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Ethicists Consider the Rights and Wrongs of Food Systems 

click to enlarge MICHAEL TONN
  • michael tonn

I'm sitting on a love seat in the lounge of the University of Vermont's philosophy department with a sumptuous picnic spread out in front of me on a folding table. There are three kinds of cheese, from Cabot's populist Seriously Sharp cheddar to Jasper Hill's spruce bark-wrapped, brine-washed Winnimere. There's a summer sausage from Maple Wind Farm and mold-laced artisan salami from Virginia. I look lustfully at a pint of local plums, sweet as candy, waiting for the moment I can politely pop one into my mouth. I'm less certain about taking a swig from the gleaming white plastic bottle labeled "Soylent."

My dining companions are Tyler Doggett and Mark Budolfson, both Princeton University grads and professors of philosophy. They are also both authors — with Anne Barnhill of the University of Pennsylvania — of the hefty volume that's lying next to me, flipped open to an essay about vegetarianism.

click to enlarge Food, Ethics, and Society: An Introductory Text With Readings by Anne Barnhill, Mark Budolfson and Tyler Doggett, Oxford University Press, 672 pages. $59.95.
  • Food, Ethics, and Society: An Introductory Text With Readings by Anne Barnhill, Mark Budolfson and Tyler Doggett, Oxford University Press, 672 pages. $59.95.

The book, Food, Ethics, and Society: An Introductory Text With Readings, was released last month by Oxford University Press. Some blurbs call it the first of its kind; others, the best. I am visiting my alma mater to learn more. And to ask Doggett and Budolfson which of my snacks pass ethical muster.

Both professors are part of UVM's innovative, and fairly new, food-systems program. In 2004, when I realized I wanted an interdisciplinary degree that wove together food-centric learning from various disciplines, I had to create it myself. Outside of the nutrition and food sciences and environmental sciences departments, very few classes had an explicit food angle. I did specialized projects in classes that brushed up against the topic (the Sociology of Pleasure, for instance, and Marketing, Advertising and the Consumer). I designed independent studies in food anthropology and food ethics and wheedled faculty into working with me.

In 2010, food systems was chosen as one of three areas of inquiry — called "spires of excellence" — that would become the focus of a significant hiring push and a restructuring of the school's academic offerings. Seventy-eight faculty members who specialize in everything from maple syrup chemistry to back-to-the-land movements of the 20th century participate in the program. According to the UVM website, "The University of Vermont is the only land-grant higher education institution in the United States to offer a complete range of Food Systems study, from [an] undergraduate [minor and major] through master's and PhD levels."

The food-ethics book grew out of a problem that is common in emerging academic fields: Students want to study a hot new topic and teachers want to teach it, but resources are hard to come by. In the case of ethics, Doggett explains, professors want to offer work that is well written and comprehensible by undergraduate students but that is also correct in its moral conclusions. By comparison, an astrophysics professor wouldn't teach a formula, no matter how elegant, if it turned out to be wrong.

But unlike in mathematics, in which problems have discrete solutions, truths of food ethics are so complex that it's rare to find widespread agreement about the conclusions. Some philosophers argue that keeping animals or eating meat is always wrong. Others think it's fine to kill animals as long as they suffer as little as possible in the process. Still others think we should concern ourselves first with questions of human suffering — such as food insecurity and poor conditions for workers — and figure out the animal stuff later.

To find the best available work on each of their chosen topics — global hunger, food justice, and overconsumption and obesity, to name a few, the authors of Food, Ethics, and Society sifted through articles in popular journals, books about food systems and work by their professor colleagues. From those sources, they pulled together the 672-page volume that they will use to teach their classes. (On Amazon, the book is currently sold out, which likely means that other professors are doing the same.)

