Ethical Eating

We will be exploring a plethora of issues:

Petition: Say No to a Self-Regulated Industry

New York Times series on water contamination by factory farms


Genetically modified foods (often called Genetically Modified Organisms or “GMOs”) have long been controversial, and most of the American population is unaware that they are regularly consuming GMO foods. This is because there are no laws that require these foods to be labeled as such. GMOs are created by inserting DNA from animals and humans into plants using viruses and bacteria. Consuming foods that have been spliced with viruses, bacteria, and the genetic material of humans is ethically questionable and entirely experimental.

Beyond health concerns, there are other ethical questions about companies like Monsanto, which are patenting genetically modified seeds. GM crops often contaminate non-genetically modified crops because of cross-pollination, which is impossible to control with crops that pollinate with the wind. However, a court in Canada ruled that a farmer who’s crop had been contaminated by Monsanto’s GM canola had to pay Monsanto royalties because the crop was patented. This means that farmers who don’t even want to grow GM crops are forced to pay royalties to any company who contaminates their field with a patented GM crop. Furthermore, while biotech companies claim that these crops will help solve world hunger, they are working to develop “suicide seeds” to grow crops that will not produce any seed, forcing farmers to buy seed from them year after year. This would seem to signal an intention to use such technology either for agricultural warfare or to control the food supply. Moreover, world hunger is not a matter of supply, as there is more than enough food on earth to feed all of its inhabitants. The problem is one of distribution.

Roughly 80% of all non-organic soy and corn on the market is genetically modified. Steering clear of GMOs means only buying organic foods, but it also can mean growing your own organic vegetables to support proliferating food as nature intended.

Industrial Agriculture

According to Bill McKibben, five companies currently control 75% of the global vegetable seed market. Massive consolidation of the food industry has meant that most American’s food budgets are flowing into the hands of a few big players. For example, the merger of Nabisco and Philip Morris in 2000 created a food conglomerate that collects about 10 cents of every dollar Americans spend on food, and Wal-Mart is now the largest seller of food in the country.  Furthermore, today Americans only spend about 11% of their paycheck on food – less than half of what their grandparents spent before World War II.  The consolidation of the industry and the depression of food prices has driven many small farmers out of business. Since the end of World War II, the US has lost a farm about every half hour.  On a typical Iowa farm, the farmer’s profit margin has dropped from 35% in 1950 to 9% today.  Ezra Taft Benson, Dwight D Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture told farmers to, “get big or get out.”  Farming is no longer about farming techniques that build good soil and produce a delicious variety of vegetables and grains.  Instead, it is about marketing and commerce.  Getting away from this system requires supporting local organic farms and perhaps growing some of your food in your own back yard.  Buying organic seeds of rare varieties of vegetables and fruits is a great way to support efforts to preserve our natural heritage of biodiversity.


With the consolidation of farms, biodiversity has plummeted. There are 4,000 known varieties of potato in the world, yet, the typical American supermarket would be lucky to carry eight of them. The consolidation of species means that crops are much more susceptible to pests as evidenced during the Irish potato famine of the 1840’s. Growing your own food allows you to support biodiversity by choosing rare varieties that may not be available at your grocery store. Grocery stores represent a tiny sliver of the diversity of edible plants that nature has to offer. The current system has homogenized our diets, taking its toll in more ways than one.

Habitat Destruction

Agriculture is the principal cause of habitat destruction, which is currently ranked as the most important cause of species extinction worldwide. From the approximately 16 million square kilometers of tropical rainforest habitat that originally existed worldwide, less than 9 million square kilometers remain today. The current rate of deforestation is 160,000 square kilometers per year, which equates to a loss of approximately 1% of original forest habitat each year. Clearly this cannot continue of we want to maintain some semblance of the earth we once had. Growing your food is a great way to begin to halt this process by displacing some of the demand for agricultural land.

Climate Change

It is estimated that the average American meal travels about 1500 miles to get from farm to plate. Furthermore, according to Martin C. Heller and Gregory A. Keoleianthe of the Center for Sustainable Systems in Ann Arbor, MI, as much as 40% of energy used in the food system goes towards the production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Producing and distributing them requires an average of 5.5 gallons of fossil fuels per acre. The production of chemicals and the transportation of food over long distances clearly have obvious implications for global climate change. Producing food in the backyard using organic techniques clearly represents a viable and sustainable lifestyle that we can begin today with little cost to us and the planet.


While even the Environmental Protection Agency calls pesticides “useful,” many pesticides are known carcinogens and the population is not routinely tested to determine if harmful levels are present in the body. A peer-reviewed study published online in the January 2008 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives found that the urine and saliva of children eating a variety of conventional foods from Mercer Island grocery stores contained biological markers of organophosphates, the family of pesticides spawned by the creation of nerve gas agents in World War II.

When the same children ate organic fruits, vegetables and juices, signs of pesticides were not found. According to the study’s author, Chensheng Lu, once you switch from conventional food to organic, the pesticides (malathion and chlorpyrifos) that can be measured in the urine disappears. Death or serious health problems have been documented in thousands of cases in which there were high-level exposures to malathion and chlorpyrifos.

The Organic Consumers Association recently publishes an article about the effect of chemicals on the body’s ability to lose weight, noting that the liver is the body’s primary detoxification and fat-burning organ. Therefore, the more unnatural chemicals a person consumes on a regular basis, the more time and energy the liver needs to spend detoxifying the body, thus, the less time and energy it will have for burning fat.  (Read more)

Growing organic food in your own backyard has the obvious benefit of your knowing where it came from and how it was grown. If you choose organic methods, you will never have to worry about possible health issues associated with the pesticides that are routinely sprayed on conventional crops at the supermarket. You will likely also eat more vegetables because you went to the trouble to grow them and it does not cost you anything to harvest them.


The amount of waste that Americans produce each year is astounding. According to the US EPA, 93 billion plastic water bottles were land-filled in the US in 2002. With these bottles stacked vertically you could:

  • reach the moon & back 38 times
  • circle the equator 371 times
  • line Interstate 80 (NY to SF) 3,196 times
  • span the length of CA 11, 556 times.

And that’s just water bottles. Much of our waste is a result of disposable lifestyles and of food packaging. The weight of plastic produced annually in the U.S. is twice the weight of our entire population (and we are an obese nation). According to the Algalita Foundation, with the exception of the plastic that has been incinerated (a destructive disposal method because of the release of toxins into the air), all the plastic ever manufactured is still with us. It matters because plastic pollution is wreaking havoc on our oceans. There’s six times as much plastic debris as plankton in parts of the North Pacific Ocean, and it has been estimated that up to 100,000 sea mammals die every year by ingesting plastic. The amount of debris around the coastline of the UK doubled between 1994 and 1998, and in parts of the Southern Ocean it increased 100-fold (Barnes 2002). One study reported plastic debris stranded on shores as far north at Spitsbergen in the Arctic (Barnes and Milner 2005).

This holocaust on sea life is preventable if we make a commitment to reduce and contain our waste in responsible ways. Growing your own food is a good place to start, as it requires no plastic containers for transport when you harvest it. You simply bring it inside and cook it.