Ethical Eating – Quality of Human Life

If you’re based in the UK, you will have heard about the problems facing our dairy industry due to the plummeting price of milk, and even if you’re not, you’ll have seen me talk about it in the Ethical Eating Introduction. The welfare of our producers is another thorny issue.

The archetypal story here is the middle class handwringing buzz around Bolivian quinoa farmers. Is it true that the Bolivian can no longer afford their staple grain because it’s suddenly the green food of choice in the west? The Slate has an interesting article explaining some of this but I’m not going to focus on this particular example (I confess I don’t think I’ve ever tasted quinoa). Instead I’m going to talk about the ubiquitous symbol of buying ethically, ‘Fairtrade’.

The Fairtrade Foundation (http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/) describes their mark thusly:

When you buy products with the FAIRTRADE Mark, you support farmers and workers as they work to improve their lives and their communities. The Mark means that the Fairtrade ingredients in the product have been produced by small-scale farmer organisations or plantations that meet Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards. The standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects 

Do you look for the Fairtrade mark when you shop? I do, particularly for the equitorial products like coffee and chocolate, which made this paper (Beuchelt & Zeller, 2011) depressing reading. From the abstract:

Certified producers are more often found below the absolute poverty line than conventional producers. Over a period of ten years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fairtrade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers. We conclude that coffee yield levels, profitability and efficiency need to be increased, because prices for certified coffee cannot compensate for low productivity, land or labor constraints.

How can this be so? There’s another paper (Dolan, 2010), whose abstract contains the most amazing piece of writing:

the paper explores how certain neoliberal rationalities are emboldened through Fairtrade, as a process of mainstreaming installs new metrics of governance (standards, certification, participation) that are at once moral and technocratic, voluntary and coercive, and inclusionary and marginalizing

Holy Hera, how is anyone supposed to know what to buy? “A process at one voluntary and coercive, inclusionary and marginalising” – I mean I love it as a piece of prose, but as a communication piece it only tells me that I’m still confused.

Oh, and wine isn’t receiving a pass either, with the Argentinian Fairtrade wine market ‘further marginalising’ the sector (Staricco and Ponte, 2015

I should say that not all papers are critical, Fairtrade cotton in West Africa was found to empower women (Bassett, 2010), the same was also possible for coffee farmers in Mesoamerica (Lyon et al, 2010).

It may be that it is our supermarkets influencing the Fairtrade market that is causing the ethical problems (Smith, 2010), which is interesting because some of the researchers think that Fair Trade only works when building communities and empowering the community’s interactions (Renard, 2003). Something that many of us would say supermarkets really lack.

I am not a social scientist, though I am interested in the discipline, and I can’t review these articles as thoroughly as I can the animal welfare ones. But it’s interesting the path that a relatively cursory scholar search of Fairtrade has brought us to. Particularly when you think about the dairy issue from the introductory post. Monopolies have a staggering amount of bargaining power, and in some cases (such as nationalised health care) this works to the community’s advantage. But is it working to our global advantage here?

In my perfect, Pinterest lifestyle, I’d be shopping at farmers markets and growing my own carrots on my windowsill, and I’d also spend less money on frivolous items, make all my dinners from scratch, and stick to the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended intake of alcohol units in a week. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be the person you are on Pinterest?

But the person I am on Pinterest isn’t also on a quest to snap a selfie with a cow in GTA V online.

On the scale of personality responsibility to nanny state, I tend to fall on the Big Brother side of the spectrum. I fully support Scotland’s minimum alcohol unit pricing for example, and I tend to think the problem of encouraging individual to eat in a globally friendly way should be tackled through legislation.

But I know I’m on the extreme side of that spectrum, and I’d be interested to hear what more liberal readers might think. How would you solve this issue?

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Ethical Eating Month – Cheesecake . . . wait?

Why no Ethical Eating post this week? Well we had our exam board for the MSc and so it’s been crazy busy. Instead, let me offer you my Cranachan Cheesecake recipe as an apology.

