The previous section explained the basic science of food webs, biogeochemical cycles, and soil formation. It then summarized the historical development of food cultivation and agriculture, with special attention to the Green Revolution. The environmental impact of the industrial food system was also discussed, as were actions now being taken to develop an environmentally sustainable food system. Practices recommended in the first step of creating a sustainable system included:

  • taking care of soil health
  • eliminating water waste
  • diversifying crops
  • eliminating chemical pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides.

When farmers contemplate a transition to sustainable farming, many questions arise. Not all of these are practical how to questions. Some are moral should I questions. Examples of the latter can include:

  • I am really interested in reduced-tillage farming. Although I believe that it will lower my crop yield in the short term, I am confident that my soil and crop yield will improve in the future. But can I risk my family’s financial security on this gamble? I want to be moral and realistic. What should I do?
  • My poor soil will always need a high level of aquifer-draining irrigation. I could sell my farm and search for land that has more potential for sustainable farming, but that would mean I abandon a place that I have spent many years of my life. I want to be moral and realistic. What should I do?
  • I’m interested in intercropping my fields but I know that my life-long friends who plant monoculture crops will not support me. In fact, they will probably shun me as a ‘tree-hugger’. I want to be moral and realistic. What should I do?
  • I appreciate bees, but where I live, everyone uses chemical pesticides on their crops. I am uncomfortable doing anything different. I want to be moral and realistic. What should I do?
Kate Edwards is a vegetable farmer in Iowa, but she didn’t start out that way. Kate was 24 years old before she decided to leave her office job in Minneapolis and begin a sustainable farm. She faced not only practical, but also moral questions as she made the transition. Read her story and the stories of many other ‘Farm Heroes’ at the Farm Aid website.1

Moral questions like these emerge for rural farmers (and urban gardeners) at the first step of the food system. After this step, processing, distributing, consuming, and disposing food each raise their own set of moral questions at both personal and public policy levels. Personal questions could include:

  • I saw on the news that the oceans are getting polluted with tons of non-biodegradable plastics. I use plastic packaging in my small food processing plant, but my output is a drop in the bucket. Plus, if I switched to paper I would have to lay off two workers because the cost is higher. I want to be moral and realistic. What should I do?
  • Environmentalists are telling me to stop transporting my food products in gas and diesel vehicles and switch to hybrid trucks. But a change like this would be costly. I want to be moral and realistic. What should I do?
  • I know the quantity and quality of the food I eat is important to my health, but my partner tells me I also need to consider the health of the environment in my food choices. This would make my already busy and complex life even more complicated. I eat to relax, not to research about it! I want to be realistic and moral. What should I do?
  • When it comes to food disposal, I do what everyone else does in my building: I put it in the trash that gets picked up by the city waste service. People tell me this is not a good system, that when food decomposes in landfills it creates methane, a greenhouse gas twenty-three times more potent to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. I have been advised by my friends to compost food waste. But my city does not have a system that supports composting and I live on the sixteenth floor of my condo complex. I have no idea how to go about composting in this situation. I want to be moral and realistic. What should I do?

As you can see, food ethics engages a wide range of real-life, on-the-ground dilemmas. In this section we only scratch the surface of the moral questions food system workers, food consumers, and public policy makers face every day. In doing so, we do not offer answers to specific moral questions; rather, we present a framework that can help you think through food issues from an ethical point of view. This is the same environmental ethics framework used in every chapter of Healing Earth.

By exploring food and food system issues with this framework you can come to a deeper awareness of – and continue to strengthen – your own moral values. You will, at the same time, be advancing the environmental vision presented by Pope Francis in Laudato Si. Sound moral values will be an important resource as you encounter environmental challenges now and in the years ahead.

To begin exploring food and ethics, we return to the question posed in the Guatemala Palm Oil case study that opened this chapter: What ethical foundations and norms should guide how we produce, process, distribute, consume, and dispose of food?

Ethical Foundations

Thinking specifically about food and food systems, we present the three foundations of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic this way:

  • Food has intrinsic value.
  • Food has instrumental value.
  • The value of sustainability calls for a ‘respect-in-use’ approach toward all elements of the food system: soil, water, air, plants, insects, animals, and humans.

Along with biodiversity, natural resources, energy, and water, food is a foundational and irreplaceable part of our planet’s ecosystem. Just like the plants, insects, animals, water, and minerals that constitute it, food has intrinsic value.

