What is Ethical Eating? Reflections on Systemic Change, Pandemics, and Tradition, A Conversation between Jonathan Safran Foer and Joey Tuminello

What is Ethical Eating? Reflections on Systemic Change, Pandemics, and Tradition: A Conversation between Jonathan Safran Foer and Joey Tuminello

Introduction: To the Reader, from Joey

This book cover is for Good Eats: 32 Writers on Eating Ethically, edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. Beneath the title is a photo of garlic and onions.

This is adapted from a discussion between Jonathan Safran Foer and myself that took place in January 2022. Because of the conversational nature of the piece, it’s helpful to share some background information on some of the topics and sources that we discuss below. Jonathan’s 2009 book Eating Animals traces his personal journey through food ethics and presents what many consider the most important popular critique of industrial animal agriculture (or “factory farming”) that’s been published in America. His 2019 follow-up We Are The Weather expands on the environmental dimensions of the production and consumption of animal products, and Jonathan’s 2020 op-eds in The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times underscore the critical nature of this discussion in the context of COVID-19 and concerns regarding future pandemics.

In Eating Animals, Jonathan spotlights the work of Farm Forward, “a sustainable-farming and farmed-animal advocacy organization that is charting new paths toward a food system that reflects our diverse values.” Founded in 2007, Farm Forward is the first nonprofit in the United States devoted exclusively to ending factory farming. Through their efforts to change farming, agricultural policy, and narratives about animals and animal agriculture, Farm Forward “improves the lives of more than 400,000,000 farmed animals annually.” As part of their work to invite people to join in productive dialogue on agricultural reform, Farm Forward has organized the annual Jonathan Safran Foer Virtual Visit since 2012, where Jonathan meets with students and other participants around the world to discuss food, animal, and environmental ethics.


Ruminating on Ethical Eating

Joey

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the Jonathan Safran Foer Virtual Visit series that we’ve been doing together. 

Above this photo of a brown and white cow is text reading FARM FORWARD. Farm Forward's logo is a circle with a fork growing from the ground.

I don’t think I’ve told you this before, but I started graduate school in 2010 at Colorado State University—the year after Eating Animals was published. I didn’t know much about animal ethics or environmental issues then, but I ended up at a good place to learn about those topics, especially since I was working with the late animal ethicist Professor Bernie Rollin. That year when I was going back home for the holidays, I stopped at the Denver airport bookstore, and Eating Animals jumped out at me. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with your work or with this book, but I consumed it in a couple of days. Reading Eating Animals not only solidified my personal commitment to eliminating animal products from my diet, but also instilled a drive to put my emerging philosophical views into practice through working for systemic change on behalf of animals and all who are exploited within industrial agriculture. The book’s inclusion of the voices of small-scale farmers, industrial farmers, and animal activists also influenced my approach to initiating conversations on agricultural reform by empowering others and not making them feel alienated.

After this powerful reading experience, a year later Bernie recommended me to Farm Forward, when they were looking for a research assistant to help with some projects. I thought, “That name sounds really familiar.” It was then that I pulled your book back off the shelf and realized that Farm Forward was the nonprofit organization featured in it. A few months after I started working for them, they tasked me with organizing the virtual visits with you, and ever since, working with you and the organization has been a serendipitous experience that’s shaped my life in many ways. 

My academic research interests and my activism have developed in tandem with one another, and are essentially inseparable as a result. For instance, my work on the virtual visits has led to multiple opportunities to develop my writing and research in animal and environmental ethics (such as the opportunity to contribute to Good Eats), and many of my contacts and friends in academia have become longtime supporters of Farm Forward and participants in our campaigns and education initiatives. I’ve also been fortunate to be able to teach courses in food ethics and the philosophy of food, and lots of my students have participated in the virtual visits, setting them on their own paths to make the world a better place.

Jonathan

It’s such a strange thing to be a writer because it’s simultaneously a very intimate and private act, and yet also a public and communal act. You have very limited exposure to the communal part—you know it exists, but you don’t have any firsthand experience with it. People have written that reading Eating Animals helped to “solidify” their commitment to vegetarianism, and a recent study of the book’s impacts on readers found that “almost all of the participants experienced a cognitive change, which participants often referred to as the book ‘making them think’ or ‘opening their eyes.’” Whenever I hear a story like yours, I actually find it really startling. The book’s influence is something I suppose I believe in without having tons of proof of. It’s nice to hear.

