Why do we eat what we eat? For most of history this question has been quite simple; we eat to survive. But in the context of material abundance, when food is plentiful and easily accessible, this question becomes quite different. What do we feel like eating? Whether it’s our choice of breakfast cereal or the spread at a buffet lunch, there is always a multitude of choices to satisfy our present craving. Most of us make these choices based on our personal taste but when we’re at the supermarket, we’re looking for the best value for money. This fuels the current global market for food; choice, taste, and price. But what’s missing from this equation?

First we have to look at how industrialization has changed the way we produce, package, and distribute food. Small family farms have been replaced by massive agri-businesses. Farm production has shifted to mono crops with global market value. Industrial fertilizers and pesticides have increased crop yields but pollute water, destroy wildlife, and deplete the soil of natural minerals. Meat is industrially produced in increasingly large quantities, creating a huge demand for fodder. Convenience foods laden with chemicals are produced in factories and distributed all over the world. As food becomes plentiful, for some, it comes with a huge price tag for all.

We might consider these changes to be something we have little control over, and therefore, have no accountability for; but a closer look at the problem reveals that we are not only accountable but even responsible. Every time we put something into our shopping cart, we are participating in this unsustainable system. We need to rethink our decisions about food by inserting the question of welfare into the equation – regarding our health, our planet, and every living thing on it.

Our Health

We are only just beginning to realize how commonly used ingredients in food production affect us biologically and how these man-made chemicals are slowly poisoning us and our children.

Let’s look at soft drinks as an example.

Caramel colouring is present in everything from soft drinks and sauces to breads and pastries. When made from straight sugar, it’s relatively safe. But when produced with ammonia it puts off 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole; these are chemicals that have been linked to cancer in mice. Couple that with 15 spoons of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup, caffeine, and phosphoric acid, and you have a pretty lethal drink.

This lifetime exposure to many small amounts of cancer-causing agents accumulates in the tissues, and can end up being as toxic as big doses. If you knew the next can of Cola would tip the balance towards cancer, would you give in to your child’s pleading? We have to consider the danger to our body from the sum total of what we are taking in, and limit our collective exposure. It is our moral responsibility towards our children to take harmful chemicals out of the food chain.

The Planet                        

Planetary dangers such as climate change, extreme weather, poisoned rivers, and resource depletion are the realities that affect us directly. We have to understand that every manufacturing process has some adverse effect on natural systems somewhere along the way. Nothing made industrially can be eco-friendly. This current system can destroy natural resources that took millions of years to create. Whether it is a rain forest that is levelled and eliminated from the earth, an aquifier depleted, or a mineral used up, the loss is both immediate and irreversible.

Let’s look at a packet of crisps as an example.

Firstly, you need a whole lot of potatoes to fuel the industry for potatoes crisps. Industrial scale cultivation using chemically-synthesized inorganic fertilizer can contaminate ground water. Potatoes, along with each and every ingredient, are transported to the factory adding to greenhouse emissions. Potatoes are processed using electricity to run the power plant, and packed into bags which were also produced and printed, further adding to carbon output. Finally, the harmful effects of tossing the empty bag onto a landfill will remain with us for up to a thousand years.

This process of manufacturing food is unsustainable. A company must take responsibility for the depletion of natural resources, pollutants emitted into the air, toxins dumped onto the water, and contaminants buried in landfills during production. Everything used in a product should either be designed so that on disposal it biodegrades into compounds nature can use or can be recycled into other products. Until this happens we need to stop buying food that’s destroying the planet – at least those that are not an essential part of our diet – like potatoes chips!

Animal Welfare

Every living creature contributes to the planet’s ecological balance, and therefore, the wellbeing of every living thing should be of concern to us.

Let’s take the example of chicken nuggets.

Tens of billions of chickens are kept in cages occupying a space no larger than a piece of A4 paper. They are pumped full of growth hormones in order to gain weight as fast as possible. They are slaughtered at only 45 days old at which point their immature bones can hardly bear the weight of their bodies. Some collapse and die as they are unable to reach food or water.

Those who defend such inhumane methods argue that they are a regrettable but necessary response to our growing population’s demand for meat. But it goes directly against the teachings of our Prophet (sa) where an integral part of Halal slaughter is to look at the physical and psychological comfort of the animal. Even from a purely economic standpoint, the food we have to grow for cattle and livestock in factory farms is much more than the food value they give us. Animals that graze on pasture eat food we cannot digest, which means they add to the amount of food available to us. Instead of being convinced by manufacturers touting ‘safe’ and ‘healthy’, we should be looking at ‘healthy’, ‘humane’, and ‘sustainable’.

Social Concern

If we are expected to show concern for the welfare of the animals we eat, it goes without saying that we need to show concern for the people who produce the food we eat.

When we go by the choice-taste-price decision-making process, companies respond by creating a system that gives us faster, cheaper, and more. In this climate, certain important issues are sidelined. These issues include a fair price for harvest, safe working conditions, a decent living wage, and protection against abuse and violence in factories.

Let’s take chocolate as an example.

Chocolate is a product of the cacao bean sourced primarily from West Africa and Latin America. In a bid to keep up with the growing demand for cheap cocoa, West African farmers resort to using child labour to keep prices competitive. Many children are kidnapped by traffickers or sold to farms by family members. A child works from sunrise till the evening cutting the bean pods using a machete. Virtually every child has scars from accidents. Children commonly deal with industrial agricultural chemicals without protective equipment. They are given the most inexpensive food available; they sleep on wooden planks in small windowless buildings with no access to clean water or sanitary bathrooms. Cases have been documented in which children and adult workers were retained against their will and subjected to physical violence for trying to escape.

Farms such as these supply cocoa to international giants such as Hershey’s, Mars and Nestlé which means that every time your child enjoys his chocolate fix, you are inadvertently supporting child labour, human trafficking, and slavery.

Ethics of advertising

But this information is now reaching the consumers, and food manufacturers have to market their products harder than ever to make up for lost sales. And they’re targetting the most profitable consumer demographic: our children.

Marketers use the latest advances in psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to capitalize on our deep desire for acceptance and happiness.

Let’s take soft drinks as an example.

People who drink Coke and Pepsi are portrayed as confident, happy, and beautiful people who are forever at parties, hanging out with friends or in a number of dating scenarios. These ads coerce us into associating with this particular culture until it becomes a part of our identity – including, of course, the brand itself. National icons, sports personalities, and celebrities further reinforce these values as brand ambassadors.

A young child cannot understand that an ad does not provide impartial information, and therefore, advertising aimed at children is grossly unethical.

From an early age, food manufacturers are looking to create a certain brand-driven relationship with food. This is done through hundreds of daily powerful messages from the best public relations machine money can buy. We need to disconnect from this food culture, and create a new healthy and wholesome relationship with food, based on the welfare of all stakeholders.

Collective Action

Instead of expecting governments and companies to bring about change, we need to create collective consumer action and boycot products that don’t meet our ethical standards. Remember that it’s only our purchases that are driving this industrial machine. Companies won’t care until you care.