Looking Back


Review the foundations and norms of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic in the Introduction.

From this standpoint, it is morally thoughtless to so instrumentalize food that we come to see it as only an object we consume or a commodity that generates credit or debit in a business’s account books. Environmental science teaches us that the instrumental value of food is not its economic value, but its use-value for nourishing life on Earth.

The value of sustainability brings the intrinsic and instrumental values of food together. In so doing, it points to the ethical significance of balancing these values, of maintaining a moral equilibrium between our instrumental use of food and food workers and our respect for the intrinsic value they possess. This ‘respect-in-use’ attitude is the moral foundation of Healing Earth‘s food ethic. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si 11, to begin with a respectful attitude toward the environment “cannot be written off as naïve romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior.” In ethics, attitude matters.

Ethical Norms

Ethical norms that inform human behavior in relation to food are communicated through principles, goals, and virtues. These same ethical norms are used throughout Healing Earth and are now applied to food and food systems. 

Questions to Consider

The word ‘commodity’ is a word used throughout the industrial food system. A word that is less frequently used is ‘commodification’. Look up these two words. How are they similar? How are they different? What moral issues do these words raise in relation to food and food systems?

Moral Principles and Food

At the beginning of this chapter, we noted that the food experience of many urban dwellers is limited to purchasing food at grocery stores and restaurants and consuming food at home, in restaurants, or elsewhere. In this food experience, the four steps preceding and following consumption – production, processing, distribution, and disposal – are typically ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

Studying food from an environmental science perspective draws attention to these unseen steps. This attention brings us nearer to the real-life activities that move our food from earth and sea to plate and waste. Learning about these activities gets us closer to the moral questions people face along the system.

Healing Earth offers six ethical principles as guidelines for working through moral questions that surface in food production, processing, distributing, consuming, and disposing. These principles are:

Photo of Seafood City
An increasing number of mega-supermarkets in major urban centers, like this Seafood City Supermarket in Chicago, Illinois, USA, contains restaurants inside the grocery store.2

• care for creation
• human dignity and human rights
• the common good
• the universal destination of goods
• the preferential option for the poor
• the principle of subsidiarity

Care for Creation

The moral principle of care for creation communicates the responsibility we have for preserving and protecting the environment as we make Earth’s fruits available to human beings and other organisms. This challenges people at the first step of the food system to keep care for creation in mind when deciding about methods of soil tillage, irrigation, crop diversity, animal care, and pest management. People representing us in public office should also respect this principle when fashioning policies and laws related to food and food systems.

Closer Look


In their 2018 international meeting in Toronto, Canada, the Parliament of World Religions added a fifth directive to its longstanding Global Ethic: Commitment to a Culture of Sustainability and Care for the Earth. Read more here about this important development.

Farm practices that dismiss the principle of care for creation are those that persistently degrade soil, exhaust Earth’s fresh water supply, confine vast numbers of animals to CAFOs, contribute to bee colony collapse, pollute our waters, and spread dangerous chemicals on the soil and in the air. Transitioning away from such practices takes courage and imagination. The principle of care for creation nurtures these virtues. As the National Catholic Rural Life Conference says in its ‘The Web of Life is One’ statement:

The web of life is one. Creation has an integrity and an inherent value beyond its usefulness to human beings . . . We cannot do just whatever we want with the created order. Adequate science, common sense and appropriate values will teach us to respect the web of life and each member of it.3

Human Dignity and Rights

The moral principle of human dignity signifies the intrinsic value possessed by each and every human being on Earth. This principle underpins the moral claim that all human beings have a right not only to life, but also to the material resources necessary for life. As Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food.”

Concrete recognition of a human being’s right to food and clean water is the goal of ‘food security’. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food security has four characteristics:

• healthy, safe and nutritious food is available in quantities adequate to the needs of persons and communities;
• local access to food exists at an affordable cost;
• food is utilized in a manner that maximizes its nutritional value;4
• the food system meets the needs of persons and communities consistently over time.

Closer Look


Learn more about food insecurity here.

Since the beginning of the millenium up to now, there has been a small reduction in the number of undernourished people. Despite this progress, the global prevalence of undernourishment has been rising since 2015. In 2017, the number of undernourished people is estimated to have increased to 821 million – around one out of every nine people in the world. This rise has been linked to climate change and to regions and countries with conflict which directly causes famine. As you will learn in the Global Climate Change chapter, uncertain weather events caused by human-induced climate change impacts regions of the world that especially rely on predictable atmospheric conditions to be able to grow food for sustenance. This demonstrates that it truly takes everyone everywhere to be striving for human dignity and human rights.

