriculture to standardize organic labeling, and in 2002 specifications for organic certification were established for farming practices and for animal husbandry, handling, and inspection. From humble beginnings in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, organic farming has transitioned into a multibillion-dollar industry. In the United States alone, according to the Organic Trade Association (2013) statistics, in 2010 organic food sales topped $26.7 billion, continuing a decade of growth in spite of national economic concerns. Demand for organics has led to the rise of industrial organic farming methods and the globalization of formally regulated trade networks. As large corporate food producers continue to absorb popular or small-scale independent brands (e.g., Boca Foods and Back to Nature are owned by Kraft; Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen are subsidiaries of General Mills), some people, such as the journalism professor and best-selling author Michael Pollan (2006), have questioned whether “big organic” recapitulates the problems associated with industrial agriculture by covering an unsustainable system with a patina of greenwash.

As a result, there are those who propose going beyond organic to engage in a more comprehensive analysis of food system impacts. A notable expression of this can be seen in efforts for better food labeling practices and the organizations that provide guidance and accountability for such certifications. Although organic certification is well established, other types of food labeling have proliferated to inform people of specific social and environmental practices (e.g., fair trade, Equal Exchange, FairDeal, direct trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified). The ethicist Hub Zwart (2000, 124) observed, “In this manner, food products come to materialize ideological and economical tensions by representing, in tangible form, whole systems of production.” Emerging scholarly analysis and nuanced case studies discuss the multiple scales involved in organic production, distribution, and consumption and the daily ethical decisions involved in food consumption decisions related to health, risk, and family care.


Vegetarianism is a plant-based diet, sometimes including dairy products and/or eggs, while veganism involves eliminating all animal products from one's diet and sometimes eliminating the use of any kind of animal product or by-product. The reasons an individual may commit to such a lifestyle can be morally complex, but the prevention of animal suffering is a central motivation for vegetarian and vegan activists. Vegetarians and vegans may also cite the adverse environmental impacts of industrial food production, the compromised rights and dignity of human laborers, and the health benefits of plant-based diets as reasons for their lifestyle commitments.

The link between refraining from meat consumption and regard for animal welfare is a long-standing one. Human cultures have found various ways to ritualize or temper the violence necessary to eating, sometimes expressed through dietary ethics and religious laws that teach selective abstinence (e.g., Jewish and Islamic dietary laws, Greek dietetics) or through ascetic practices that aim to prevent the suffering of sentient beings (e.g., the principle of ahimsa in Jainism and other post-Vedic Indian traditions). The clearest differences between early twenty-first-century concerns about animal welfare and historical ones are related to changes in meat production since the 1950s, specifically the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as a standard model in developed countries and the environmental and health impacts that have followed in their wake. The extensive impacts of CAFOs and livestock generally are discussed in such multiauthor documents as Livestock's Long Shadow (Steinfeld et al. 2006), a 2006 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Pew Commission's 2008 Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. An indication of the multiple effects of human reliance on livestock can be ascertained from the following summary figures from Livestock's Long Shadow. “The livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land … account [ing] for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet. … The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in C02 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxi). The report continues, “In the United States, with the world's fourth largest land area, livestock are responsible for an estimated 55 percent of erosion and sediment, 37 percent of pesticide use, 50 percent of antibiotic use, and a third Page 1228  |  Top of Articleof the loads of nitrogen and phosphorus into freshwater resources” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxii).

Particularly since the mid-1970s ethicists have prompted debate about topics related to animal rights, abuse, experimentation, and the industrialization of meat production. Peter Singer, for example, ignited a public and scholarly discussion about animal suffering and “speciesism” when his book Animal Liberation was published in 1975. In the decades since, the growth of industrial animal husbandry has continued largely unabated, and global meat production is expected to double from 2001 levels by 2050. As such practices gain attention and visibility and a more diverse and accessible range of alternative food products becomes available, vegetarianism and veganism have become viable options for many people and ethically mandatory for some.