Cranachan is an old Scottish dessert, an easy, summery mix of fruit, oats, cream and whiskey. For this cheesecake version, you will need:

  • 300g digestive biscuits
  • 150g melted butter
  • 1/2 cup of rolled oats
  • 1 punnet strawberries
  • 1 punnet raspberries
  • 450g cream cheese (I used half and half philly and mascarpone)
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp bourbon (I used Jack Daniels)
  • 4 eggs
  • Springform pan

Preheat the oven to 180C and butter the pan.

Crush the digestive biscuits up and and mix with oats and melted butter, press down into the pan and cover with sliced strawberries and raspberries. Put in the fridge to chill while you prepare the cheese filling.

Add the cream cheese, sugar, bourbon and eggs and mix, being very careful not to overbeat. Fill the pan over the fruit layer and pop in the oven for 45 minutes (or until the cheesecake element only slightly wobbles)

Leave until cool.

A few things: Why use bourbon and not an expensive Scottish whiskey? Well bourbon, especially Jack, has the vanilla flavours, the honey flavours and the extra sweetness that puts you in mind of cranachan, but you could use a good whiskey if you have one on hand. You might want to add a dash of vanilla flavouring in that case.

Serve with tea and Great British Bake Off!

Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?

Ethical Eating Month – Introduction

For someone who works in an agricultural college, I struggle with how to eat ethically. As we know, ethics are a personal thing, and my ethics may not be yours. My version of ethical eating is one that provides a good quality of life for the animals I eat, provides a good industry and quality of life for the people involved in the food chain, and minimises my carbon footprint.

So how do I try and eat ethically with these three goals? Well it’s surprisingly hard. In part this is because I am a deeply lazy person and the lure of pre-processed and delightfully packaged meals is hugely appealing, even if it as detrimental to my waistline as it is my world. In part, it’s because I’m also a hedonist (and I believe most people are). I don’t derive much joy from cooking and would rather skip the process entirely, and I get a lot of joy from the taste and smell and process of eating meat.  And in part because I’m a single person household, preparing food ahead of time is not always easy, and I do end up wasting food.

I’m an awful person.

You might have seen in the news further discussion of the price of milk in the UK, especially as Morrison’s has announced they will sell a milk brand ‘for farmers‘, that will pay them what the milk is worth. There was also Monbiot’s latest Guardian column about the difficulty of treating the obesity epidemic. I thought there was a curious parallel in these two stories. In the first, Sean Rickard, former National Farmer’s Union chief economist said:

“I think it’s unrealistic for anyone [receiving £28,000 per annum from the tax payer] to expect us just to pay them whatever price they think is needed to cover their cost of production.”

In the second, after Monbiot details the scientific evidence behind why obesity is so difficult to control, Guardian commenter ScottMa says:

“But for the majority it is entirely controllable. <ore [sic] difficult for some than others due to genes, maybe, but by no means impossible.

Monbiot has just absolved the overweight without a medical cause of all responsibility for their situation. Why does the Left have such a problem with that concept? Always someone else’s fault, everyone’s a victim.”

 

I have got to stop reading Guardian comments. But I think both of these comments share a few elements. Firstly, a great lack of sympathy for the people actually affected by the problems, and secondly, that food really does go hand in hand with opinion.

So many of us have been lectured at by bystanders, well-meaning family members, that one person in work, that we instinctively get riled about food discussions. Just this week I was saying that the ‘One Hour After a Coke’ Infographic that was going around had me rabidly proclaiming Coke as a health drink before I checked myself. We just don’t like being told about food.

I’m not going to tell you about food, but I am going to devote this month to the ethics of my eating, and giving myself time to refresh my understanding of my evidence. Welcome then to Ethical Eating Month, and I hope I don’t enrage you as much as food posts enrage me . . . .

Bon appetit!

Bacon Double Down

There was an interesting pair of articles in io9 last week, the report of double muscled pigs being bred by researchers in South Korea and China, and differences between how American scientists and the American public view science related issues.

Seeing these two articles so closely together was interesting.

The first thing that jumps out is that in America, there is a 51 percentage point gap between scientists and the public regarding whether or not it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods. You can play about with the day at the Pew Research Centre’s site where they have a fun inforgraphic to demonstrate how this changes with gender, age, science knowledge, etc. The story of the double muscled pigs then should evoke some concern in these people, no? Scientists meddling where they don’t belong?

