In a world where too many go to bed hungry, it comes as a shock to realise that more than half the world’s food production is left to rot, lost in transit, thrown out, or otherwise wasted. This loss is a humanitarian disaster. It’s a moral tragedy. It’s a blight on the conscience of the world.
It might ultimately be the salvation of the human species.
To understand why, consider that we live in a system that rewards efficiency. Just-in-time production, reduced inventories, providing the required service at just the right time with minimised wasted effort: those are the routes to profit (and hence survival) for today’s corporations. This type of lean manufacturing aims to squeeze costs as much as possible, pruning anything extraneous from the process. That’s the ideal, anyway; and many companies are furiously chasing after this ideal. Continue reading
Something of a twitter storm erupted last week over a poster placed in a supermarket window. The poster, placed in a branch of Sainsbury’s, issued a “50p Challenge”, urging employees to encourage every customer to “spend an additional 50p during each shopping trip between now and the years-end”. After a passer-by named Chris Dodd took a photo of the poster and posted it on twitter, a Sainsbury’s representative confirmed that the poster was intended only for employees and that it was not intended for public display. See a news report here. Continue reading
Today is the first day of the 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The commission, set up in 1946 to ensure the proper conservation of whale stocks and assist in the orderly development of the whaling industry, determines how many, which, and for what purpose, whales can be killed. The meeting beginning today is important because it will re-open discussion about Japan’s right to whale for the purposes of conducting scientific research. This past March, Japan lost this right because its findings were deemed to be of little use, and it was clear that the “scientific” nature of the killings were only a ruse. The IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, but still allows that the meat of whales killed for scientific purposes could be sold for profit. The Japanese whaling industry exploited this fact in order to sustain what was effectively a commercial whaling industry. Whales were killed in the name of scientific research, and then the meat was sold commercially. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that this violated the requirement imposed by the IWC that the killing of whales be only “for the purposes of scientific research.”
Of the many arguments deployed by the Japanese authorities concerning their right to whale, one is of particular interest to me; namely, that whaling constitutes an important aspect of Japanese culture, and thus ought to be permitted to continue. In what follows, I claim that arguments based on cultural tradition alone are insufficient to generate a right to whale. In cases where the species of whale being killed is not endangered, then (on the condition that the method of whaling used is sustainable) no further reasons need be given in order to defend the practice. Whaling will be just like eating meat, and arguments from cultural tradition will be superfluous. However, if the species of whale is endangered, then whaling is permissible only in cases of practical necessity. Continue reading
News outlets have been discussing a call to require health warnings on alcoholic drinks comparable to those placed on cigarette packets. Amongst other recommendations, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Alcohol Misuse has called on political parties to include a health warning on all alcohol labels, and to deliver a government-funded national public awareness campaign on alcohol-related health issues.
If this proposal is to be implemented, it is important to note that there is an important disanalogy with placing health warnings on cigarette packaging. Whilst cigarettes always damage health to some degree, a large body of evidence suggests that moderate drinking is not only non-harmful to health but may in fact promote it. Continue reading
In the last few years, there has been a push from various bodies—including the UN—to get Western countries to adopt eating insects as an alternative to meat. Insects have been hailed as a type of super food. They are: rich in protein; environmentally friendly to harvest; sustainable; and, they’re already eaten, and enjoyed, in many other parts of the world. There have been a number of occasions recently that I’ve been asked, as a (moral) vegetarian, for my thoughts on eating insects. “What if…?” and “Would you…?” questions are quite a common occurrence for veggies, but this one actually got me thinking. Continue reading
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently recommended that the NHS should learn from commercial weight loss programmes such as Weight Watchers, Rosemary Conley and Slimming World. The NICE guidelines suggested that doctors should take a “respectful” and “non-judgemental” tone when helping patients to lose weight. As well as this, GPs were encouraged to continue to identify overweight patients for referral to state-funded commercial weight loss schemes, run by companies such as Weight Watchers, with obese adults being given priority.
The plan is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of pounds, but is also likely to save the NHS vast amounts in the long run, if successful in reducing obesity. Approximately 1 in 4 adults in the UK are obese, a condition that is linked with other ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The costs to the NHS attributable to people being overweight and obese are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050. Figures show that Weight Watchers and similar schemes manage to reduce participant’s body weight by 3 per cent, and NICE believe that even this small amount will help in the long term. Is it right, therefore, that the NHS subsidise the cost of these commercially run weight loss schemes?
Packets of cigarettes carry pictures showing purchasers what their lungs or their arteries will look like if they carry on smoking. Consumers International and the World Obesity Federation are now suggesting that some foods should bear similar images.
Assume for the sake of argument that the practice would be effective in discouraging the purchase of health-truncating foods. If the images work by telling consumers something about what they are buying that they would not otherwise know, surely there can be no coherent objection to them. Knowledge of that sort is always good – assuming that the consumer has a real choice as to whether to buy the bad product or a better one.
If they work by pushing to the forefronts of consumers’ minds information that their grosser appetites conveniently suppress when they are wandering down the mall, there may be an argument against them. This would presumably be on the broad basis that the images manipulate the person away from being what they authentically are (a fructose-guzzling cardiac-cripple-in-waiting) towards something else. This argument would assert that there’s a sort of ethical imperialism at work: that those would stamp pictures of limbless diabetics on junk sweet packs are tyrannously seeking to impose an arbitrary normative idea of the good life.
I have little sympathy with this second view. If anyone says in a normative voice that it’s good to be diabetic, they’re insane. If anyone says in an empirical voice that it’s better to be diabetic than non-diabetic, they’re misinformed. If anyone says in the voice of a hedonistic utilitarian that the overall pleasure gained by the consumption of lard outweighs the detriments, I’d invite them to get thin, do all the Munros, and then revisit their original judgment. If anyone thinks that they’re more authentically themselves by being ill might have a point once their illness is long-standing and has truly become a defining characteristic. But before the illness is triggered, aren’t they more themselves without clogged arteries or the need to inject insulin five times a day?
