Food Ethics Research Paper

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Food ethics covers a broad range of topics. This entry focuses on ethical issues pertaining to food consumption. More specifically, it deals with two of those issues in relation to the globalization of the agri food system. One important parameter in assessing the impact of globalization on food consumption is the disequilibrium between caloric intake and energy balance. Globalization is associated with such a state of affairs in two distinct and opposite contexts: obesity and food insecurity. As archetypal instances of ethical concern raised by globalization in connection with food consumption, obesity and food insecurity exhibit a different causality pattern. Whereas obesity has become an international concern with the spread of Western food culture, food insecurity is still highly dependent on general governance and policy conditions at the national level, with globalization playing an exacerbating, yet subsidiary, role. Such distinct causal relationships do not reconfigure the boundaries of the standard ethical issues correlated with obesity and food insecurity. However, they set globalization into proper perspective: first as a key determinant of effectiveness in the choice of appropriate actions; and second as a contributing factor to the developing importance of food quality and peace as enabling values in global food ethics.


This entry highlights the main ethical issues associated with the globalization of the agrifood system in connection with food consumption. Preliminary comments describe the overall context set by the transformations of the agrifood system of developed countries and the societal concerns to which they gave rise. These initial observations are followed by a definition of agricultural ethics, food ethics, and globalization with a view to restricting the focus of attention to food consumption, or the act of eating food, in a globalized world. Two issues are identified as archetypal instances of ethical concern following from the impact of globalization on food consumption: obesity and food insecurity. Each is discussed in details.

History and Development of Food Ethics

During the second half of the twentieth century, major transformations occurred in the agrifood system of developed countries. Scientific and technological progress led to many advances in agriculture. These ranged from the introduction of farm machinery to the use of synthetic pesticides, the development of new seed varieties to the configuration of livestock production systems in intensive livestock units. These innovations resulted in increased yields and agricultural productivity. They were accompanied in the food manufacturing and retailing sectors by the rise of industrial processed food, fast food and “ready-toeat” meals, with almost 70 % of food purchased in supermarkets and a growing number of people eating outside their homes. Concomitantly, the agrifood supply chain underwent significant restructuring through the means of economic concentration and vertical integration, international trade and market liberalization, paving the way for the dominant role of transnational food companies and a subsequent shift in market power from manufacturing to retailing. Taken together, these transformations enabled Western societies to meet their consumer demand for tasty, diverse, and convenient food products, at lower prices.

However, there are downsides to this success story and they draw their sources from the very innovations and tenets (e.g., economic and commercial) on which this rapid expansion was made possible. For instance, the agrifood system is vividly criticized for its detrimental effect on the environment, farm animal welfare, the social fabric of rural communities, and food security in developing countries. It is also accused of having prompted, or at least contributed to, the worldwide obesity crisis. All of these issues now fall on the agenda of agricultural and food policies.

These questions have deep ethical underpinnings. Through the opinions expressed on such matters by both public and private actors, competing ethical principles and values collide in a multiplicity of viewpoints, defining our relationship to the natural world and the animal kingdom, our conception of justice and duties to others, our understanding of individual autonomy and freedom of choice, our notion of the virtuous life, and so forth. This embeds the idea that the way food is produced, processed, marketed, and distributed as well as what kind of food is ultimately chosen entails some ethical perspective, however latent. Picking an option in each case thus acts as an operational factor in building the world we want to live in.

Definition of Food Ethics

As a relatively new and rising sphere of philosophical enquiry, food ethics covers a broad range of topics. Generally speaking, food ethics encompasses all ethical issues closely or remotely associated with the food chain, from farm to fork: environmental sustainability of agronomic practices, food safety and traceability, meat eating, organic farming, agrifood biotechnology, healthy eating and obesity, functional foods and nutrigenomics, consumer freedom and responsibility, fair trade in agricultural and food products, famine relief and food security, diversion of agricultural lands for biofuels production, land grabbing in developing countries, and the list goes on (Kaplan 2012). Indeed, Kaplan notes that “it is very difficult to disentangle food from its web of production, distribution and consumption” (p. 2).

