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One woman's quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2004



MALTA, ILL.

I confess: I sometimes feel guilty when I eat. Should I have paid the extra money for the organic avocados? Found hamburger meat that I'm sure was once a happy and grass-fed cow? Or not eaten the hamburger at all?

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Under the pressure to equate values with actions, even what's on the dinner plate can be an accusing presence.

Still, the more I try to sort out just what my values are - as they relate to food, at least - the more elusive and contradictory they often become. Is it all about animal rights? How about the environment, the exploitation of workers, or supporting small local farmers? I care about being a polite guest, and the chance to savor delicious food has to count for something.

Call it a selfish mission - a quest to restore the pleasure of good food by getting rid of that gnawing sense that (according to various pamphlets and websites) my dinner might not be too far removed from clubbing baby seals or hastening the apocalypse via deadly pesticides - but I told my editor I'd delve into that labyrinthine world of ethical eating.

Of course, it's important to recognize right off that eating ethically means different things to different people.

Unless you live on a tropical island where wild fruits and vegetables are copious year-round and you can harvest them yourself, virtually any food is going to involve some degree of injustice or harm, to people, animals, or the environment.

"You just have to decide what matters most to you," says Michael Pollan, author of "The Botany of Desire" and a journalism professor at the University of California in Berkeley. "The idea that a vegetarian diet is automatically environmentally more sound just isn't true. And what if you live on the East Coast, and all the organic produce is shipped from California - how do you compare buying that to buying locally, and supporting a farm which may be using pesticides but is helping to preserve the rural landscape closer to home? A lot of people, when they run into contradictions, just throw up their hands and say, 'I'll eat what I want.' "

It's a response I've had myself. But this time, I figured I'd look closer - at the often-confusing world of "cage-free," "free-range," "organic," and "grass-fed" labels, and the spectrum of options that seems to get broader every year. Before coming to any conclusions about my own food values, I talked with a few others who've already sorted through theirs.

Mr. Pollan, for instance, has stopped eating factory-farmed meat, though he admits he doesn't interrogate every waiter and will eat whatever he's served as a guest. He also tries to "buy local."

For Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute, questions around seafood are central. The biologist loves to eat fish, but only what he catches himself. For people who can't go directly to the source, he tries to educate them about which seafood - and catching methods - are better and worse for the oceans. On his company's website (www.blueoceaninstitute.org/seafood), they're all graded.

Chilean seabass, Atlantic salmon, and shrimp? Bad. Farmed mussels, Alaska salmon, and mahi-mahi caught on a pole? OK.

"We evaluate how the population is doing, the effects of the fishing gear on the habitat, what other kinds of things are caught at the same time," Mr. Safina explains. "There are a lot of things changing the oceans. All of them are accidental - the effects of climate change, pollutants, plastic [debris] - except fishing. It's an intentional effort to go and kill what lives in the ocean."

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