Over the last few years my understanding of ethical eating has expanded. I used to ask one basic question - “Were animals killed?” Now, I consider a far greater list of animal welfare and planetary concerns when choosing what to eat. My internal questionnaire has grown organically as my understanding of our modern food system has evolved. Since I've already done the leg work, I'd love to share what I've learned with you!
With each food choice, it is crucial to know whether animals were killed or harmed, whether or not the food causes deforestation, and what effect the food's production has had on our environment. All of these elements are essential to the conversation we need to have with others (and with ourselves) if we intend to prosper as a healthy, happy and safe society.
For our individual health and the health of our planet, thinking critically about our food choices is one of the most important things we can do each day. Below are the 4 questions I ask myself with each meal, why I think they matter, and why I hope you'll join me on an ethical eating journey too!
This is the obvious one, right? I don’t think it’s necessary to explain why it’s unethical to force animals to endure a tortured, caged life before we slaughter them. Instead, I’ll tell you a little bit about how my mostly ethical diet came to be.
After seeing the movie Babe at age 10, I stopped eating beef and pork. I was shocked and appalled to discover that ham sandwiches were made from dead pigs! Why would anyone want to eat Babe? My non-vegetarian parents made me choose one meat to eat to “get enough protein.” Doh. I chose chicken. Eventually, I realized that we don’t need to kill animals to get protein. Chickens are highly intelligent and also, adorable. So, I stopped eating them.
I still enjoy eating wild-caught sushi on occasion but plucking a once-living creature out of the ocean is not exactly ethical. My husband I consciously limit our fish consumption to a few times a month. I figure that we’re not doing too much to perpetuate oceanic devastation as long as we are thoughtfully consuming fish sparingly. I justify the impact of the occasional aquatic splurge with the fact that around 33% of my meals are vegetarian and about 64% are vegan. (Yes, I did the math.)
The point I want to drive home is that my diet's not perfectly ethical. And that's ok. What matters most to me is thinking critically about my food choices every day. It's important to judge our own choices and analyze the effect they have on ourselves, on others, and on the environment. I don’t think conscious living demands perfection. Instead, it requires awareness of our impact and deliberate consideration of the consequence of our daily decisions.
I only recently began to fully understand how unethically animals are treated in our corporate farming system. Our modern food system is very effective at concealing the gruesome and inhumane nature of industrialized egg and dairy farms. According to the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 95% of eggs are produced under cruel, caged conditions.
If you're not already aware of what happens in an industrial egg farm, here’s a quick run down. Fair warning - it's not pleasant:
Eggs get hatched. Baby boy chicks are gassed to death or ground up and discarded almost immediately after birth. The surviving hens have their beaks cut off or have spikes painfully inserted through them before they then endure a tortured life trapped in filthy, tiny cages. They can’t turn around or spread their wings and it’s not uncommon for healthy egg-laying hens to share cages with sick or dead birds. Like I said, it's gruesome.
Dairy farms are just as bad. Cows only produce milk to feed their babies, just like humans. To keep that dairy farm milk flowing, the cows must be artificially inseminated and go through pregnancy and birth repeatedly. The babies are ripped away right after they are born to be killed or sent to veal farms. This causes immense stress for both mother and calf, who will both live agonizing lives before their slaughter. The frequent unnatural births also mean the mommas are pumped with antibiotics and cancer-causing hormones which end up in us when we consume their milk, cheese, or butter. Yuck on yuck on yuck.
To quote legal academic and animal rights activist Gary L. Francione, “There is no meaningful distinction between eating flesh and eating dairy or other animal products. Animals exploited in the dairy industry live longer than those used for meat, but they are treated worse during their lives, and they end up in the same slaughterhouse after which we consume their flesh anyway. There is probably more suffering in a glass of milk or an ice cream cone than there is in a steak.”
Now that we've rundown what happens in industrial farm, let's chat about whether it's possible to consume animal products ethically.
I personally do choose to eat eggs but I am passionate about the treatment of the hens. I would love to have my own coop but for now, I purchase store-bought eggs that are “organic,” “pasture raised,” and certified humane.
Egg labeling is confusing and unregulated for the most part, so here are some shopping tips:
The term “organic” on its own can be misleading. It is not providing information about the ethical treatment of the hens, only the feed they eat and their ability to go outside. Similarly, there is no FDA verification for terms like “natural,” “free range,” or “cage free,” or even “pasture raised.” To ensure that eggs are ethical, I recommend checking the Certified Humane website for a list of pasture farms that ensure a high standard of living for the animals.
We currently buy hard boiled eggs from Wilcox Farms and fresh eggs from Vital Farms, where the hens have 108 square feet of fresh green pasture per bird. To put this in perspective, industrial egg farms average 67 square inches per bird.
As for dairy, I personally choose not to eat it like, 99% of the time. If I’m at a dinner party or out with friends, I’ll definitely have some cheese on occasion. But because of the nature of producing dairy, even grass fed cows likely suffer through many pregnancies and forced lactation. Plus, the environmental impact of producing dairy products make them inarguably unethical in my book.
Fortunately, there are many delicious vegan dairy alternatives on the market now. Follow Your Heart and Chao cheese slices and Follow Your Heart creamy dressings are my absolute fave and a staple in our house. The blue cheese it to die for! (I'll link it on the bottom.)
How little or how often you consume animal products is really up to you, obviously. My hope is that anyone reading this who does choose to consume animal products is doing so with purposeful consideration of the ethical impact of that decision.
Being conscious of the treatment of livestock is so important but it’s far from the only ethical consideration. As long as humans are destroying the equivalent of 48 football fields of rainforest every minute, it's crucial to consider deforestation in our diet.
