By now, most of us know that we face an ethical dilemma every time we raise a fork, chopstick or food-filled fingers to our lips. Upon taking a closer look at where our food comes from and who it touches along the way, it’s clear that our food doesn’t always have ethical origins. Of course, the slaughter of sentient creatures calls most animal-based foods into ethical question, but food ethics go far beyond the animals. Workers’ rights, environment and socioeconomic concerns are also called into question for many of the foods on our plates.
These five foods—many of which you likely eat on at least somewhat of a regular basis—all present ethical dilemmas that may not be obvious when you’re at a restaurant or your own dinner table. Keeping these ethical concerns in mind is a smart first step in gaining a better understanding of our food system and who our food impacts from seed to plate.
It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of avocados. But for me, it’s not just about the taste—it’s that the American craving for avocados is wreaking havoc on both the environment and the farmers growing them. Because the U.S. imports around 80% of its avocado consumption as of 2017, getting avocados into the country results in massive greenhouse gas emissions. The demand for avocados has also resulted in significant deforestation of other countries, particularly Mexico. Mexican cartels have taken to the avocado trade, using violence to extract money from the farmers who sell the fruit. How much of this flavorless fruit is worth the destruction it causes?
Shrimp has become more affordable over the past several decades, which has led to an increase in its consumption in the United States. Unfortunately, though, slave labor may be to thank for that shrimp cocktail sitting on your table. Reuters reports that shrimp is included in a list of Thai goods that are suspected of being obtained by slave labor, and the Environmental Justice Foundation has collected reports by independent journalists who say they have witnessed slave labor in the Thai fishing industry. Additionally, the overfishing of shrimp has can lead to the destruction of mangroves, which play an important role in stabilizing marine environments and slowing climate change.
If you’re looking for a side of labor exploitation with your morning cup of cashew milk, you’re in luck. Cashews have seen a rise in popularity in recent years, especially as more consumers go vegan and trade their dairy milk for nut-based alternatives. According to Slow Food, most of the world’s cashews are produced in Vietnam, India and the Ivory Coast. Workers handling cashews in these countries face appalling conditions, often facing burns and other health issues from handling the caustic skin of the cashews, which is conveniently removed for consumers. Many of these workers are subject to poverty wages, unsafe working environments and even violence if they refuse to work, which they often do considering the dangerous nature of the job. Cashews are proof that vegan does not always equal ethical.
If you didn’t know about the problematic nature of any of the other foods on this list, chances are you already knew that a lot of chocolate production is unethical. According to The Guardian, the chocolate industry is famed for its use of child labor, and even after decades of media reports on the issue, the outlet found in 2020 that the industry had done little to crack down on child labor practices. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor found that the proportion of child workers in the chocolate industry had actually risen by 14% in the last decade. Fair trade chocolate may be available to some consumers, but it still represents only a fraction of the chocolate the world consumes.
You may have heard concerns about the ethics of palm oil, but since you likely don’t have a bottle of it next to your olive and canola oil, you might think that it’s not a problem you have to contend with. However, the World Wildlife Fund reports that a whopping 50% of the products you buy at the supermarket contain palm oil. The production of this ubiquitous ingredient has resulted in major deforestation in incredibly biodiverse forests. Not only do these practices kill animals, but they also drive climate change. Labor exploitation and child labor are additional concerns facing the palm oil industry.
Reading about the ethical problems associated with some of your favorite foods may be discouraging, but understanding where your food comes from and who’s affected in the process is an important first step in rebuilding a food system based on a foundation of ethical labor and sustainable farming practices. Without being critical about where our food comes from, the cycle of unjust food production will only continue.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.