As I flip through the pages, Budolfson cuts into a rye, spelt and wheat loaf from Running Stone Bread and lays out the slices on a plate. The loaf is made from freshly milled grain, much of it locally grown, and it's nutritious. Ethical thumbs up. But toppings on the hearty bread are more involved. We have a delicately colored butter from Ploughgate Creamery, made with dairy from the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery; and a startlingly golden butter from Mountain Home Farm in Tunbridge. The latter is made with milk from its tiny herd, which is fed entirely on grass from the farm's land.

The making of the former butter supports a whole host of northern Vermont farmers, but there's no way to suss out their individual methods of livestock care, the health of their land or how they dispose of their manure. The selling of the second product only supports a single family, yet the Mountain Home herd management methodology is based on deeply considered best practices for the soil and the pasture, and it shows in the product's rich tint. The color, as deep as that of egg yolks, indicates a high level of healthy beta-carotene. But at $20 a pound (compared to Cabot at $4.79 and Ploughgate at $13.98, at City Market/Onion River Co-op), it's expensive.

Which butter is better? It depends on which ethicist you ask. One who advocates veganism would say neither. One who focuses on economic impacts might say Ploughgate. One who is most concerned about the soil might say Mountain Home. On the other hand, both Vermont spreads are better than trans-fat-laden margarine.

If food ethics had a Facebook page, its relationship status would invariably be: "It's complicated." To sort out all of the relevant factors, a consumer needs to consider matters of animal rights, the environment, nutrition, various responsibilities that humans bear and, perhaps, even the role of deliciousness. It sounds like a lot, and it is.

But it's crucial work, according to Vermont writer Barry Estabrook. His hard-hitting Politics of the Plate blog is award winning, and he has authored a pair of books about the food system: Pig Tales and Tomatoland (the latter is excerpted in Food, Ethics, and Society).

"Now more than ever, how and what we eat can no longer be mindless," Estabrook says. "We have to think through the implications ... It's incumbent upon people, when they're making food choices, whether it's at a restaurant or the supermarket, that they do so with the broader picture in mind."

click to enlarge Tyler Doggett, left, and Mark Budolfson - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Tyler Doggett, left, and Mark Budolfson

In philosophical terms, Estabrook is saying that consumers with the resources to do so have a moral responsibility to make thoughtful decisions about their food choices. Compared to other countries with similar levels of wealth, he explains, we spend significantly less on sustenance. People who purchase high-end sporting equipment, gaming consoles or "designer jeans that have rips already put into them," may nevertheless say that they "can't afford" pork chops from a nearby farm, or sustainably harvested salmon, or local potatoes that cost $1.50 per pound in place of commodity potatoes that cost 50 cents per pound.

But the language of unaffordability is imprecise. If you're not food insecure — as 14 percent of the American population is, according to Estabrook — and you have disposable income that is spent on luxuries, you could reallocate some of those funds. (Beer, even cheap beer, is a luxury, as is cable TV.) Choosing not to value ethical food is vastly different than being unable to purchase it for fear of going hungry or having insufficient money to pay the rent.

On a psychological level, it may be easier to buy a bright-red, grocery-store slab of steak nestled on a Styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic than to buy from a neighbor and face the fact that an animal met its death to provide your meal. And it's easier to say, "I can't afford local beef" than it is to say, "I know that most cows sold in this country are raised in a confinement feeding operation and slaughtered under horrific conditions, yet I don't care enough to stop eating them." It's also a pretty big ethical cop-out — and almost all of us do it.

In some instances, the rightness or wrongness of a decision goes far beyond the aforementioned butter battle. In February, Estabrook wrote a story about the Thai shrimp industry for the website Civil Eats. Nearly every paragraph contains a new horror, but the worst is this: "More than half of workers on Thai fishing boats ... reported that they had seen fellow workers murdered while at sea. Slaves too weak or too ill to work are often simply tossed overboard."

