Twenty years of food ethics

On Wednesday the Food Ethics Council will celebrate its 20th anniversary by convening a panel of experts to discuss the future of food. Its executive director Dan Crossley talks to Nick Hughes about how our perception of food ethics has shifted since the scares and scandals of the 1980s and 90s that inspired the Council’s creation.

NH: First off, can you remind us why the Food Ethics Council was established in the first place?

DC: The Food Ethics Council was formed in 1998 as a result of widespread public concern over recent developments in food and farming, some of which offended commonly accepted ethical principles. Prior to this, in 1995, a Ministry of Agriculture ethics committee had recommended establishing a standing government committee to explore ethical implications of farm animal biotechnologies. However, the government failed to act. The landscape in the late 1980s and early ’90s was a mix of food scares – including salmonella in eggs and BSE – and contentious responses, not least the great GM food debate. These led many people to question the direction of travel and to ask questions about how our food was produced. Too much was hidden and not enough known. People sometimes rushed to solutions off the back of different shocks and scares, but it wasn’t an “all things considered” approach. Hence, the Food Ethics Council was born.

NH: How do you feel the narrative around what we mean by food ethics has changed during the past 20 years?

DC: Twenty years ago the term “ethical” wasn’t used much outside of academic circles, but it’s become more widely used now. Food ethics is not yet a mainstream term, but it is being used by a growing segment working on food. More people are concerned with ethical food, which is hugely welcome. However, many still associate “ethical” with meaning “the right kind of food”, rather than a broader sense of food ethics – being about the principles that dictate what counts as acceptable treatment of others in relation to food.

As people have learned more about the impacts of our food choices, they’ve increasingly recognised both the complexity of the issues and the need for taking collective responsibility – in the UK and overseas. Ethics in food is no longer regarded as a narrow “tick box” exercise. Instead people are starting to understand the broad remit of food ethics – from humane treatment of farm animals to looking after the environment, from human health to fair treatment of people working in the food system. There have been lots of food-related milestones over the past 20 years that have put ethical concerns in the spotlight.

NH: Can you highlight some of these key milestones and explain how they’ve resulted in positive changes to the way food companies do business?

DC: There have been a mix of what I’d call “push” and “pull” milestones. There have been food scandals and scares in the last 20 years that have forced organisations to respond. On the “pull” side, we’ve seen new thinking, research and ambitions that have enabled and inspired some food companies to change the way they do business.

I can start by picking out a couple of “push” milestones – from many. Firstly, the 2004 tragedy that saw at least 21 Chinese illegal immigrant labourers drown while picking cockles at Morecambe Bay in northern England. This led to the setting up of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (now Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority) and arguably paved the way for the Modern Slavery Act. The tragedy highlighted the question of ethical responsibility, with food businesses – particularly food retailers and foodservice providers – increasingly recognising that their moral duty extends beyond “their own four walls”. There has been significant progress on tackling modern slavery in supply chains in the years since. However, it’s important to stress that the response should have been faster and that the issue remains far from being resolved. So food companies must not be complacent.

A second scandal – albeit of a different nature – was one that came to light in early 2013. I remember it vividly, as only a few weeks into my time at the Food Ethics Council I was doing back-to-back radio interviews on ethical questions raised by “horsegate”. Whilst the horsemeat scandal shook public confidence in food supply chains, it was short-lived and our food system remains fundamentally flawed. Nevertheless, more progressive food companies did treat the scandal as a wake-up call and strengthened traceability and transparency measures as a result. All food companies should be able to pass what we call the transparency test: “Would your customers still eat your food if they knew where it came from and how it was produced?”

NH: You touched earlier on the complexity of issues bound up in food ethics. Do you feel as though there are businesses that truly get these complexities and embed their response to them in their core business strategies or is there still a tendency to focus on single issues of importance to them and their customers (such as animal welfare, fair trade or “local” food) as part of a business-as-usual approach? Is this a legitimate approach or is it an easy or “soft” option?

DC: Good question … There are a small but growing number of businesses that get the complexities and that try and take a multi-issue approach, which we encourage. Back to our “pull milestones”, I’d argue that M&S launching Plan A back in 2007 remains a great example of a company seeking to take a well-rounded, long-term approach. M&S hasn’t got everything right but nevertheless, it has blazed a trail for others to follow.

Having run our Business Forum for over 10 years, we understand that food and farming businesses face practical challenges day-to-day and that there is a risk of them being paralysed by complexity. We don’t expect individual organisations on their own to solve all the world’s food and farming-related issues. Taking a holistic approach doesn’t mean companies necessarily need to try and be leaders on everything. They can still choose issues of importance to them and their customers. However, crucially they need to also meet minimum baselines across the board - in relation to human health, the environment, animal welfare and social justice. And secondly they need to demonstrate they have thought about the wider consequences. To give a live example, a focus on eliminating plastics at all costs – while well-intentioned – may inadvertently lead to greater food waste (or even food safety issues).

