Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Save Organic Standards campaign banner image

What Does Your Grocery Shopping Cart Say About Your Values?

A typical grocery list might include eggs, milk, pork chops, asparagus, coffee, salmon steaks and bananas. Sounds simple. But each involves a personal choice that reflects our values.

Are the bananas organic or grown with chemicals? Do they carry a Fair Trade sticker, indicating that the farm workers who grew and harvested them earned a living wage?

How much fossil-fuel energy went into growing that asparagus, and transporting it thousands of miles? Or was it grown nearby?

Is the salmon wild-caught from a well-managed fishery, or was it raised on an underwater feedlot that pollutes the surrounding oceans?

Are those eggs free-range, organic or produced by hens packed tightly into small cages?

Is the milk from cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone, which increases their productivity, but may harm their health?

Do those pork chops come from a pig raised indoors in a factory farming operation, or raised on deep straw bedding with access to the outdoors on a family farm?

Whew. Who ever said grocery shopping was simple?

A few years ago, those might have seemed like fringe issues for the granola and tofu crowd. But today, granola and tofu are supermarket staples, and issues of human rights, environmental sustainability and animal welfare are mainstream.

Wal-Mart is considering selling Fair Trade coffee, McDonald's requires its egg producers to meet minimal animal welfare standards and Chipotle, which buys only sustainably produced pork raised on family farms, advertises on its website that "Quite Frankly, Factory Farms Suck."

We all have values, and we all like to eat. But we don't always put the two together. The hard part is knowing how to put those values into practice when we shop.

The choices aren't always easy. Often, foods that meet higher ethical standards are more expensive and less convenient to buy and prepare. How do you weigh the added cost and inconvenience against competing priorities?

And we don't all have the same values. But when it comes to the basic questions of food ethics, most of us do have a few points of agreement: ? It's wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals. ? Protecting the environment is a good thing. ? People who produce our food ought to have decent lives and decent wages.

It also turns out that in practice, these ethical issues are often inseparable: raising meat in a sustainable way turns out to be not only better for the environment, but better for the animals, and to offer a better life for farmers.

Red-light ethics and green-light ethics Much of the talk about ethical eating focuses on what you shouldn't eat or shouldn't buy. Many consumers avoid buying veal because of the methods by which this meat is produced. Some shoppers avoid factory eggs for the same reason. And some boycott retailers that don't pay their employees a decent wage.

That's the red-light approach to ethics.

But it may be more productive to take a green-light approach: to look for positive choices that make the world a better place. For example, by buying locally grown foods, you support local businesses and contribute to the vitality of your community. The impact is greater when you choose sustainably produced foods, when you shop at farmers' markets, or sign up for a weekly delivery of seasonal produce from a community supported agriculture farm. Sustainable farming methods actually help restore the vitality of soils damaged by conventional agriculture.

The times are a-changing The issues aren't new. What has changed, dramatically, in the past decade is the range of choices available to consumers. Organic foods have become the fastest-growing sector of the American food industry as they have spread from co-ops and health food stores into mainstream supermarkets. According to a recent study, nearly three-quarters of U.S. consumers now buy organic foods, at least occasionally. Kowalski's celebrates Earth Day by handing out fliers listing six reasons to buy organic: among them, the health of farm workers and the preservation of family farms. Whole Foods now sells eggs only from cage-free chickens. Cub Foods boasts that it sells more locally grown produce than anybody else in town.

There also has been a dramatic increase in the number of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture projects nationwide, allowing small producers to sell directly to consumers.

You don't have to go whole hog Choosing to become a more ethical eater doesn't mean you have to become a vegetarian, or shop only at farmers' markets or buy only fair-trade, free-range, shade-grown coffee sold by nonprofit groups that donate all their money to literacy programs in developing countries. Rather, it means being clear on what your values are, and in deciding how far to go to practice them.

If you enjoy fish and care about the environment, you can choose wild-caught salmon from well-managed fisheries, or farm-raised salmon from well-managed aquaculture farms. If you like meat too much to give it up, you can opt for meat produced in a sustainable way with a minimum of animal suffering. Michael Pollan, author of "Omnivore's Dilemma," argues that, "If people can do the right thing once a day with one of their food votes, that's plenty; that will be enough to build an alternative food system."

Outlining the issues Animal welfare gets the most attention. Activists have focused public attention on animal suffering, and achieved some important successes in the past decade. But sustainability and human rights also are emerging as major ethical concerns:

Sustainability has been defined as meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. But the damage that current agricultural and fishing practices are inflicting on the environment isn't just a threat to future generations. The environmental impact of these practices is being felt today, in groundwater contamination, air pollution and declining fish populations.