Joey

Given the profound impact that Eating Animals has had in my own life and the lives of so many others, as well as the ways that the world has changed since its publication in 2009, what does “ethical eating” mean to you at this precise historical moment?

The cover for Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is green with large floral type. Beneath the author's name is a quote reading: "One of the most distinctive literary voices of his generation." -Malcolm Gladwell

Jonathan

I think, like any ethical realm of life—and I would be hard-pressed to think about a realm of life that doesn’t have an ethical component—the act of eating, or of consumption more broadly, begins with an awareness of the fact that it’s an ethical realm of life. This involves an awareness of the fact that we humans are making choices. It so often feels like the ways that we are, the ways that we move through the world, the kinds of things that we consume with money or literally consume, are simply inevitable. To acknowledge that the global food system doesn’t have to be reliant on factory farming, that we have the power to make different choices, is the beginning. 

The second step is for us to become aware of the implications of the choices that we make. Not all choices are equal. Some are more destructive, and some are more generative. Some contribute to the kind of world that we say we want to live in and pass down, and some make that world less likely to happen. It’s obvious to talk about climate change and the implications of our eating choices on the planet as choices that are more destructive, but despite having more choices available than at any point in human history, and despite those choices being more public and shared—and thus more influential—than at any point in human history, it feels like we’re living in this world of inevitabilities. Nothing can happen if we don’t break free of that.


Individual and Systemic Change

Joey

People often operate under the assumption that the world just is a certain way, and it can be challenging to consider the possibility that the world is actually organized to the advantage or disadvantage of particular groups. For example, this assumption underscores claims that factory farming is necessary (or a “necessary evil”) for “feeding the world,” even in the midst of increasing awareness regarding the deficiencies, environmental impacts, and modes of exploitation that are part and parcel of the current agricultural system, while a relatively small amount of people profit at the expense of oppressed workers, billions of animals, and the planet. Examining the relationship between individual actions and structural change in food systems is really key. 

In your follow-up book to Eating Animals, We Are The Weather, you balance the importance of personal dietary choice with what you sometimes refer to as “structure” or “scaffolding” or “architecture”—meaning the necessary support to help people make better choices about daily practices such as food purchases, organ donation, and the development, approval, and public success of life-saving vaccines. You write that “building a new structure requires architects, and often it requires dismantling the existing structures in the way, even if we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing them that we no longer see them at all.” At the same time, some people claim that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” and use this kind of generalization as a way to gloss over, disparage, or subordinate the importance of ethical choice when it comes to food or consuming other resources. 

On the cover of We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer, there is an illustration of waves.

Jonathan

The claim that there are no ethical choices to be made inside of a capitalist system points to an insecurity that we have when confronting our choices and recognizing the importance of our choices as consumers. It makes us nervous because nobody wants to think of themselves as making unethical choices, as contributing to injustice, destruction, or violence. When we become vulnerable, when we feel insecure, we tend to move toward binaries, such as “you do all of it this way” or “you do none of it this way” or “you are pure” or “you are evil,” as opposed to recognizing that these extremes don’t exist in the real world, and that there’s an entire spectrum of choices in-between these poles. 

We can make better or worse choices. Oftentimes, we don’t know exactly what the choices are because the systems are so vast and complicated and because we have limited access to information. So we do the best we can with what we know in a specific moment that’s often dependent on context, personal history, and the challenges of being a good person in the world. When people claim that we can’t make “ethical” choices about food or fuel or things we consume that cause damage to the planet, they may actually be saying that we can’t make “perfect” choices. That may be true, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are better and worse choices, and I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t want to make better choices in what they buy, eat, or put into their cars or their homes. 

Then, the questions are “How are these individual choices influenced by systems?” and “How do these choices influence systems?” Our choices are influenced by systems in a million different ways, especially from societal influences, which is something that’s been on steroids in the last year or two with a new awareness of social injustice with the death of George Floyd and the power of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the way this awareness has influenced campuses and the culture more broadly. We change our behavior because of what is considered “acceptable” or “unacceptable,” or “cool” or “uncool,” in a given moment. Our choices are also influenced by choice architectures. If you’re at a campus dining hall, and they have five options for what you can eat and one is a vegetarian option, that’s very different from being at a campus dining hall where they have five options and one is the meat option. We can be nudged to make better or worse choices for our health, for the well-being of animals, and for the good of the planet.