Yet, among the issues associated with food ethics, many deal with food production, or so-called agricultural ethics, which is therefore envisioned as a subset of food ethics. Although blurred and somewhat arbitrary, the distinction between agricultural ethics and food ethics can be defined as follows. Whereas agricultural ethics deals with ethical matters directly or indirectly related to cultivating the soil and rearing animals (or fish and crustaceans), food ethics involves ethical issues pertaining to food consumption. If there is indeed a tentative line to be drawn between agricultural ethics and food ethics, then the latter should be based on what is more or less connected with the act of eating food. This brings under the description of food ethics such matters as the obesity crisis (overconsumption), food insecurity (undernourishment), advancement of knowledge on functional foods and scientific progress in nutrigenomics (personalized diet), food taboos and prohibitions (informed food choices), food wastage and localism (consumer responsibility in food choices), and hospitableness (food virtue).

In counterpart, agricultural ethics engages the societal concerns involving the treatment of animals, pollution and climate change, biodiversity, environmental degradation, land use and management, biotechnology and nanotechnology, and health risks to consumers from pesticides residues and use of antibiotics or on-farm pathogens.

To the difference between agricultural ethics and food ethics must be added a second filter of analysis: that of globalization. As McMichael (1996) affirms, “[g]lobal exchanges predate the capitalist era” (p. 27). However, the institutional force of globalization as a national, regional, and international restructuring rationale and economic “view of ordering the world” is quite recent and “grows out of the dissolution of the development project” aimed at “the management of national economic growth and welfare” (McMichael 1996, pp. 27–28, 31–42). Instead, globalization targets global economic growth, bringing diverse populations and regions into the realm of a common dynamic (McMichael 1996). As a process of growing interconnectedness and integration, globalization is not restricted to political and economic arrangements. It also extends to culture, with ideas and practices spreading universally in creating one world. Globalization also comprises an environmental facet relating to the planetary impact of individual and collective behavior. All of these features of globalization are potentially relevant in the context of food consumption.

In ideal circumstances, the next step would be to specify each of the transformations incurred by the agrifood system as a result of globalization, in order to draw from each of these changes the corresponding consequences, or lack thereof, on the act of eating food. This way of proceeding would pave the way for a comprehensive and systematic review of the ethical issues associated with the globalization of the agrifood system in terms of food consumption. It would rest, however, on complex empirical questions going well beyond the scope of this work, and to which there might not even be any definitive answers. Consequently, the alternative, yet sketchier, option involves highlighting the main ethical concerns raised by globalization in connection with food consumption.

Ethical Dimension of Food Ethics

What is the impact of globalization on the act of eating food? One important parameter in answering this question promptly comes to mind: the disequilibrium between caloric intake and energy balance. Globalization is often associated with such a state of affairs in two distinct and opposite contexts. Whereas the first set of circumstances is correlated with an overly positive imbalance on the side of caloric intake, leading to obesity and overweight by means of overconsumption, the second is related to insufficient caloric intake, resulting in food insecurity through undernourishment. Both situations are judged to require pressing attention, and apprehension over obesity and food insecurity is shared across the planet. In relation to food consumption, obesity and food insecurity thus provide archetypal instances of ethical concern resulting from the globalization of the agrifood system.

In the following sections, the ethical issues raised by obesity and food insecurity will be discussed against the backdrop of globalization. The charge against globalization as an exacerbating factor of obesity and food insecurity will be clarified as well as whether globalization reconfigures to any extent the boundaries of attendant ethical issues, affecting their makeup or modifying their specifications.

