Friday, 25 April 2014

The ethics of food.

Earth week seems an appropriate time to focus on sustainability. In this case sustainability of our food. A few months back I read a tiny piece in the newspaper that made me think about where our food comes from. Most of my food comes from the supermarket. And whilst I prefer free range eggs to others, there's so much more to the food supply chain then we all think about whilst food shopping. Are we harming our planet and other people by consuming certain products?

The article I just referred to was on how the popularity of quinoa has caused problems for people who live in countries in which it's grown. Most of the world's quinoa is grown in Bolivia, and for Bolivians it used to be a dietary staple. But since the it has become very popular elsewhere too, demand has increased and along with that, prices have too. So now even people who grow it can no longer afford it. They have to switch to cheaper and less nutritive foods like rice or imported other foods.
Later I read an online article in which a counterargument was also referred to: in another article called “It’s OK to Eat Quinoa.” it's said that the quinoa farmers actually made more money and could afford to eat more varied and healthily, but even if that is true, then what about the Bolivian people that aren't quinoa farmers and thus do not get higher incomes due to the price increase?
And there are other concerns too: in order to try and cope with the increasing demand for quinoa, the total surface in which it is grown is expanded. But this has not lead to more production. Even worse: it has lead to more erosion. (More details here.)

So should we stop eating quinoa? Or at least consume less of it?

Palm oil.
Another thing that I've come across a few times is how the expansion of palm oil plantages is harmful for orang utans. In order to produce palm oil, the corporations destroy huge pieces of rainforest, which is the habitat of many orang utans. As a result, they no longer have a place to live, they get injured and/or they die.

But orang utans aren't the only species suffering from this defrorestation, and on top of that it contributes to climate change. (Much more info on this can be found on

Also, palm oil isn't just in foods -  like margarine, cereals, crisps, sweets, etc.; usually labelled as vegetable oil - derivatives of it are also used in soaps, shampoo, washing powders and cosmetics. It is everywhere. In Europe and North-America, it is in 50% of all products in the supermarket. (Source) It's very hard to tell if a products had any palm oil derivatives in it as it these come with many names. This is not even an exhaustive list, but see for yourself:

These ingredients are definitely palm oil or derived from palm oil: 
Cetyl Palmitate, Elaeis Guineensis, Epoxidized Palm Oil (UV cured coatings), Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Octyl Palmitate, Palm Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Stearine, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmitic Acid, Palmityl Alcohol, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Palmolein, Saponified Elaeis Guineensis, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, and Sodium Palmate.

These ingredients are either derived from palm oil or coconut oil:
Cetyl Alcohol, Fatty alcohol sulphates, Isopropyl or Isopropyl Palmitate, Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS), Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (in almost everything that foams), Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, and Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate.

These ingredients are often derived from palm oil, but could be derived from other vegetable oils:
“Other vegetable oils” (palm oil may be included under this term), Cocoa Butter Equivalent (CBE), Cocoa Butter Substitute (CBE), Emulsifiers (some can be palm oil derived), Glyceryl Stearate, Sodium Lauryl LactylateSteareth-2, Steareth-20, Steareth-21, and Stearic Acid.

I did a bit research on the internet to check whether coconut oil is as devastating (since it's a tropical oil too). I believe it is not, but I may be wrong. But simply replacing palm oil with coconut oil is no solution here. If we were all to switch, I think the space that is now used for palm plantages would be used to plant coconut trees instead of palm trees.

So what can we do about this? We could be careful about the products we buy. If you google for palm oil free alternatives you should get some info. There are also several websites with more info on this issue and there are different online petitions you could sign too.

These are two things I know about now, but I'm sure there are many, many more issues related to our food supplies.