Philosophy in the Contemporary World: The Philosophy of Food

By Henrik Lagerlund

Very few things are so important to our lives as food, but most of us don’t think much about it. Sure, we think about what to eat every day and, even more so, what not to eat, but we don’t really think about food. Where does it come from? Who produced it? Who picked these tomatoes or apples? How far has it travelled? Even less do we reflect on other more remote issues, but central to food, such as, hunger, population growth, migration, sustainable agriculture, human rights, animal rights, waste, GMOs, etc. It seems clear that we cannot continue to be ignorant of these issues. I suggest we should make them part of our lives and our food choices.

It is becoming clear that our food system involves massive problems that will take all our ingenuity and resolve to come to terms with, and which cannot be solved unless we change our own habits. Most researcher studying this agree that people in certain parts of the world (foremost North America and Europe) need to eat less and food production overall needs to increase in order to feed a growing world population. But, how do we increase food production without further destroying an already fragile world? At the moment there is no good answer which does not involve major changes to the way we produce food. Things will only improve if more of us start to seriously think about food, develop a better understanding of the food system, and change our behavior accordingly. We need a practical approach and it is as part of such an approach that I would like to introduce a philosophy of food.

What is a philosophy of food? Of course, this could mean different things to different people. The way I understand it is not as an ethics, but as a way of life. In this, I take my inspiration from the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. To understand what Socrates meant by philosophy one should look to Plato’s famous dialogue the Apology. Most philosophers know the story, but I will rehearse it here for the sake of clarity. Plato’s book is about the trial of Socrates. Socrates had been accused by the Athenian government of seducing the young and leading them astray. As part of his defense, he outlines what philosophy is, according to him, and its relation to practical life. It includes primarily four things: intellectual modesty, questioning habits, a devotion to truth, and a belief in reason.

The Oracle of Delphi had claimed that no one in Greece was wiser than Socrates. He himself denied this, but said that there was one thing, a kind of wisdom perhaps, that he had that most others did not, namely, an awareness of his own ignorance. The slogan that Plato uses to express Socrates’s intellectual modesty was that the only thing that he knew was that he did not know anything.

We are also supposed to question our habits, according to this philosophy. The goal of the Socratic dialogues, of this kind of interrogative investigation, is to achieve genuine self-knowledge. This is done by taking apart the things that one thinks one knows and expose illusions about reality as well as misconceptions about one’s own state of mind.

What about his devotion to truth? Socrates states famously that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. In the Apology, Socrates is sentenced to death, but is offered a chance to repent. Instead, he prefers to die rather than give up philosophy. He is devoted to the pursuit of truth in all matters.

His belief in reason is as strong as his devotion to truth. Even though the world around him has gone crazy and he is confronted with death, he refuses to give up on the power of reason. He presents a powerful defense of rationality and reason.

Plato’s portrait of Socrates and the view of philosophy he develops became a model for all future philosophy. We are seldom presented with such choices, at least not in this part of the world; philosophy (thoughts/ideals) or death, but all of us are daily faced with opportunities to decide between what is convenient, and conventional, and our devotion to truth and reason. Those are the choices that determine whether we deserve to call our lives philosophical.

This is what I put into the philosophy of food, a commitment to an examined life in relation to our daily food choices. To be a philosophical foodie, as I like to call it, is to examine one’s own habits and decide to lead a life that upholds certain global values. Living this way would change not only one’s own life but the world as well. For me, it means saying no to many things that are convenient and seeking alternatives that, for example, do not promote human rights violations, contribute to injustice and leads to a sustainable world that we can pass on to our children with good conscience.

Why should we do this? Ultimately, because we are human. As humans, we always use values and our beliefs about the world to make choices and guide our actions. Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be and what kind of world you want to live in. Becoming a philosophical foodie is about asking these questions and allowing them to inform your choices. Now, I am not a fanatic, which perhaps Socrates was, and I realize that truth and reason need to be balanced. We cannot live up to our ideals. If we try, we will always fail, and as a result we will be very unhappy. Finding the right balance between living an examined life and the life you can live given your own real possibilities is part of the philosophy of food. But we must always examine our life using reason, and strive to know ourselves better as well as do better.

The philosophy of food is obviously about food in all its aspects, but at the heart of it is a way of life. I believe we all need to face up to an alternative way of life in order for our world to remain a place where we will want to live and flourish.

How would it affect your life to become a philosophical foodie? Firstly, you would need to examine your own values. What matters to you in your choice of food? Is it taste? Is it price? Is it health? It is convenience? Is it some moral value, like animal rights or human rights? Do you eat local food? Does it matter to you where your food is produced? And, ultimately, are you happy with how you live your life?