Another right in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights relating to the food system worldwide is stated in article 4: “No one should be held in slavery or servitude.” Surprising as it may seem to some, slavery on the global level has had a resurgence in the past few decades due to the rise in human trafficking. Social scientists claim this rise in trafficking is due in large part to an increase in people’s vulnerability caused by the climate events noted above. These events have raised human migration levels and widened the gap between rich and poor. 

World Hunger Rates from 2000 to 2017.5

Poor migrants are prime targets for human traffickers. The US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report notes that a significant portion of the 27 million men, women, and children who are victims of human trafficking worldwide are enslaved food system workers. Most slave owners are local contractors who kidnap migrating people and put them in bonded servitude or debt slavery. The slave owners then lease their slaves to industrial farm, ranch, logging, or fishing operations. Typically, the global industries or local businesses that employ these workers disclaim to have any knowledge that their workers are slaves.

Enslaved farm laborers in Africa’s Ivory Coast bringing cocoa pods to a collection area. 6

Many consumers in the developed world enjoy food on one end of a supply chain that has slaves on the other. has developed a calculator you can use to estimate the consumer goods you routinely enjoy and the number of slaves along the supply chain that were likely involved in producing these goods. A Canadian non-partisan think-tank called the Centre for International Governance Innovation focuses research on global security and international law. The organization encourages world leaders to develop humanitarian policies to aid the tens of thousands of climate refugees and prevent human trafficking.

Whether slave or free, women in the global industrial food system suffer persistent human right violations. In many areas of the world, women are not permitted to own property, do not receive wages equivalent to men for equivalent work, and are not given equal access to education. Women who are debt slaves often find themselves leased out by their owners to domestic households as housekeepers, gardeners, cooks, and dishwashers.

Of course, just saying human beings have human dignity and rights does not create food security, abolish slavery, or increase respect for women. Our moral words need to take root in actual practices, policies and laws. But words do matter. When respect for human dignity and rights is publicly spoken, it emboldens persons and communities to take risks, expend energy, and defend rights for the food security, liberation, and equality of the oppressed.

Common Good

When agriculture and food companies respond to the desires of individual consumers in ways that are environmentally sustainable and socially responsible, these companies are respecting the principle of the common good.

Grocery store aisle
Retail Product Placement – A basic marketing rule for drawing the interest of the average consumer to a product is “elevate to entice”.8

If the focus for decision-making of a food system is primarily activated by the market-researched desires of a ‘statistically average’ consumer, then that food system will compromise soil health, water protection, humane treatment of animals, non-chemical pest control, and composting to the food cost and convenience of that individual consumer. When an agriculture or food company narrows its goals to this extent, it greatly violates the principle of the common good.

Fairtrade logo. Looks like a cross between the yinyang sign and the bird.
This is the Oxfam fair trade organization trademark. Click here to learn more about the organization. 9

One of the objectives of the Fair Trade Movement is to balance economic achievement with the common good. The idea of fair trade is to help food producers in poorer, developing countries get a fair price for their products by connecting them to conscientious food consumers in developed countries who want to buy quality products and promote the common good. The two most widely recognized mechanisms for consumers to identify fair trade products is through the product’s certification by fair trade organizations like the World Fair Trade Organization with the label of the fair trade seal that is placed on the packaging of the products.

From an idea that began with just a few people in Great Britain in the late 1940’s, the fair trade movement has grown to the point that global sales of fair trade products reached a record $9.2 billion dollars in 2017. A recent article in the Winsight Grocery Business Report said of one fair trade organization:

“In 2017, Fairtrade America worked with more than 1.6 million farmers and workers across 75 countries to improve the sustainability of their supply chain through strategies such as achieving living incomes and wages, strengthening the position of women and young people, supporting communities to mitigate the effects of climate change and working with partners to achieve the [UN] Sustainable Development Goals. Today, more than 30,000 products with the fair trade-certified label are available in 150 countries.”7

Closer Look


To learn the 10 Principles of Fair Trade according to the World Fair Trade Organization, read this report.