The Spread Of Western Lifestyle: Ethical Issues Raised By Obesity And Overweight

 Defined as an excessive accumulation of body fat in adipose tissue, obesity afflicts over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women worldwide. It is said that obesity has nearly doubled in the last 35 years. Overweight affects even more individuals, with a total sum of 1.4 billion adults globally. As for children under 5 years of age, 42 million were overweight or obese in 2013. These conditions pose a very serious health risk, with obesity and overweight being a major risk factor for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, and some cancers. Once emblematic of affluent societies, obesity and overweight are now widespread in middle-income countries of the developing world, particularly in urban settings (WHO 2014).

The origin of this situation is often associated with the spread of Western lifestyles ensuing from a worldwide cultural integration, brought about by the growing interconnectedness of places and people (Brunelle et al. 2014). As Keats and Wiggins (2014) underscore: “It would be perverse to deny that … the various influences of globalisation, including advertising and media, can have significant impact on diets” (p. 41). Already an overconsumption of food that is high in sugars and fat is observed in developing countries, in combination with a drop in cereal, fruit, and vegetable consumption (Zaman et al. 2013). As globalization comes to full sweep, with more and more states and economies yielding to its dictates, it is reasonable to think that alignment with a Western diet rich in energy dense foods will persist, if not accelerate. In particular, the market forces unleashed by globalization and that are allowing the promotion of soft drinks and fast-food brands as universal cultural referents are believed to shape the values and lifestyles of urban youth in developing countries (Zaman et al. 2013).

The progression of obesity and overweight in developing countries has generally occurred during the shift toward market liberalization and globalization (Hawkes et al. 2012). While this does not prove the existence of a causal link between the two phenomena, it does point to some sort of correlation. However, while there tends to be some convergence of diets, the globalization of feeding patterns largely coexist with regional cultural preferences : (Brunelle et al. 2014; DeSoucey 2010; Keats and Wiggins 2014; Zaman et al. 2013). The ultimate way through which the globalization of Western feeding habits will play out will thus be shaped by the complex interplay between adoption and rejection of culturally homogenizing trends, in combination with other influences on diets such as economic access to food and social changes in work and gender roles (Keats and Wiggins 2014). Although from a factual point of view a distinction should be made between obesogenic tendencies shaped by locally situated factors and those induced via the agency of globalization, such a feature does not affect the ethical issues at play. The local and global dimensions of food eating merely shape the contextual parameters of expression of those issues.

In recent years, calls for the fight against obesity and overweight have amplified. The word “epidemic” used to describe the overall situation is indicative of the ambient state of mind. Yet is the fight against obesity and overweight legitimate from an ethical point of view? In particular, under which conditions are measures to lessen or do away with obesity and overweight ethically acceptable? One dominant view is that reducing worldwide obesity and overweight is urgent, imperative, and ethically warranted because it will produce significant health benefits and decrease the economic burden of rising health care costs, while reinforcing the virtues of prudence and temperance. Besides utility however, a number of other ethical considerations must be taken into account, such as equality, justice and fairness, and autonomy (ten Have et al. 2011).

Take sociocultural attitudes with regard to weight. All societies do not share the same understanding of overweight as “abnormal” or “deviant.” In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, being overweight is generally not associated with a pathological state. Women are expected to gain weight after marriage as a reflection of the good care and welfare provided by their husbands. In contrast, thinness is revered in developed countries wherein the desire for a body rid of all traces of fat is strong (Fischler 2001; Poulain 2002). This sentiment has led to increased stigmatization and discrimination of obese and overweight people in developed nations (Latner and Stunkard 2003; Pingitore et al. 1994). In the global fight against obesity and overweight, care must thus be taken not to elicit a negative factor of social differentiation between “fat” and “non-fat” citizens of the world. That the socially defined threshold of “fatness” is currently very low in developed countries is no excuse to infringe the right to equality of others in education, employment, and health care.

