Hosts Aidan Calvelli ’19 and Noah Cowan ’19 give us some “Food for Thought” in our third episode of the season. Featuring interviews from anthropologist Sarah Besky and policy analyst Allen Hance, this episode offers a nuanced examination of how American federal food policy and ethical consumerism influence the food that ends up on our plates.
Special thanks to Sarah Besky and Allen Hance for their time and expertise, as well as to our podcast associates — Izzy Belleza, Kate Dario, Rachel Lim, Henry Peebles-Capin, Moses Lurbur, and Tobi Lepecki — for their hard work on this episode.
Noah: Hey, Aidan, what eggs do you buy?
Aidan: That’s a really difficult question, because I feel like I’m a responsible consumer, but when it comes to Whole Foods, and there are so many eggs, just here, I don’t know which one is gonna make me feel the best, and taste the best.
Noah: Wow, that was not at all a very heavy handed way to talk about the amazing things we’re going to talk about on this episode of BPRadio.
Aidan: That’s because today, we’re going to talk a lot about food. And specifically, the questions of the ethical consumer choices that people make when they have to choose what to eat.
Noah: For instance, when you are shopping for eggs, what do all these variables mean, like free range? Cage free? Or free range? Cage free plus? They’ve got red boxes, they got purple boxes, they got ones with pictures of farmers on them, so you’re just like “oh my god, I’m helping my local famer with this nationally available chain of eggs.
Aidan: So basically, I think this is a good, interesting way of getting at the questions that like food and shopping presents that often times you’re not forced to think about if you don’t have to think about where your food comes from or what the processes are that bring it to you.
Noah: But as college students, we always like to think about the ethics, and really all the questions behind things you don’t really need to think about, but are important to think about.
Aidan: yeah, because that’s sorta the point of being in college, and I feel like the food space in college is this interesting space where in one sense, you’re stereotyped as just having instant ramen noodles a lot, or you’re presented with a dining hall in which you don’t really have to reflect all that much on the choices of what you’re eating. But that’s sort of a privilege we have that we’re going to explore on today’s episode.
Noah: So, specifically, on today’s episode, we’re going to talk about what it means to be an ethical consumer and look at it through a bunch of different lenses, such as food policy, movements in ethical consumerism, and then just like ethical consumerism writ large.
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Aidan: In this part of today’s episode, we’re going to talk about how sort of government and policy affects the foods we eat. Because as 21st century consumers, food is all around us, but it’s not clear to me that we always think about where it comes from.
Noah: Yeah, and long time BPR readers will know of the great impacts policy can have on our food choices, even when we don’t think about them at all. I’m thinking about big dairy. We talked about how cheese and like the massive overproduction of cheese in the United States is a direct result of massive subsidies that go to our dairy farmers, even though we already produce way too much dairy. That just like goes to illustrate how a very large impact of what we eat and a lot of the choices we make in terms of food are not really made by us, but are more made in policy. And that policy is shaped by a very, very vocal and small minority whose impact affects absolutely all of us.
Allen Hance: it’s a little known fact, less than 1% of the workforce in the US is involved in agriculture as opposed to the turn of the 19th century and a huge percentage of the labor force was involved in agriculture. The kind of public consciousness of what underlies the food system in terms of agricultural production is diminished.
Aidan: So, you just heard from Allen Hance, who is a former policy analyst and legislative fellow who worked on agriculture policy in the US House of Representatives.
Noah: Agricultural policy is really interesting for a few reasons. One is that as Americans have grown farther away from an agricultural economy, where fewer and fewer people are involved in the direct production of our food, it would have made you think that it would lead to a decreasing emphasis on food policy. But that has simply made it that a larger and larger portion of what we eat and what affects what we consume is the direct outcome of this very small number of people who have a large impact on what happens in the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a cornerstone of agricultural policy since the 20th century, that is revised every few years in Congress and is the main avenue through which these individual farmers and this small number of people have a big impact on what we eat.
Aidan: So the Farm Bill is this really important thing, as Noah just talked about. It gets at how food policy has a lot of different impacts. One of which that Hance is particularly concerned about is how the policies we pass in our food legislation impact the sustainability of the food system.
Hance: How can we work to make the system more environmentally sustainable, so that the negative impacts of industrial agriculture and small scale agriculture are minimized, or that we’re actually producing net environmental benefits through agriculture, through which itself is quite possible, that food is affordable for all and that we’re thinking of the food systems in term of food insecurity and that we’re also thinking in terms of the livelihood of farmers and farm workers so that there’s economic sustainability built into the system as well. I.e that the system is not subsidizing big ag in a way that is unfair and unjustifiable and is environmentally unsustainable and/or relying on farm labor practices that are exploitative.
