The Value of Food in Our Society

What we are willing to pay for says a great deal about who we are. It identifies what we value in both absolute and relative terms. My father told me that the one vote that always counted is how you spend your money. I suppose he was a bit skeptical that anyone counted the ballots in the South Texas community where he grew up. However, he was certain that the merchants were counting the money in their tills. He viewed every dollar spent as an affirmation not only for products and services bought, but how they were made and sold and by whom. My father understood the structure of the US economy and our role in it. Our purchases are the main driver of the US economy; we are the US economy. Food is one of the many things we purchase to form our economy. In the US, food makes up a surprisingly small part of our expenditures. This is not true for much of the rest of the world, nor was it true for us historically. Researchers comparing 114 countries found that the average US household spent the smallest proportion of expenditures on food at home, beverages, and tobacco (less than 10 percent).1 For comparison, other high-income countries spent 17 percent of their household budget, while households in middle-income countries spent 35 percent, and households in low-income countries spent over 52 percent. Clearly, poor people spend a higher percent on food because their incomes are low, but even among the richest countries we spend the smallest proportion on food. Food in the US is relatively cheap in comparison to every other country in the world. To gain a sense of why that is so, it is instructive to look at how our personal expenditures have changed over time. In 1901, the average US household had 5.3 people and spent 43 percent of its budget on food and alcohol. In 2004, the average US household had 2.5 people and we spent less on food eaten at home (7.7 percent of expenses) than what we spent on social security and pensions (10.2 percent). Our expenses rise to 15 percent of our budget if we include food away from home. The increase in expenses for food away from home, from 3 percent in 1901 to 42 percent of all food expenditures in 2004, is the only reason that our food expenditures are as large as they are. What is surprising about the US is that the proportion we spend on food does not change much with income; the amount varies from 12 percent for the richest households to 16 percent for the poorest. The upshot is that even the poorest among us spend a smaller proportion of our income on food than the average amount spent by all other high-income countries.2 Therefore, in global and historical terms, food in the US is cheap. This seems logical for a country that has a lot of land, yet people spend a much higher proportion of their income on food in Canada, Russia, Australia, or Brazil where land is plentiful. One could attribute cheap food in the US to the combination of land, water, and climate, but we know that historically food in the US was expensive. Cheap food was hardly inevitable given the chronic historical labor shortage, at least from the Euro-American perspective. The labor shortage was addressed successively by explicit policies supporting slavery, immigration, and mechanization. Our national policy was motivated to make food cheap and plentiful. It has been tied inextricably to our policy of territorial expansion, occupation, and removal of indigenous peoples and their rights. Food was a critical issue in US history; early colonists and pioneers routinely died of starvation and malnutrition. Often this was due to lack of understanding about the environment they were in and by trying to impose a foreign system of agriculture. The attitude was not one of adaptation, but of conquest. Territorial acquisition was the precursor to drawing settlers from the Eastern US and Europe who were required to farm and produce food to secure title. Food production of commodities was the “price” of gaining occupied This essay argues that the moral dimension of eating well lies in the relationships created or disrupted by particular choices about how we eat. Our relationship to the health of our own bodies is only one of these relationships. The moral status of eating genetically engineered foods depends, therefore, on how eating them affects the entire network of relationships to which our eating lends support and legitimacy. The difficulty many people have in deciding about genetically engineered foods may lie in the fact that it is difficult to trace out the different effects they have on animals, plants, soils, tradition, labor, and other people. Given our tendency to be blind to many of these relationships, the task of sorting out the moral problems with genetically engineered foods becomes even more complicated. A quick look at the broader implications of eating genetically engineered foods suggests that there is a potentially significant impact on our relationships to the environment and to other people.14 For example, genetic engineering may affect where a particular crop can be grown, and thus who will profit from growing it. Successful substitution of engineered vanilla for natural vanilla, for example, threatens the livelihood of growers in Madagascar for whom natural vanilla beans are the only source of income.15 Moreover, introducing