An Ethical Theory Analysis of the Food System Discourse

  • Ronald SandlerEmail author
Part of the The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics book series (LEAF, volume 27)


The ethical and political discourse around food production and consumption is increasingly focused on the systems that provide the food that we eat. The predominant “industrial” or “global” food system has received a barrage of criticism in recent years, including that it displaces smallholding farmers, exploits workers, undermines cultural practices, disrupts rural communities, degrades the environment, promotes unhealthy eating, empowers corporations over individuals, causes animal suffering, diminishes food autonomy and security, and reduces the aesthetic quality of food. Critics of the global food system argue that we ought to reject the system in favor of shorter food supply chains, more local and regional food systems, which engender responsibility and empower smaller producers, workers, communities, families, and individuals. However, the “alternative food movement” has itself been subject to large amounts of criticism on the grounds that its food system vision would actually reduce food security, diminish diet quality, decrease food access, and make our diets less aesthetically interesting. Moreover, the movement has been charged with being classist, valorizing elitist ideas about “good food”, and promoting a false nostalgia about pre-industrial food conditions and practices. In this paper I provide a brief overview of the global food system and alternative food movement before discussing the ethical perspectives embedded in the cross system critiques. I suggest that proponents of the alternative food movement prioritize one type of ethical concern – recognition and respect – while proponents of the global food system prioritize another – bringing about overall beneficial outcomes. I then explore how a third ethical outlook – virtue-oriented ethics – might approach the food system issue. I suggest that a virtue-oriented approach is useful for identifying both insights and limitations of positions in the food system debate.


Food systems Food movements Ethical theory Virtue ethics 


  1. Alexandratos, N., and J. Bruinsma. 2012. World agriculture towards 2030/2050: The 2012 revision. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.Google Scholar
  2. Alkon, A.H., and J. Agyeman, eds. 2011. Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bittman, M. 2014. Leaving organic out of it. New York Times, viewed 6 June 2014.
  4. Cassidy, E.S., West, P.C., Gerber, J.S., Foley, J.A. 2013. Redefining agricultural yields: From tonnes to people nourished per hectare. Environmental Research Letters 8(034015), viewed 20 May 2014.
  5. DEFRA. 2012. Food statistics pocketbook: 2012 – in year update. York: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.Google Scholar
  6. Desrochers, P., and H. Shimizu. 2012. The locavore’s dilemma: In praise of the 10,000 mile diet. New York: Public Affairs.Google Scholar
  7. FAO. 2012. The state of world fisheries and aquaculture 2012. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.Google Scholar
  8. ———. 2013. The state of food insecurity in the world: The multiple dimensions of food security. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.Google Scholar
  9. FAOSTAT. 2013. FAO statistical yearbook: 2013: World food and agriculture. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.Google Scholar
  10. ———. 2014. FAOSTAT, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, viewed 21 April 2014.
  11. Gottlieb, R., and A. Joshi. 2010. Food justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Hursthouse, R. 1999. On virtue ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Krausmann, F., K. Erb, S. Gingrich, H. Haberl, A. Bondeau, V. Gaube, C. Lauk, C. Plutzar, and T.D. Searchinger. 2013. Global human appropriation of net primary production doubled in the 20th century. PNAS 110 (25): 10324–10329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lappe, F. 1985. Diet for a small planet. New York: Ballantine Books.Google Scholar
  15. Laudan, R. 2010. A plea for culinary modernism: Why we should love new, fast, processed food. In The Gastronomica reader, ed. Darra Goldstein. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. McWilliams, J. 2009. Just food: Where locavores get it wrong and how we can truly eat responsibly. New York: Back Bay Books.Google Scholar
  17. NOAA. 2013. Wild-caught seafood, fish watch, viewed 21 April 2014.
  18. Paalberg, R. 2010. Food politics: What everyone needs to know. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Petrini, C. 2004. Slow food: The case for taste. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Pollan, M. 2007. The Omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  21. Running, S.W. 2012. A measurable planetary boundary for the biosphere. Science 337 (6101): 1458–1459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Sandler, R. 2007. Character and environment. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  23. ———. 2015. Food ethics: The basics. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  24. Schlosser, E. 2001. Fast food nation: The dark side of the all-American meal. New York: Mariner Books.Google Scholar
  25. Shiva, V. 2000. Stolen harvest: The hijacking of the global food supply. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.Google Scholar
  26. Swanton, C. 2005. Virtue ethics: A pluralistic view. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Thompson, P.B. 2010. The agrarian vision: Sustainability and environmental ethics. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. USDA. 2012a. U.S. agricultural trade: Import share of consumption. United States Department Agriculture, Economic Research Service, viewed 21 April 2014.
  29. ———. 2012b. Dairy: Background. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, viewed 20 April 2014.
  30. ———. 2014. Food expenditures: Overview. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, viewed 20 April 2014,
  31. USDA-NASS. 2014. Milk: Production per cow by year, US. United States Department of Agriculture/National Agricultural Statistics Service, viewed 20 April 2014.
  32. Van Wensveen, L. 2000. Dirty virtues: The emergence of ecological virtue language. New York: Humanity Book.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Northeastern UniversityBostonUSA

Personalised recommendations