Indiana University Bloomington

The Ethics of Eating: The Food Industry, Its Victims, and Vegetarianism

Olivia DeClark, English and religious studies

Written for REL-D430: Problems in Social Ethics

Instructor: Prof. Lisa Sideris

The Food Industry and Its Victims

All it takes is a walk through a supermarket, or a trip to a fast food restaurant, to become aware that the cheapest food options tend to be those that lack nutritional value. Hunger is not a problem that America has done away with, and there are an enormous amount of families in this country who have trouble getting food on the table. Unfortunately, the food they are able to get on the table often does not meet the standards of a balanced diet. In 2012, the US government had 48 million people labeled “food insecure” (The New Face of Hunger).  The food industry contributes to this problem, and also has a considerable effect on global climate change. When we zoom out and look at the effects climate change will have on the global community, the damage done to the poor becomes even more catastrophic. I argue that the food industry, and specifically animal agriculture, disproportionately harms the economically disadvantaged in a variety of ways. I posit that the elimination of animal products is a vital step towards social justice. Furthermore, I will explore both secular and religious claims to vegetarianism, in an attempt to display a variety of approaches which can lead to a vegetarian diet.

The food made accessible by government subsidies lacks proper nutritional substance. The National Geographic article, The New Face of Hunger, says that in 2012 the government spent $11 billion dollars to subsidize crops like corn and soy, but only $1.6 billion on fruits and vegetables. The effects of this show in the prices. Since the 1980s the price of fruits and vegetables has increased by 24%, while the price of non-alcoholic, corn syrup-sweetened drinks has increased by 27% (The New Face of Hunger). This leads to impoverished families having to deal with both hunger and obesity, which makes people susceptible to a myriad of health problems. So even though the government acknowledges the necessity of fruits and vegetables to maintain a healthy diet, it simultaneously throws money at food which is high in calories but low in nutrition, and makes these options more affordable than healthy alternatives. In order to resist starvation, people buy foods that leave them starving for proper nutrition. When it’s between eating unhealthily or not eating at all, the former makes complete sense (The New Face of Hunger).

In an effort to keep foods cheap, the safety of the food industry workers has been jeopardized. The essay, Cheap Food, Workers Pay the Price,” describes the obscene treatment of food industry workers. Agricultural workers are the lowest paid workers in the United States, and also has the lowest age requirement of just 12 years old (132-33). Tt is clear that this is a disadvantaged group of people. The working conditions that they are paid so little to inhabit are equally shocking, and agricultural workers are 20% more likely to die from heat exposure than the average member of the workforce (125). The essay affirms that “by demanding a set of immigration policies that guaranteed cheap labor and made these workers dependent on the government through assistance programs, a permanent underclass in the fields was cultivated” (130). A system has been created to keep people poor and working in these horrendous conditions. The average American family spends “less than ten percent of its income on food,” which is “the lowest percent in history” (128). The benefit is cheap food, but when looking at what it takes to get there, it is not worth it. Not only is the cheap food made available for economically underprivileged harmful to their health, but the people  working to make that food are equally underprivileged, and made vulnerable to health problems and poverty.  Thus, a system has been created that harms not only consumers, but also the producers.

The food industry has effects that reach beyond the health of people’s bodies; it is also a prime culprit and contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change.  In the essay, The Climate Crisis at the End of our Fork,” Anna Lappe expands on the effects the food industry has on climate change. Lappe declares that “the global system for producing and distributing food accounts for roughly 1/3 of the human caused global warming effects.” Furthermore, 3.6% of the effects come from waste alone, and 13.1% come from industry related transportation (106,113). Agriculture is the leading contributor to “human-made methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere which contribute to 13.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions,” which are the two main greenhouse gasses other than carbon dioxide (111). All this goes to prove that the food industry is caught red-handed as a criminal in the climate change catastrophe. Certainly climate change appears to be non-discriminatory, effecting the global population regardless of income, but this is not the case. Although the effects of climate change will show everywhere, there is significant evidence that says the poor will face more disastrous effects sooner than the rest of the global community. Not only does the food industry have damaging effects on the people that depend on it, but its reach extends to actual disturbances in the processes of the earth itself.