In terms of how our choices influence systems, we’ve never lived in a world where our choices are as visible and shared as they are now. It’s not a coincidence that I get advertisements for Beyond and Impossible meat substitutes. I don’t remember telling anybody that those would be food products that I was interested in, other than having now written two books about meat consumption and food ethics. Amazon, Google, and Apple are aware of our consumer choices because they scan the content of our emails, because they know our buying preferences, and probably in a million other ways that I’m not aware of. Almost always, internet surveillance is a bad thing, something that feels invasive. But it’s not as if there aren’t some positive side effects, one of which is that our choices about what we consume resonate. We’re not just living in an echo chamber, where we’re constantly being fed back the things that an algorithm intuits that we would like—we’re sending those choices out into the world in a way that we didn’t before. 

This has kind of always been the case. When I wrote Eating Animals, that was before the prevalence of social media. But in that book I talked about how, when you’re in a restaurant and you ask the waiter if the soup has a chicken stock or a vegetable stock, the waiter takes note, the person you’re sitting across from takes note, the person at the table next to you takes note, and it’s likely that the waiter will go back and ask the chef, who will also take note—and so it’s very likely the ways that the restaurant sources food, or the ingredients they choose to use, will be incrementally influenced over time by people asking questions like that. So, we really have always made consumer choices in communal settings; it’s just that that’s been radically enhanced by technology in the last couple of years. So it’s an exciting time to want the world to change because the world is more capable of changing, more capable of being influenced by individuals.

Joey

At the same time, I believe people feel smaller than before social media in a lot of ways. In the context of agricultural reform, this feeling of smallness may be due to the overwhelming vastness and entanglement of the global food system, such as the often asymmetrical and exploitative international trade agreements that have influenced the rise and proliferation of factory farming worldwide. It’s hard to understand and articulate the nature of the political mechanisms that shape food production, distribution, and consumption. Public health attorney and food systems advocate Michele Simon has rightfully claimed that “Simply swapping out animal meat with a plant-based burger in a Whopper is only addressing one symptom of a much larger problem while ignoring the structural underlying causes.” And yet our decisions about what we consume don’t happen in a vacuum.

Jonathan

What makes you say that people feel smaller? It’s something that I’ve heard myself say too, but I wonder if it’s true.

Joey

When I’m talking with people about food systems issues, they often feel like one person’s actions doesn’t necessarily make a difference, or they’re not really thinking about the larger communal setting that all this decision-making takes place in. So even though you and I can have the conversation that we’re having now, and you can make the observations that you’ve just made, these ideas about the influential power of the individual consumer are not always apparent to people.

Jonathan

I think a lot of us are wrestling with our bigness and our smallness. Obviously, what is so intoxicating about social media, such as Twitter, is the feeling that you’re suddenly big, that you suddenly have people listening to you. I also think that some amount of the love of “cancellation,” of cancel culture, is the exercise of this newfound power. Sometimes this power is put toward great causes, sometimes it isn’t. It seems like we’re going to make a few mistakes on the way to sorting out our own sizes.

Joey

There is a sort of power that an everyday individual has, or takes themselves to have. At the same time, people don’t always make the connection between this power to effect change and their individual choices when they eat, shop, or use social media. That’s been interesting to navigate with my own students. In the recent literature on the systemic impacts (or lack thereof) of consumers’ food-purchasing decisions, scholars are debating about what they refer to as “causal impotence” or “causal inefficacy” and the degree to which individual actions lead to (or fail to lead to) larger changes. For example, animal ethicist Bob Fischer provides extensive support for the claim that, regarding the purchase and consumption of animal products, “it’s very hard to say anything precise about the expected utility of an individual purchase, much less an act of consumption.” 

Still, at the end of the day, I think it’s the case that if there are no people purchasing a particular product—even a product that’s ethically sourced and produced—there’s not going to be incentive to sell that product. That’s not to say that we are wholly defined by consumer choices, or that making better purchasing decisions absolves us (or the larger corporate entities that bear so much responsibility for environmental degradation and other social ills) from engaging in other ethical work, but that we also shouldn’t neglect the collective importance of our everyday choices.

