The Ethical Act of Eating 

Órlaith Roe 

 

There is a certain magic that is attached to the memory of food. It engages all our senses in quick succession, cementing itself into the mirage of memorable meals in our brain. We smell its aromas, the sweetness and saltiness, the almost intoxicating flow of its movement, dancing and fuming in an upwards fashion into our embrace. We see and touch it. We can hear it sizzling and frying and singing. And in abundance, we taste it. Some of my earliest memories are rooted in food. Childhood birthday parties with crumbly shortbread. A slightly lopsided Victoria sponge awaiting demolition at the sticky hands of children. Afterschool toasties with oozing cheddar cheese and crackling bread, bowls of fresh cucumber and snappy carrots. Steaming hot tomato soup on Saturday mornings after freezing football trainings, inhaling the contents of the bowl with golden silence as our fingers and toes defrosted. The reliable pasta salads in sticky summer months, hearty stews as the evenings darkened, and creamy, fluffy potatoes to sooth any bad day. Even now I still think about the final dish of ratatouille served up in Ratatouille or the copious amounts of butter that Julia Child lathers on to anything that might even pass as edible in Julie and Julia 

As humans we revolve around our next meal. Some have the luxury of approaching this as an act of choice, others as an act of survival. Food is not simply food. It can take political form, artistic form, economic form, and environmental form. I love food in all its complexities. Cooking, giving, creating, and failing at it. But I also know that my ability to discuss food in these forms comes from a place of privilege, of being able to have a choice in what I eat and how I eat it. In the aftermath of the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow, our struggle with the worsening climate crisis is looming ever larger and approaching ever faster. The vast majority of our leaders are failing to do the bare minimum, leaving us in the lurch and feeling powerless.  

It is in these moments that I try to ground my spiralling mind, re-focusing my actions to the things I actually have control over. How do we contribute to the worsening state of our environment, and in what capacity can we alter our relationship to consumerism? One doesn’t have to be strictly vegan or vegetarian in order to better their relationship with food and the environment, but we do have to start changing the way we eat if we are to provide a healthy and long-lasting future for our eating and agricultural habits. The politics of our plates may not always be overt, but understanding them is essential in enhancing the ethics of our eating.  

By 2050 the world’s population will hit the 10 billion mark. As this number increases, the planet’s necessary resources are beginning to dwindle. In order for each one of us to be fed and nourished sufficiently, we have to start paying attention to the minute details of everyday consumerism. The production, packaging, and carbon footprint of our food. The small actions that will enable us to be food heroes, requiring the bare minimum of effort.  

  

It is beyond time for the widespread recognition of the negative effects of largescale meat production on the world’s carbon emission rates and its hefty use of the planet’s resources. Food production accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the methane and deforestation associated with cattle bolsters the detrimental effects of meat-eating, especially in richer countries. Our approach to food and its culture is also a factor in our carbon footprint contribution. A recent study in The Guardian details the meatier diets of men as being responsible for 40% more climate-heating emissions than those of women, and various studies in recent years have shown an inclination to regard vegetarian/vegan lifestyles as more feminine (additionally, there is a myth surrounding vegetarian and vegan eating as more expensive. It has long played to the arguments of the diet’s detractors. In reality, it is a cheaper diet). The absurdity of such facts is an issue for another day, but we cannot deny the huge push required in shifting our cultural perceptions surrounding food in order to improve our ethical relationship with how and what we eat.  

In the second episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, they profile American cook and restaurateur Dan Barber, a sustainable food expert. His ethos is simple: eat with the seasons. Barber believes serving up things like a meaty steak and a pork chop should be reserved solely for special occasions and holidays. For those who can afford it, cheap and poorly produced foods should be avoided. On the topic of the western world’s tendency to embrace fast food and emission guzzling meals, he brings it back to the essential mantra of ensuring quality, “Why become a culture of great cooking when you have the abundance to make steaks and eat tremendous amounts of meat?”. This idea that because we have access to ‘endless’ swathes of rich meats and vast arrays of cuisine strips away the possibility of approaching food in its natural environment. Just because we have the abundance, does not mean we should sacrifice living with food in its most organic of forms and cooking it well.  

 

As nice as it would be to consume produce such as strawberries all year round, it is impossible to do this sustainably.

The freight-related carbon emissions stemming from the importation of seasonal foods is dire, and the water-shortage problems are only worsening. Poorer countries growing seasonal produce for regions like north-western Europe often dedicate more water to crops than they have available for the local people. For far too long we have shunned the idea of embracing local produce in the western world. Importation is often necessary, but were we to cut out the vast majority of the unnecessary aspects, emissions would fall insurmountably. Seasonal food is available in abundance, we just require a shift in thinking and producing for it to become the norm. By incorporating sustainable cooking and consumption into our education systems, we would be equipping our youth with the knowledge necessary to cook well, healthy, and ethically. 

There is simply not an important enough emphasis placed on cooking and food for today’s young people (and the divide between boys and girls in this field is even more pronounced). With globalisation rapidly expanding, for better or for worse, we have lost sight as a society on how to live seasonal. The more sustainable we are with the creation of our plates, the sooner our every-day conscious choices become widespread heroism.  

In a world of mounting political divisions, failing environmental policies, and diminishing natural resources, eating becomes an ethical act. There is only so much we as normal citizens can do in our everyday lives. But while political leaders fail us and policy makers remain unambitious, we don’t have to remain stagnant. Altering the acute details of our day to day lives can lead to a collective shift in changing the future of consumerism and the agricultural sector. Go vegetarian or eat less meat. When you can afford to do so, buy organic and environmentally friendly produce. Eat seasonal. Bettering our relationship with food does not have to mean miserable meals and flavourless offerings. We can cook in blissful and beautiful abundance, food palettes bursting with colour and flavour, nutritious and delectable dishes. We can do all this and more without contributing to the failing state of the land on which we harvest. Treat the act of eating as a love affair with food, a relationship that goes both ways. The greater and more ethically we love, the longer and more sustainably we will survive.