Since when did what you eat become a barometer of your moral fortitude? Certainly within my lifetime and probably within my children’s. Ethical food guilt is a relatively modern concept and yet another thing to add to the seemingly endless list of ‘things for us to feel bad about’.
To give you an example, one of my followers on Instagram messaged me the other day to ask if I had any tips for ethically sourced avocados. My immediate reaction was, is there such a thing as an unethical avocado? News to me. I had a quick google and indeed our obsession with avocados has created a fair few column inches on how land has been illegally cleared in Mexico etc. etc. It’s an all too familiar story these days. We’ve had it with palm oil, almonds, chocolate, dates, quinoa - all these products and many, many more have come under the ethical microscope.
Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing, unethical practices should be exposed, but in terms of the day to day practical business of living there is no way any of us can be 100% sure of the provenance of everything we eat, or in fact of most things we buy and consume. I’m not offering this as an excuse to just go out and buy whatever we feel like without a care or a thought, I’m saying it because it’s a fact. We simply don’t know the truth about the production of the food we buy, unless we are fortunate enough to buy direct from producers or have our own veg patch/chickens/pigs/cows! Much of what we read is inaccurate, is written by someone with an agenda or, even if it is true, it’s still only part of the story.
I don’t want you to think I don’t give two hoots about the environment. We all care don’t we? I do want our governments to get a handle on climate change, I do want agriculture to be sustainable, I do want the oceans to be plastic-free and yes I have reduced my meat intake. BUT these problems are too big and too complex for me to solve on my weekly shop.
Take the avocado example, I could stop buying avocados but - ignoring the fact that my breakfasts would never be the same - how do I know what I have read is true of this actual avocado in my hand? It may come from a perfectly ethical source, it might be providing an avocado farmer with a living so he can support his family. How can I really be sure my one-woman protest at not buying the avocado is having the effect I would wish it to have? The truth is I can’t. Me, sitting at home fretting with earnest intent, is not really going to make a blind bit of difference.
And also, just the sheer mental fatigue of feeling that we are responsible for all the ills of the world is too much. The media is good at that, manipulating us to feel selfish, evil and greedy. But we all have to eat and for most of us that means buying food at the supermarket. I’ve always felt that there is far too much onus put on individual consumers to do the right thing while the big businesses get away with doing the bare minimum.
So that’s that then, we can’t really do anything so we should just accept that we are part of the problem and forget about it? No, that’s not what I mean at all. Things will only change when enough pressure builds for companies and governments to act and that pressure has to come from us, the consumer, but not eating the avocado might not be the most effective way to do this.
To create the kind of pressure needed for change requires coordinated effort and there are some brilliant organisations out there whose raison d’etre is exactly this, Fairtrade for example. You’ll have heard of them I'm sure but just go and take a look at their website and be inspired. You can support them by donating, by joining in their campaigning or simply by buying Fairtrade products when you see them in the shops*.
And there are other good broad-brush changes we can make to our shopping habits that aren’t too onerous and make complete sense: avoid single use plastics if possible, try and eat less and/or better quality meat if you can, try not to over-consume in general. You don’t have to take on the world’s environmental concerns at every breakfast. The avotoast stays, Fairtrade if possible!
Please share in the comments below any organisations you know of who are campaigning for ethical food production, I'd love to hear about them.
*The Co-Operative Supermarket was ranked top by ethicalconsumer.org of the big high street supermarkets and was an early promoter of Fairtrade in the UK.