One definition of ethics is “explicitly justifying a particular course of action”. If companies can show they’ve taken into account the impacts of a particular decision on a range of interest groups (including the environment and animals), that is a positive step forward. More fundamentally, we need to change the economic system in which food and farming businesses operate.

NH: I won’t ask you to explain how we change the economic system! But let’s take the recently proposed Sainsbury’s-Asda merger as an example of the commercial pressure to scale. Do you believe this kind of consolidation that is happening throughout the food supply chain can go hand-in-hand with stronger ethics?

In the last 20 years, we’ve seen lots of agri-food mergers and takeovers. From the proposed Sainsbury’s-Asda merger to the Bayer-Monsanto tie-up and everything in between, like Kraft Foods buying Cadbury back in 2010.

I suppose it’s possible for consolidation to lead to stronger ethics. However, I struggle to find evidence that it has in practice. It’s not the case that small is always beautiful or that large is always bad. However, much as we need biodiversity in the natural world, we need diversity in the business world and we need to avoid power being in too few hands. We can’t have a resilient food system unless it is diverse. A “too many eggs in one basket” approach won’t work, particularly with more shocks – including climatic ones – likely to come in the future.

Consolidation won’t go hand-in-hand with better ethics within the current economic system (I’m back on that again!). For starters, the definition of fiduciary duty needs to be broadened beyond the interest of shareholders alone. And the remit of the Competition and Markets Authority needs to change to ensure it considers the likely impacts of any merger on all key interest groups – including farmers, the environment and the general public.

Rather than celebrating synergies from mergers, we need to fundamentally change power structures to ensure people, animals and the planet aren’t exploited. As we said in our flagship Food Justice work, we need “fair shares”, or equality of outcome; but also “fair play”, or equality of opportunity; and “fair say”, or autonomy and voice. Too much consolidation makes achieving fairness more difficult.

Large players are more likely to capture the regulatory agenda and to exert undue influence over things like the food and farming research agenda – which we’ve challenged in our recent “For Whom?” publication.

NH: It feels like our perception of ethical business is constantly shifting. What do you feel is the important issue coming down the track that may not be on companies’ radars just yet but will be in one, two or even three years’ time?

DC: Our perception of what constitutes ethical business practice is certainly evolving all the time, and that’s healthy.

People are increasingly remembering their own agency and influence, identifying as citizens, not just passive consumers who can only affect change through what they buy. In the next few years, I expect to see businesses building on the idea that people are empowered citizens who care about one another and the world. Businesses will be increasingly driven by purpose, rather than profit alone – and the rise of the B Corp is testament to that. We think the shift to more purpose-driven food business is long overdue, and very welcome – hence our new work on food citizenship, following ground-breaking work initiated by the New Citizenship Project.

There are lots of issues coming down the track that should be on companies’ radars – from cultured meat to “farming for nutrition” to fish-related concerns. If I was forced to pick just one today from many emerging issues out there, it would be fish as sentient beings. The science demonstrates that fish do show signs of pain as other farm animals do. This will have big implications, not least relating to the future for aquaculture. A few years ago, business leaders may have laughed at the idea of fish welfare, but I believe the issue will increasingly enter the public consciousness and come onto the business radar.

NH: Finally, what do you consider to be the Council’s greatest achievement over the past 20 years and what do you hope to have achieved in 20 years’ time?

DC: Over the last 20 years, the Food Ethics Council has become the authoritative voice on food ethics – putting ethical concerns relating to food and farming firmly on the map. That’s something I’m hugely proud to have been a small part of.

In my eyes, our greatest achievement has been to have successfully unblocked what was previously a hugely polarised debate on meat and livestock. Our work on farm animals started with our first ever report – “Drug Use in Farm Animals – in 1999, which was pivotal in getting the European Commission to agree to uphold a ban on BST, a hormone which increases milk production when injected into dairy cows. A decade later, our Livestock Dialogue series with WWF introduced the idea of “less and better” meat eating. It catalysed the launch of Eating Better – now an alliance of over 50 organisations promoting less and better meat consumption, and bringing flexitarian eating into the mainstream. Over the years, we’ve opened up the political space on meat and livestock and have really moved the debate forward.

Looking ahead 20 years into the future, I want the Food Ethics Council to have helped transform the food system into one centred on principles around respect for fairness, wellbeing and freedom. I’d like us to have made it the norm for important decisions about food and farming to be made “all things considered”. I’d love ethical debates about food to feature prominently in political circles and amongst the general public in the future.

We’ve had a great 20 years, but we shouldn’t underestimate the size of the challenge ahead. We – the collective we – need to make serious inroads on issues like climate change, biodiversity loss and obesity. But that can’t wait 20 years – we need big bold action in the next five years and we want to be part of making that happen.

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