Aidan: So, to me, what Hance’s comment brings up are important questions about the relationship between sustainability and negative externalities, in the sense that in the way we have food production, it seems from a really far away level, that we produce food, it gets transported, we eat it. But there are are so many steps along the way because of the policy choices that government makes. For example, when you produce food, the local communities are changed. Literally, you can start from level of the soil, or just the ways that local production chains work. Obviously, we can talk about bigger impacts like Hance mentioned about climate change and how about how resource use goes into our food production, and that affects water usage and CO2 emissions, and all sorts of other things that aren’t immediately apparent if you’re just thinking about food policy.
Noah: So, obviously the government has a really large impact on what we eat. And that has impacts on so many other aspects of our life. But all of these impacts and all of these choices that are being made by government are nearly invisible to us. We just can’t see what they’re choosing to subsidize, how they choose to subsidize something, and everything feels like a black box. But our politics are made by us, and we necessarily need to reframe the way that we think about the choices that government is making, educate ourselves on the choices taht are being made.
Hance: it was more of an organizing effort, and more of a communications effort. We devoted a fair amount of time about how do we reframe the terms of the debate so that it becomes something that broader publics care about? If very few people have any direct link to agricultural production anymore, how do you even elevate the issue so that it has some resonance for a general audience? Part of our effort was by talking more about food. It’s a strange fact that the term for this massive piece of federal legislation is the FARM bill when in fact the vast majority of the funds that are allocated through the farm bill go to nutrition programs, so we started talking about it as the food and farm bill for example, just to begin to reset the frame. Everybody eats, so everybody has some interest in this set of policies. It’s not just the general public that knows very little about this piece of legislation. It’s also true of legislators on Capitol Hill.
Noah: So the Farm Bill includes the ways that government influences what we eat by changing the cost and the price of all of these things. And inside the cost and the price of all of the food that we see are the specific gov choices involved in what we should be eating and what should be cheaper.
Aidan: I think that what Noah is talking about brings up an important dichotomy between how we understand how change in the food system gets made. There’s one argument, and we’ve talked a lot about it in this section, that food policy and the choices we make at a government level play a huge role in how we eat and how we even understand the food around us. But there’s a similar kind of argument that says that how food change gets made is by the ways in which we think about food and how we think about the nutritional value we intake. So in the next section, we’re going to talk about food and social trends, and different notions of justice around our food system.
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Noah: So, our choices as individuals also have a large impact on what we eat, obviously. Because even though the price might be affected by the government, it’s a lot harder for us to buy something if we know and educate ourselves about the ways the chickens are kept, and what we should know when we eat food. There exist a lot of student groups on campus here at Brown that are very focused on getting people to think about what is happening at the production stage to the animals we might be eating if we’re not vegetarian, or trying to convince us to be vegetarian.
Aidan: I think that whether or not you agree with the content of these student activists, they raise important questions about being more thoughtful and reflective about the choices of the food we eat. And we can see that at the grocery store or just deciding what we’re eating, what goes into your thought process of the decision of how to eat something that is both good for me and good for the world.
Student: 3 weeks ago when I was shopping at East Side, they had equal exchange bananas which is a fair trade banana that is sold in the Northeast next to Chiquita and Dole which are huge plantations that are known for perpetuating a lot of workers rights violations then 3:22-3:43 when I am confronted with these two options, I would buy from equal exchange, which is from small scale farmers and it’s a difficult choice to make especially with a tight budget, but sometimes I try to save money on other foods and not overbuy other things, which is a problem I think students sometimes face.
Aidan: So, as consumers, there are lots of differnsinals that we see that help us make choices about the food that we eat. For example, there are organic labels, or fair trade labels, or as we talked about earlier, all the different things you can see on a carton of eggs. And there are real questions about the validity and effectiveness of whether these labeling mechanisms and institutional structures that facilitate them actually help us make better or more informed choices about our food.
Sarah Besky: With a fair trade and organic label, when you see it, you think that the abstract set of standards or third party certified are tasked with following up with, that those conditions are met. There’s a kind of moral buy in when consumers are looking to labels, that there’s this supposed-to-be-ness, that the product is supposed to be a certain way
Noah: So, that was anthropologist Sarah Besky, a professor here at Brown. She was just trying to help us question and answer the things that it means for these products to be labeled in certain ways. And we have these labels, which involve a lot of assumptions and ideas about our food system that aren’t necessarily related to the label themselves. A lot of times we have assumptions about what organic food means and whether that is ethical, what fair trade means and whether fair trade is actually beneficial to farmers. And those assumptions are wrapped into all of these levels.
Aidan: So, when we think about food and buying food, one term we might apply to ourselves is consumers. We are consumers of the foods we buy at grocery stores and restaurants, etc. And I think that that brings up questions of what it means to be a consumer and how that affects your relationship around food movements and food policy, and just the ways we think about and interact with our fellow citizens on these questions. So as it turns out, movements, such as, for example, the fair trade movement, have been the result of consumer action.
Besky: If I put my money here, what effect will it have? It’s about choosing the right things and this idea that choosing the right things will engender social justice. Choosing this over that will have an effect here. It’s about this idea of choosing to buy something and having this ripple effect far from oneself.
