I’ll be the first to admit it: I love foods that are ethically indefensible. I love fois gras. I will eat a full plate of sweetbreads, suck marrow from the bone of a Osso Bucco. My favorite sushi is Bluefin tuna. I love me some veal. Which is a difficult habit to maintain considering the fact that I teach ethics and philosophy to engineers and scientists, and that in my classes at the Colorado School of Mines (a top-tier engineering school),we take Deontological, Utilitarian, and Virtue Ethics and apply them to case studies as core thought-experiments. I expect my students to inquire deeply into their own belief systems. Yet, it is clear to me, that the way I eat, and the way most Americans eat, is simply not environmentally or morally justifiable.
I know this because I have examined my eating habits through the lens of all of these philosophies, and I have failed every time—there is simply nothing sustainable or moral about the way I eat, and I am certainly not the only one. Sure, if I want to believe as John Stuart Mills does, that the greatest good for the greatest number justifies some going hungry as long as we all vote on it, well then. Good enough. But that’s the sort of thinking that we used to justify slavery and not allowing women to vote. Or, like Aristotle, I could just imagine that there are a couple of really nice Nichomachean moral virtues that I could choose to apply to my eating habits; say temperance and maybe a bit more moderation. I might lose weight that way, but people will still starve somewhere while I have comparatively affordable foods delivered from across the globe, and the healthy fruit snack I am eating will still travel around two thousand miles (aggregate, including supply chain) from an orchard the essentially uses slave labor. Aristotle might not have a problem with that, but I sure do. And if Kant was sitting here with me as I write this, he would point out that the only way his system of ethics would work is by giving everyone an equal and balanced foundation, say a plot of land on which to grow what they need and equal parts water and fertilizer and stock to sustain it.
Which would mean no sea urchin or filet mignon or beef tongue for me or for him.
Kant digs his toe in the carpet and leaves when I tell him that not all plots of land are created equally, either, so even that wouldn’t work. Kant can really be cantankerous about stuff like that.
Here’s some hard truths about what and how and why we eat the way we do: hardly any of the food we eat comes to us from local sources, and there are complicating factors like actual miles travelled for delivery, total water used, fertilizers used, carbon emission totals, overall waste and spoilage, etcetera, that play into the environmental and economic impact of having our cake and eating it too. Chances are, that potato they have chopped up into fries for you travelled 1800 miles (aggregate, including food chain) to make it into the canola oil, which also travelled at least 2900 miles. The orange you have in your purse might have travelled 3500 miles. The cumulative distance that hot dog travelled will blow your mind: 4700 miles, because red meat is the worst.
I grew up in a 70’s household that was Mormon, and which functioned more like a household from the 40’s or 50’s, so I was able to live a life that was more reminiscent of days gone by—Wyoming is a lightly populated state, high winds over most of it, and for a good portion of the year it is covered in snow. So, major supermarket chains don’t much like to move there. Our main grocery was a small privately-owned affair all the way up until 1990, and even now the produce at the new Safeway looks limp and pathetic compared to what I get at Sprouts in Denver. What this meant for our eating habits: we didn’t often get citrus year around. And our fruit and vegetables were seasonal and often ugly little brutes from local arid farms run by men and women barely getting by on water allotments from the city and state. Growing up, I actually thought potatoes were supposed to be crooked and bent and about the size of small limes. Not that I had ever seen a lime that didn’t have brown spots covering them—as a matter of fact, most of the limes I saw as a child seemed to be masquerading as potatoes.
Our meat was often local too, and not always domestic. During hunting season, it wasn’t uncommon to have the purple meats of elk and mountain goat and mountain sheep and moose wrapped in paper next to the beef or pork. I’ve seen bear meat wrapped in cellophane next to the bologna. And let me be clear—my argument is not that those were the good old days. Anyone who has had antelope burgers knows that even the ground meat from one of those stringy mothers is gristly and gamey and the abundance of Antelopes on the Wyoming range is testament to how little even the hunters want to eat them.
My argument is that it wasn’t that long ago (even less than half a century ago), that we had reasonable habits, reasonable constructions around how the food we harvested and killed made it to our mouths. Generally, our food just didn’t have to go that far. These were natural approaches to farming and ranching that also just happened to make some sense morally. Local organic farms made sense back then (because organic wasn’t something we thought about), and farmers knew how to rotate crops to keep them healthy, forgoing any pesticides or herbicides or fungicides with simple crop management and fallowing their fields from time to time. Industrial farms plant what is profitable, then keep growing and growing until the soil underneath it is chalked and barren, then they soak it with fertilizer and pesticides that are made from petroleum byproducts. I won’t be going on a long rant about it here (I don’t think I will, anyway), but if you haven’t been paying attention to the crisis of conscience and the crisis of economy that is corporate ranching and corporate farming, it is probably time to read up on it because there are far-reaching implications that don’t end with GMO soy (which is 73% of the soy we eat).
