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MSU professor explores the ethics of food production

Picture of the book cover
Oxford University Press

Current State's Scott Pohl talks to Paul Thompson about his new book From Field to Fork, which deals with the ethics surrounding the American food system.

The subjects of food and ethics have merged in a new book written by Paul Thompson, the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University. From Field to Fork touches on ethical questions related to meat production, environmental impacts, and even diet and obesity.

Current State's Scott Pohl talks with Paul Thompson about the questions he hopes people will begin to ask themselves at the dinner table and in the grocery store.


On addressing issues on the corporate level

Well, certainly many of the topics I talk about are places where the shape of our food system, the way that for-profit actors operate -- whether they're small farms, large farms, food industry firms, companies that supply farmers, global trading companies -- all of those come into the picture.

On the other hand, I don't generally try to tell to anybody what they ought to do. What I'm trying to do is to set a context for, I would call it, more productive discussion of all these issues.

On the topic of consuming meat

The question of whether it's ethical to eat animals is actually a very old question, It was debated at some length by the Ancient Greeks. I think that in various religious traditions, part of the tradition of giving thanks before a meal or asking for a religious blessing is associated with a recognition that being able to eat is in some respects is a gift but also something that imposes cost on others, on nature, on God's creation in the Christian tradition. So there are, I think, straight forward ethical issues there.

In the modern era, I think those issues have become more complicated. They've taken a different shape because of the way we raise animals in these very large production systems. So there are ethical questions that come up that are very specific to the way in which animals are raised, really irregardless if whether we plan to eat them or not.

On GMO ethics and labeling issues

There are any number of reasons why somebody might prefer to eat foods that are traditional and haven't been produced in a particular way. So I've long supported the idea that we should have labels.

On the other hand, mandatory labeling is problematic for two reasons. One reason is that currently the only mandatory labels in the United States are related to some sort of food safety risk.

But the FDA actually does not permit labeling that would imply a health benefit unless there is scientific evidence for that. In the case of GMOs, there isn't any such evidence.

The second reason is that requiring a label is a form of compulsory speech. It's requiring you to say something about your product, and compulsory speech has been regarded as something very close to restriction of speech in the U.S. tradition. So, the idea of actually requiring somebody to say something about a product or an activity unless there is a significant public interest at stake actually runs against our ethical traditions as well.

On pricing of food

Pricing is an ethical issue in very contradictory ways. On the one hand, when prices go down people have money to spend on other things, and that traditionally is thought of as an ethically good thing. It means we can enjoy broader and more different kinds of consumption. On the other hand, when food prices go down, it makes things very difficult for farmers. Having a stable farm economy has been a big problem everywhere, including in the United States, for hundreds of years. Farmers really struggle with the volatility in prices. And I would actually say, that when we think on a global basis, it might be a good thing for our food prices to be a little higher than they currently are.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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