A typical grocery involves a series of personal choices that reflect our values.

Are the bananas organic or grown with chemicals? Do they carry a Fair Trade sticker, indicating that the farm workers who grew and harvested them earned a living wage?

How much fossil-fuel energy went into growing that asparagus, and transporting it? Or was it grown nearby?

Is the salmon wild-caught from a fishery, or was it raised on an underwater feedlot that pollutes the surrounding oceans?

Are those eggs free-range, organic or produced by hens packed tightly into small cages?

Is the milk from cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone, which increases their productivity, but may harm their health?

Do those pork chops come from a pig raised indoors in a factory farming operation, or raised on deep straw bedding with access to the outdoors?

Whew. Who ever said grocery shopping was simple?

A few years ago, those might have seemed like fringe issues for the granola and tofu crowd. But today, granola and tofu are supermarket staples, and issues of human rights, environmental sustainability and animal welfare are mainstream.

We all have values, and we all like to eat. But we don't always put the two together. The hard part is knowing how to put those values into practice when we shop.

The choices aren't always easy. Often, foods that meet higher ethical standards are more expensive and less convenient to buy.

And we don't all have the same values. But when it comes to the basic questions of food ethics, most of us do have a few points of agreement:

– It's wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals.

– Protecting the environment is a good thing.

– People who produce our food ought to have decent lives and decent wages.

It also turns out that in practice, these ethical issues are often inseparable: raising meat in a sustainable way turns out to be not only better for the environment, but better for the animals and the farmers

Choosing to become a more ethical eater doesn't mean you have to become a vegetarian, or shop only at farmers' markets or buy only fair-trade, free-range, shade-grown coffee sold by nonprofit groups. Rather, it means being clear on what your values are, and in deciding how far to go to practice them.

If you enjoy fish and care about the environment, you can choose wild-caught salmon from well-managed fisheries, or farm-raised salmon from well-managed aquaculture farms. If you like meat too much to give it up, you can opt for meat produced in a sustainable way with a minimum of animal suffering.

Animal welfare gets the most attention. Activists have focused public attention on animal suffering, and achieved some important successes in the past decade. But sustainability and human rights also are emerging as major ethical concerns:

Sustainability is defined as meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. But the damage that current agricultural and fishing practices are inflicting on the environment isn't just a threat to future generations. The environmental impact of these practices is being felt today, in groundwater contamination, air pollution and declining fish populations.

As for human rights, in the past, when people made ethical eating choices, the focus was on red-light ethics: Consumers boycotted lettuce and table grapes in support of farm workers' rights, or boycotted South African wines to support the fight against apartheid.

But today the connection between food choices and human rights is more often framed in green-light terms.

While the red-light approach to ethical eating is often driven by guilt, the green-light approach offers the promise of more joy in our eating. Knowing the story behind the foods we consume, and making choices that reflect our values, enrich the experience of eating.

©2006 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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