The Ethics of Eating

July 14, 2015

By Jess Fanzo, PhD


Originally posted July 10, 2015 – You Are What You Eat Blog


Food makes philosophers of us all.” Food is an essential aspect of human function, existence and experience. The idea that “you are what you eat” has some truth to it: our food choices define who we have been, who we are and who we want to become. These choices are often intertwined in our beliefs and values, our relationship to where the food is sourced, and our physiological drive towards certain foods and habits.


Wendell Berry wrote, “Eating is an agricultural act.” With 795 million people impacted by food insecurity, and a burdened global food system, the view that “eating is an ethical act” resonates as well.


The Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, along with the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, launched the Global Food Ethics Initiative to take on the challenge of working through conflicting visions of what it means to feed the world ethically and find a concrete path forward even in the absence of consensus about ethical commitments and values.


The main product of the first phase of the Global Food Ethics project is the 7 by 5 Agenda for Ethics and Global Food Security. This report is the result of an unprecedented undertaking: gathering a diverse, international, and influential Working Group of experts to build a research and policy agenda for global food ethics that would make an important, practical contribution to global food security. I had the honor of being a part of this group.


We put forward seven important and tractable projects to make progress on ethics and global food security in five years. The 7 by 5 projects are:Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 12.53.51 PM


  1. Ethical Challenges in Projections of Global Food Demand, Supply, and Prices
  2. The Food Sovereignty Movement and the Exceptionality of Food and Agriculture
  3. The Case for the Professionalization of Farming
  4. Global Agricultural Research and Development: Ethics, Priorities, and Funders
  5. Climate-Smart and Climate-Just Agriculture
  6. Ethics of Meat Consumption in High-Income and Middle-Income Countries
  7. Consumers, Certifications, and Labels: Ethically Benchmarking Food Systems

For the Initiative, I wrote a piece on the ethics of nutrition in the context of global food security which is under review for the Global Food Security journal. The food security directive often focuses solely on ensuring the world is producing and consuming enough calories in bulk to reduce hunger and safeguard survival, as opposed to a goal that includes nutrition for well-being and development. To advance the dialogue, it is necessary to address the ethical questions that swirl around integrating nutrition into the food security paradigm. Key ethical issues to consider include how to make societal decisions and define values about food security that impact nutrition outcomes, and the ethical trade-offs between environmental sustainability and ensuring that individual dietary and nutritional needs are met.


It is also important to consider questions such as:


  • What ethical obligations do we have with respect to the consumption of certain nutritious foods such as resource-intensive foods from animal sources?
  • What are the obligations and responsibilities of different public and private actors towards realizing the right to adequate nutrition?
  • What are the moral obligations of stakeholders to ensure that the global population has access to a nutritious diet?


Such complex questions underscore the need to articulate the broader ethical landscape of the nutrition debate within global food security.


Now, we are committed to making the 7 by 5 Agenda a reality. As we work to bring attention to the 7 by 5, our hope is not only to see these worthy projects undertaken, but also to help raise awareness in global and regional institutions, national governments, and the general public of the critical importance of ethics to global food policy and practice. Feeding the world is an unquestionable moral imperative. But we must do more than that. We must feed the world ethically.


This is a hot topic at the moment. More and more people are highlighting the need for more ethical ways in which are food should be produced and consumed. Issues such as the increased demand for meat, GMOs, animal welfare etc are high on the agenda for debate.


Madeleine Albright just wrote a piece on why global food security is a moral imperative. Paul Thompson, just published a thoughtful book “From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone.” And demand for ethically made foods and products is increasing.


The 7 by 5 Agenda report, and brief descriptions of the projects can be found here.



 Jess Fanzo, PhD, a nutritionist, professor, and expert in the fields of biodiversity and food security, will be the first Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor and will help lead the university’s collaborative efforts in ethics, global food, and agricultural policy via a partnership between the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

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Global Food Ethics
Jessica Fanzo

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