Jonathan

Tesla’s now the most valuable car company in the world. The government didn’t bring Tesla into being. It wasn’t legislated into being. Individuals wanted what Tesla was selling. Burger King doesn’t have an Impossible Whopper because of the beneficence of the CEO—it’s because they’re selling what people want. When I was doing the research for Eating Animals, one thing I heard again and again from farmers is “we farm what people want.” That’s what a farmer does. A farmer doesn’t have predilections about what kind of products are fun to raise. It’s a service industry, and we’ll get the foods we want, and we will get the planet, ultimately, that we want.

Joey

Grappling with that perceived inevitability that you mentioned earlier (regarding “the ways that we are, the ways that we move through the world, the kinds of things that we consume with money or literally consume”), it also seems difficult for people to imagine the possibility of ending factory farming. The development of industrial animal agriculture is a recent, mid-twentieth-century phenomenon. It’s still very new, and of course it doesn’t have to exist. That’s a big picture claim, and it can be daunting to confront that reality and work together towards viable alternatives through, for example, providing much-needed support to rural farmers in the Global South, helping corporations to source higher welfare animal products, and working with institutions to “nudge” people towards plant-based eating by shifting the default foods that they serve. Attending to our narratives—the stories that we tell ourselves about what we eat and why we eat it, about how we see ourselves in the world, and how this perception can be open to change—is sometimes difficult for people to contend with. 


Growing Pandemics

Joey

In 2020, you published a series of op-eds on the relationship between agriculture and pandemics. I was wondering if you could talk about the process involved in producing these essays—conducting the research, but also the responses or even backlash that you might have received.

Jonathan

I didn’t experience any backlash. More broadly, I’ve been shocked by the almost complete absence of backlash to anything I’ve written in any venue, in any form, about the subject of factory farming. In fact, any backlash I’ve experienced has come from animal rights activists who say I’m not going far enough, or I’m leaving room for people to do things that, by my own information and arguments, they shouldn’t do, such as consuming eggs and dairy. I don’t disagree with these activists, and I’m grateful for their feedback. I often wish that I could be a little bit more like them. The reasons I’m not are twofold—one is personal and one is communal. 

Personally, I found my interest in ethical eating to be a journey that began an awful long time ago, when I was nine, and my babysitter shared what she knew about the lives of chickens in factory farms. The beginning of Eating Animals traces my oscillation between eating and eschewing meat throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, including my acceptance of “a diet of conscientious inconsistency,” until I became more committed to vegetarianism while undertaking my research for the book. As I stated there, “I, too, assumed that my book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn’t. A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it’s not what I’ve written here.” I believe that I will be on this journey for the rest of my life. I didn’t ever once just make a decision about what I would or would not eat and resolve all of my thinking. That would have been easier for me on a number of levels, but I really wrestle with the question “how should I eat?”—and I’ve just sort of committed to wrestling with it. 

Communally, I wanted to share a voice or a way of looking at food ethics that’s honest—honest both about the world and about how change works and what it is to be a living human being, rather than a philosophical machine. And I wanted to effect change. I’m not a philosopher; I’m not a journalist either. As I wrote those op-eds, I was rigorous about getting information correct, but I was presenting it toward the goal of effecting change. So I gave a lot of thought to questions such as “What’s the most approachable way to tell this story?” and “Which way is most likely to have a reader open up rather than close themselves off?” 

In terms of COVID specifically, nothing that I said about the relationship between factory farmed animals and widespread disease is really ambiguous or controversial. You called it “COVID-19,” which I haven’t heard in a long time. It took me a second to remember that we used to call it that. Before “COVID-19,” we called it the “novel coronavirus,” if you can remember that, in the very beginning. “Novel” means “new to humans.” These viruses begin in other species, and often mutate in additional species in the course of their existences, jumping across species barriers. In the same way that there are no geographic barriers that will protect us from COVID—if it’s in Argentina, it’s gonna be in India, and it’s gonna be in Canada, and it’s gonna be everywhere—there aren’t species barriers that will protect us, or at least not over time. The World Health Organization has said that three out of four new and emerging infectious diseases come from animals. With industrial farming practices, we’re creating virus factories as much as animal factories. 

