NOTE: I just finished reading The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. I was going to write a book review of sorts, but I ended up writing a concise summary of the some of the tools and information available to help consumers make ethical, informed food choices. Pretty much just a reference I made for myself. They already do a great job of that at the end of the book, but it turns out organizations rebrand and lots of links break after 10 years (it came out wayyy back in 2006).
I have long wanted a simple, trustworthy set of bullet points concerning how to eat both ethically and healthily, tailored to my specific level of commitment, with actionable information like specific names of vegetables, stores, products, etc. This is of course an absurd request for many reasons, but I think I’ve found the general commandments I was looking for. As far as health goes, Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (really a condensed, listicle-ized, version of In Defense of Food) is great, and its mantra:
Eat [Real] Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.
As for ethics, the last section of The Ethics of What We Eat is a similar playbook of meaningful differences between food choices on ethical lines. These were written 10 years ago, so here are my updates, although I’m sure a little bit is touched on in Peter Singer’s newest book, Ethics in the Real World.
We’ll let the 5 ethical principles that most people share from The Ethics of What We Eat guide us:
Transparency: We have a right to know how our food is produced.
Fairness: Producing food should not impose costs on others.
Humanity: Inflicting significant suffering on animals for minor reasons is wrong.
Social responsibility: Workers should have decent wages and working conditions.
Needs: Preserving life and health justifies more than other desires.
Everything beyond this point is my opinion, and claims aren’t necessarily sourced particularly well.
These principles are the common ground you would need to have with someone before any meaningful discussion on food ethics can happen. The second principle references negative externalities (like big pools of pig poop that get into local water tables and cause health problems), hidden costs that make prices look artificially cheap. The fourth principle is a really big deal that people don’t usually think about when making ethical food choices, including workers in the USA. The fifth principle references that a need for food for survival/health justifies things that would otherwise be considered unethical, but that taste preferences, for example, do not justify unethical choices. For me, it most simply boils down to three things: environmental impact, worker’s rights, and animal suffering.
I think there are many legitimate reasons to be a conscientious omnivore, but it’s a lot easier to be consistent when you declare yourself a vegetarian or vegan, or when friends assume that you are vegetarian and plan accordingly. A vegetarian that still consumes factory farmed dairy and egg products or unethical fish is not fundamentally different than eating factory farmed meat, on most any meaningful ethical measure. That being said, it’s important to make rules you can stick with, whatever those rules may be, and work your way incrementally to a place that you are ethically comfortable with.
Resources for getting into veganism:
There are lots of ways to incorporate veganism into your lifestyle gradually (Meatless Mondays, Three Rs:—reduce consumption of meat and animal-based foods, refine your diet by avoiding products from the worst production systems (e.g., switching to cage-free eggs), replace animal foods in the diet with plant-based foods).
As someone who has always looked at second hand store shopping as a brilliant and cheap ethical loophole, I am very intrigued by freeganism (like “urban foraging” and “dumpster diving”).
A short, simple list of CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) aka factory-farm ratings:
- Factory-farmed veal/foie gras: NOOOO
- Factory-farmed chicken, turkey, eggs, pork, milk: Terrible
- Feedlot cows: a bit better ethically but less energy efficient
- Farmed/wild caught fish/water dwellers: Usually terrible (but w/ exceptions like oysters and scallops!)
Keep in mind that these almost always fail big time on the social responsibility principle (#4) as well, with flagrant human rights violations.
ORGANIC, LOCAL, AND FAIR TRADE
USDA Organic: Very likely to be way better than the alternative in terms of environmental impact and worker’s rights. Not necessarily any better in terms of animal welfare. Non-GMO, although GMO isn’t any less healthy or environmentally friendly in and of itself.
Local: When in season, a generally good thing to do, but sometimes there are stronger ethical reasons for buying imported. (Fossil fuel use (esp. out of season), supporting poor farmers in other countries (Fair Trade), crops (like CA rice) being more energy intensive in another country, etc).
Social Accountability Network’s SA80000 certification standard is a really big deal for incremental increases in workers rights worldwide in huge companies, but finding out who is certified is a pain in the ass.
Fair Trade: Very Yes. Ensures certain economic standards for workers, and the cost accurately reflects that.