It is important to check in with the communities and farmers that participate in the fair trade movement or others like it to ensure that sustainability is being upheld not only environmentally and economically, but also culturally and spiritually. Sometimes when the objective is to provide products for consumers in faraway countries, the product becomes seen merely as another a commodity in the market, and the principle of common good is lost. In his 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II affirms that a business should not act as a “society of capital goods” solely focused on financial rewards for its owners and investors. Rather, a business should act as a “society of persons” that achieves financial rewards and serves the common good. The Pope challenged businesses to bring together global producers and consumers into a “progressively expanding chain of solidarity” that creates value not only for the business, but for society as a whole. So, whether you are a consumer or a farmer, we all have a role to play to advocate for wholesome sustainability and the common good.

Universal Destination of Goods

Another important moral principle of Healing Earth’s food ethic is the universal destination of goods. As related to food, this principle focuses our attention on the ‘universal destination’, or ultimate purpose, of food and food systems. That purpose is to sustainably and justly nourish life.

A perennial challenge to the principle of the universal destination of goods is the absolutizing of private property, especially when this comes to the privatization of food and water. On the one hand, evidence suggests that individual ownership increases the probability that the thing owned will be better used and cared for than if it is owned by a group. Centuries ago, the famous medieval Roman Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica that there are three reasons to favor individual ownership of property (Figure 6). When something is possessed by a group, 1) individuals will have a tendency to “shirk the labor and leave [it] to another”, 2) “there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately, and 3) “quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed.”10

St. Thomas Aquinas.12

On the other hand, St. Thomas warned against absolutizing individual ownership. In his moral analysis of ‘theft and robbery’, Thomas makes a statement that has come down through the centuries and is at the heart of the principle of the universal destination of goods: “in necessitate sunt omnia communia”, that is, “in cases of need all things are common property”. He goes on to say:

It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need.”11

St. Thomas is thinking here of one person suffering extreme hunger or thirst and another person possessing a quantity of food or water beyond their immediate needs. The ‘property switch’ which releases a person’s moral culpability from theft is occasioned by the person’s extreme condition and the other person’s excess goods. But matters should never have come to this point. A person who enjoys an abundance of goods, says St. Thomas, is “entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” 

Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

The principle of preferential option for the poor and vulnerable concerns our response to people in the extreme conditions such as hunger and thirst as we have just described above. As in medical emergencies, the preferential option principle calls us to give treatment priority to those in most need of care.

Some of us may live in communities where we have seen people suffering from hunger, malnutrition, or thirst. Others of us may have only seen pictures of people in this condition. Whatever circumstance we are in, the purpose of the preferential option principle is to shift our attention from the busyness of our days to the present suffering of hungry people.

That shift may take the form of our support for a local emergency food bank. It could also mean support for international organizations dedicated to providing food and water to people in need. Thousands of people around the world aroused by the preferential option principle work for organizations like the ones listed below. Go to their websites and learn about them.

Feeding America
World Food Programme
Bread for the World
Food-aid International
World Vision International


In Healing Earth‘s food ethic, the principle of subsidiarity emphasizes the importance of assisting people with their agriculture and food problems in a way that does not rob them of their own cultural perspectives, historical experience and personal agency. This is a common criticism of the industrial food system, that decisions about food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal are made ‘at a distance’ by people who have likely never seen the land, animals, human beings, and local communities impacted by their decisions.

Closer Look


For more information on local food systems, visit this United States Department of Agriculture website.

A sustainable food system depends on local knowledge and participation and includes economic, environmental, cultural, spiritual, social, and political components. The system only succeeds when close and transparent feedback loops are built between local producers, consumers, and the finance sector; food transporters, processers, and disposers; and even local schools and city councils. In her recent study of the ‘local food system network’, Catherine Brinkley discusses research showing “that local food systems help forge social networks of shared values with a focus on keeping land in agriculture, supporting agroecological growing practices, promoting equity of access to healthy food, and sustaining inclusive, local economies.”13

We are reminded, again, that a food ethic begins with an attitude of respect for land, water, air, plants, animals, and the food human beings produce from them. The principle of subsidiarity focuses our moral attention on the circumstances of ‘real people’ and how we can help their voices be heard. 

Questions to Consider

You have probably heard someone referred to as a ‘principled person’, or a person who ‘stands on principle’. Do you know anyone like that? What do you think this means? What principle do you think a person most needs to ‘stand on’ when it comes to food ethics? Why? Would you consider yourself a ‘principled person’? If so, what principles do you ‘stand on’?