Inquire about food. Be curious. Philosophy, as Socrates thought about it, is about asking questions. Where does your food come from? How far has it traveled to get to your plate? You’d be surprised how little most people know about the production or distribution of what we eat. Remember intellectual modesty. Do not assume you know best. For example, just because you and your family have done something for a long time  does not mean it is the best way or right way to do things. Attempt to broaden your value system and you might be surprised how this will change your habits and your choices. In the long run, it might also make you happier. It will make your life more philosophical.

I will here touch upon two things that are particularly close to my heart and that I strive to incorporate in my food choices – two things that for me are implied in being a philosophical foodie.

It might surprise some people to know that food is now cheaper than it has ever been in the history of the world. On average, we spend a little more than 10% (9% on food at home and an additional 4-5% on food in restaurants) of our income on food in North America (a little less in the US than in Canada and a little more in Europe). Have you ever asked yourself why food is so cheap? Obviously, we have over the years industrialized the food system to be able to press down the cost of production. About 10 giant companies control the food chain and family farms are almost gone. One way we have managed to push down the costs of food is by paying very low wages to farm works, like pickers. These food companies put enormous pressure on farmers. Much of our cheap food rests on the backs of extraordinary exploitation of workers and is sometimes even reliant on slave labor. Fish from Thailand and other parts of Asia might come from boats that seldom come to port and use slave labor, but closer to home we have an enormous dependence on immigrant labor in California and Florida. Many of our fruits and vegetables come from these places, where workers get very little pay and work under harsh and unsafe conditions. Canada has a seasonal or migrant workers program that has been running for decades, virtually unchanged. Almost all of them work in the food system. They come from mostly Central and South America and travel far, leaving their families, to work for very little and under unsafe conditions. They even have to pay EI (Employment Insurance), but they are forbidden to benefit from the program. Fancy that! Thankfully, the present government is reviewing the program. The problem is that without these workers we would not enjoy such cheap food or perhaps food at all. We have grown dependent on this exploitation.

These are what I call violations of human rights in the food system. As philosophical foodies, we need to reflect on whether this is acceptable and what we can do to avoid eating food produced or picked by humans working under such conditions. How do we do that? One way is to try to eat food that you know is not produced under such circumstances. What kind of food is that? Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), get to know your farmer through farmers markets etc. There are ways, but in the end we need to change the existing food system and pay everybody working in it decent salaries. As a philosophical foodie you can work on various levels to strive for such a change.

This is even more important in relation to another other issue that I want to mention here: sustainability.

In 2050, Earth is predicted to be the home of more than 9 billion people. To feed all these people the United Nations estimates that we need to double our food production. This is an enormous challenge for the food system in the coming decades. It is hard to see how we can do this without changing something substantial about how we produce our food and what we eat. Just to mention one example. Most of our protein now comes from meat (beef, pork and chicken). Something like 60 billion farm animals are slaughtered every year and we are going towards 120 billion. The implications of this large meat consumption are vast. Think about the increased production of corn to feed all these animals, the increased use of oil to produce that food (driving the tractors), the increased problem of housing all these animals, worry about avian flu, increased use of antibiotics, the unusable bio-waste from all these animals, etc. Not to mention the increased methane production contributing to global warming (the keeping of livestock is responsible for releasing more green-house gases into the atmosphere than the whole transportation sector). All this is just not sustainable. There are many well-known problems that will face us in the very near future. I think this is together with climate change the most difficult problem facing humanity. How do we find a new and sustainable way to produce food?

As philosophical foodies, we need to adjust our attitudes to what we eat to accommodate this. We need to think about alternative ways of getting protein. Fish has its own problems and will not likely be able to replace meat. Some scientists advocate for bugs. I am sure we will see bug-hot dogs soon.

Many people look to science to solve our problems. GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organism) will become more and more common, but they have problems as well and as a philosophical foodie we need to pay attention to this debate. What are the arguments for GMO’s? Are they safe? We already have a GMO salmon approved in Canada and there are GMO apples coming. Cultured meat, that is, meat grown in a lab, is close to becoming generally available.

By making global values like human rights and sustainability our own, we will be able to think about our food choices in a new way. We can all contribute to making our world a little bit better. Incorporating these values into our choices and into our lives will change our lives significantly, but the first step is to become more reflective about food, our own values and choices, that is, to make our live philosophical. This is one way philosophy can change the world.

 

Henrik Lagerlund is at present a Professor of Philosophy at Western University in Canada, and will be moving to Stockholm University at the beginning of next year. Many of the ideas expressed here have been developed during a course on the philosophy of food that he teaches regularly with his colleague Benjamin Hill. They are writing a book together based on these ideas.

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This series, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, is aimed at exploring the various ways philosophy can be used to discuss issues of relevance to our society. There are no methodological, topical, or doctrinal limitations to this series; philosophers of all persuasions are invited to submit posts regarding issues of concern to them.  Please contact us here if you would like to submit a post to this series.

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