Shrimp are delicious — whether tossed with pasta, garlic and butter or dipped into the glistening horseradish-and-ketchup concoction we call cocktail sauce. But is the sensual experience of popping the sweet and briny pink curls into your mouth ever worth a person's life? Does reading this ruin your no-longer-innocent crustacean consumption? Now you might have to think about something unpleasant when you order shrimp dumplings with soy dipping sauce, or forgo them altogether. Does that make you feel a little bit angry?

When I visited Doggett's freshman-level Food Ethics class (which is taught at different levels throughout the academic year), the students sometimes looked ill at ease. Perhaps it's because they were wrestling with complex material. Or because they were thinking harder about the health of the hens behind the omelettes they just scarfed down in the dining hall. Some students are vegetarian or vegan, and their brows furrowed in anger when the topic of meat eating was on the table. Doggett, in green-stocking feet, paced in front of the whiteboard, laying out an argument about whether or not it's wrong to consume something that's wrong to produce (e.g., chicken raised on a factory farm). "It's OK if it's uncomfortable," he explained.

It's true that ethical discussions are frequently uncomfortable. Back in the lounge, Budolfson surveys our feast, including the untouched meat products, and explains that the most stringent philosophers believe that as long as any humans are experiencing hunger, buying fancy food is unacceptable. To illuminate that point of view, Food, Ethics, and Society includes an essay by renowned Princeton professor Peter Singer (with whom Budolfson took classes) about Dumpster diving and freeganism. The thought gives me a pang of panic. I'm so responsible with my purchasing, I think, but I definitely eat some things for sheer pleasure.

Budolfson suspects that artisan products may be inherently unethical for this reason, and that's why he had put out a few bottles of Soylent. The stuff is cheekily named for the dystopian 1973 film, Soylent Green, which stars Charlton Heston as a character who realizes that people are being recycled into food rations. A soy-based meal replacement, Soylent's website purports that it "is a new option for maintaining a balanced state of ideal nutrition, just like traditional food." And, at approximately $3 per serving, the stuff is affordable. We crack open the plastic bottles and sip the lightly vanilla-scented pabulum therein. "It's soothing," I comment, and both professors agree.

As I drink, I consider the implications of Soylent, and come to the conclusion that a lab-made soy beverage doesn't meet my ethical standards, which revolve around creating healthy systems in which people value food for all of the things that it is and can be. It is the result of an agricultural system that feeds the soil and creates habitat for pollinators, a source of nutrition and medicine, a spark for joy and community connection.

None of us is pure — not even professors of philosophy — but that's no reason not to try. "Inexpensive food is wrecking the environment, wrecking the soil; it's driving the average farmworker in this country [to make] below-poverty wages," says Estabrook. "Buying that cheap food is contributing to an ecological disaster and a human-rights disaster."

But, he continues, there "are no hard-and-fast rules. It's an incremental thing, a personal thing. It can be situational."

If you are willing and able to spend the money, Estabrook adds, it's as simple as this: Go to a grocery store, co-op, a farm stand or a farmers market and "buy the very best-tasting, highest-quality food you can, and you'll be fine, ethically."

I leave the philosophy building with the picked-over remnants of the picnic, including most of a bottle of Soylent. On the way home, I eat nearly all of the salami.

Suzanne Podhaizer

Disclosure: Suzanne Podhaizer is quoted in Food, Ethics, and Society and has been a guest lecturer in Tyler Doggett's class.

Textbook to Table

How six food businesses parlay ethics from philosophy to the plate
click to enlarge Onyx Tonics coffee - COURTESY OF ONYX TONICS
  • courtesy of onyx tonics
  • Onyx Tonics coffee


Onyx Tonics, Burlington
Jason Gonzalez, co-owner

We chase quality more than ethics, but the ethics often follow in a very direct way. You cannot find the quality we're looking for without transparency. Anybody I'm buying from is very transparent about where the beans come from; you can often find out what the farmer was paid per pound. Our milk is from Sweet Rowen Farmstead [in West Glover]. They're not organic, but they're transparent about why they're not organic — organic certification doesn't allow for the use of antibiotics. So even if a cow is sick, all you can do is isolate that cow from the herd and basically not treat it. And they couldn't get behind that, and we're OK with that. So there's that transparency.


