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What is Food Ethics?

Food ethics is an interdisciplinary field that provides ethical analysis and guidance for human conduct in the production, distribution, preparation and consumption of food. This document briefly introduces the themes and scope of food ethics.
by Rob Peeler Apr 22, 2015

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Food and ethics intersect in everyday practices as well as in abstract inquiry. Buying a tomato in winter, refusing to consume animal products, participating in a community garden, or petitioning governments regarding agriculture subsidies serve as instances when food and ethics converge. Both food and ethics are expansive concepts and practices, therefore it is important to be clear about what ‘food ethics’ means.

Food ethics is an interdisciplinary field that provides ethical analysis and guidance for human conduct in the production, distribution, preparation and consumption of food.

Over the past century, the production, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food have dramatically altered. Technological developments in agriculture, processing, manufacturing, and the domestic sphere have changed human interactions with food. Globalization, urbanization, and social and political developments in trade, public health, and patterns of consumption have modified the way food is used and thought about. In an attempt to navigate this complex landscape of technological and social relations pertaining to food, as well as the ethical questions they raise, we are turning (more accurately, returning) to food ethics.

One example of an approach to understanding and elaborating the idea of food ethics is to plot the historical shifts in human thought and practice associated with food. The genealogical approach highlights the effect of historical ideas on current debate and practices. Ordinarily this approach focuses on the Greek, Jewish and Christian traditions. For the Ancient Greeks the emphasis was on dietetic regimen, to create a beautiful existence and demonstrate the ability to rule oneself and the city (Foucault, 1992). The Ancient Jewish tradition emphasized dietary law that distinguished clean from unclean; it was (and, for many, remains) the foundation of a religious and moral identity (Zwart, 2000). In contrast to both, the early Christians divorced food from moral or political identity, yet the rise of monasticism soon reconnected food to religious and moral life (Coveney, 2000). These traditions also provide many of the philosophical tools and concepts used in analyzing contemporary ethical concerns relating to food. Other approaches emphasize, for instance, the roles of gender, environment, or law in configuring the domain of food ethics.

In response to more recent technological and social changes in food practices, an array of critical analyses have emerged, raising public awareness and calling attention to ethical issues with respect to food. The landmark texts in this bibliography provide a broader context for understanding Food Ethics today. They highlight, for instance, the hidden exploitation of migrant workers in the meat industry (Sinclair, 1906), the effect of pesticides on the environment (Carson, 1962), the suffering of animals reared for human consumption (Singer, 1975), the structural causes of famine and starvation (Sen, 1983), the consequences of agro-biotechnological solutions to socio-political problems (Shiva, 1991), and the political influence of industry on dietary policy (Nestle, 2002).

These works do not exhaust the issues; nor do they provide a comprehensive of the broad field of food ethics. However, they help frame the contemporary debate in food ethics and have influenced the proliferation of books, articles, documentaries, blogs and conferences critiquing the conditions under which food is produced, prepared and consumed. The purpose of this resource is to assist students, academics, and the public to navigate the broad and diverse field of inquiry that is food ethics.