Similar attention should be paid not to disproportionately disregard autonomy by means of interfering with individual food choices. Not everyone eats in a manner that can be described as rational. In other words, not everyone eats strictly on the basis of health recommendations. Factors motivating individual food preferences : are strongly embedded into custom, religion, and beliefs about foods (Keats and Wiggins 2014). Therefore, dietary practices act as powerful identity markers. Moreover, health is only one of the goals in terms of which a person can define her life plan; there are many other values giving meaning to life. Consequently, in the global fight against obesity and overweight, care should be taken to avoid accusations of paternalism by developing nations.

Considering the aforementioned, it is clear that judgment and sensitivity will have to be exercised in thinking about the best ways to tackle obesity and overweight from a global viewpoint. Striking an adequate balance between maximizing utility and taking seriously other moral commitments (Childress et al. 2002) will be required from all public and private organizations involved in the global fight against obesity and overweight.

What is more, globalization has propelled “food consuming industries” (i.e., traders and distributors, primary processors, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and food service outlets) at the center stage (Hawkes et al. 2012). As pivotal actors of the global agrifood system, these industries will have to rise up to their social responsibility. From an ethics perspective, this entails reshaping their whole business ethos in order to put health atop of a blind quest for profitability. Unless food consuming industries freely meet this ethical challenge, incentives will be needed “in the form of a coherent framework of consumerend standards and regulations to discourage the production and sale of energy-dense, nutrient poor foods” (Hawkes et al. 2012, p. 350). Such a prospect signals the importance that discussions on food quality – as opposed to food safety – will gain in a global food ethics.

Apart from obesity and overweight, the impact of globalization on food consumption is widely associated with food insecurity. Globalization is often accused, particularly in the media, of undermining food safety in developing countries, destabilizing an already precarious state of affairs. That the globalization of the agrifood system should be responsible for both overconsumption and undernourishment, like the mother of all evils, is highly paradoxical. A more nuanced viewpoint might well be in order. To be sure, life in the globalized village is still influenced by general governance and policy conditions at the national level.

Life In The Globalized Village: Ethical Issues Raised By Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is described as a “situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life” (FAO et al. 2013, p. 50). Globally, it is estimated that 842 million people were unable to meet their dietary energy requirements in 2011–2013. Unquestionably, hungry people are found everywhere in the world. In affluent societies, food insecurity presents itself as a hidden problem because it is a symptom of the poverty of otherwise socioeconomically vulnerable groups like senior people, adults with disabilities, low-wages workers, and single parents. As compelling as the plight of these individuals might be, the situation in developing countries is unparalleled. It is no insignificant fact indeed that 98 % of hungry people live in developing countries, wherein 14.3 % of the population face the severe challenge of chronic undernourishment (FAO et al. 2013).

The manifest social injustice of such an imbalance between citizens of developed and developing countries evokes strong feelings of indignation. As Pinstrup-Andersen and Sandoe (2007) rightly asked:

Why does so much human misery exist in a world that possesses enough resources to assure a healthy and comfortable life for all world citizens? And is it fair? Is it ethical that a small proportion of the world population lives in conditions of material excess, while at the same time so many are unable to meet the most basic needs, such as food, shelter, and clean water (p. 1)?

These questions relate to one of the classical ethical issues raised by food insecurity: is there a duty to help others? Do the wealthy inhabitants of developed countries have a duty to ensure that the underprivileged citizens of developing nations do not suffer from deprivation and undernourishment? What are the obligations of rich people toward fellow human beings who are starving or cannot meet their dietary energy or nutritional requirements? The answer depends on the perceived moral rights of the poor and duties of the well-offs. It is also contingent on the responsibilities ascribed to governments and concomitant conceptions of justice in political philosophy (Pinstrup-Andersen and Sandoe 2007).

