Group hosts panel discussing ethics of eating

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Photo by Lisett Clark |

The Internet is full of arguments between vegetarians or vegans and those who eat meat, but they rarely evolve past angry comments about which is superior. Ethical eating is a topic the Rutgers Veg Society tackled last night with an “Interdisciplinary Panel on Food Ethics” at the Student Activities Center on the College Avenue campus.

Ethical eating is when someone eats in a way that “promotes the good,” said Beth Henzel, a graduate student in the Department of Philosophy and one of the panelists.

“There are (roughly) three different types of consideration that ought to impact our decisions about what to eat,” Henzel said in an email. “(They are) environmental impact, obligations to people involved in the production of the food and the pain, suffering and rights violations of animals.”

Labor practices should be among the questions being considered with ethical eating, she said. Specifically, people should be aware of how the workers who harvest food items are treated.

“If by eating a certain product we are supporting practices that violate the rights of others, we shouldn’t eat that particular thing,” she said.

Another aspect of ethical eating — animal rights — are likely the most discussed area, Henzel said.

“If we think animal cruelty is … wrong, then we should be concerned about how the animals that we eat and produce food that we eat are treated,” she said.

Philosophers do not agree on whether arguments on this issue should be related to veganism and avoiding meat altogether, or if simply eating humanely raised meat products can support the cause, she said.

Carbon footprints, water requirements and the effect creating the food has on the region where it is grown are all part of the last major set of concerns, Henzel said. This set directly relates to climate change broadly, and the environment more specifically.

Eating local produce is one way to impact this issue, she said. Crops and animal rearing can lead to excessive waste and pesticides that have a harmful impact on the environment.

Farmland takes up nearly 50 percent of all habitable land on Earth, said Ethan Schoolman, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Ecology and panelist at the event.

“Simply in terms of its actual physical footprint, agriculture and food production arguably impacts the planet as much as any other human activity,” Schoolman said in an email.

The food industry contributes to climate change throughout the process of creating and transporting items, said Rachael Shwom, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Ecology and another panelist.

“We use a lot of fossil fuels in the fertilizer (given to crops used as feed) so (animals are) very energy-intense foods,” Shwom said. “(The industry) produces a lot of carbon dioxide (and) there’s also a lot of deforestation.”

More energy is used to grow plants that can be used as feed than can be gained back from meat products later, she said.

Transportation of packaged foods in industrialized nations only makes up 10 percent of the energy used overall, Shwom said. Moving food has become a very efficient process, despite the different needs involved.

Refrigeration is one of those needs along with the energy needed by the vehicles involved, she said.

Greenhouse gasses, including methane and carbon dioxide, are important contributors to climate change, Shwom said.

“Methane, which is a greenhouse gas that we don’t pay as much attention to, is one … (it is) produced from cattle-raising and from certain kinds of rice paddies,” she said. “There’s also methane in industrialized nations in particular. When we throw food away … into waste dumps, that actually produces methane as well.”

Another compound that does not receive a lot of attention is phosphorated hydrogen (PH3), which can be caused by run-off with waste products from animal-rearing and other farming activities. PH3 can help lead to algae blooms when it reaches the ocean, Shwom said.

The net result of these factors, among others, is that meat becomes a more energy-intensive form of food than crops, Schwom said.

“I think people are starting to realize that we focus a lot on the importance of our direct-energy use, so our electricity systems," she said. "Our use of petroleum in our transportation systems, (and) our food system is starting to emerge as a large contributor to climate change.”

Changes in global temperature and other issues will put more stress on the industry, Shwom said. Crop production can decline and it may be more difficult to raise cattle or other meat products.

If that happens prices will rise due to scarcity, and people may also relocate to places still capable of raising animals, she said.

Different types of meat should also be considered, Shwom said. Chickens have less of an impact than cows do, at least in part because they are not processed as much.

At the same time, a “highly processed soy-veggie patty” might require as much energy to produce as a chicken patty, despite being entirely vegetarian, she said.

Being “green” in eating habits to help limit the impact on other people should be enough of a reason for people to make that switch, Henzel said. In this sense, eating ethically to support the environment becomes a duty for people.

“Students at places like Rutgers have always been catalysts for getting the larger society to pay attention to environmental problems and social injustice,” Schoolman said. “The more that university students engage with ethical issues around food, the harder it will be for everyone else to ignore them.”


Nikhilesh De

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