My argument is that we shouldn’t farm and shouldn’t transport our food the way we do: think of this—if you are a meat eater, and desire an eight-ounce steak, here’s what needs to happen to get it from the uterus of a cow and up to your mouth:
- 6-10 pounds of corn or grains or soy trucked in around 600-1000 miles (depends on locations).
- 800 gallons of water (the average cow needs twenty gallons of water a day).
That is just what they need to survive, but there are a number of other concerns regarding that eight-ounce steak; often, that steer that is put up for slaughter is then trucked hundreds of miles away to be butchered, but that isn’t always the end of it—much of the time, that carcass is then trucked to a secondary or tertiary plant where all those different parts are used for things like hotdogs and other disgusting things like that (I eat hotdogs too), and the steak itself goes in another direction. Let’s say (factoring in all the other things) that the total food miles for that steak are anywhere from 3800-5800 aggregate miles. You can understand how complicated this analysis becomes if you take into account all the different materials (medicine, fertilizer, seeds, etcetera etcetera, that go into the production of that cow and then into that steak). If you want to learn more, try here and here.
And that is not taking into account those things I don’t want to talk about or think about, such as:
- methane gas created by cow farts, aggregate impact on climate change/local environment,
- impact of concentrated cow shit and piss on local aquifers and rivers and streams and lakes,
- antibiotic and other pharmaceutical runoff into same water source,
- hormones and other pharmaceutical remains in the actual animal proteins we eat,
- differences between GMO corn fed and grass fed overall health of the beef,
And so, so, so many other concerns.
The point: it’s not just the product that travels to get to our mouths—it is all the rest of it, added up, that gives us these crazy and (I would argue) unsustainable numbers. Not to mention, what is the ethical and spiritual cost to us—is ignorance enough of an excuse? And is there something morally wrong with us, that we throw away 31% (some sites have it higher, some have it lower) of the food that finally gets to us, after it has already travelled thousands of miles, knowing there are people on the planet starving to death? It is a question we don’t really like to ponder: are we ethically responsible for those that would starve while we belly up to a plate of bacon mac and cheese (aggregate distance travelled, 3100 miles)? Kant certainly holds us accountable. But he does this thing where he makes everything complicated and you should know that he is a pretty miserable human being, someone who mostly goes uninvited to parties because you should hear what he has to say about ethanol and wine and petroleum and corn subsidies and the fact that there are over 2000 varieties of corn but we will only eat one or two kinds due to our farming habits and GMOs, and all that. And he is one of those dudes who will totally hold court, lecturing us on our bad habits that sometimes become bad moral choices, until everyone clears their throats and makes an excuse to go out on the porch to smoke. He has some thoughts about smoking, too.
It’s hard out there for a philosopher genius.
Ultimately, I am probably going to keep eating things that make people question my palate and my morality. There are answers though—education probably being the starting point. My guess is that if more of us knew the impact of our eating habits on worldwide mortality and the environment, maybe we would look for local produce in the grocery store more often, perhaps buy less food for every visit to the grocery, perhaps even mark the dates and locations of farmers markets in our area. We can also impact what our chain grocers present to us: if more local and organic fruits and vegetables get purchased, they will take note and make changes to their habits. We are consumers after all, and can engender moral change through what we buy as well.
Most of us care what we eat, but don’t think about how it is made very often. And sure, education around what we eat is important. We should know what we are putting in our bodies—the who-what-where-why-how-when of it all. But I think we should care as much about overall healthfulness of our food as we do the inefficiency of how it is produced, and maybe we should also feel a little guilty about what we end up putting in our mouths, because there are ethical choices to be made AND healthy choices to be made. After all, what’s a little more guilt added to the mountain of guilt we already feel now that we know everything because it is available on Wikipedia?
But maybe that’s what a couple cocktails before meals are for (I’ll take my Manhattan up, please)—they provide a way to take some of this pressure off before I surrender to it and order that sea bass that we are currently farming or netting into extinction. It will be my little secret that I know exactly how fucked up that is.
Seth Brady Tucker is a poet and writer originally from Wyoming. His recent work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Shenandoah, Chattahoochee Review, Southern Humanities Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, and others. Seth directs the Seaside Writers Conference in Florida, and lives and teaches in Colorado at the Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop and at the Colorado School of Mines where he teaches poetry and fiction to engineers and scientists.
Seth’s work has won the Eric Hoffer Book Award, the Gival Press Poetry Prize, the Elixir Press Editors Prize, the Bevel Summers Fiction Prize, among many others, and he is the author of the books, Mormon Boy (2012) and We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014).