But of course double muscling is old news – in fact we understand it pretty well. It’s a genetic mutation that inhibits the production or uptake of myostatin, a muscle growth regulator. So these animals have big muscles. There are a few breeds of cattle that have been selected for this mutation, such as the Piedmontese breed, and it’s a mutation that occurs in some whippets too. Deliberately adding the gene in a line of pigs is cool, but we also have pigs that glow in the dark.

The concern about double muscled pigs might come from the idea that humans shouldn’t genetically manipulate animals, but seeing as we’ve been doing it for a long time, I think it’s more the tool that some people object to. This innate distrust of the mad scientist.

But what really interested me in the double muscling article was the assertion that this development might help feed the world. I agree that it could, but not because we’re suddenly doubling down on our bacon production. After all, the world’s beef production isn’t purely carried by the Piedmontese and Belgian Blue (although they are important breeds). But the technical capacity we have to engineer our animals, with appropriate ethical supervision, really will help us in one of the theatres of world food production.

We just need to overcome that 50% point difference between us and the public to help us get there.

FoodInc – The Documentary Problem

I have mentioned a few times that I am a big fan of film, but that doesn’t always extend to documentaries. Why is this? Well I have an instinctive distrust of documentaries – I would not consider them a good source of information. In fact this was why I made my post on the Blackfish documentary. Much as I enjoyed it as a story, I wasn’t convinced it used the facts and science to the best possible way it did.

I am no expert in film, but I have spent a lot of my life consuming media and creating media to some extent. I’m a regular on TV Tropes. But it was this video by Every Frame a Painting (a great YouTube channel if you like film theory) that made me able to iterate what it is about FoodInc that makes me uncomfortable. Documentaries use the language of film to create an argument, and I think we have been trained not to argue with the language of film. Do you remember the uproar of Inception’s ending, was it real, was it not? Film critics talk about how the viewer is given no token to tell them where there is a dream and where there is reality in the film – which is unusual, because as audiences we are used to being told what to believe. The language of movies tells us to accept what is happening on the screen – this is suspension of disbelief. If you’re in a superhero movie, you don’t complain about the destruction of property unless it is egregious or you’re making a point.

Documentaries give us emotional reactions to facts – and when I see people bring them up as something to support their arguments, it sets my teeth on edge.

FoodInc is beautifully slick. That opening sequence is so stylish and borrows so much from the language of traditional films it might seem like an odd choice for a documentary. It uses music reminiscent of a psychological thriller. All of these are cues that a piece of fictional film would use to tell you to be afraid of what you’re about to see. It’s a great piece of film making, but it’s not a component of a rational, scientific argument.

It uses amazing infographics and zooms in and out of the labels, tying the identity of the stories to the situation you are used to being in every day – the supermarket. The message is that you should be afraid of this thing in your very own supermarket, like you should be afraid of the axe murderer undoubtedly waiting right behind you in the horror film.

Early on in the documentary there is a very powerful shot of a chicken in the foreground, prone, struggling to breathe, and the others behind it, out of focus. It’s like something from a Western movie, very stylised, not quite Sergio Leone but really striking – and so striking because the rest of that segment is very ‘documentary’, people talking to cameras, very traditional cinematography, and then suddenly this shot. It’s memorable.

The film works in chapters, each one snappily titled. This kind of style is now pretty well used in these kind of documentary cum educational programs, Crash Course comes to mind. The information is held in small, easily digestible chunks – really just a number of short acts strung together, each act with a different message, like each act has a different part of the story to tell.

For me as a scientist, watching something about an industry I am familiar with, FoodInc gives me a strange feeling. To see my industry treated with the language and style of a film, puts me on edge, even though I agree with a lot of its messages. We are much too disconnected with our food.

But documentaries are chiefly enjoyable because they use the language of film to tell us a story, not to teach us.

The final message – buy from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect – is powerful and important. But let’s not forget this film wasn’t Oscar nominated for its message, but the way it tells it.

And fundamentally, this is why I prefer not to use documentaries as evidence in an argument.