Good Fair Trade labels: IMO Fair For Life (Institute for Marketecology), FLO (Fairtrade International), SPS (Small Producers’ Symbol), AGP Food Justice Certified (Agricultural Justice Project). Fairtrade is really the only widespread certification in the US.
Ethical Treatment of Animals Labeling
Certified Humane seems like the best set of standards currently available. Look for this label on eggs, milk, and meat products. Then Animal Welfare Approved, a close second. Then the relatively weak Global Animal Partnership (Whole Foods), then Organic which means little in terms of welfare, then American Humane, which is the worst. Most other certifications (like United Egg Producers) are bullshit.
Check out this Animal Welfare Standards Comparison Chart across all standards for each certification, and you’ll see some pretty big holes in Certified Humane as well (especially with regards to slaughter). If you are serious about eating meat ethically, these standards may not be enough.
Wild-Caught (and sometimes farmed) Fish
Marine Stewardship Council‘s “Fish Forever” seal is where it’s at. Barring that, check individual species and sources with Seafood Watch (print out the super straightforward reference card for your wallet or download the app).
Most ways to catch/farm fish are extremely problematic in much the same way as factory farming, but specific species caught in specific ways in specific places can be fine. It’s complicated, so just follow what Seafood Watch says. Also remember that fish is chronically mislabeled in restaurants and elsewhere in the supply chain (especially sushi).
Also, there is no such thing as humane slaughter of wild caught fish, and treatment on farms is worse. Fish can definitely feel pain, and usually die by suffocation or worse.
There is a bright side though! There are no real ethical reasons to refrain from eating clams, scallops, oysters, and mussels who are farmed or caught sustainably, as it is extremely likely that they don’t experience pain. It is possible, but not conclusively clear, that shrimp don’t experience pain, but this is a lot more iffy. Wild caught bivalves can still be environmentally harmful though.
In any other context, you should assume that all food comes from the mainstream food industry and isn’t humane, sustainable, or environmentally friendly. ESPECIALLY animal products.
Where to find Ethical Food
Grocery Stores: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s (not very transparent), Wild Oats, (Sprouts?), Food Co-ops. These have warm fuzzy things built into their mission as a company, but that doesn’t mean they always (or even often) have more ethical food than your local grocery store or farmer’s market.
Organic Valley (cooperative of small farms) seems like a particularly trustworthy brand for eggs, milk, and cheese. Niman Ranch seems particularly trustworthy for animal protein (100% of Niman Ranch protein is Certified Humane).
Local Farmer’s Markets. Talk to farmers, get to know their ethical choices in raising food (especially animal products). Look for their products in local grocery stores. Only buy seasonally (out of season usually has large fossil fuel costs).
Restaurants: Download this app to find humane/vegetarian/vegan eating options (lots of great info in the app as well!)
‘Fast Food’: Chipotle is consistently leading the way in ethical choices and transparency, and is by far the best large chain choice. Their pork has the best and most consistant standards, and often some meat/produce is sourced locally. From some googling, Panera seems relatively on top of it. Interestingly, McDonalds has also lead the way in ethical industry standards, particularly concerning laying chickens. Incremental (but important) animal welfare changes are being made across the industry (the bar is still very low).YUM! Brand owned brands Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut seem particurlarly sluggish, although there is this.
Finally, here’s a list of the books I’ve read regarding food ethics, in the approximate order I read them:
- Eating Animals (2010) by Jonathan Safran Foer
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) by Michael Pollan
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) by Michael Pollan
- Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2009) by Michael Pollan
- The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (2006) by Peter Singer and Jim Mason
And some related books:
- All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety (2013) by Nathanael Johnson
- Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods (2004) by Nina V. Fedoroff
- Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (2008) by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak
- Panic-free GMOs, a fantastic series of articles by Nathanael Johnson
I would highly recommend any of these books, depending on what you are looking for. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual is a particularly straightforward, fun, and concise set of rules about healthy eating habits.
Note: This post is more or less a book review of William Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden, which came out in 2006 (a whole decade ago). He has since written another book on development economics, The Tyranny of Experts.
More on Easterly, and on Jeffrey Sachs, will be up soon.
William Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden, is infamous for its critiques of the international aid scene. I was surprised by how much I agreed with his ideas, and how many of them seem to have been implicitly incorporated into the philosophy of the burgeoning effective altruism movement.