In the essay, “The Denial Industry,” George Monbiot explains the disproportionate effects that climate change will have on the poor. There are places on earth already facing the effects of global warming, and “those who are least responsible for it are likely to suffer its effects” (459). Those who are least responsible tend to be poorer, developing countries. In Bangladesh, for example, a sea level rise of one meter would put 21% of the country underwater, and they are only responsible for 0.24 of carbon emissions (461). Ethiopia, already experiencing droughts because of climate change, “only emits 0.06 tonnes per capita of carbon emissions” (461). These countries have little responsibility for climate change, and yet they stand to lose the most, soonest. It is seems overwhelmingly unfair that the carelessness of other countries could destroy those who have so little to do with the problem.

Religious Responses

I am certainly not the first to consider the ethics of eating. In fact, many of the world’s major religious traditions have an abundance of resources for considering what we should and should not be consuming. Beliefs concerning food vary across traditions, but dietary restrictions are a characteristic many religions share. A good example is the book Religious Vegetarianism, which presents arguments from various religious traditions in support of eliminating animal products from diet. First, I will take a secular approach to why removing animal products will positively address the problems I described in the first section of my paper. Then, I will explore claims for vegetarianism in various religious traditions. I do not do this in an attempt to argue that all religions say the same thing. To the contrary, I aim to emphasize that there are a myriad of diverse approaches to vegetarianism, and I will use that variety to support my argument.

Secular reasons for the elimination of animal products from our diets come from a number of environmental, health and ethical sources. Since I have already made the connection between climate change and the economically disadvantaged, I will begin supporting the argument that meat and animal byproducts play a major role within the food industry in production of greenhouse gasses. Besides CO2, the most important greenhouse gas to know about is methane, and the number one creator of methane is animal agriculture ( Methane rivals CO2 as far as damage that is being done. The article “A New Global Warming Strategy” declares:

Methane is responsible for nearly as much global warming as all other non-CO2 greenhouse gases put together. Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. While atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen by about 31% since pre-industrial times, methane concentrations have more than doubled. (A New Global Warming Strategy). 

Clearly, methane’s place as second to CO2 does not make it any less threatening. The food industry as a whole contributes to the emission of greenhouse gasses, but a considerable amount of methane comes specifically from livestock, and their digestive processes. On an individual level, each cow produces a miniscule amount of methane – as much as 85% of animal agriculture’s methane speaks to the incredible number of cows that have passed through the horrors of animal agriculture. In light of climate change’s disproportionate effects on the poor, the elimination of animals from our diet is an ethical one. However, as I said in the beginning, fruits and vegetables are not the cheapest foods, and so the ability to maintain a vegetarian diet is both a privilege and duty of those who can afford it.

With the secular reasoning in mind, I will now turn to the potential in religious traditions to arrive at vegetarianism. I begin with the assertion that there is a real injustice against the poor that has its root in the food industry. Cheap prices are an illusion once we factor in the price of health problems and environmental degradation. In addition to these systemic problems, there is an injustice on a global level that also disproportionately affects poorer countries. Even though this affects everyone, the people who will face the blow the soonest and the hardest are those who are economically underprivileged. It is important to remember, however, that this will not always be the case. Eventually, unless something drastic is done, climate change will affect everyone. This realization may be an important tool in cultivating empathy, because not only does it ask people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, but it suggests that one day all people literally will be in that position.

The cultivation of empathy is an approach to vegetarianism that esteems virtues, and building character. Empathy is both a response to the external environment, and an internal process which will change the way we relate to the world. Empathy is one bridge between the secular, and religious approach. On one hand, empathy can be a practical tool when faced with the reality of our environmental situation. Logically, we can look at the harm our actions contribute to, and make changes so that we are less culpable for the suffering of others. Thus, our relationship to the world will begin to consider the ramifications of our action. However, empathy can also be a key component of morality. For many, empathy is a virtue one should acquire in order to live a moral life.

Religious approaches to vegetarianism are distinct from secular approaches because they operate within a network of meanings specific to their own tradition. Many scholars have made arguments which pose Christianity and environmentalism as irreconcilably opposed. Some critics claim that Christian (Western) attitudes towards nature have a huge hand in the destruction of the natural world. Some critics argue that Christianity affirms a sense of domination over the natural world. However, in my opinion, Christianity is too diverse to make an oversimplification like that believable. Perhaps popular interpretations of Genesis may support this dominating disposition, however it is certainly not the model for every Christianity. Liberation theology may offer a Christian perspective that would be an opponent to the food industry, specifically because of its oppression of the poor.