If the packaging proposal is adopted, some interesting questions arise. Should good foods be branded with pictures of the condition you’ll be in or the advantages you’ll have if you eat them? Aphrodisiac oysters would display the beaming visages of satisfied sexual partners. Green tea would show lean centenarians on trampolines. Or perhaps those good foods should show the things that they’ll spare you: prostate-preserving tinned tomatoes might show an unoccupied midnight toilet.
Perhaps other, wider concerns should feature. Tins of palm oil should show dead orangutans. Milk should show the mournful face of a calf-less cow alongside the pictures of healthy, non-osteoporotic bone-scans.
While it’s easy to multiply absurdities, the proposal is basically a very good thing. It’s a good thing for at least some of the reasons that the notion of informed consent to medical treatment is endorsed. If you’re keen on informed consent to treatment, a fortiori you’ll be keen on food package images. In fact, I suggest, you should be more keen on those images. They’re more important. Continue reading
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I noticed recently that I have an entirely irrational shopping habit. I wanted to buy a packet of crisps, but when I went to pick up my favourite make, it was on special offer. Buy two, get one free. Well, I’m not stupid: I wasn’t going to fall for that old trick. I didn’t want two packets (let alone three). But the offer made me think that if I just bought the one packet, I would be paying over the odds – since purchasing a second packet would lower the average cost of each crisp by a third. So, because there was a special offer on two, I didn’t buy one. Continue reading
The first systematic study investigating the effects of caffeine on human performance – sponsored by Coca-Cola – has been published about 100 years ago. Since then, thousands of other studies have been looking at if and in which ways caffeine improves cognitive performance. This question is still debated in science, but there is general consensus that caffeine can be seen as an enhancer for specific functions like mood, attention, concentration and reaction time. These enhancement effects have been shown in studies with the general set-up that participants first took caffeine and then did a performance task. This matches our everyday representation of “wise” caffeine use: if I wanted to enhance my performance with caffeine, I’d take it immediately before the “critical situation”, for example an exam.
On Monday, London will see the world’s first artificial meat burger cooked and tasted, by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University.
Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier. We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up.
The development of artificial meat is a triumph for both science and ethics. Current meat production involves inflicting significant suffering on animals. It also causes environmental damage (see the FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow) and is hugely inefficient because limited food resources have used to keep a large animal alive. Intensive farming of chickens and pigs is also a breeding ground for the emergence of new strains of flu, causing pandemics that could kill tens of millions. Artificial meat production will almost entirely avoid these issues.
Ethical veganism will become a much more palatable option, as one could avoid eating real meat without sacrificing an integral part of many people’s diet. Indeed, this may be a watershed moment for animal welfare – if artificial meat manages to catch on and take over a large portion of the market, many fewer animals will be cruelly raised and slaughtered through factory farming, a key goal of movements like PETA (who have, incidentally, wholly endorsed and promoted the development of artificial meat).
Of course, such large-scale beneficial effects will only be realized under three conditions: the artificial meat must be safe, cheap and tasty. The safety of Mark Post’s concoction is as yet unknown, but may well be the easiest condition to satisfy. In fact, it could become more safer as meat production could be laboratory controlled and reduce risks of emergent pandemics from flu passing from animals to humans. If he is correct and the meat is identical at the cellular level to actual meat, it should be no less dangerous – though further tests are undoubtedly needed before it could be offered to the public at large. As for cost, previous estimates put Post’s burger at around £250,000, obviously prohibitive for mainstream consumption. Just as the cost of genetic sequencing has fallen precipitously over the years, we can expect artificial meat prices to fall as more efficient means of production are developed. It remains to be seen whether artificial meat can ever be made more efficiently and cheaply than real meat, however. Finally, one of the most important tests of Monday’s event is whether the artificial meat will actually be palatable. It may be that the meat is only suitable simulating ground up meat and mixed with other ingredients to add texture and flavour – but then again, outlets like McDonald’s have made a mint producing widely-enjoyed meat out of an infamous ‘pink sludge’ that is quite disgusting on its own. Indeed, of all potential adopters, the fast-food industry – which relies on efficiency and artificiality much more than aesthetics or ‘all-natural’ ingredients – seems like the most likely outlet for artificial meat.
Perhaps the future of the fast food industry is ethical meat, instead of the unethical meat. Consumers would be hard pressed to tell the difference between an artificial Big Mac and the current one.
Some might object that artificial meat is unnatural. So it should be avoided. True, the meat would be grown in a lab rather than a farm. But what value does naturalness have, on its own? Natural meat often relies on the confinement and slaughter of animals, which many have noted is morally wrong – and in fact, the factory farms where most meat is produced are hardly ‘natural’ environments. In factory farming, they more resemble hideous torture chambers where animals eat their own faeces. Moreover, we are perfectly content to introduce numerous artificial elements into all aspects of our lives – phones replace natural communication, cars replace natural transport, factories replace natural craftsmanship, houses replace natural abodes, and so on. Part of human development is to improve upon the natural state of the world, and artificial meat is just another such development. It is not only inevitable, but should be encouraged and welcomed with open arms.
There is one ethical downside to creating artificial meat. Many animals would not come into existence who would have lived and many farmers might lose their livelihoods. The solution maybe to combine artificial meat production with controls on farming to ensure animals that are brought into existence for farming purposes only have happy, worthwhile lives and are slaughtered in humane ways.
We hope the creation of artificial meat will prompt a thoughtful debate on the ethics of food production and eating.
Doctoral Candidate in Philosophy
University of Oxford
Professor of Practical Ethics