First of all, in light of the curmudgeonly tone of the book, I had to keep reminding myself of the context. Easterly spent sixteen years as a Research Economist at the World Bank, so his palpable frustration with the bureaucracy of governmental aid organizations makes sense, even if I can’t personally relate to it. Also, many of his ideas seem obvious and straightforward within the framework of effective altruism, but I had to remind myself that this book came out only a few years after the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) had formed, and at the same time as the first effective altruism organizations were just getting started (the term “effective altruism” wasn’t coined until 2011).
The biggest frustration I have with Easterly’s worldview is the dichotomy he sets up between the ‘Planner’ and the ‘Searcher’. Planners are supply-side, big picture, bureaucratic, paternalistic, top-down, utopian, central plannin’, generalist, Big Answer lovin’, and world summit holdin’, while the Searchers are demand-side, on the ground, adaptable, bottom-up, realistic, specialist, market-lovin, piecemeal interventionist, homegrown-solution havers. These terms become a catch-all for everything that is good and bad in aid, with any ineffective approach more or less defined as being a Planner approach. His choice of the nouns Planner and Searcher implies an absurd black and white picture of the international aid scene, where organizations are run by Planners with a few sneaky Searchers at the bottom doing actual good. There is obviously lots of grey here, and Easterly seems unwilling to admit that a single person can both Plan and Search.
As long as I (mis)interpret Easterly’s anti-Planner tirades as simple critiques of the current system and his pro-Searcher tirades as practical advice for how to better these existing institutions, the book becomes at once refreshing and helpful. For example: foreign aid often lacks feedback from and accountability to the targeted poor. He considers the lack of these two elements to be critical flaws that are responsible for many very inefficient and ineffective interventions. Right on. But his complaints would feel more valid if they were directly targeting the inevitably inefficient bureaucracy of politicized organizations (as opposed to some implied club of intentionally obtuse Planners). Of course, the fact that I think he’s shouting in the wrong direction doesn’t make his complaints any less valid. Legitimate reform and vigilant attempts to incorporate true accountability was and is sorely needed in organizations like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In reality, I think Easterly’s biggest gripes are with bureaucracy and politics, which are very frustrating and nearly insurmountable obstacles getting in the way of effective world aid, but which are deeper issues than what is implied by simply labeling people as planners. He admits that we should not abolish these large aid institutions, but rather inject them with some Searcher best practices. Unfortunately, he never really admits to Planning being, at the very least, a necessary evil (in his worldview), if not a sometimes helpful and important component of aid. He is careful to deny it, but in reality, he himself has a Big Plan, that of the Piecemeal Search.
Second, his critique of our predilection for grandiose, utopian Big Plans is completely valid, if somewhat heavy-handed. Here the real enemy seems to be politics, which is forwards an agenda that only sometimes chances to align with the actual needs of the poor. While we shouldn’t feel responsible for the intractability of politics, politically motivated aid choices can have terrible consequences for the poor. Obviously getting our government to give aid is generally a good thing, but expensive band-aid interventions (like current aid efforts for the AIDS epidemic) are indefensible when there are many other promising and proven interventions in need of aid.
What really sticks out to me is this: considering the history of colonialism and racial superiority that led to the conceptual framework of Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden” (read it, it’s awful), a framework that Easterly sufficiently proves led to many a misguided, naïve, and harmful intervention, we have to be extra careful that we aren’t still institutionalizing these mistakes. Even if it turns out that we come up with an intervention that is likely to be totally successful at sparking growth or reducing poverty in some way, it is still a mistake to “force” implementation (for example: IMF giving out conditional loans). Not only is it a disservice to the autonomy of a country, but we have enough anecdotal and empirical evidence to show that it is likely to cause more harm than good. Easterly is quite reasonable on this front, admitting that it’s totally possible that military and economic intervention could be necessary or useful. It’s just that in real life, we have so many examples of horrific screw ups that even the most optimistic development economist should take pause and tread carefully. Neo-imperialism leaching into policy decisions is a subtle and dangerous reality.
- I personally found his argument against the ‘poverty trap’ worldview to be kind of weak.
- His anti-Sachs/Bono/celebtrity/etc. tirades had legitimate points but seemed rather one-dimensional (and curmudgeony).