There was a time when we weren’t sure if masks were helpful; there was a time when we didn’t know how long it would take to get a vaccine; there was a time when we thought that one vaccine would be sufficient. The science has changed; information has changed; knowledge has changed. One thing that hasn’t changed is knowing that some amount of distance helps protect ourselves. Imagine if the President of the United States said, “Okay, we’ve got this medical situation. Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to cram everybody in gymnasiums. Put them so close together that they don’t have the freedom of movement to turn around. We’re going to pump everybody full of antibiotics so that, no matter how sick they get, it will seem like they’re healthy. We’re gonna almost entirely remove any kind of medical care, and we’re going to operate the artificial lighting in such a way that we confuse everyone when it’s night and day so that they’ll be more productive,” and so on. We would say, “Not only is that crazy, that’s literally the worst thing you could ever do. If your goal was to make everybody sick, that’s what you would do.” But that is what we do on farms. 

What I’ve just described is not an exception; it’s the rule. More than 99% of the animals that we eat come from factory farms. We’re putting these animals who we know are sick—who are bred to be sick—in situations where they will spread their sickness. And we’re just waiting until it jumps to humans. From January 2003 through January 2022, Avian influenza A (H5N1) has had a global mortality rate of 53%. Imagine if we were living in a world where Omicron, contagious as it is, killed 50% of the people who got it. That’s an absolutely nightmare scenario, and we’ve avoided it not because of anything good that we’ve done, but because of sheer luck. As we face this future that will include pandemics—it just will—we have to mitigate threats as much as possible, which requires social distancing of not only humans, but social distancing of animals.


Hope and the Power of Tradition

Joey

In We Are The Weather, you’re navigating feelings of despair about the inevitable consequences of climate change with the possibility of hope. In the book’s closing letter to your sons, you end on a note of hope about the future. Specifically, you conclude with the following statements:

It is not enough to say that we want more life; we must refuse to stop saying it. Suicide notes are written once; life notes must always be written—by having honest conversations, bridging the familiar with the unfamiliar, planting messages for the future, digging up messages from the past, disputing with our souls and refusing to stop. And we must do this together: everyone’s hand wrapped around the same pen, every breath of everyone exhaling the shared prayer. “Thus we shall make a home together,” the soul concludes at the end of the suicide note perhaps beginning its opposite. Each of us arguing with ourselves, we shall make a home together. 

Returning to these seemingly contradictory emotions of despair and hope in light of events over the last couple of years, do you find it more difficult to remain hopeful about our collective abilities to foster change through our choices and actions?

Jonathan

I don’t know that I feel any less hopeful about the ability of human beings to enact change. I do feel generally less hopeful about the ticking time bomb that is climate change. I wish I didn’t, but I do. I’m open to being really surprised, and I hope that I’ll be surprised, and I do what I do as if I will be surprised, but what needs to happen isn’t happening. Or, rather, progress towards addressing climate change is happening, but it’s happening very slowly. It’s not happening at the speed with which it needs to happen. 

Our leaders on both sides of the aisle are less and less inspiring. Our ability to conduct any kind of productive discourse about actions towards mitigating climate change has all but died. We’re trying to carry on this all-important conversation with miserable tools. Social media is a terrible tool for any kind of productive dialogue, or any hope of changing one’s mind, rather than having one’s mind reinforced. Social media is as responsible for the destruction of the planet as the fossil fuel industry. We have no hope unless we can find a way to agree with each other, and we have no mechanisms for doing that anymore. Nobody even really tries to agree. So, I find it very hard to maintain optimism that we humans can turn back the clock on rising sea levels, the loss of polar ice caps, and global devastations due to fire, flood, wind, and rain. 

Having said that, the arrows are pointing in the right direction. The ways that people think about the most important activities—driving, eating, flying, and overpopulation—are all pointed in the right direction, crucially among younger people. There isn’t time for younger people to become older people to make meaningful change. There isn’t time for younger people to become politicians, journalists, artists, celebrities, whatever, who are going to most influence the culture. But sometimes, or often, change happens very, very slowly until it happens very, very quickly. As I pointed out in We Are The Weather, “Not eating animal products for breakfast and lunch saves 1.3 metric tons [of carbon dioxide equivalents] per year.” Do I think that there’s any chance that America will be a predominantly vegetarian country in five years? I actually do; I do think there’s a chance of that. But it would be the result of a leap, not a step. We’re on an incremental march toward that end, but we’re on a twenty- or thirty-year march. It is possible to imagine that leap, but you have to squint your eyes pretty hard. 