In terms of environmental impacts, it is often argued that a plant-based diet is an act of eating lower on the food chain, which alleviates a host of negative consequences—for example, the production of heat-trapping methane gas from ruminant digestion, the large quantities of land and water required for livestock production, the chemical pollution of groundwater and air linked to CAFOs, and the disease vectors that are created by keeping large numbers of animals in close confinement. In terms of human welfare and alleviating hunger, it is also argued that if a significant number of people switched to a plant-based diet, then a larger number of calories would be available to those who are malnourished or starving. Perspectives such as these have been boldly asserted, as with the cover query of E magazine's January-February 2002 issue, “So You're an Environmentalist: Why Are You Still Eating Meat?” (see Motavalli 2002 ). Whatever the ethical reasoning, at the level of the body, vegetarians and vegans have determined that they can no longer collude with an industrial system of food production that is responsible for manifold environmental and social harms.


A defining feature of twenty-first-century international food systems is the concentration of capital in tightening links between food production, advertising, biotechnology, expert knowledge, and distribution. Conventional agriculture thus mirrors other forms of global capitalization and is indeed linked to them. In this context, claiming the mantle of locavore has gained resonance as a countermovement to conventional forms of agriculture—a manner in which to resist globally powerful actors and draw focus to the supposed personal, social, and ecological benefits of confining one's diet to a delimited area.

Though there is no one definition of what constitutes local food, locavores often speak of “food miles” as a critical criteria for measuring one's impact. In literature about locavore diets, purchasing food that is grown and processed within one hundred miles of one's residence is a commonly cited figure, though geography also affects judgments of appropriate distances. The positive associations attributed to local foods rely on correlations between food quality and taste, reduced fossil fuel consumption (climate and carbon footprint awareness), and support for local businesses as critical to building regional food security. Rather than single-criterion formulas for appropriate food (e.g., is the food organic or not, cruelty free or not, fair trade or not), locavores seek to make as visible as possible the constellation of relationships involved from farm to plate.

The locavore emphasis on reembedding food systems in particular places represents an ethic that values direct relationship, qualitative standards, and local resiliency. Some scholars, such as the ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan in Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food (2002), have also argued that cultural and biological diversity are dependent on local foodways and that a focus on local eating is a way to more fully inhabit one's place. In this respect, locavores might frame understandings of local foods as a homecoming invested with cultural memories and identity claims as well as a method to actively confront a politically disempowering and ecologically destructive food system. The success of locavores and the local food movement can, perhaps ironically, be gauged by the efforts of multinational corporations to integrate the “local” into their product inventory, something that may make the local label, according to the anthropologist Laura DeLind (2011, 273), “a chimera if not a tool of the status quo.” Additional cautions have been offered about the assumed inherent goodness of local foods, including Robert Feagan's (2006) arguments against “defensive localism” and Branden Born and Mark Purcell's (2006) discussion of what they call the “local trap,” which is the frequent presumption that the local scale is necessarily better or more socially just than other scales.

The slow food movement shares many overlaps with the broader locavore sensibility. Slow food tends to focus on seasonality, food biodiversity, and indigeneity and therefore emphasizes regional pride and support of local, small-scale forms of agricultural production. What distinguishes adherents of slow food is the meal itself, in which preparation and eating are promoted as deliberate acts to be enjoyed. Slow Food International was founded in 1989 and by 2012 claimed 1,300 chapters and more than 100,000 members with a mission of promoting good, clean, and fair food for all. Taste—and the pleasure taken in eating food generally—is paramount, but a deeper ethic and cultural critique is also present. The movement traces its origins to the Slow Food founder Page 1229  |  Top of Articleand gastronome Carlo Petrini's (2007) objections to the potential opening of a McDonald's in Piazza di Spagna, Rome, and advocates continue to be deeply concerned with genetic patenting of seed stock by companies such as Monsanto (called a criminal act of biopiracy by Petrini). For Slow Food, countering such large-scale enterprises depends on relocalizing by building local agricultural networks and fostering the values that support such networks. Such concerns are a major focus of Slow Food's Terra Madre network and other related Slow Food projects, such as the Berkeley-based Edible Schoolyard efforts of the restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters. Caring about food, according to locavores and slow food advocates, means reallocating time, energy, and money for the sake of local food sovereignty, protecting the freedoms of farmers and eaters alike, and indeed challenging the notion that progress lies in higher agricultural yields and the further centralization of the food system.


