Fresh vegetables on display in a supermarket
"A very small group of people now exerts enormous influence over the global food system," says Oxfam's Brian O'Neill (Photo by PhotoSpin/Michael Gatewood)

Topics: Ethical Living | Environment

Food choices are complicated when you’re trying to be ethical

Rev. Trisha Elliott finds that embracing the ideals of the eco-food movement is one thing, but making it a dinnertime reality is another


I live in Winchester, Ont., the kind of town where churches outnumber hair salons and where the community itself gets better looking the more you get to know the people in it. Winchester’s two main restaurants reflect the local palate: Mary’s dishes up two-inch-thick hot beef sandwiches; the Country Kitchen sells five kinds of steak. Our meat-and-potatoes family fits right in.

My two-year-old son, Isaac, pronounced his first clear word, “Yuck!” over cauliflower and demands “butter and ’toes” at most meals. My five-year-old, Aidan, has a hard time sitting adjacent to a vegetable, much less eating one. Although my husband, Mike, chokes down my vegetarian entrees, he’d trade them for a bloody steak any day. He shrugs off my fear that raising animals for consumption exacerbates global warming and could deplete global water supplies. “If God didn’t want us to eat animals, God wouldn’t have made them out of meat,” he grins.

But seriously, what would God have us eat?

When it comes to food, ethical questions seem as endless as the aisles in the new mega-grocery stores. I’m breaking into a sweat just thinking about buying groceries for dinner tonight. The ethical food movement has me convinced that I am what I eat in a moral sense. So I’ve accepted the challenge to plan, cook and serve an ethical meal, but I know it isn’t going to be easy. In fact, I’m stumped before I get out the door. Where should I shop?

JUST OFF THE HIGHWAY, a sprawling addition has been built on Mike Dean’s SuperStore, which now carries bath towels, children’s toys, high-end cookware, as well as food. In town, Andy’s Foodland has less selection and parking is a little more difficult, but the staff members carry your bags to the car and Andy generously supports local endeavours. I couldn’t tell you about employee benefits in either business, though they should probably factor into my decision.

So should food miles — not just how far the food has to travel to get to me, but how far I have to travel to get to the food. Foodland is a mere five blocks away. I hang up the car keys, reach for a toque (it’s January, after all) and give myself an ecological gold star for walking.

One hundred and seventy-one steps later, I arrive at Foodland and drift into a sea of colourful produce. The white flags reading “Mexico” “Costa Rica” “Israel” and “U.S.A.” offer little help in navigating through the ethical quagmire: Was it grown sustainably? How were the producers treated? How did it get here?

I soon discover that there’s organic salad dressing, but nothing organic to put it on. “Organic doesn’t sell much around here. It’s too expensive. If you go to Ottawa, you’d see aisles of it. If you tell me what you want though, I’ll get it,” Andy offers. A fellow shopper overhears our conversation. “The stickers are window dressing. You never know what you’re getting anyway,” she says.

She’s partially right. Labels such as “natural” and “Earth-friendly” have no discernible meaning, while others, such as “free range,” refer to practices that vary widely. “Organic,” however, is becoming more regulated. Michel Saumur, the national manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s organic office and an organic farmer himself, says that pressure from European trade partners coupled with a desire to protect the public from misleading claims have led to a new federal industry regulation that will come into effect in December. “We’re trying to gain consumer confidence,” says Saumur.

But ethical-sounding labels don’t always lead to the most ethical choice. The only vegetables labelled “free from herbicides” at Andy’s are three of bright peppers sitting on a Styrofoam base, wrapped in heavy plastic and imported from Israel and Mexico. But compared to the pricier Ontario peppers beside it, the price is right. Or is it?

Next door to Winchester is the village of Chesterville, home of Canada’s first Nestlé plant. The factory not only sustained the local economy, but the community itself, sponsoring sports teams and maintaining the water reservoir dam. After 80 years, Nestlé skipped town. My brother, his fiancée and almost 300 other employees lost their jobs. Food production is cheaper in Mexico.

I forgo the peppers and move on to seasonal fare. Anticipating a full-scale revolt if I bring home cabbage, parsnips or squash, I settle on carrots, flip open my cellphone and call Gambles Ontario Produce Inc., the food distribution centre in Toronto whose name is on the package. Eventually, I talk to Richard Rose, vice-president of chain accounts, who assures me that the carrots were grown in Canada. “Bradford Marsh, Ontario, to be exact. We switch to U.S. carrots after June, but as long as the package says ‘Product of Canada,’ it was grown in Canada. We’re very proud of our produce. Enjoy your carrots.” “I think I will,” I say.

