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Insider Talk: Challenging Food Choices

Photograph of a table set for six people

When a company wants to go green, are there limits on what it can ask of its employees? This question came to the fore due to WeWork’s recent announcement: the company will no longer serve or reimburse for meat, citing the environmental costs of animal protein and, to a lesser extent, worries about animal welfare. The reaction was swift and negative: it’s just virtue signaling, it’s an ideological crusade, it’s tribalism, it’s bull. The North American Meat Institute, a lobbying group for the industry — has even launched IChooseMeat.com, a response to the threat of “your office dictating your food choices,” and which aims to “fight meat denial.”

Here, though, I don’t want to get lost in the criticisms of WeWork’s policy, both because they seem like overreactions, and because they seem misguided in an era that expects moral leadership in business. They are overreactions because such policies don’t force anyone to do anything. You want to eat meat? Go for it. Just don’t expect your company to subsidize it. Was it any worse for companies to remove cigarette machines from their offices in the 80s, when smoking was still commonplace? And they are misguided because this sort of disagreement is the price of something that’s genuinely good: namely, having companies care about more than profits. We have long wanted businesses to be more socially conscious, but of course we disagree about what being “socially conscious” involves. These conflicts aren’t bugs in the new order: they’re features, and ones to which we should acclimate ourselves.

So let’s set those issues aside. Instead, let’s focus on the general puzzle here. Why do we bristle when people challenge our meat consumption? And is our bristling justified?

There are, of course, those who don’t like the challenge because they’re climate change skeptics, or they don’t think it matters at all whether animals suffer, or what have you. But if one of those factors explains the negative reaction, then the disagreement is probably too deep to resolve, and we should simply move on.

There are a slew of other uninteresting possibilities. For instance, we don’t like being made to feel guilty about food. (But who likes it in other contexts?) And you sometimes hear people say that change is hard. (Not much defense: we can always play that card.) Ultimately, though, I think we need a more interpersonal story. We don’t seem to think that people have the right to criticize what we eat. And why would that be? What norm are they violating?

A few possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is somehow a violation of privacy. But if that’s what’s bothering us, it won’t go far as a justification. It’s one thing to claim that a matter is private when it has no public consequences. But our diets do, and so they seem subject to public scrutiny.

A second option is a “local knowledge” objection. Maybe no one knows a person’s situation well enough to decide what he or she ought to eat. Only you know whether you need some chicken to flourish, or if you can make it just fine on garbanzo beans. But again, this seems implausible as a defense. I don’t know much at all about what my body needs; I just know what makes me feel good. And feeling good is as much about habit and history as it is about biology: I feel a certain way in response to whether I’m getting what I want (cake), not whether I’m fueling in the optimal way (spinach and lentils).

A third story is that we’re not open to moralizing about food, as we care too much about it. This is a bit like the way that having children is awful for the environment, but we don’t stop having them for that reason. The environment matters to us, but not that much. However, the parallel isn’t great. The impulse to have children runs deep, and for many people, their kids make their lives meaningful. Of course, food is also tied to living meaningfully: table fellowship is among life’s basic pleasures, and can forge deep bonds. However, you can savor time with family without eating turkey. This requires flexibility, but not the rejection of one of our deepest longings.

A final possibility — and the one I find most plausible — is that food talk is insider talk. Debates about what we eat, like debates about sex and child rearing, are ones we have with those who aren’t in our tribe — with non-Christians or non-liberals or non-crunchy moms — but we generally don’t change our minds as a result. By contrast, if a fellow liberal expresses worries about prostitution, or if your pastor gives you an argument against spanking your kids, you might well see things differently. You trust insiders to see the world in roughly the way you do, and as a result, their reasoning gets extra weight in your own deliberations.

If this is what’s going on, it’s both understandable and unfortunate. The former, because ethics is hard, disagreement is everywhere, and we need some strategy for deciding how to allocate our limited time and attention. After all, moral conversation isn’t the whole of life; at some point, you have to do the dishes and the laundry.

It’s unfortunate, though, because of what it implies about the way people insulate ourselves from moral criticism. There are things for which it’s worth circling the wagons. But food? In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius observed that “all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust,” we should strive to see them clearly, “stripping away the legend that encrusts them.” Food is full of legends, but it’s ultimately just sustenance. It’s a mean to many ends — nutritionally, socially, politically — though ones that can usually be achieved in other ways. It isn’t sacrosanct, and change, though difficult, is possible.

So should everyone become a strict vegetarian? Maybe, maybe not. But the conversation is worth having.

An Experiment in Inequality at the Street Food Stall

An image of a street food vendor preparing a sandwich

During February, Saartj, a New Orleans food stall serving Nigerian lunches, has been conducting a social experiment. In response to a rapidly growing wage gap between white people and people of color in New Orleans, they are offering lunches for $12 and suggesting that customers who identify as white pay $30 instead: the adjusted price that represents the disparity in income between African Americans and whites. Chef Tunde Way set up his pop-up food stall in order to stimulate discussion of the wage gap and to spread awareness of the statistics of the incomes in New Orleans. The social experiment has been collecting data, asking customers to complete surveys through February 28. Preliminary results suggest that 80 percent of white customers select to pay the $30 rate for their meals. The extra money collected is to be redistributed to minorities who frequent the stall (though not many have signed up for the money).

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Will Changes in Meat Consumption Redefine the U.S. Food System?

An image of chickens at a poultry farm

In 2017, a plant-based diet became tremendously popular. The growing demand for alternative proteins motivated grocery stores and food companies to offer more alternatives to meat proteins, which has been reflected in consumer behavior patterns. However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, production in the U.S. beef, pork, and broiler industries is expected to increase in 2018. For the record, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that 2018 will hold the highest per capita consumption of meat since the U.S. record set back in 2004. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average consumer is projected to eat 222.8 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018.

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Lab-Grown Meat: A Moral Revolution?

A close-up photo of a hamburger.

In 2013, Dutch scientists announced that they had produced a lab-grown hamburger.  Scientists generated the muscle cells comprising the burger—no animals were killed as part of the process.  Many are hopeful that this “cultured meat” is the solution to many societal problems.  Earlier this year, author Paul Shapiro and director of The Humane Society released a book called Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals will Revolutionize Dinner and The World. The book provides a history of the development of meat produced in labs and discusses the moral benefits of a future that includes meat produced in this way.

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Economics and Sustainability in the Overfishing of Bluefin Tuna

A recent auction of bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo sparked recurring discussions over the environmental and economic effects that overfishing and big tuna businesses are putting on local areas and fisheries. This came as a 212-kilogram fish sold at Tsukiji for 74.2 million yen (or the equivalent $64,200), which per piece would cost over 25 times the 400 yen usually charged at the bidder’s restaurants.

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The Nutritional Ethics of Hidden Vegetables

As a child, I distinctly remember sitting at my dining room table for hours and hours wishing for the tiny amount of broccoli on my almost empty plate to disappear so I could be excused from the table. If it was up to my picky self, I would have grilled cheese or pizza for every single meal, completely forgoing any sufficiently nutritious food. As for many parents, forcing me to eat fruits and vegetables became a consistent struggle throughout my entire childhood. Covering broccoli with cheese or placing vegetables in a batch of buttered noodles were just a few tactics my parents implemented in order for me to have a balanced diet.

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A Post-Antibiotic Era: Antibiotics and Food

Since the 1950s, the agricultural industry has used antibiotics as a precautionary measure to prevent widespread infection in the crowded, restrictive settings of a food animal farm. Antibiotics are readily available, low cost, and promote profitable weight gain in food animals compared to other capable forms. Approximately 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States can be traced back to agricultural usage and many overlap with the antibiotics used to treat human illnesses. The World Health Organization classified several growth-promoting antibiotics utilized by food corporations as critically important to human medicine. The FDA does not strictly regulate the use of antibiotics for agricultural purposes.

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GMOs, Salmon and Overfishing

The ability of humans to genetically modify the resources we use for food has changed the way in which we view and interact with the environment and natural resources. In the past, seeds for agricultural staples, like corn and soybeans, have undergone genetic modification to improve growth and yield and make the most efficient use of agricultural inputs.  While controversy still surrounds the issue of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), many argue that they must be part of a sustainable food future in which humans make the most of every developed acre.   Continue reading “GMOs, Salmon and Overfishing”

Stigmatizing Food Choice to People Without Choices

These days, it seems that everyone is trying to “eat clean.” As I browsed the news this week, I clicked over to the “Healthy Living” page of the Huffington Post and found a myriad of “Eat Clean: Fall Edition” articles like this one about 6 high-fat foods you should be eating, and this one about how to cook with pumpkin that doesn’t come from a can. As Michael Pollan, American food ethics guru, famously said, “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” Sounds simple, right? Just follow the advice given in the articles above, and you’ll be eating properly!

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