Uppsala is setting itself up to be amazing in terms of opportunities to discuss issues of relevance to me both inside and outside of the classroom. I am currently auditing a class called “Environmental and Social Responsibility Marketing”, and the teacher is doing a fantastic job in alerting us to opportunities of events that could be interesting to us, such as the keynote panel discussion that opened the 2013 EurSAFE (European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics) conference held at SLU.
The topic of the panel discussion was “The Ethics of Consumption: The Citizen, the Market, and the Law”, and it was one of the most interactive sessions I have been to – in the beginning, audience members were given clickers and we were then asked to ‘vote’ agree or disagree on certain questions, which opened the discussion between both panel members and the audience. Though the panel speakers were certainly voicing interesting opinions (they included Lars Nellmer, the CEO of Krav, Sweden’s leading organic food label, Gunnar Rundgren, a leader in the organic farming sector and former IFOAM president, and several researchers on food ethics and animal welfare), it was the questions that were raised and discussed that made the strongest impact on me. So instead of sharing information and facts as I usually do, here are just some of the questions that were discussed (and in italics subsequent questions that I struggled with when thinking about these issues) in order to get your own train of thought going:
- Do you agree or disagree with the statement that ethical organizations and labels are not sufficiently commercial? Given that the section of ethically labeled products is still only a very small niche in the market, how can we support scaling up without losing the message and underlying values in the process? Is bigger always better (considering the examples of Whole Food’s organic strategy in the US for example)? On the other hand, are not as heavily commercialized, local food systems even a viable strategy for a future in which more people live in ever bigger cities?
- Do you agree or disagree with the statement that eating meat can never be ethically acceptable? Given that most of our discussion then veered off into the pragmatic impracticalities of a fully vegetarian planet, what does that say of our treatment of ethics and morality in guiding our actions? How much actual disagreement/debate is there in the ethical argument that taking a life or exerting violence is morally wrong, and how many people would accept this premise but not its consequences? What does that say about human behavior in general as being mentally separated from implicitly agreed upon values such as fairness, equality or non-violence?
- Do you agree or disagree with the statement that the environmental issue is the most important ethical question? How do we conceptualize the different and interlinked ethical challenges regarding both social and environmental sustainability? Which one do we prefer if there are no win-win situations, e.g. if anti-poverty programs that promote social justice are inherently environmentally harmful? Where do we place future generations in that kind of understanding? Does the environment get an ethical value that goes beyond its anthropocentric purpose of providing humans a place to live? How do we deal with the fact that different cultures might fundamentally disagree on these questions?
- Do you agree or disagree with the statement that a new radical animal protection law in the EU will only move the production of animal products outside the EU? How far can we go in this question without being either too idealistic or else too closed-minded in our focus on the current economic system in which races to the bottom are common? How much of this effect could be mitigated by informing consumers better about the difference in animal welfare that would explain the difference in prices? Would consumers care more if they understood that difference viscerally, that is not only rationally but on an emotional level? Could we even agree upon animal welfare standards that are commonly shared between all EU citizens? How much does our current understanding of animals as a tradeable commodity and/or a machine that simply turns inputs into outputs limit the potential of such laws? How much does our current expectation of the “right” food prices (which currently do not factor in environmental, social or animal welfare-based externalities)?
- What do you think the main driving forces for the future of sustainable and ethical food systems will be? The power of laws as a base to stand on? The provision of fair trade and organic choices to consumers that will then change the demand structure? The creation of more emotional and more visible marketing campaigns for such products that consider consumers’ bounded rationality? Or grassroots-based counterforces to the market?
Phew. Quite some food for thought, eh? I would love to hear some thoughts on answers to these questions in the comments, I for one am still working on them! Let the discussion begin!