- He has an utter lack of distinction between private and public aid. This complaint is unwarranted considering that, given his background, Easterly seems to be talking almost exclusively about government aid throughout the book.
- In that case, my complaint becomes that he doesn’t talk about private aid. Again, considering that this book comes out before the effective altruism movement (which largely supports private aid organizations, per logic identical to Easterly’s main thesis) began to gain momentum, and the small fraction of private vs public international aid in the US, this makes sense. Still…
- his generalizations about everything that is wrong with aid aren’t quite as damning when you realize that his real beef with bureaucracy and politics is not as necessary a component of the private aid landscape.
I do think that much of the development economics and effective altruism movement has, consciously or not, adapted most of Easterly’s main points into their philosophy while shedding the pessimism and problematic generalizations. Rigorous study of piecemeal intervention has become more and more popular, and is (hopefully) leading to a broader understanding of how to best help the poor on a global scale. Easterly directly asked for no strings attached cash transfers in the vein of PROGRESA (now Prospera), and GiveDirectly does exactly that. Global health interventions remain the most popular, for reasons similar to those outlined by Easterly. As for the great debate with Sachs et al? I find it hard to believe that Sachs or any but the truly entrenched “Planner” would be uninterested in having more scientific evidence, or pushing for efficiency, transparency and accountability. While their world views may differ, I think Sachs or even Bono would be on board with most of Easterly’s reform suggestions, as long as they don’t have to hang out with him.
Note: This post is more or less a book review of Jeffrey Sachs’ book, The End Of Poverty, which came out in 2005 (a whole decade ago), and he has since written other books on development economics. His flagship development project Millennium Villages, launched in 2005, should be publishing final results sometime soon, but the evaluation has been controversial, especially after Nina Monk’s somewhat disillusioned book The Idealist (2013) came out about Sachs and the project.
More on Sachs, and on William Easterly, will be up soon.
Jeffrey Sachs’ book, The End Of Poverty, has rightfully been at the center of the development economics debate since it was published in 2006. While his optimism comes off as unrealistic and saccharine at times, his basic framework is grounded enough in reality to paint a truly inspiring picture of the very possible extermination of extreme poverty. While there is some unpacking to do, Sachs develops a theory dedicated to a results-oriented, methodical, scientific approach to fighting poverty, and supplies lots of valid critiques of the international aid scene.
Sachs clearly defines himself as believing that comprehensive, multi-national, multi-pronged plans are needed to get individuals and nations out of poverty for good. He knows he knows how to fix poverty, and he knows it’s going to take a lot of international aid. Easy enough, right? He hooks you (and himself) in with the story behind his (successful) economic policies in Bolivia and Poland, convincing you that development economics is relatively easy, and all fits in his neat little theory. Then he ups the difficulty (and complexity) setting from his (much less successful) experience in Russia to ideas about China, then India, all the way to the big one: Africa.
As an effective altruism fanboy, I of course love his “clinical economics” approach, whose “differential diagnosis” admits explicitly that development is complicated and regionally unique. He readily admits that development is messy, complex, prone to mistakes, and lacking proper monitoring and evaluation, and that the present-day system congratulates itself on inputs rather than outputs (Sachs himself seems to succumb to this last enticement from time to time). All in all, his logical, big-picture approach appears to separate him greatly from the stereotypical bigwig, bureaucratic ‘Planners’ of the development economics world.
He points out many often unacknowledged factors that make economic growth particular difficult, including: physical geographic features (being landlocked without cheap access to ports, mountainous, no good network of rivers, poor soil, low rainfall); lack of infrastructure (especially low quality roads); unique disease burden (unique geography, weather, or mosquito breeds); cultural barriers; and geopolitics (trade barriers and sanctions, crushing international debt). The world isn’t fair, and some countries got an extremely bad hand (often with some external colonial or cold-war meddling to boot), and many pro-market, pro-democracy demagogues refuse to acknowledge that. I’d heard of the “paradox of plenty” before, but I’d never thought about the crushing transport costs involved with mountainous terrain, or how useful it is for a country to have sea ports. He gives a fairly convincing, eye-opening history of the world that explicitly points out how arbitrary factors like these can be responsible for the history of worldwide development, and that the racist and tribalist social theory of colonialism is largely trumped by more or less random factors (Acemoglu and Robinson really critique Sachs on this in Why Nations Fail, but that’s for another blog post).