The twentieth century was punctuated by brief flourishings of urban agriculture. Times of war (particularly World Wars I and II) led to the association of urban gardens with patriotic duty, as citizens were encouraged to do their part to alleviate food shortages and rationing. Economically trying times also tend to turn city dwellers back to the soil. While the movement toward urban agriculture is not novel, examples of small-scale animal husbandry (e.g., raising chickens, goats, honeybees), community and school gardens, public orchards, edible landscapes, and even sizable farms in deindustrialized portions of cities or on the rooftops of buildings are proliferating. A flurry of popular and scholarly books has documented this new wave of urban agriculture, including multicity overviews, such as Jennifer Cockrall-King's Food in the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution (2012) and David Hanson and Edwin Marty's Breaking through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival (2012); compelling first-person accounts, such as Novella Carpenter's Oakland-based Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (2009) and the MacArthur Genius Award recipient Will Allen's The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities (2012); and more academic analyses, such as Laura J. Lawson's City Bountifid: A Century of Community Gardening in America (2005) and Luc J. A. Mougeot's Agropolis: The Social, Political, and Environmental Dimensions of Urban Agriculture (2005), which have provided valuable historical and social context about urban agriculture initiatives.

Many who have been drawn to the food movement anticipate that a petroleum-based economy cannot continue indefinitely and that urban reinvention centered on community-based food provisioning will become both more viable and necessary in the future. Countries such as Cuba, more vulnerable to petroleum crises because of their geography and historical trading partners, are already deeply engaged in postindustrial organic agriculture experiments as a matter of national need. The crumbling infrastructures and vacant lands of former manufacturing powerhouses, such as Detroit—a city known for its historically pioneering urban gardening initiatives—have been cited as important opportunities for community-based urban farming that can build on the work of already well-established groups.

Another reason for the growing attention to urban agricultural initiatives is tied to the evolution of the suburban supermarket culture, which left many urban communities devoid of adequate food systems. Procuring affordable and healthy food can be a severe problem in some cities, at times acute in low-income communities, where economic disinvestment, institutionalized and structural racism, and a lack of fresh produce contribute to the creation of food-insecure areas. In such contexts, urban agriculture meets a number of social needs as an empowering method to rebuild communities, foster cultural traditions, create civic space, inform place-based and regional identity, and heighten ecological awareness. Population growth in urban areas has led some, such as Cockrall-King (2012, 80), to predict that “how cities feed themselves is going to be the defining obsession of the current century.” While urban agriculture accounts for only a fraction of overall food production (estimated at 15 percent globally, with much lower figures for cities in the United States), the revival of interest in urban forms of farming portends a shift in food systems and the ways urban areas are related to their social and ecological landscapes.


In one sense, the ethics of eating is an individual act: what goes into the mouth is a choice that each eater makes. There are dangers in viewing food solely through this lens, however, not the least of which is the reduction of the food system to an aggregation of consumer preferences. As the visibility of alternative food movements increases, critical concerns have been raised about the degree to which food ethics are framed in terms of virtuous consumption, thereby channeling concern about food primarily into a paradigm of individual choice and neglecting the social dimensions of sustainability and more engaged forms of citizenship. According to some scholars, a larger and sharper structural critique is necessary, which includes addressing institutionalized forms of racism that are embedded in the food system and are evident in persistent patterns of unequal environmental risk, economic disadvantage, and lack of food access.