Miss Weinerz, Winooski
Ren Weiner, owner

When I make something, I ask myself: "Is it affordable? Is it nourishing? Is it helping the Earth or ripping from the Earth?" With ingredients, I ask, "What does my community have, and how can I use it?" rather than saying, "I need this; where can I get it?" I fry my non-vegan doughnuts in lard when farms are slaughtering and lard is in excess. But there's seasonality to that. Other times, I fry in palm oil that was responsibly grown, which sustains communities in Africa. Most of the root veggies I use are seconds — that allows me to get a local, organic product at a conventional price point. I'm making food that people give to their children. It's a doughnut: It's supposed to bring joy, so I don't want there to be poison in it.

Grass-fed Butter

Mountain Home Farm, Tunbridge
Lindsay Harris, co-owner

We feed our cows only grass, and we use intensive rotational grazing. Moving our cows to different small paddocks every 12 hours mimics the action of large herbivores on the plains, and it's fantastic for the cows. They live outside, and they're eating what they're born to eat — our cows live five times longer than conventional dairy cows, and our vet bills are low. And it makes better butter because the forage increases the [milk's] vitamin content and omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids, which fight cancer and have really great health benefits. It sequesters carbon, builds soil and naturally filters water. We're supporting pollinators and wildlife habitat. It eliminates the need for pesticides and herbicides and chemical fertilizers. We're making our products more profitable by incurring fewer overhead expenses. And more of our money is circulating in the local economy, because we're not buying midwestern grain.

click to enlarge Courtesy of Letter10 Creative - COURTESY OF 3 SQUARES CAFÉ
  • courtesy of 3 squares café
  • Courtesy of Letter10 Creative

Local Meats

3 Squares Café, Vergennes
Matt Birong, chef-owner

We're not an all-local restaurant, but I like to work with farms that use good grazing practices and have a low impact to the environment. I love [using] goat for that reason — Vermont Chevon is finding a market for a goat that's past its milking life, so it's not being wasted. I'm sort of a hopeless romantic in that I believe that society can be and do better. Even if you're a small restaurant in a small town, every little bit helps. It's the same philosophy with offering paid time off to our staff. These things are reflected in our pricing a tiny bit, but our customer base understands that we're trying to do more for sustainability and the environment and workplace policy issues.

Organic Vegetables

Pitchfork Farm, Burlington
Rob Rock, co-owner

One thing that got me into farming was that it didn't seem right to me that industrial factory farms used and abused their labor force. Pitchfork Farm is such a small business that working here is a lot like a summer camp — we have a lot of fun, and we try to teach people as much as we can.


El Cortijo, Burlington
Phillip Clayton, chef-partner

We think of [ethics] from the perspective of our entire business — we want to create a great employment experience, to source from producers who work ethics into their operation, and to [provide] offerings that are healthful for our guests. Each taco starts with [a] local organic masa tortilla, and we top it with ethically raised local meats and produce. It's healthy food, and it's a busy little restaurant that provides a great work experience. So it's a trifecta of ethics right there in one little taco. You can enjoy how it tastes and where it came from and what it does for you and your body.

Hannah Palmer Egan

For more on this topic, including a food-ethics quiz, and to share your thoughts, visit the Bite Club blog at

The original print version of this article was headlined "Ethical Eating"

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About The Authors

Hannah Palmer Egan

Hannah Palmer Egan

Hannah Palmer Egan is a food and drink writer at Seven Days.
Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Contributor Suzanne Podhaizer is an award-winning food writer (and the former Seven Days food editor) as well as a chef, farmer, and food-systems consultant. She has given talks at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture's "Poultry School" and its flagship "Young Farmers' Conference." She can slaughter a goose,... more


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