Eating ethically is neither cheap nor easy

By Jaya Dixit

Many an elder have argued that the best way to watch what you eat is by making it yourself. With the recent and prolific reactions to ethical eating discourse, however, it seems that perhaps the best way to watch what you eat is to grow it yourself as well.

Once upon a time, food consumption was as simple as scooping up whatever Old MacDonald was selling at the market. But today, in the bounty of local, organic, traditional, conventional and imported markets, being a conscientious consumer is more challenging than ever. It is nearly impossible to eat organically grown foods that are free of pesticides, support local growers, reward the ethical treatment of humans and non-humans, promote sustainable agriculture, partake in the best imported fare available and participate in fairly-traded and global agricultural practices, all while ensuring that we have at least a few historical Canadian faces remaining in our wallets smiling back at us. In this game of choosing the “best” foods, each of us are required to line up our multiple consciences and see which prevails.

From among these many markets within which most of us participate (largely with some degree of overlap), it merits noting that aside from the previous historical calls to vegetarianism, perhaps none of these alternatives to conventionally farmed foods has fostered as much support or success as the organic food movement. However, it is crucial to consider that certified organic food– while appealing to the health conscience of any individual who wants to consume foods grown without the use of chemicals– does not affect how workers are treated, nor does it guarantee a lesser carbon footprint. Companies such as Stonyfield Farm import some of their ingredients for fruit yogurts from as far as New Zealand. This is a consequence of the growing demand for sometimes difficult-to-grow ingredients that are used in organic food products.

The distinction between food and food products is critical, as it underlies the conflict of the environmental strain of the organic paradigm: by purchasing products made with organic foods, we are not conducting an exercise in decreased consumption but rather are fueling a whole new industry that relies heavily on fuel, packaging and many of the same conditions which are addressed as grievances with existing food systems.

A cursory look at this dilemma reminds us that, as a reaction to conventional, mass-scale farming, the organic food movement suffers the contradiction of being both a method of the past and a promise for the future. Organically grown foods and food products are seductive to the (often wealthy) slice of North American society for whom they are a priority, but this ever-growing group of consumers is demanding a return to pre-industrial style farming on a post-industrial scale of demand. Many scholars and experts have presented sustainability models, suggesting that the organic food movement can indeed service the food requirements of the developed world, but the majority of these models rest on the assumptions that the organic market share is a privilege for the wealthier states of the Global South.

While many communities in the developing world are still maintaining their original (what we would term “organic”) means of production, it is not entirely unlikely to anticipate that these crops could very well become the imported stuff to service the demand of developing countries. It is at this juncture (or ideally, prior to reaching it) that many of us will have to ask whether, in encouraging more and more people to transition to this organic market, we have created the sort of alienating experience in stores that was first made familiar through mass-produced conventional fare.

While it is true that overlooking the efforts of growers and producers in other countries in favour of supporting only those within our own communities may present a racist, nationalistic thread within food politics and ethics, it is also true that it is very nearly impossible to cover all of one’s bases simply by choosing local and organic foods. Organic certification is itself difficult and expensive to acquire, but markets for locally produced foods often facilitate discussions between consumers and farmers in which buyers can learn that though farmers may not be certified, they sometimes adhere to most of the tenets of organic practice.

Regardless of your position, one consideration is essential: in this era of ethical eating where the grocery store check out becomes a locale for judgment and moral exercise, the key is to know your position. In knowing which issues among the many are the most significant in your basket of consciences, it is much simpler to assess where you feel most comfortable putting your money where your mouth is.

Better yet, if it seems impossible to win at pleasing them all, sate your consciences by growing a few of your own crops in a community garden, your backyard or even on your windowsill. Not only will you partake in delicious and fresh spoils but you may just gain immense respect for the hands that feed you.

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