The Conundrums of Nutritional Ethics

Nutritional Ethics Conundrums:

Food is politics. It used to be just nutrition with a hefty side of pleasure and perhaps a little guilt, but the entire eating process has morphed into a political morass.

You can’t just eat. You have to eat right: small farm, small market, farmers’ market,  heirloom, slow, heritage, GM free, fair trade, humanely raised, sustainable, earth friendly, non -corporate, trans fat and high fructose corn syrup free, non-endangered and low water and carbon footprint. Otherwise you are a terrible person, your friends will abandon you, and the coral reefs will die.

All of this is served with a whopping side of guilt by those who  have taken on the job of watching the civilized world’s culinary morals. Sanctimonious servers smugly deliver pre-ordering lectures in the guise of a rundown of restaurant’s food policies, while diners with culinary Stockholm Syndrome nod sycophantically  to the abuse.

Smart men like Mario Batali throw their toques into the ring by declaring meat free Mondays or banning foie gras from their menus, while self-proclaimed public interest organizations like CSPI,  the National Humane Society, the Sierra Club, The Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine and Alice Waters try to guilt you by telling you that drinking Pepsi, eating a steak or drinking bottled water will destroy the economy by fattening children and spreading the obesity and diabetes epidemic, insult Gaia, cause barbaric wars in Africa and the deaths of untold South American berry pickers, torture Babe the Pig, and generally destroy the planet.

It’s time to take a deep breath and see a few things clearly.

First: You can’t do everything and get everything right. We all want to be good, but there’s an obvious disconnect between our desires for rectitude and our physical and emotional needs. God apparently goofed. We are meant to be an omnivore,  possibly closer to being a carnivore (canine teeth a clue there) and if you miss meat, it might just be because you need it. From a practical standpoint what you theoretically feel you can eat with virtue and what your body evolved to eat seem a bit at odds with each other. Imported coffee raises the planet’s carbon emissions, while not drinking deprives Bolivian coffee farmers of school money for their kids. If the righteous are successful in killing the bottled water market (fat chance), residents of disaster zones like New Orleans and Haiti will die of thirst until trucks can get through. Everything is a trade off, and there’s too much to consider to cover it all.

Second: With a few extremely notable exceptions, the people carrying the banners for the righteous in the crusade against the simple pleasures of food tend to be meddling wing nuts, who have appointed themselves to watch over you. You, probably an American citizen or resident who if not born free chose to be,  don’t have to be a Ron Paul libertarian to take great offense at those busy bodies who are trying to control your plate by getting into your head.

Third: Most of  the movements driving culinary guilt, although sprinkled with some solid ideas, are passing fads with little and questionable empirical substance to support their programs, unless they are preaching the absolutely obvious.  They suggest that your token sacrifices and life style changes will solve enormous problems, and that your continued hedonistic behavior (burgers and milkshakes) will have monumentally destructive consequences. They won’t. The trends and the noise will pass, hopefully sooner rather than later. Trust me: You can destroy a lot –  your sofa, a transmission or a friendship. You can save a cake from going bad, a child from running into traffic or a dog from the pound, but even imagining that you,  yourself, even incrementally, can destroy or save the world is a delusion of grandeur.

Finally, it’s futile.  Whatever you do, something will be wrong.  Unintended consequences lurk at every nutritional decision. You can’t win.

Example: Urban farming (or suburban or rooftop or vertical..just growing your own vegetables) is the obvious declaration of culinary virtue and commitment to fighting Big Food, raising your middle finger to ADM, Monsanto and Big  Agriculture and generally improving the planet while making wonderful food for low prices.

(Aside: As a well seasoned gardener I would like to disabuse you of the Low Prices conceit and possibly of the environmental issues, since there are recent reports that runoff from vegetable gardens is impacting the ocean and water supplies, but we digress.)

Gardening is God’s work: You turn your soil, start a compost pile, create a worm box, make beds and eh voila, you are ready to shake your fist at Safeway, Piggly Wiggly, ADM, Monsanto and the rest of the evil empire destroying our planet with food.

That’s what you think. NOT!  HAH! Fooled ya!

Aside from the fact that urban farming (what a pompous phrase – can’t we just call it gardening) is in fact a profoundly consumerist activity, it supports the DARK SIDE.  Let me explain.

A recently circulated urban myth states that Monsanto owns about every know food brand from Kellogs to Campbells  you can get on your supermarket shelves and admonishes against  purchasing their products.    The initiating blog and many like it are  speciously inaccurate  – Monsanto does not own these companies or any part of them (Their Board Members surely do), but they do own something else: (Drumroll, please)

1)      Most of the seeds and nursery products sold in the US, organic and heirloom varieties included.

2)      A substantial number of patents on heirloom varieties.

In 2007 Monsanto purchased Seminis,  a holding company which currently includes most if not all of  the most responsible seed groups in the US. This does not mean that the seeds are GM, but,   if you are going to be consequent about not supporting the forces of evil, of which Monsanto is considered the worst, you can’t buy their seeds.  In the effort to be totally virtuous you are scrod. You can’t buy from Big Food, you can’t plant Big Seed, and if you are buying heirloom, Monsanto probably holds the patent.

You might try going solitarian – attempting to gain your nutrients from the rays of the sun, as plants do – although the smart money says that won’t work. Making an about-turn and becoming omnivore would only cause further environmental damage and animal distress, so you are stuck in the middle.  A tofu diet is environmental poison, as the rainforests are being cut down to plant soy crops, and most tofu is gene modified, anyway.

We are left with two options, one of them mildly demonic.

1)      Monsanto’s patents preclude re-harvesting and re-sowing of seed. Re-harvest, replant and turn yourself in. If everyone does this, it will so overburden the company with demands on their legal department and their inspection system, they will have to give up..or

2)      Just say “to Hell with it” and go have a foie burger and a coke or Oreo Milkshake and enjoy it for all it’s worth.

I don’t know what your choice is, but I certainly know mine.

Life is really to short and too hard for any of us to be taking the weight of the nutrional, agricultural world on our shoulders. Food is supposed to make it easier.


Bon appetite.

Comments more than welcome. You don’t have to agree.




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