Joey

In Eating Animals you pointed towards the importance of culinary traditions and reevaluating traditions in effecting change. You specifically talk a bit about this in the context of the seemingly unchangeable tradition of the Thanksgiving turkey, and that’s something I’ve considered a lot. I grew up in South Louisiana, and then left for about a decade for graduate school before returning to my home. While also being vegetable heavy, many who cook and eat Creole and Cajun cuisines put a high premium on the incorporation of animal products into different dishes, to the extent that people are having lively debates about topics such as the ontology of gumbo. People here were up in arms, for example, when Disney posted a “healthy” gumbo recipe (with quinoa and kale, but no roux!) on social media in 2016. Coming back to Louisiana from graduate school and no longer consuming animal products as a result of what I learned while away, but also rethinking what it means for something to “count” as a particular dish—and seeing various culinary communities go through this process themselves—has been philosophically and practically fascinating. I was wondering if you could say a bit about that process of reconciling and rethinking tradition and ritual in the context of ethical eating.

Jonathan

Across these challenging conversations about what we eat and why we eat it, we need to find a way to begin with a kind of good will and do our best to appreciate the origin of other people’s feelings. So, I’m pro-choice, but I can revere what makes somebody pro-life. I can say, “We reach a different conclusion, but I love that thing about you that makes you hold that position.” I think everybody should be vaccinated. If I try hard, I can revere somebody’s love of freedom. I can say, “I really disagree with you, and I’d like to try to persuade you otherwise, but let me begin by saying I think it’s amazing that you have such strong feelings about freedom. I do too; they’re just being expressed in different ways or leading us to different conclusions.” 

So I think it’s a mistake to say, “Gumbo?! Give me a break. The world is burning. Animals are being tortured. We’re killing our own bodies.” And so on and so forth. I think it’s worth saying, “I get it. I really get it. This is a food that you’ve been eating your whole life, your parents have been eating their whole lives, your grandparents have been eating their whole lives. It was not invented in a laboratory; it was the product of cultural evolution over who knows how many generations. And it’s not calories to you. This food really matters. I think that’s beautiful! I think that’s amazing. I wish I had more such things in my life. It would give me a fuller life. I’m not saying you should stop eating it forever. You can figure out your own limits.” 

Can we have a conversation about culinary traditions and rituals that begins with both a mutual good will and a certain set of facts that we’re going to agree on? Not because I’m trying to say you’re bad and I’m good, but because we both have to refer to some shared truths. One truth is that the planet’s in trouble, and we don’t want it to be. We don’t want to leave this mess to our kids because you love your kids just like I love my kids. So, “tofu gumbo,” is that gonna suck? Maybe! Maybe that’ll suck. Maybe it’s a joke. Maybe we can even laugh about it together. You know? As a vegetarian, I’m not afraid of laughing at a lame vegetarian dish. There’s no reason to be afraid. I don’t need to resort to a binary of everything being an attack on someone else’s family dishes or foodways. I don’t need to defend everything. 

Maybe that’s a good starting place. “Yeah, I fucking miss some foods! I really do! They’re delicious!” or “I miss them because my grandma used to make them” or “My dad used to make them.” You tell me some ways you think that I can change so that I can leave the world a better place, and I’ll try to listen to you. I’m not asking you to be more like me; we just need to find ways to eat and live better together. I think it’s a huge mistake to say, “Sorry bub, you’re done with gumbo.” And it’s also a huge mistake to pretend that all foods can just be replaced by vegetarian foods that are equally good. They really can’t be. Maybe one day they will be. I actually think they probably will be, but we’re not there yet. So let’s just be honest about it. Let’s have some humility, and let’s have a sense of humor, and definitely approach these conversations as equals.

Joey

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that culinary traditions aren’t static. It’s not like tradition is inherently antithetical to change in the way that some people think that it is. In fact, I would argue that a key aspect of anyone’s traditions is their ability to be retained across space and time, even as they change. Sometimes, these changes involve a return to cultural dimensions that have been overlooked, forgotten, and/or intentionally obscured over time. For example, in Christopher Carter’s recent book The Spirit of Soul Food, Carter rethinks the contemporary understanding of this cuisine through a return to African agricultural and culinary roots by way of “soulfull eating.” In part, his multi-faceted concept of “soulfull eating” involves a recognition of the historical prevalence of plant-based foods within African diets, asking African American Christians to “challenge oppressive food cultures that impede the collective goal of preservation and promotion of Black communities and, simultaneously,” to see “an opportunity to remember the historical evolution of the Black culinary tradition from a decolonized perspective.” Observing the proliferation of vegan soul food restaurants in the South and around the U.S., I think it’s heartening to see people come to these realizations in their own homes and around their own tables.

