The Ethics of Food

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How the human community chooses to use the land available to it is a reflection of its values. The current land-use arrangements, which divert 40 per cent of all food to feed or create fuels, reflect values suggesting that the dietary and transportation preferences of wealthier individuals are more important than both feeding the malnourished and stabilising the wider biotic community. Given the projected growth of the global middle class, the consumption of animals and animal-based products is expected to grow 73 per cent between 2010 and 2050. As the Food and Agriculture Organization () of the has noted, reducing the ecological impact of intensive livestock production is critically important. This reduction can be achieved by pricing water and the commons, decreasing or eliminating subsidies, and implementing manure management practices, among other techniques. Further, the FAO reports that deployment of current technologies and practices could reduce livestock-sector greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions by up to one-third. Here’s an erudite and in-depth research findings, by Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

As the collective impact of human activity approaches Earth’s biophysical limits, the  ethics of food become increasingly important. Human agriculture has a tremendous impact on global ecosystems. Worldwide agriculture has already cleared or covered 70 per cent of the grassland, 50 per cent of the savanna, 45 per cent of the temperate deciduous forest, and 27 per cent of the tropical forest biome. Despite the scale of global agricultural production, more than eight hundred and seventy million people remain undernourished. It is striking, then, that only 60 per cent of the global harvest is consumed by humans, while another 35 per cent is fed to livestock and the remaining five per cent is used for biofuels and other industrial products.

How the human community chooses to use the land available to it is a reflection of its values. The current land-use arrangements, which divert 40 per cent of all food to feed animals or create fuels, reflect values suggesting that the dietary and transportation preferences of wealthier individuals are more important than both feeding the malnourished and stabilising the wider biotic community.

As the ethicist Paul Thompson has noted, the term ethics is in scientific contexts, where its meaning is often limited to codes of conduct within a professional field. In this context, to act ethically often means little more than to act in accordance with professional protocol. However, when philosophers use the term, it refers to fundamental conceptions of how moral agents ought to act within their world relative to competing conceptions of what is good or has value. Thus, as Thompson notes, “While philosophical ethics does not necessarily shy away from prescriptive statements that say what people should be doing, the point of a philosophical analysis is to illustrate and analyse the background assumptions and context in which the prescription is grounded.”

Grain-fed livestock production also has significant consequences for Earth’s water, land, and air. Globally, livestock and their feed crops consume large quantities of freshwater and contribute to the pollution of waterways through agricultural run-off and untreated waste, along with the natural aftereffects of giving livestock access to waterways. Also, by motivating significant land-use changes for pasture and feed crops, livestock production is a leading cause of species extinction, deforestation, and soil erosion. Finally, by contributing to deforestation and producing direct methane and indirect nitrous oxide emissions, livestock are a significant source of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases changing the climate. Overall, agriculture is the single largest anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases, accounting for approximately 35 per cent of all emissions. This figure is more “than the emissions from worldwide transportation (including all cars, trucks, and planes) or electricity generation.”

Livestock production represents nearly one-half of these agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (14.5 per cent). However, to properly understand the ecological impact of meat production, it is important to place the activity within the context of both expected population growth and projected rates of meat consumption.

Given the projected growth of the global middle class, the consumption of animals and animal-based products is expected to grow 73 per cent between 2010 and 2050. As the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has noted, reducing the ecological impact of intensive livestock production is critically important. This reduction can be achieved by pricing water and the commons, decreasing or eliminating subsidies, and implementing manure management practices, among other techniques. Further, the FAO reports that deployment of current technologies and practices could reduce livestock-sector greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions by up to one-third.

However, ecologists Nathan Pelletier and Peter Tyedmers have demonstrated that these changes would not likely be sufficient–even if they were widely implemented – given the projected growth in meat consumption. Their analysis shows that if human activity is to remain within sustainable “environmental boundary conditions” for ghg emissions, reactive nitrogen mobilisation, and anthropogenic biomass appropriation, agriculture will increasingly need to move away from the profligate use of edible nutrition to feed to live stock (and, as we will see, biofuels). All human activity–including food production, energy production, and transportation–must fall within these limits if humanity is to avert “irreversible ecological change.”

While recognising that their model embodies “considerable uncertainty,” Pelletier and Tyedmers’s conservative estimate is that “by 2050, the livestock sector alone may either occupy the majority of, or considerably overshoot, current best estimates of humanity’s safe operating space in each of these domains.” Specifically, by 2050, in order to meet FAO projected demand for animal products, livestock production will require 70 per cent of the sustainable boundary conditions for greenhouse gas emissions, 294 percent of sustainable reactive nitrogen mobilisation, and 88 per cent of sustainable biomass appropriation. Again, these are the sustainable boundary thresholds for all human activity, not merely agriculture.