On the free market of ideas, a number of ethical viewpoints about the duty to help others are found, ranging from the highly controversial view that affluent societies have a duty not to provide assistance to the deprived nations of the developing world, since attempting to alleviate food insecurity in those regions would ultimately conduct rich nations to their ruin, to the position that there is a mandatory duty, both individually and collectively, to prevent food insecurity in developing countries because doing so will require no comparable sacrifice, or will make amends, as a matter of retrospective responsibility, for a harm we are historically responsible for (La Follette 2003). Otherwise, the plight of the hungry can be looked at from the ethical perspective of basic human rights, in particular the human right to food (Shue 1996). As Dower (2003) explains, the right to food is a positive right to have food available to one and it correlates with a general duty on the part of others to bring it about that the right is realized. Alternatively, since there are problems about working out how much individuals or governments should do in alleviating food insecurity, either in the case of rights or in other theories, the matter might better be left to individual conscience (Dower 2003). Under such an understanding, helping poor people in developing countries is still a duty calling for significant action. However, implementation should be left to the best judgment of individuals and governments in terms of time and place (Dower 2003). No matter how it is articulated, there are thus many ways of expressing ethical acknowledgement toward the plight of the hungry.

A common point in the aforesaid discourses lies in their global approach, which upholds the basic moral vision of a world community wherein obligations are universal in scope, encompassing everyone everywhere, and where people are incited to develop an identity and set of loyalties that are attuned with this moral outlook (Dower 2003). In this regards, food insecurity ethics is correlated with a worldview accentuating interconnectedness. This feature associates food insecurity as an ethical issue with the idea of “globalization.” The association thus made however does not relate to globalization as a process of integration, but as a moral fact providing an ethical basis to the duty to help others. It follows then that the global approach underlying food insecurity ethics is distinct from food insecurity as a globalized food issue or, as a consequence of the globalization of the agrifood system on the act of eating food. Whereas the first stands firmly within the realm of ethical theory, the second concerns the causes of food insecurity in developing countries. A subtle difference emerges between the ethical response to food insecurity, which must be apprehended as a global or universal imperative, and the contribution of globalization, as a process, to food insecurity. Globalization is introduced into the debates on food insecurity in two distinct ways, which are mostly independent from one another.

To be sure, except for more contemporary explanations based on retrospective responsibility, it is not a prerequisite to the duty to help others to establish that the globalization of the agrifood system, for example, acts as an exacerbating factor of food insecurity in developing countries, or that it stands at the root of food shortages and undernourishment in those regions. The duty is triggered by the plain deprivation of fellow human beings, whatever its source: natural disasters, geopolitical conflicts, climate change, or disruption in the supply of available food due to crop failure or animal disease. What is more, the strength of the duty to help others does not depend on whether the globalization of the agrifood system has had a negative impact on food security. The weight and significance of the demands that such a duty imposes upon individuals and governments in such a context are dissociated from any particular causal relations; they do not vary according to the reasons behind food insecurity. In this respect, the latter are fairly irrelevant. If it is important to discern as accurately as possible the causes of food insecurity in developing countries, it is because such knowledge enlightens the operationalization of the duty to help others. Failing to know why such a state of affairs occurs in the first place is an obstacle to effective implementation of the duty to ensure that the underprivileged citizens of developing countries do not suffer from deprivation and undernourishment; it weakens the likelihood of devising an appropriate response. This clarification underscores the difference between an ethical problem and a practical problem. Whereas an ethical problem involves defining the higher purpose to which decisions, actions, and institutions should aim (e.g., maximization of utility, respect for basic human rights), a practical problem entails finding the best way, in terms of actual means, of achieving a given purpose accepted as valid. As part of a practical problem, understanding the causes of food insecurity in developing countries is thus a vital strategic instrument in the fight against world hunger, a higher purpose considered to be, as an ethical problem, morally valid in more ways than one.