Liberation theology is a Christian worldview, and its primary concern is ridding the world of oppression. In the essay “Awakening from the Sleep of Inhumanity,” John Sobrino gives a personal account of what liberation theology means to him. This worldview demands a shift in perspective that asks people to “identify with the poor.” Sobrino describes his experience of encountering the Third World as “an awakening to the reality of an oppressed and subjugated world” (1). He describes this as both incredibly painful, but also an incredibly spiritually awakening experience that aligned very well to Christianity. Sobrino affirms taking on a “Third World point of view,” demonstrating his commitment to a different perspective (3). Importantly, Sobrino’s theology depends on empathy, as he begins to see the world from a disadvantaged perspective. After acquiring this worldview, Sobrino relates to the world differently as his compassion expands. Empathy is an imaginative practice, which allows us to reconsider our relationship to the world. Sobrino’s awakening demanded him to change the live he had been leading, to one that radically identified with the poor.

Sobrino affirms that a “Third World Perspective” is integral to his Christian identity (3).  He provides a quotation from Romans which says, “The wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (4). By having a real physical encounter with the true horrors of an oppressed and impoverished world, Sobrino sees it as a responsibility to respond properly to this truth. Importantly, Sobrino locates this truth to have roots in the Bible. The oppression of the poor is completely entwined with Sobrino’s theology, and he sees it as a Christian duty to act on behalf of the poor. It is for this reason that I think liberation theology would be an opponent of the food industry. Liberation theology is a Christian perspective which is dedicated to the oppressed, and thus, would reject the exploitation of workers, unsatisfactory food options for the poor, and the global catastrophe brought on by climate change. Liberation theology esteems an empathetic disposition, and a humble relationship with the world. Thus, liberation theology rejects the selfish and dominating attitude that has been associated with Christianity.

In an essay entitled “Diet and Non-Violence,” Mohandas Gandhi provides an approach to vegetarianism rooted in Hindu tradition. Gandhi argues that “nothing is more detrimental to the spiritual faculty of a man than the gross feeding on flesh,” and argues for vegetarianism in order to get closer to the ideal of nonviolence (54). In other worlds, vegetarianism is a practice which will support a person’s spiritual life. Gandhi permits that “the votary of nonviolence will commit the minimum violence” (54).  In other words, Gandhi realizes that by living in the world, we will create harm, but affirms that a plant-based diet is preferable because it is the least harmful. He suggests that a person’s spiritual life will be impeded with the consumption of animals. The violence necessary to eat flesh contradicts the virtue of nonviolence which Gandhi affirms. He argues that this violence is actually detrimental to the spiritual faculty of an individual (54). The goal of his vegetarianism is access to his own spirituality, which is allowed by abstaining from violence. Gandhi ends the piece by declaring “it is not the be-all and end-all to become a vegetarian, but rather that it is easier to attain the dharma (or duty) of non-violence when not consuming flesh” (54). For Gandhi, a vegetarian diet is not mandatory, but it is preferable and in alignment with a dedication to non-violence.

According to Gandhi, Hinduism is not the only religious tradition which should support a vegetarian lifestyle. For example, Gandhi invokes a biblical reference and asserts that vegetarianism could return humans to their prelapsarian state. He parallels eating flesh with “the Fall,” and declares that before original sin, humans were vegetarians in the Garden of Eden (54). By providing an interfaith discussion, Gandhi suggests that many paths lead to vegetarianism. Hinduism and Christianity are distinct traditions, and yet Gandhi does not pose them as opponents. Rather he locates places where they resonate with one another. His interfaith reasoning argues that different approaches to vegetarianism do not necessarily approach one another, and can be used to support each other.

The food industry, and especially animal agriculture has been caught red-handed. It is a system that creates a cycle of poverty, obesity, poor conditions, exploitation and is unsustainable for our planet. The incentive for rich and powerful countries and people to make changes seems rather low without any ethical or moral backbone. The demand for ethical action seems to be the only real way to stop a system that receives so much profit for the pain of others. As I have demonstrated, there are a variety of ways to arrive at a vegetarian diet, and they can emerge from a myriad of logics and religious traditions. I argue that this diversity is an advantage. The plurality of approaches to vegetarianism makes it more compelling than one uniform and monolithic reason, because it allows for many worldviews. Any philosophy which resists denial, and asks people to look at the world from the perspective of someone less fortunate, could come to an agreement that the food industry, and consumption of animals must be re-thought. Regardless of whether it is empathy or theology that provides this important perspective shift for people, I say, full steam ahead.


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