Sachs often berates the work of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, who offer macroeconomic advice and loans (often at economic gunpoint) to undeveloped countries. He sees much of their work as simplistic, unrealistic, neocolonialist, and paternalistic, and often just plain economically incorrect, and with good reason. Of course, Sachs has time and again offered macroeconomic advice to governments, which is basically what IMF does, but it seems like Sachs is actually working with the government of, say, Bolivia, not dictating orders as an outsider. Regardless, Sachs really is a planner through and through, but it’s possible that’s not a bad thing. Scaling up and combining interventions that are relatively proven and individualized for each country is going to require a lot of planning (and bureaucracy). If you want to alleviate poverty quickly, you’ve got to go all in right?
Unfortunately, we have plenty of anecdotes from the last 30+ years of developmental aid of slow and wasteful bureaucratic aid, and in spite of himself Sachs seems partial to bureaucracy (he basically brags about the number of people in teams working under him for the UN Millennium Project). He’s in this strange in-between place where he is correctly critical of all the failures of previous big aid attempts, but completely optomistic that this time, we’ll get it right. For example, he positively beams about the Millennium Goals while simultaneously acknowledging that many of them are simply failed goals from decades ago, slated anew for the new century. How many times are we going to move the goalposts? Sachs seems to walk this line a lot, giving politics and bureaucracy a lot more credit than I would, even as he disparages them.
Then again, maybe I’m just not willing to admit how much organization and planning is necessary to try to solve poverty all over the world as quickly as possible.
My biggest complaint about Sachs relates to his work combating AIDS in Africa, and it represents a flaw that may unravel his entire argument. His success focused on getting more funding (input) by proving that later stage HIV treatment was manageably expensive (he was right). But late stage HIV treatment, while politically tractable, is a huge waste of money and resources, and he does the world a huge disservice by not focusing funds on preventative measures. With late stage treatment, number of patients treated is a pretty useless output, since zero of those treated patients is cured, they just have their suffering (greatly) reduced, then they die. When there are other diseases (like malaria) with a cure that costs many orders of magnitude less per person, and when AIDS prevention is relatively cheap and relatively effective, this choice is extremely costly. Isn’t Sachs’ whole point in this book is that we have to fix the problem at the source, not with a Band-Aid? Sachs’ flowery rhetoric in this section makes me wonder what else in the book sounds great, but has deep flaws hidden under the surface that I can’t see.
Some big things:
- I agree with what seems to be Sachs’ core concept, that ending global absolute poverty (living on under USD $2 a day) is totally possible, if not by 2025, then within my lifetime.
- I buy his argument that debt relief is a must (and we should mostly do away with loans as a form of aid).
- I also agree with the other core concept that the world, and America especially, needs to throw a lot more money at this problem. This sounds flippant, but it isn’t. The rich world can absolutely afford to exterminate extreme poverty, even with the inefficient and wasteful approach we often currently take. The many (many) billions required is a drop in the bucket of the world economy. And it really is a one and done deal (on a decades time scale): one very, very, large investment that will eventually stop being necessary. The US has already symbolically committed to aid in the form of .07% of GDP, and it is a moral failure that we refuse to commit to it. Aid needs to be made politically tractable (something Sachs has been very effective at doing).
- Sachs has sufficiently convinced me that for a growing number of countries, lack of donor money is a bottleneck for beginning a path toward self-sufficient growth (now that I’ve read Why Nations Fail, maybe not so much).
While Sachs is talking about public aid throughout the book, he does make a plea to rich individuals in the United States at the end, in line with effective altruist Peter Singer’s argument in The Life You Can Save, which came out two years later. Their conclusions are the same (Singer being directly influenced by Sachs): absolute poverty can be ended relatively quickly for relatively little money (if you are mega rich or the GDP of the entire world).
In any case, a lot of optimism is needed to fight the fight to end poverty, and Sachs has it in spades. He lays out a consistent, thorough, and multilayered approach to ending poverty, and I believe it could work, although I am markedly less optimistic about its effectiveness. We’ll just have to see if he can prove his claims.