"Have-Lots", "Have-Nots" and Ethical Eating

Researchers at the University of Guelph recently published an article arguing that ‘ethical’ food is often only available to the affluent. Their analysis of Canada’s food system identifies three tiers: the alternative food system, the conventional food system, and the emergency food system (systems for combatting hunger). The authors find that the “alternative food system” promotes most sustainable agricultural practices, but is also high-cost and sometimes exclusionary for geographic or social reasons. So, while the “have-lots” can vote with their forks, this option is not available to most Canadians. The inequality that is manifest in this system is, as the authors put it, a “paradoxical side-effect” of efforts to develop a more sustainable food system. See the full article here. The findings of this study are important for two reasons.

First, it provides an empirical basis for explaining why eco-labels have not been able to capture market share in most mainstream markets. If these systems are structured around providing only to the very top – are sold in exclusive urban farmer’s markets, are high-cost, are not available in low-income neighborhoods – we cannot expect them to shape industry norms. Ethical consumption movements, the authors suggest, need to be more firmly grounded in grassroots social movements, rather than catering to the consumption sensibilities of the elite. This implies that market mechanisms can only take us so far in sustainability advocacy; to truly succeed, activists need to embrace political solutions. Applying these lessons outside of the food system, their article casts doubt on the potential for market-based solutions to, on their own, solve social problems. That is a relevant lesson as we consider our Paris commitments, and as Canadian governments announce new social impact bonds.

Second, the inequality that they highlight raises a challenging dilemma for would-be ethical eaters: how should we weigh the desire to limit direct harm caused by our consumption choices, versus the indirect harms caused by the systems that we support through our consumption? In other words: even though the harm caused by eating shrimp which was produced using forced labor is more proximate, if eating sustainably-labelled shrimp promotes a business model that excludes others from access to higher quality ethically-labelled food, is it worth the trade-off? This is especially poignant given the “stuck at the bottom” problem – that consumption labels sometimes are too administratively costly for developing country producers to participate – and given the questionable results of these labels in terms of changing participant behavior.