Turning the corner to the refrigerated meat display, I notice that some of the packages have “Product of Canada” stamped on them. But while the same label on my carrots refers to where they’re grown, Paul Clarke, a meat-processing specialist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says that on meat, it might only refer to where it’s processed. “So, for example, an imported half loin that remained unchanged in appearance would have to have the country of origin label on it, but if the loin was cut into chops in Canada, the label could read ‘Product of Canada,’” Clarke says.

Labels are confusing, but retailing rules can rack up food miles, too. There is a provincially inspected processing plant 15 minutes from Winchester, but Andy can’t purchase his meat there. Sobeys Inc., Foodland’s corporate parent, much like other large grocery chains, only sells federally inspected meat “because federal regulations are more strict than provincial ones,” says Andy. “It’s for food-safety reasons.”

As such, the beef at Andy’s travels as livestock from farms in Ontario and Quebec to Better Beef Ltd., a processing plant in Guelph, Ont., and is routed to a Sobey’s distribution centre near Toronto before arriving in Winchester — a minimum 492-km trip.

Whether federally inspected processing plants are indeed safer, and whether or not there are enough of them to keep small farms that can’t shoulder heavy transportation costs viable is hotly debated in the industry. Abandoning the meat section at Andy’s, I make a mental note to find out where the meat sold in the local butcher shop I’ve been avoiding comes from. Following the refrigerated aisles, I wind up at the cheese counter. Should I buy my cheese here or down the road? Winchester, the “cheese capital of Canada,” is home to a Parmalat factory. Since the plant is a bit of a hike, I call before braving the snow. “I’m sorry,” says the receptionist over the phone. The factory “isn’t open to the public. We make cheese in 640-pound blocks and ship them [235 km] to Belleville for cutting. But if you buy Black Diamond, that’s ours.”

OVER THE LAST 60 YEARS, Canadian food production has been industrialized and centralized. Processing facilities have been super-sized. According to Statistics Canada, Canada lost 17,550 farms between 2001 and 2006, while the average farm grew by 52 acres during the same time frame. Advocates of the centralized food system say that it improves food safety, generates more food at less cost, and that its large, efficient trucks and central distribution depots result in fewer food miles. Critics counter that the “go big or get out” mentality forces small farmers out of business, threatens rural economies, compromises local sustainability and creates environmental hazards.

Brian O’Neill, program co-ordinator for Oxfam Canada in Halifax, says, “A very small group of people now exerts enormous influence over the global food system.” Corporate concentration, O’Neill says, has affected everyone from farmers to processors and retailers, resulting in lower incomes and loss of control over what they grow and how they grow it. “In 1975, for example, 13 percent of the retail cost of a loaf of bread went to the farmer,” O’Neill adds. “Today only four percent does. Meanwhile, agribusiness profits have soared.”

In their best-selling book, The 100 Mile Diet (Random House Canada), Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon write that in North America, the average food item travels 1,500 miles before it turns up on a plate. But the road between farm and fork isn’t just long, it’s winding, too, and making ethical food choices relies on knowing where food comes from. If it’s difficult to ascertain where produce, meat and dairy originate, then it’s nearly impossible to trace the origin of ingredients in packaged foods. The current food system relies on agri-buyers and, increasingly, seed scientists and regulators to make ethical decisions for the rest of us.

The ingredient label on the loaf of bread I’m holding simply reads “wheat.” For Sharon Rempel, that’s a problem. A Victoria-based agronomist and writer, Rempel says that while there are more than 100,000 varieties of wheat, only about 200 are legally registered to sell in Canada. Variety identification isn’t required for packaging. Rempel is worried that hardy varieties such as Red Fife, which is adaptable to climate change, risk extinction because regulations (and economies) favour hybrids. Rempel attracted 800 people to Canada’s First Bread and Wheat Festival, held in Victoria last October. There, artisanal breads were served up with discussion about biodiversity, genetically modified seed, terminator technology and seed patents. “Accessing seed can be a challenge in a world that is driven by agribusiness,” says Rempel. “Whoever controls the seed, controls the food supply.”

A handful of “gene giants” dominate the global seed industry, the two largest being Dupont and Monsanto. Percy Schmeiser of Bruno, Sask., knows Monsanto all too well. In 1998, the company sued him when it found its canola plant (genetically engineered to withstand the company’s weedkiller, Roundup) growing on Schmeiser’s farm. While the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that there was no evidence that Schmeiser planted or benefited from the canola, it upheld Monsanto’s patent claim, supporting the company’s right to own the gene. Now, Schmeiser is counter-suing Monsanto for “contaminating” his crops with their seed.

