At the Kelowna Farmers and Crafters Market, the largest farmers’ market in British Columbia, my partner will stand and gaze longingly at a basket of peaches or ruby-red cherries. I try to hustle him away because I generally know the answer to the question he is about to ask the farmer: “Is it organic?” And I know he will shrug and walk away if the answer is “No.”
After years of shopping at this market, I have my favorite vendors. All grow organically, though some are not certified because they are too small-scale to add the cost of paperwork to their operations. They take care of the land, preserve biodiversity, work far too many hours and deliver explosions of flavor via their fruits and vegetables.
They are satisfying the demands of a growing movement of people wanting to navigate the tricky waters of ethical eating. These are people who want to know how producers are treating workers, animals and the planet. They are looking for claims they can trust and food they can safely eat. They often disagree about what is suitable fare and argue over what can be compromised and what cannot.
What they all have in common is a concern for the quality of food and the impacts of our food systems. A 2010 survey looked at ethical claims that mattered most to food shoppers and how their food purchases were influenced by ethical concerns. They found the definitions of “ethical” to be “broad, flexible and often highly personal.”
That means it is not easy to come up with one guide that suits everyone. Ultimately, first-hand knowledge of the people producing our food is the best assurance. However, in our globalized, mechanized world, that is not always possible.
On the next page are some guides that will make food shopping easier, whatever your definition of ethical eating may be. This is a starting point, not an exhaustive list, but each link leads to many others. Feel free to add your own choices in the comments.
- Eat Well Guide is an online directory to fresh, locally grown and sustainably produced food (farms, restaurants, farmers’ markets, grocery stores and more) in the U.S. and Canada.
- Fairtrade International is a network of 25 organizations working to secure a better deal for producers.
- Rough Guide to a Better World focuses on how shopping habits can combat hunger, disease and illiteracy.
- VegDining.com is an online guide to vegetarian restaurants around the world.
- Members of Canadian Organic Growers can be found through a searchable database.
- Fairtrade Canada certifies that Canadian products with Fairtrade certification meet international standards.
- Farm Animal Welfare Certification requires producers to adhere to the animal welfare principle of Five Freedoms.
- Certified Humane Raised & Handled sets standard for humane treatment of farm animals.
- Fairtrade USA left the international organization and formed a stand-alone body with its own standards.
- Farmers Markets and Local Food Marketing is the USDA’s guide.
- LocalHarvest is a searchable guide to organic food throughout the U.S.
- The Vegetarian Travel Guide lists natural food restaurants and health food stores in the U.S.
The road to ethical eating is not straight. It has many branches, and every branch has many forks. Vegans, carnivores, vegetarians, ovo-lacto vegetarians, pescatarians, locavores and omnivores often square off over their own particular line in the sand.
If the questions all had easy answers, the choices would be so much simpler. They do not, in spite of our frequent attempts to insist our own perspective is the only ethical stance.
What is important is that we keep posing the questions and that we understand that our food choices are concrete examples of our personal ethics. We have the power to make a difference with every bite.
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Photo 1: Thinkstock; Photo 2 from Natalie Maynor via Flickr Creative Commons