As a point of comparison, Pelletier and Tyedmers noted that if humans derived their nutrition entirely from plant sources, agriculture could use only 1.1 per cent of sustainable ghg emissions, 69 per cent of sustainable reactive nitrogen mobilisation, and 1.1 per cent of sustainable biomass appropriation. Pelletier and Tyedmers claim that as “the human species runs the final course of rapid population growth before beginning to level off mid-century, and food systems expand at commensurate pace, reining in the global livestock sector should be considered a key leverage point for averting irreversible ecological change and moving humanity toward a safe and sustainable operating space.”

The mass production and consumption of grain-fed animals is a significant source of human disease and is a leading cause behind the depletion and pollution of fresh water sources, the degradation and deforestation of land, the extinction of species, and the warming of the planet. Further, increasing demand to eat animals decreases the total nutrition available to humans, making the task of feeding eight hundred and seventy million malnourished people all the more difficult. As the ecologist, Jonathan Foley has stated, “Using highly productive croplands to produce animal feed, no matter how efficiently, represents a net drain on the world’s potential food supply.” This use of edible nutrition reflects the human community’s ethical values. Given the current and projected quantity of edible nutrition used to feed livestock, preserving the ability of wealthier individuals to consume animals appears to have far greater value than achieving the most sustainable means possible for feeding a growing world population. But what, then, are the values reflected in the diversion of edible nutrition to create biofuels?

Though biofuel production diverts significantly less of the global harvest than livestock production (5 per cent devoted to fuels compared to the 35 per cent that is allocated to feed), the amount is not inconsequential. For instance, in 2011, 40 per cent of all corn grown in the United States was turned into ethanol. Further, biofuel production is often mandated by laws requiring the production of certain quantities of biofuel. For instance, in the , biofuels must account for 10 per cent of all fuel by 2020; in the United States, 36 billion gallons must be produced annually by 2022.As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics notes in its report on biofuels, the motivations behind the creation of biofuel quotas are diverse and complex: “The expectation of some was that they [biofuels] would solve these great challenges all at once: i.e., provide a new source of income for farmers and revenue from ‘clean’ technology, as well as renewable–and therefore endless–sources of fuel, leading to far less greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions than fossil fuels.” But as we will see, all of these claims about bio – fuels have been brought into question. Let us first examine the claims that biofuels mitigate ghg emissions.


When burned, both petroleum-based and plant-based fuels release large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, unlike fossil fuels, the plants used for biofuels remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during their growing phase. From this fact follows the widespread claim that biofuels can be used without significantly adding to the net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indeed, the International Energy Agency estimates that biofuels could reduce current fossil fuel related carbon dioxide emissions from cars by 20–50 per cent. However, several studies have questioned the potential for biofuels to mitigate ghg emissions. In particular, research has shown that corn-based ethanol in the United States likely leads to a net increase in ghg.

Ideally, these biofuels would satisfy five ethical principles: 1) The development of biofuels should not come at the expense of essential human rights (including comprehensive health and work rights, access to sufficient food and water, and land entitlements). 2) Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable. 3) Biofuels should contribute to the net reduction of total ghg emissions; they should not exacerbate global climate change. 4) Biofuels should develop in accordance with trade principles that are fair and recognize the rights of people to just reward, including labour rights and intellectual property rights. 5) The costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way.

When lands that could be used for growing food or feed crops are instead used to grow biofuels, this creates pressures to convert marginal or forested land to agricultural production. If one’s analysis includes these, it is likely that even second-generation biofuels will lead to a net increase in ghg, violating the third principle. Yet beyond the technical viability of second generation biofuels to achieve much-needed ghg reductions, we must also ask whether it would be ethically defensible to divert 25 per cent of all agricultural land – which is currently used to grow crops to feed humans – to replace 14 per cent of transportation fuels.

The widespread and growing use of food-stock and biofuels reflects the human community’s values. The current land use arrangements, which divert 40 per cent of all food to feed animals or create fuels, reflect values that suggest that dietary and transportation preferences of wealthier individuals are more important than feeding people. If food were used to feed people directly, rather than to fatten cows or create fuel, it would increase the total supply of food. As Foley and his colleagues have noted, the wholesale shift to a plant based diet would net up to three quadrillion calories annually, a 50 per cent increase in the total supply of food. They add: “Naturally, our current diets and uses of crops have many economic and social benefits, and our preferences are unlikely to change completely. Still, even small shifts in diet, say from grain-fed mutton to poultry, can pay off handsomely.”

Thus, appropriately extended to include the present analysis of biofuels, the central claim of my earlier analysis remains true: although there are important and morally relevant differences in various modes of agricultural production, eating grain-fed animals and converting food to fuel are difficult to ethically justify when more than eight hundred and seventy million people are malnourished. Given the current and projected size of the human population, it will increasingly be necessary to modify not only how meat and biofuels are produced, but also dietary and transportation preferences themselves.

(Also appears in the blog the author periodically updates)

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad