Hunger, obesity, ill-health, fraud, inequality, food poverty, soil erosion, environmental degradation and worker exploitation are just some of the reasons food ethics matter for today’s food and farming systems. So too are the many positive associations with food – pleasure, enjoyment, sharing, resilience and celebration.
I try to work for a world in which everyone will be well-fed from food and farming systems that are fair, ecologically sound, socially and culturally enlivening, and healthy for people and the rest of life on this planet and which are part of peaceful societies globally. My vision is of societies that understand the keys to a thriving human future are cooperation, sharing and mutual respect rather than competition, conflict and destructive fundamentalisms – economic, religious or political.
Back in April 2000, I was very surprised to get a letter from Professor Ben Mepham, founder director of the Food Ethics Council, inviting me to join. I’d never heard of it. But I liked what he said about its aim of raising awareness and encouraging public debate on matters of ethical concern relating to food and agriculture.
I’m no ethicist so I wanted to know more about what those matters were. It took me some time to get to grips with, but Ben had developed a very helpful tool for unpicking the ethical dilemmas often faced when trying to solve complex (or indeed any) problems – called the ethical matrix.
Ben recognised that generally, ethical principles draw on three different philosophical approaches, which try to balance three things. One is well-being (yours, others, and the rest of life on the planet, now and in the future). Another is autonomy or freedom of action (such as for animals – asking if they can act in natural ways). The third is justice or fairness in what’s done. Putting such ethical concerns at the heart of decision-making on food and farming is the key aim of the Food Ethics Council.
Ben told me later that "contrary to popular opinion, ethics is not just a straightforward matter of 'doing the right thing’ because the right thing is often not that obvious." He said that "ethics is about providing explicit justification for your chosen course of action. And for each of us, that boils down to a decision about ‘what I sincerely believe I should do next, based on the ethical principles guiding that decision.’"
I’ve been a Council member since 2000, and a Trustee since 2003. Over the years we’ve moved on from producing reports built around the matrix to wider ranging activities, but always grounded in those basics.
In 2010, we ran a pioneering inquiry into food and fairness that resulted in the report Food Justice. This looked at social justice in the food system around the three principles from the matrix rephrased as a fair say, fair shares and fair play. That inquiry, along with many other reports in the last few years, recognized that business as usual is not an option, if we are to have fair, healthy and sustainable food systems.
It was followed up by a project called Beyond Business as Usual. For me, its key finding was that while more or less everyone can support different activities that tinker with the way things are, few will face up to and embrace the need for transformation.
The shocking levels of hunger around the world, increasing numbers of diet related diseases and ecological challenges call for such a transformation, not technological fixes.
I believe that deliberative, careful, creative actions to change the way the world works, and the way societies seek to provision everyone with sufficient, safe, nutritious, sustainable food, fairly are crucial.
For me, our job in the Food Ethics Council is to help people, government, industry and institutions face up to that challenge; to confront the economics, politics, and powerful interests that benefit from and seek to keep things are they are and help people chart the many paths and actions from local to global that are needed to reach our goal of a fair food system.
To have contributed to food systems based on those positive associations I mentioned at the start and for the other problems to be relegated to the distant past is what I’d like our legacy to be.