genetically engineered foods in the food system amounts to involuntary experimentation on consumers because the long-term effects of these foods have not been investigated. While engineering pesticides into a food crop may obviate the need to spray pesticides in the environment, the process still produces insect populations that are resistant to the pesticide, while raising questions about the health impacts on humans who consume the pesticide in their food. Companies who create and invest in genetically modified organisms naturally seek control over their creations. Industrial control over the source of seeds for genetically engineered crops through patents and licensing agreements deepens farmers’ dependence on seed manufacturers, siphons profits out of local communities into the coffers of multinational corporations, undermines age-old farming practices that depend on saving seed from year to year in order to promote the local adaptability of particular seed lines, and makes the global food supply more vulnerable by reducing its biodiversity. When industry inserts genetically engineered foods into the market while blocking efforts to label them, it infringes on the freedom of consumers to make informed food choices based on their own values and preferences. Despite widespread popular belief that producers should provide what consumers want, the manufacturers of genetically engineered food products imply that consumers’ desires for information are irrational. For the purposes of this essay, then, a consumer has not exhausted all morally relevant questions when they determine whether genetically engineered foods will cause harm to their health or to the health of their families. We must expand our moral vision. Genetic engineering transforms the way people relate to the land, to workers in other countries, and to their own rights of self-determination. When widespread, it fundamentally changes the meaning of eating well. Eating is a transaction with the natural environment that has far-reaching ramifications, as we have seen. The development of genetic engineering creates another mediating relationship, another perturbation in the relational network, which threatens the integrity of that transaction. By industrializing eating, whether through factory farms, monocropping, or genetic engineering, we corrupt relationships throughout the vast network our eating creates. I started this essay with the concern that people might not take seriously the notion that eating well is a moral issue and a task for which we should take responsibility. If my argument has been sound, we should now be able to conclude that how we eat does indeed raise moral issues because of the impact our choices have on relationships with people, animals, and the environment, both near at hand and far afield. Becoming morally accountable for our eating is not just a matter of making sure that we all have enough to eat, nor is it limited to the legitimate outrage at how animals are treated in the industrialized food system. Rather, most broadly, eating well means opening our eyes to the vast network of effects created by our eating practices. We must then use what we see to guide our consumption in ways that protect the health and integrity of the soil, the wellbeing of wild and domesticated animals, the health and rights of those people who work the world’s fields and farms, and our own sense of self and community. I like Thai food best, but Andy prefers Mexican. Matt does not like Italian food. Amanda cannot bear to eat onions. Michael will not touch anything that has mustard in it. Joe would never eat sushi or any raw meat. For many people, these are just so many different preferences, of no moral weight or significance. So, you do not like Italian or onions or sushi. So what? Some people like some flavors, and some people hate them. If they think they do not like how something tastes, well, they obviously know best. While received wisdom is not entirely consistent on this point (your parents say, “Oh, you’ll learn to like peas,” and we sometimes say, “You’ve just got to develop a taste for coffee”), taste is often considered to be a harmless matter of personal preference, and picky eating is just having a certain set of such preferences. This commonsense idea is, however, largely mistaken. While a complete objectivism about gustatory values is probably indefensible, it is also not the case that Pickiness is the practical side of the belief that matters of taste are entirely subjective. The picky eater is not open-minded to new taste experiences, and they see no reason to be fallible about their own preferences or try to understand their reactions to food. They see no reason they should have to accommodate food they do not like, and they often react to food in a way that lacks grace and respect. Picky eating is thus not so much a matter of which foods you eat, but your approach to eating, a matter of attitude and behavior. We have seen reasons to believe that one does not always know what is best for oneself with respect to gustatory experiences, which would make these attitudes a mistake. But how does all this tie into ethics? In the next three sections, I will provide three foundations for the ethical evaluation of picky eating.

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