Noah: So what we choose to eat and what we choose to buy has a large impact on what we are signaling about what we will eat and what we will choose, and if we will choose to buy things that are slightly more expensive if they have been grown in more ethical conditions. And these consumer choices we make have an impact on the producers of the products and the things that are produced themselves.
Besky: Ways to make things more fair involve unions, state intervention in the way corporations and farms do their business. They involve protecting labor, especially marginalized undocumented workers who have no legal recourse. It involves protecting all of them. That kind of intervention is a way to make production more fair. Way more than labels.
Noah: So here Besky is echoing a lot of what Hance was saying earlier, where you have all of these choices and all of these ways that government is heavily impacting the things we choose to eat and what we we choose to do with our money. Possibly the greatest way that we can impact and we can be ethical consumers is by instead of focusing on our consumption, is focusing on the ways we can implement change through policy.
Aidan: So to me, what Besky is saying here is about the role of empowerment in food choices. I feel like we’ve been talking a lot in this episode about big sort of policy and identity and huge understandings of these massive food systems, but the point that Besky is trying to make is that individuals in their own actions can have some serious consequences, both in terms of their actual impact on the climate or sustainability, but also in how they understand themselves. And that’s where the idea of the term ethical consumer comes in. There’s no law that mandates who is an ethical consumer, but the fact that a person can identify with this idea and have that influence their view of justice, and what’s right, and what it means to be a good participant in this food system we all take part in, ends up having a bigger impact than we might think could just come from one person.
Noah: So how do you choose which eggs to by?
Aidan: I think that’s an example of me not being super reflective. We’ve been talking for a long time about the ways we identify as ethical consumers. And i think that say because I am a vegetarian, I think that I am making some bigger impact and making responsible, just choices about the food that I eat. And then that doesn’t always manifest all the way down the line in which I make my choices about eggs. I don’t think that’s consistent and shows the problems of how we understand ourselves as consumers.
Noah: Or just part of it, honestly, to have to do with the idea that when you make these choices about buying something that says organic or free trade. You say, oh, I’m a vegetarian, so I can buy the eggs where the chickens are held in these cramped cages, where the chickens start getting shaped like their cages because they are so big.
Aidan: Well, when you say it like that, I think that you’re right. There is an amount of moral licensing that I do. And I don’t want to speak for other vegetarians or consumers, but there’s a sense in which if I can rationalize doing one good thing, then I might save the extra dollar buying the non-organic bell pepper as opposed to the organic bell pepper. And I don’t think that’s necessarily an accurate calculation, but I do think it’s something we should think about. The idea of being an ethical consumer isn’t monolithic, and people might not be consistent in how they apply the term.
Noah: But I feel like what we’ve been getting at this whole episode is the idea that it’s thinking about these things and knowing about these things—that we morally license sometimes, that we don’t know exactly what free trade means or what organic means— but what these labels can help tell us is thinking about what choices are being made by our government and just being cognizant of all these choices that are happening when we choose what to eat. That is something that we need to think about, and that thinking about it itself is a step towards achieving some greater change.
Aidan: Yeah, definitely, and I think that’s what we’ve talked about a lot. Because the more people who do that, we sort of change the dynamic of having such a small amount of people deciding the way we produce food and subsidize food. So the more people think about whether or not they’re always following their own rules, it’s going to have an impact on how our food system actually works. So, something that i think is a takeaway from this is episode and just thinking about food in general, is it’s no piece of cake to make ethical, responsible consumer choices.
Noah: And I just think it’s also important to take with a grain of salt the things that we’re talking about when talk about food.
Aidan: Sure, so in a nutshell, I think what we’re talking about is that there are multiple lenses through which we can think about food. There’s this big policy question in which there might be something fishy going on in which a few people get to influence these policy choices, but there are also these more individual ways in which we can impact our food system. That might seem to put you in a pickle. Should you just be a person that is passive and just wait for the government to legislate better? Or should you be someone who is going to be an activist, maybe bite off a little more than you think you can chew and make a big impact in your community by building solidarity?
Noah: And we really don’t want to sugarcoat things here. The environmental impacts that come from agriculture and food production are seriously harmful.
Aidan: Yeah, so, and I think that although we’ve discussed a lot of tough topics, we don’t need a uniformly positive conclusion. Food is really complicated, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. I don’t want to spill the beans here, but there just aren’t easy answers to how we can build a more sustainable, environmentally just, economically accessible food system. Sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Noah: But sometimes, it’s impacted by what we choose to do. So don’t just accept the way the cookie crumbles, and make chewier cookies. Alright, that’s our show. We’d like to thank Allen Hance and Sarah Besky for joining us and helping talk to us about what ethical consumerism really is.
Aidan: And we’d also like to help our wonderful team of podcast associates. Izzy Belleza helped write the script today, and as always for help with writing and editing, we want to thank Kate Dario, Tobi Lepecki, Rachel Lim, Moses Lurbur, and Henry Peebles-Capin. And our executive producer, Emily Skahill.