The term food justice refers to the ways low-income communities and communities of color are responding to Page 1230  |  Top of Articlesystemic inequalities and racially biased policies and laws perpetuated by the food system. The goals of food justice activists are to produce and gain access to safe, affordable, healthy, and environmentally and culturally appropriate foods. Industrial agriculture has produced historically unprecedented quantities of food, yet it has “led to wider disparities in access to nutritious food and at the same time undermined the viability of traditional foods, food ways, and subsistence activities” (Pena 2002, 4). Many point to rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes as well as malnutrition and food insecurity as evidence of food injustice. According to Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman (2011, 6), “The vision espoused by many food justice activists goes beyond one in which wealthy consumers vote with their forks in favor of a more environmentally sustainable food system to imagine that all communities, regardless of race or income, can have both increased access to healthy food and the power to influence a food system that prioritizes environmental and human needs over agribusiness profits.” Food justice advocates thus aim not only to provide multiple challenges to policies, laws, and agribusiness operations that tightly control the production and distribution of food but also to offer an internal critique of the food movement, which has been criticized for its white privilege and reticence to directly address racial difference in food discourses and the social processes that feed institutional and organizational forms of racism.

Collective efforts to engage in food-related community concerns are sometimes framed in terms of food democracy. Reclaiming a stronger knowledge of food and public participation jointly, through collective engagement, reveals that food can be a powerful way to focus attention on the needs and rights of particular communities both in terms of immediate and local provisioning and in relation to the regional agricultural systems. A closely related concept to food democracy is civic agriculture, a term coined by the sociologist Thomas Lyson in 1999 to characterize the manner in which people are engaging and building community by focusing on the social impacts of food production and distribution. According to DeLind (2002, 217), in contrast to conventional agriculture, civic agriculture “scans from the ground up, attending to less standardized, more direct and self-reliant approaches to food production, distribution, and consumption” that are “responsive to particular ecological and socioeconomic contexts.” Perhaps what is most distinctive about the term is that it emphasizes the potential civic character of agriculture; that is, it links the cultivation of soil with the cultivation of citizenship. DeLind (2012, 217) contends that civic agriculture is not simply about better methods of farming, nor is it about greener consumption patterns; it is about discovering and working toward “a sense of belonging to a place and an organic sense of citizenship.” The practice of civic agriculture provides a means to a more grounded sense of what it means to live (and live well) in place—a way to realize and internalize how human bodies are embedded within the larger ecological and social commons.

The concepts of food democracy and civic agriculture share deep affinities with pragmatic ethical theory and practice—particularly the mutual emphasis on an iterative process of learning by doing and testing values through public engagement and discourse. Community gardens, food cooperatives, food policy councils, neighborhood associations, and food justice collectives allow and encourage such opportunities of direct engagement. According to the environmental studies professor Charles Levkoe (2006, 95), groups that have been historically marginalized or others alienated from political decision making may find that “through participation, citizens gain knowledge and understanding of the social, legal, and political systems in which they live and operate. They gain skills and aptitudes to make use of this knowledge, acquiring important social values and dispositions, based on the democratic experience, to put their knowledge and skills to use.” Stated differently, engaging in the collective work and pleasure of growing, distributing, and eating food can lead to the rediscovery of place and to becoming more deeply committed to that place and its peoples.


The intersection between ethics and food is a fertile one. Because eating is necessarily entangled with human cultural histories, identities, values, and memories, food serves as a strong entry point into considerations of how social values and institutional structures support or undermine the integration of people and place. Food ethics clearly involves a diverse and interconnected array of movements, choices, and social and environmental considerations that span scales ranging from individual bodies to powerfully entrenched institutions. Explicitly addressing and interrogating such issues provides a way to make visible the hidden costs of food systems and ultimately the connections between human health and the health of the lands on which humans depend.


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Gavin Van Horn
Director, Cultures of Conservation,
Center for Humans and Nature

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3727400250