Illustrative image for What Is Ethical Eating in the Age of Climate Change

Bioethics Forum Essay

What Is Ethical Eating in the Age of Climate Change?

A lively discussion about ethical eating in the age of climate change took place last month at the annual conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities in Pittsburgh. Panelists addressed how agricultural meat production contributes to climate change and the consequent health impacts and offered an ethical analysis.

Much of the discussion centered on the very different recommendations from two recent scientific reports. Early this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission, a team of 37 scientists from around the world, recommended among other things that global consumption of red and processed meat be reduced by 50% to improve personal health and the health of the planet. Last month, the  NutriRECS study made headlines by concluding that there was no nutritional reason to reduce meat consumption.

The EAT-Lancet commission’s recommendation comes from its study, which aimed to determine whether we can feed a projected global population of 10 billion people with a healthy diet and also sustain Earth systems and resources. In a nutshell, EAT-Lancet’s conclusion is that we can do this if we immediately begin to transform our food systems (including food production, transportation, storage, packaging, and waste disposal), improve our diets, and reduce food waste.  

The NutriRECS study involved a team of 14 international experts in nutrition who used meta-analyses to correlate consumption of red and processed meat with cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The study has been criticized for several reasons, including the exclusion of environmental issues and animal welfare from data, as well as the lead author’s undisclosed links with the meat industry and previously disclosed link with the sugar industry. These factors bear on the conclusions of NutriRECS and its ethics.

Ethical arguments for eating less meat are that doing so promotes animal welfare and helps sustain environmental resources and conditions to produce enough healthy food to meet the basic nutritional needs of our global population and our descendants. Meat production generates up to 10 times more greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based food production and has serious impacts on human health. EAT-Lancet recommends that leaders in food and agricultural systems and governments make changes such as committing to no further increase in land used to raise animals for meat and grow animal feed, reducing water and fertilizer use, and curbing the amount of food that is lost or wasted (which are significant with current practices).

Curious about how bioethicists perceive meat production, meat eating, and the EAT-Lancet recommendations, panelists presented two questions to the audience: If the EAT-Lancet findings are accurate, what are the moral responsibilities of industry leaders with respect to food systems?  Should bioethicists get involved?

Participants’ responses were animated and at times tangential. Some argued for reducing global population growth (a controversial project at best, and addressed by EAT-Lancet with respect to contraception). Others called for consumer action, arguing that consumers have a strong collective influence on industrial and corporate practices – think removal of trans fats from food products. The problem with this view is that it holds individuals more accountable than food and agricultural organizations, which have significantly greater financial and other types of influence than individual consumers. These organizations and the leaders who advance and uphold their routine policies and practices are among the largest contributors of global emissions.

The routine policies and practices of food and agricultural leaders increase emissions and damage Earth systems and consumer health. These leaders, however, are ideally situated to lead the great food transformation that is essential for our health, and that of our children and grandchildren. The potential influence of individual consumers on industrial activities does not relieve these leaders of their responsibilities to sustain and steward the public and environmental resources that they use in abundance, and perhaps with disregard.

Audience comments demonstrated the overall concern among bioethicists with the ethical dilemmas involved in meat production and consumption. This was reassuring, given the general reluctance of bioethics journals and conferences to engage with environmental health issues, including climate change. Without explicitly discussing what constitutes ethical eating in this era of climate change, participants at the session clearly acknowledged that ethics and values contribute to agricultural policies and practices that influence health.

Cheryl Macpherson, PhD, is a professor at St George’s University School of Medicine and a senior research fellow at the Windward Islands Research and Education Foundation in Grenada. She helped organize a meeting at The Hastings Center in June on how bioethics can help mitigate climate change.


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