Jonathan

I do too. And I try to leave myself open to uncomfortable change. There’s a temptation to think, “Yeah, but I’m right. I’m not the one who has to change.” But of course that’s what everybody thinks. So, we have to be aware of the possibility that we’re not totally right.


Fallibility, Imperfection, and Dialogue

Joey

We don’t have to (and likely can’t) provide a final, definitive answer to the question “What is ethical eating?” But I think we’re starting to piece together a partial answer, which has something to do with fallibility, embracing imperfection, and engaging in dialogue, like the conversation that we’re having now, and the narratives that have come together in this volume on what it means to eat ethically. 

Jonathan

As I said earlier, there are two ways to think about ethical eating. One is thinking about the framework for making choices, and then there’s the specific choices. In terms of the framework, it’s being aware that we are making choices in what we eat, that it’s not inevitable, and that not all choices are equal. In terms of specific choices, it’s not controversial. We know that certain foods are more destructive than others. We know that red meat is pretty much—no, it is—the most destructive food in human history, and you will not find a scientific organization that would disagree with the notion that we can’t save the planet without pretty dramatically reducing the amount of red meat that we consume. Recent research suggests that reducing beef consumption by 90% and reducing consumption of other animal products by 50% would prevent more than 2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 

One important thing to note there, and I think this is really useful when making the case for change, is that they’re not saying that everyone has to reduce their meat consumption by 100%. I’ve chosen to reduce my meat consumption by 100%. I know a lot of people who, when they learn about where meat actually comes from, and what the actual impacts are, just say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” But I really respect people who, for whatever reasons, can’t quite make it there. We don’t need to look at this or think about it as a binary between vegetarians and meat-eaters. From an environmental perspective, there is room for a devoted meat eater, who is never going to become a vegetarian in a million years, to participate. We need to open that space up, and we need to treat those incremental changes in people’s daily diets with a lot of respect. 

Joey

Absolutely. The work that you’ve done emphasizing that in Eating Animals and We Are the Weather and in your op-eds, as well as the work that Farm Forward does to that end, has shaped my own approach to animal and climate activism in the sense that I really try to learn from others, and not treat myself as the final authority on these issues. Do you have any closing message for the readers of Ethical Eating, or anything else you’d like to discuss?

Jonathan

The only note I would end on is that it’s easy to think about ethical eating as a diminishment, to think that we need to reduce our lives in order to save the planet. To some extent, that’s true. But as anybody who has ever attempted change on ethical grounds in their lives knows, it can be hard; it can be awkward; it can be frustrating. But it feels really good. It makes you happier. It’s joyful. You feel proud of yourself. You feel like a member of our human species in a different way.


A collection of insightful and personal essays on the role of food in our lives

In an age of mass factory farming, processed and pre-packaged meals, and unprecedented food waste, how does one eat ethically? Featuring a highly diverse ensemble of award-winning writers, chefs, farmers, activists, educators, and journalists, Good Eats invites readers to think about what it means to eat according to individual and collective values. These essays are not lectures about what you should eat, nor an advertisement for the latest diet. Instead, the contributors tell stories of real people—real bellies, real bodies—including the writers themselves, who seek to understand the experiences, cultures, histories, and systems that have shaped their eating and their ethics.

Good Eats will encourage you to become more mindful of what and how you eat—and to consider the larger systems and cultures that shape that eating. These essays turn mundane meals into remarkable symbols of how we live, encouraging each of us to find food that is both sustaining and sustainable.

Contributors include Ross Gay, DeLyssa Begay, Lynn Z. Bloom, Michael P. Branch, Nikky Finney, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Barbara J. King, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Leah Penniman, Adrienne Su, Ira Sukrungruang, Tina Vasquez, Nicole Walker, Thérèse Nelson, Lisa Knopp, Jane Brox, Maureen Stanton, Taté Walker, and many others.

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