71% of rainforest deforestation is caused by animal agriculture. We are wiping out 137 species of animals and insects every single day, forever - causing 50,000 species to go extinct annually - just to make way for more profitable livestock staples like cows and chickens.
The ethical implication of eating animal products that cause deforestation is complex and out of sight. Nevertheless, I don’t see how we can consider the impact of slaughtering farm animals on what was once rainforest without also considering the tens of thousands of animals that are killed annually as their natural habitats are destroyed to raise said livestock. The statistics about animal agriculture-fueled deforestation are truly devastating. Yet in my experience, most people fail to understand, or have never come in contact with information about, the sacrifices we are all making for the sake of their consumption.
Aside from destroying animal biodiversity and causing mass extinction, let's not forget that there are serious consequences from destroying the forest itself. When we torch the rainforest to create farms and plantations, all of the stored carbon in tree trunks gets released into the environment. Hundreds or thousands of years of hard work cleaning up our air literally go up in flames! 15% of total carbon emissions are caused by deforestation, which is more than all of the world's cars combined!
And then there's soy. It’s production is destroying millions of hectares annually in Brazil and other parts of South America. 75-80% of soy becomes animal feed, not people food. We are destroying Brazilian rainforest and killing off the animals who live there natively - to make soy. Which we then fly across the world to feed animals that we proceed to kill and then transport to ourselves. Anyone else see a huge problem here?
If we fed that soy to humans instead of feeding it to livestock, it would "increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people." This would effectively end global hunger according to Institute on the Environment and the University of Minnesota.
But animal agriculture isn’t the only culprit in massive deforestation. Although I've never heard it discussed in the corporate media (hello, fast food and snack food ad revenue), one single ingredient has destroyed over 80% of the rainforest in Indonesia in the last 30 years - palm oil. Palm oil is threatening many of the animals we know and love with imminent extinction in the near future.
In the last 20 years orangutans have seen more than 80% of their habitats obliterated to create palm oil plantations. Orangutans are now considered critically endangered. If we don’t curb our behavior, we will likely see their extinction in the next 5 or 10 years.
Our self-imposed dependence on products produced with conflict palm oil could mean saying goodbye to not only orangutans but Sumatra rhinos, Sumatra tigers, Pygmy elephants and 300,000 other rainforest species forever.
Palm oil is in approximately 50% of processed foods - pizza, crackers, cakes, candy bars, you name it. I'm continually surprised when I see vegans or vegetarians eating name brand processed foods with palm oil. It hurts my heart that these type of dietary choices, although delicious, directly contribute to not only death but mass extinction.
As long as we keep choosing chemical-laden processed foods like Cheez-its, Doritos, Dominos, Nestle and Wendy’s French fries over natural foods - our rainforests are going to keep disappearing at an alarming rate. If you are serious as serious about creating an ethical diet as I am personally, processed packaged foods and fast food have got to go. For me, anything with palm oil is always a hard "no."
It's a sneaky ingredient that goes by many names so check your labels to this list to see if you're inadvertently stocking your pantry with this deadly substance.
Lastly, we can't discuss the ethical impact of our decisions without discussing the environment.
Climate change will have real life and death consequences for an estimated 100 million people over the next decade. It is our moral obligation to slow it down as much as possible. Our food systems, particular animal agriculture, are responsible for over half of green house gas emissions. Industrial animal farming is also adding a frightening amount of waste to our land and it wastes more water than any other industry on our planet.
Here are some additional facts borrowed from Cowspiracy:
Livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
Animal Agriculture is responsible for 20%-33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today.
On top of the undeniable ecological destruction, mass extinction and toxic byproducts we create with our industrialized food, we then throw more than a third of our food away. Wasted food is a serious problem. In the US, 30-40% of food is wasted!
We cut down our rainforests killing tens of thousands of animals annually to farm animals and other cheap ingredients like palm oil; we then pollute rivers, create green house gasses, and waste an ungodly amount of water during the agricultural process before we kill the animals or farm the ingredients; next we ship said food across the world -creating even more green house gasses - all to.... throw that food away! What?!
We recklessly just throw away a third to half of the food that went on a crazy, pernicious, destructive journey to get to us. Nothing about this system is ethical or responsible.
According to Stanford Law Center, “Climate change. Ocean dead zones. Fisheries depletion. Species extinction. Deforestation. World hunger. Food safety. Heart disease. Obesity. Diabetes... There is one issue at the heart of all these global problems that is too often overlooked by private individuals and policy makers alike—our demand for and reliance on animal products. We can take a substantial step towards addressing all these problems simultaneously through reducing or eliminating our reliance on meat and dairy products.”
I would add palm oil-laden processed foods and socially accepted wastefulness to the list of dietary habits that are literally annihilating our planet. But, ya. They pretty much nailed it.
The time to start thinking critically about the consequence of our daily dietary decisions is now. This system can not exist much longer before it’s inevitable collapse. It’s time to focus on reconnecting with our food to minimize our individual impact. Consciously making ethical choices will mean a safer, healthier, more peaceful world for us all.
The images in this post are from a gluten-free, vegan feast Eric and I had at Mesa Verde in Santa Barbara. The food was so incredibly nourishing and delicious! I would recommend the restaurant if you are ever in SB! I truly enjoy being on an ethical food journey and I love hunting down restaurants that share our interest in bettering the world through dietary choices.
I've included some of my personal favorite ethical foods below and some media on this important topic as well.
What dietary changes do you make or are you willing to make to make the world a more ethical place? Please let me know below!