As for human rights, in the past, when people made ethical eating choices because of human rights concerns, the focus was on red-light ethics: Consumers boycotted lettuce and table grapes in support of farm workers' rights, or boycotted South African wines to support the fight against apartheid. But today the connection between food choices and human rights is more often framed in green-light terms. The growing popularity of fair-trade labeling for coffee, tea, bananas and chocolate reflects increased consumer awareness of inequities in global trade.

While the red-light approach to ethical eating is often driven by guilt, the green-light approach offers the promise of more joy in our eating. Knowing the story behind the foods we consume, and making choices that reflect our values, enrich the experience of eating.

Food writer and reviewer Jeremy Iggers also writes "Everyday Ethics" in the Saturday Faith and Values section.

July 12, 2006

The three big issues SUSTAINABILITY There is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity -- specifically, consumption of fossil fuels -- is a major contributor to global warming. Gas-guzzling SUVs get their share of the blame, but a surprising amount of fossil fuel also goes into food production. Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel and Mario Giampetro of the Italian National Institute of Nutrition calculate that the equivalent of 400 gallons of oil are used to produce the food for each American for a year. That includes the manufacturing of inorganic fertilizer, the operation of field machinery, transportation and irrigation.

And producing feed grains for animal consumption requires enormous inputs of fossil fuels. Pimentel estimates that it takes 284 gallons of oil to raise a 1,250-pound steer to slaughter weight.

But reliance on fossil fuels isn't the only part of the food production system that is unsustainable. The topsoil of our most fertile farmland is being rapidly eroded by industrial farming methods. The quality of our water supply is being degraded by farm chemicals and the depletion of aquifers. Overfishing is driving some species to the verge of extinction and upsetting the ecological balance of the world's oceans. Fertilizer runoff has created an enormous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. What you can do ? Eat more plant-based foods, and less meat and seafood. ? Buy locally grown foods in season. ? Buy organic foods selectively. Organic farming methods are more sustainable than conventional methods, but shipping and other factors can reduce their advantage. ? Choose grass-fed meat and poultry instead of grain-fed. ? Choose fish and seafood from sustainably managed fisheries and aquaculture farms. One useful pocket guide, "The Fish List," is available at


In recent years, many routine practices of factory meat and egg production have come under increasing criticism as cruel and inhumane. Many have been banned or are being phased out in European Union nations, including debeaking chickens; tail-docking piglets; castration of calves and pigs without anaesthetic; close confinement of laying hens, veal calves and brood sows, and forced molting of laying hens.What you can do ? Eat less meat and poultry. ? Choose meat and poultry from animals that have been humanely raised and slaughtered. ? Choose free-range or cage-free eggs.

Free-range beef, pork, poultry and eggs are becoming more widely available, at farmers markets and in supermarkets.

"They live outdoors or in deeply bedded pens, so they are free to run, roam, root and socialize. By creating a market for meats raised in a healthier environment, we make it worthwhile for these farmers to raise even more." That sounds like the kind of talk you might hear at a food co-op -- but it's actually from a company statement from Chipotle, the giant burrito chain partially owned by McDonald's.

Human rights Globalization means that more and more of our foods are being produced in other countries. Depending on the time of year, a typical shopping basket might contain grapes from Chile, mangoes from Mexico, green beans from Guatemala and asparagus from Peru. Often the people who grow and harvest those foods live in extreme poverty, but some programs enable consumers to choose products that pay producers a fair wage.

Issues of human rights and social justice also apply to farm and food industry workers in the United States. Less than 10 cents of every dollar that Americans spend on food goes to the farmer. Much of the meat, poultry and produce in the American diet is harvested and processed by an underclass of workers who earn low wages and have poor working conditions and few benefits. What you can do ? Buy directly from farmers when possible. ? Choose fair-trade-certified coffee, tea, chocolate and bananas. The fair-trade logo certifies that the farmers who produce the crop are paid a fair price, and usually also means that the crops are produced by sustainable farming methods. ? Look for brands and retailers that have good labor and human rights records. It can be difficult for individual consumers to find this information, but food co-ops often have buying policies that screen for these issues.

Order Ronnie's New Book: The Truth About COVID-19

Get Local

Find News and Action for your state:
$5 Off Your Next Order at and 20% Goes to Organic Consumers Association.