Moral Goals and Food

The moral goal of Healing Earth’s food ethic is to make healthy food available to all living things in a sustainable way. This is a lofty goal.

When we look at a lofty goal like this it is helpful to remember two things. First, lofty goals are best pursued on a local level with specific, scalable goals. Second, lofty goals not only point outward to a better tomorrow for the common good, but also point inward, to help us shape who we are as principled persons.

According to Robin Lovin, goals

give shape to our lives, and over time they make us who we are. Our goals provide the clearest picture of what we think belongs in that good life that everyone is seeking. Our goals say what we think is really valuable, what is worth wanting.14

Throughout this Food and Ethics section of Healing Earth we have emphasized how important it is to live your food ethic with an attitude of respect for land, plants, animals, and the human beings who work along the steps of the food system. The goal of making healthy food available to all living things in a sustainable way expresses that respect.

Questions to Consider

When you think of your goals in life, what place does food have in your thinking? Maybe you only think of food as something you will need to keep your body healthy as you pursue you goals. In the spirit of Healing Earth, consider food justice and a sustainable food system as additional goals in your life. What adjustments might you make to add these goals to your life?

Moral Virtues of Food

Another way the moral attitude of respect is strengthened in our lives is through moral virtues. The Healing Earth environmental ethic encourages us to practice the virtues of gratitude, courage, justice, prudence, temperance, and generosity in our relation to food, food system workers, and food consumers.

Though the next section of this chapter explores Food and Spirituality, it is interesting to note here that, from an historical perspective, human beings in every culture on Earth have developed ritual ways of ‘giving thanks’ for food. Such gratitude for food seems to be an almost primal feature of human existence. In contemporary urban environments where people are distant from nature, it may be necessary to bring greater attention to this virtue of gratitude for food.  

Inspired People

8 Chavez

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) was a courageous, non-violent activist for migrant farm worker rights in the United States. With Dolores Huerta, he founded the United Farm Workers Union in 1962. By the 1970’s, the UFW was recognized as the legal bargaining agent for over 50,000 migrant field workers in California and Florida. Watch this short video on Cesar Chavez’ life.16

At several places in the chapter, we have mentioned that courage is important for transitioning to a sustainable food system. We may need to call upon courage to do everything from changing our eating habits to redesigning a workplace. “Courage becomes a virtue,” writes André Comte-Sponville, “only when it serves others.”15 When applied to food, courage is the efforts we need to take risks and maintain hope while supporting transitions to healthy food and sustainable food systems.

The virtue of justice infuses us with a sense of fairness. When applied to the food systems in our lives, justice means maintaining an attitude of respect for the land, plants, animals, and human beings that account for the food we eat. But more than that, justice calls us to restitution for damages we have done to anything or anyone within the food system. What those damages are and how restitution can possibly be made is the very subject of this chapter.

Prudence is the disposition to deliberate wisely over a course of action; to make decisions cautiously, in a well-informed and judicious way. Transitions to environmentally sustainable food systems take wise deliberation. Turning attention to what is local requires careful listening, watching – and tasting! Wise deliberation mirrors the movement towards balanced ecosystems. If gratitude is the virtue needed ‘at the start’ of a food ethic, prudence is the virtue needed ‘in the process’.

In matters of food, the virtue of generosity promotes ‘paying it forward’. That is, after we benefit from healthy foods that come from sustainable food sources, we are encouraged to repay that generosity by supporting products and ventures that contribute to the growth of the alternative food movement.

In this Food and Ethics section we have presented a framework of moral foundations and norms to help think about food issues from an ethical point of view. Thinking with this framework can help us become more aware of moral values, principles, goals, and virtues that we already hold, or that we may have never considered. This is the process of deepening our self-awareness.

Greater self-awareness puts us in touch with the things we are most concerned about in our lives, the things to which we attach our deepest desires. As we have said throughout Healing Earth, our deepest desires give our lives meaning, they in-spire, or ‘breath into’, us. What inspires a person is at the core of their spirituality. Food has been a major aspect of human spirituality since time immemorial. It is to this topic that we now turn.

Questions to Consider

Give an example of where you think a person would need courage if they were involved with some aspect of changing the industrial food system into a more environmentally sustainable food system. After courage, what virtue do you think that person would most need? Why?