We all strive to do well in our lives. We try to find meaningful work, build good relationships with friends and family and take care of our bodies. Part of that is eating right. But what does eating “right” mean? Eating healthier? Eating more conscientiously? Eating better for the planet or for others who share our planet?
One of the most heated debates in food is the eating of meat. Those that abstain point to everything from animal suffering and factory farm pollution to human food shortages and religious purity. While those who continue to dine on flesh justify it with arguments of humane meat, religious dominion, and poor crop areas where animals are the best choice for local populations. This argument is not new. For example, in ancient Greece, philosophers like Pythagoras and Plato stood firmly against eating animals while Aristotle disagreed. There may never be a winner in this dispute.
What about slavery? Americans may think the era of slavery finished with the end of our Civil War but it is still rampant in other areas of the world. Children from Mali are bought and sold to Cote d’Ivoire cocoa farms to bring us cheap chocolate, Haitians are enslaved in the Dominican Republic to fill our stores with sugar laden treats. The vegan philosophy is to live in a way that reduces the suffering of others as much as possible but I think many vegan’s forget to look at the human suffering side of their food (as well as other products). Though a product may have the cute little bunny symbol to reassure consumers no animals were harmed, it does not ensure that a farmer was given a fair wage or that a laborer was given any wage at all. So now we must look to how we consume exotic goods such as coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar.
And then there are those products that are destroying local environments. The exploding palm oil industry has had devastating effects on the Australasian tropical countries. They are rapidly losing their rainforests which in turn means they are rapidly endangering species such as the orangutan. Shrimp farming has been devastating mangroves, Brazil’s rainforests are disappearing for cattle and even our bread basket is losing precious topsoil because of large, monocultures of corn and wheat.
Is there anything left to eat then? Or are we supposed to just subsist on air and despondency? Well, the first step is knowledge. It may be a cliché but it is a true and powerful one. Understanding our food systems and knowing what is and is not right about it will make us informed consumers instead of just buying automatons. Realize also that we have choices. We can choose the slave made or the fair-trade chocolate. We can choose locally grown asparagus in season or asparagus grown in another continent that must be shipped thousands of miles to us. Even if you make no changes in what you eat, you can change the frequency of what foods you eat.
But our power doesn’t end with our buying preferences. Yes, we can vote with our money but we can also vote with our votes. Members of Congress were voted in by us and are acting on behalf of their constituents so let them know what’s on your mind. Call, email or write to your local, state and even federal politicians. Get involved with NGO’s that are working to make a difference by donating or volunteering. We can all influence our food systems to be grown or produced in more ethical ways.