If we all took a second to look at our next plate of food, and I mean really look at it, how many of the ingredients can you; with confidence, explain its history before reaching your plate. Can you explain where it’s been sourced or how it’s been farmed, do you know how the workers were treated or what, if any, chemicals have these ingredients been treated with. How much do you really know about what you eat? And how much do you really care? With ever-increasing publicity and importance concerning food choices – your plate of food is often a brief insight into your own ethical framework.
I am often guilty of looking at food through a ‘mono-dimensional lens’. Most of my meals I see nothing more than the food staring back at me and I do the same when shopping for food. We often forget that the picture is more complex and requires a sophisticated attitude to see beyond this. If we see meat as only meat, or vegetables as only vegetables, then we are blind to the different relationships connecting us to the food we consume.
The Ethics of Food
Nearly two thirds of Brits want to make a positive difference by adjusting their lifestyle choices, a change in diet is often a great way to start. Food is part of everyone’s daily life, choosing to eat more ethically provides a significant platform to begin creating a difference. Pinpointing exactly what motivates a person to be ethical is often hard to decipher as it is subjective to the individual. However, the general understanding of ethical actions is those aimed at doing the right thing. Doing the right thing; where food is concerned, means looking through the analytical lens of ‘Food Justice’. Food Justice provides an ethical framework that considers all participants involved in the food process eg the workers, the animals, the environment, the community and beyond.
Through our choice of products and our consumption, we are connected to a string of complex relationships. What an individual should not be doing is disassociating themselves from the implications of their food choices. Rather we should recognise that to eat ethically, is to examine the implications of your choice. Ethical eating, therefore, is not an act of individuality, rather it’s a complex web of relationships that need ethical weighting.
The changing nature of individual food consumption
Ultimately ethical eating reflects a conscious choice made based on searching for justice. Ethical eating manifests itself in different ways subject to a person’s weighting of justice. A person whose ethical weighting lies with sourcing local produce follows Localism whereas a person whom ethical weighting lies with the rights of an animal may be Vegan or Vegetarian. There are a plethora of strands of ethical eating, each giving a brief insight into an individual’s ethical beliefs.
A strand of ethical eating; one proving to be extremely popular, is that of Veganism. According to the Vegan Society ‘Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.’ Motivations behind pursuing this lifestyle choice align with food justice concerns making Veganism a great example of a strand of ethical eating. Veganism has become increasingly popular; having been noted as the most progressive food trend of 2018 with data revealing the number of Vegans in the UK now exceeds 3.5 million, or 7% of the population. This shows a staggering 700% growth in just two years.
The corporate food system and the market
Like any good business corporate food systems react to demand. The likes of Veganism starting to take hold of the nation the likes of supermarkets and restaurants have needed to react, and react they have. One of the UK’s leading food delivery services Just Eat has confirmed that over 33% of all their restaurant partners are now providing Vegan and Vegetarian options on their menus, whilst Pret A Manger owning 4 specifically veggie restaurants across the UK.
One of the biggest changes for corporate food systems must be seen in the supermarkets. With ever rising ethical concern from consumers and ever-growing competitiveness between supermarkets, ethical eating has led to a retail revolution. 2018 has been the year to illustrate this massive change with the supermarket chain Iceland having released the meat-free burger ‘No Bull’ earlier this year, and further continued to extend their range hoping to target not only Vegans and Vegetarians but a growing generation of Flexitarians looking to cut down their intake of meat. In order to keep up with a 20% increase demand for plant-based products, Sainsbury’s supermarket has introduced a meat free range which caters to those with specific dietary requirements especially Vegans and Vegetarians. Retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Iceland are merely responding to the market demands which will, in turn, mean significant changes for its suppliers.
Responding to increasing awareness of ethical eating
Ethical consumption concerns (including food) are often weighted up against the everyday obligations, opportunities and constraints of life. Corporate food systems such as supermarkets and restaurants will need to continually adapt to ensure it meets consumer’s needs if they are to remain in business. The corporate food system in order to maintain and sustain a response to ethical eating will only do so if it can also satisfy the need of its shareholders for profit. The current changes in the UK supermarkets suggest that the system is responding to a changing pattern of food consumption. As consumers are becoming increasingly ethically aware of what is on their plate the various elements of the corporate food system are clearly responding to the changing eating habits of the population. However, it’s important to recognise that with lifestyle demands often trumping our concerns of provenance, corporate food systems continue to reap the benefits of both its ethical and not ethical consumers.