Has the globalization of the agrifood system exacerbated food insecurity in developing countries? The immediate reasons of food insecurity are multiple, going from the unavailability of food to inadequate use of food at the household level, together with insufficient purchasing power and inappropriate distribution of food (FAO et al. 2013). Since these explanations are rather first level, they do not create much controversy and run pretty much unchallenged. Disagreement is observed when it comes to clarifying at a deeper level why such circumstances manifest themselves. No definitive answer is provided as the debate still carries on. For some analysts (Paarlberg 2008), the more fundamental causes of food insecurity are inextricably linked to governance deficits found at the level of the nationstate. In absolute terms, globalization has helped hundreds of millions of people escape from poverty, simultaneously breaking free from hunger and child malnutrition. In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, food insecurity harshly persists. These regions however are mostly disconnected from global food markets and international capital flows. Indeed, “local production for domestic utilization is still the dominant characteristic for the agricultural sector of developing countries as a whole” (von Braun and DiazBonilla 2008, p. 8). Such circumstances make it hard to blame enduring food insecurity on globalization. In Paarlberg’s (2008) opinion, “[g] lobalization is not the cause of poverty and hunger. The most powerful causes of hunger are local, rather than global” (p. 342). They reside in the inability on the part of national governments of developing countries to provide to all of their citizens, including in rural areas, the following basic public goods: internal peace, rule of law, and public investment in infrastructure and agricultural research. Improved governance at the national level is therefore essential to reducing hunger in developing countries. “Where national governments have performed well in the developing world, hunger has been significantly reduced” (Paarlberg 2008, p. 337).

At the opposite, critics of globalization argue that global economic liberalization worsens socioeconomic inequalities within and among nations, leading to conflicts. In particular, according to Messer and Cohen (2008), “most wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have been ‘food wars’, meaning that food is used as a weapon, food systems are destroyed in the course of conflict, and food insecurity persists as a legacy of conflict” (p. 300). However, the interrelations between conflict, food insecurity, and globalization are complex. As far as the globalization of the agrifood system is concerned, they are summarized as follows by von Braun and Diaz-Bonilla (2008):

[T]rade in food commodities can be a source of peace or conflict; trade sometimes contributes to conflicts when it increases price volatility of key commodities, destabilizing household and national incomes, and also when revenues from agricultural trade directly fund war activities (p. 32).

In spite of operating as a subsidiary factor, the impact of globalization on the act of eating food is not immaterial in light of its exacerbating power. Care must thus be exercised not to aggravate the risk of conflicts owing to the effects of globalization. As Messer and Cohen (2008) underscore: “[d]eveloping countries require peace to achieve better food security and reap potential benefits of globalization” (p. 324). To do so, a delicate balance of national and global measures, in combination with development assistance, is needed to build in developing nations social contexts promoting equity and sustainability (Messer and Cohen 2008).

Taken together, these two explanations of the more fundamental causes of food insecurity in developing countries depict a multifaceted, yet coherent picture. The overall outline absolves neither the nation-states struggling with food insecurity, nor the globalization of the agrifood system. Moving beyond the distorted lenses of ideology, the part of truth incorporated in each of these accounts sheds important light on the likely dynamics at play. It also reinforces the view that halting food insecurity must be considered as a universal imperative. Furthermore, it marks the relevance of peace as an enabling value in a global food ethics. For peace sets the social and political ideal toward which each national government, international institution, private organization, and individual should strive if food insecurity is ever to come to an end.


Worldwide, people are either growing fat, or are going hungry. Often perceived as two sides of the same coin, obesity and food insecurity represent – in connection with food consumption – archetypal instances of ethical concern resulting largely or partly from the globalization of the agrifood system. However, whereas obesity has become an international concern with the spread of Western food culture, food insecurity is still highly dependent on general governance and policy conditions at the national level, with globalization playing an exacerbating, yet subsidiary role. Such distinct causal relationships do not reconfigure the main boundaries of the standard ethical issues correlated with obesity and food insecurity. While the first group of issues relate to the conditions under which measures to fight obesity and overweight are ethically acceptable, the second refers to the meaning and scope of the duty to help others. On the other hand, clarifying the charge against globalization highlights in both cases its role as a key determinant of effectiveness in the choice of appropriate actions as well as a contributing factor to the developing importance of food quality and peace as enabling values in a global food ethics.

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