For his fight against “patents on life,” Schmeiser was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize in Sweden last October. “When this all started, I never dreamt that all of these moral and ethical issues would come to light, but I firmly believe that no one should have the right to own and control life, and that’s what’s happening right now. It’s bad enough that it’s happening in North America, but God help people in Third World countries. They’ll be totally dependent on seeds and chemicals sold by corporations,” said Schmeiser.

AFTER TWO AND A HALF HOURS of wandering the aisles at Andy’s, I make a quick decision: macaroni is made of wheat that’s grown closer to home than rice, and it’s lighter than potatoes. Five minutes later, I’m loading it, as well as carrots, onion, cheese, bread, oatmeal and apples onto the conveyor belt. “Bags?” the cashier asks. “Yes!” I answer decisively. (Eco-guilt can’t convince me to pooper-scoop with a washable margarine container.)

On the walk to Greg’s Butcher Shop, one of the shopping bags breaks. I grow irritable. My feet are wet, my hair is flat and I worry that Greg will think I stole the produce that bulges from my pockets. In no mood to draw out the conversation, I lay my ethical criteria before the young man behind the counter: Is your chicken local? (Yes.) Are they slaughtered nearby? (Yes.) Are the chickens happy before they’re killed? (Pardon?) Did they live a good life, you know, did they have room to stretch their wings, peck a little, scratch themselves and do whatever else it is that chickens do? (Uh, I guess so.)

At the register, Greg’s sister Sandra launches into a spiel about how the chicken breasts look small because they aren’t pumped with water and preservatives. “What does this mean?” I asked, referring to the “roam free” label on the egg carton. Sandra points to an article taped on the wall describing how, after 30 years, poultry farmer John Beking of Oxford Station, Ont., had converted his barns to give his chickens access to nests, roosting areas and open spaces for scratching and dust bathing. In the article, Beking said that he liked to think that his conversion “made the chickens happy.”

As I laid my purchases next to the cash, I promised Sandra that I would be back. The butcher shop made me happy. After spending $22.32 for two chicken breasts, a handful of curd, a small jar of honey and a dozen eggs, remarkably, I felt even happier.

In fact, I so closely resemble the “ethical consumer” portraits recently drawn by marketing firms that I’m a little concerned. Mintel, a market research company, says that corporations are responding to consumer desire to feel better about their food purchases, and in 2007 predicted that the market would bust with new “ethical” brands this year. Their projection was on the money. President’s Choice just unveiled Canada’s first organic infant formula, and Frito-Lay recently launched “natural” Doritos.

Some of the world’s largest corporate bodies have already jumped on the eco-eating bandwagon. Bob Langert, vice-president of McDonald’s Corporate Social Responsibility division, regularly blogs to the world about the ecological difference the hamburger chain is making, and Sobeys Inc.’s motto, “Building Sustainable Worth,” couldn’t get any more green.

PLOWING HOME THROUGH THE SNOW, I wonder if the ethical food movement will inspire the kind of systemic change that’s really required. The kind of change that our Jewish ancestors had in mind when they raised food-consciousness by making rituals out of routine meals; the kind that Jesus, who habitually ate with “tax collectors and sinners,” advocated just before, as New Testament scholar Robert Karris states, “he got himself killed for the way he ate.” Or will companies that package food with morals create a social climate where those who can’t afford to buy them are not only considered unfortunate, but unholy, too?

Stirring the mac and cheese, I take some comfort in knowing that food decisions have never been easy. Ethics of any sort defy clear packages and ready labels. The ethics of food is particularly cumbersome. The struggle to eat well is both a privilege and a burden for those of us born with the world on our forks.

Aidan bursts into tears when he first sees the carrots on his plate. Isaac pushes his chair away and sulkily demands toast. Mike’s happily chatting away, but his most ringing endorsement of a meal is silence; you’d hear a pin drop if he was eating steak. The oatmeal-apple cake, I’m sure, will be a hit. But I don’t know that I’ll enjoy it. I’m exhausted and I can’t shake the feeling that my “ethical eating” excursion has highlighted my ignorance more than my ethics.

Yet, as I turn out the lights on the day’s questions, there is some clarity; I am more grateful than ever for my daily bread and for the Canadian heartlands that produce it, the kind of places where hellos passed between strangers sound a lot like grace.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s April 2008 issue with the title “Eating ethically.”


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