Moral Responsibilities on the Food Market: The Reproach of Double Moral Standards and the Ideal of Food Citizenship

Moral Responsibilities on the Food Market: The Reproach of Double Moral Standards and the Ideal of Food Citizenship

In the Netherlands, as in other parts of Europe, there seems to be a tendency to moralize consumption behavior. Politicians, along with pioneering market players complain that the demands of citizens for sustainable and animal friendly products are not followed up by appropriate purchase behavior. Societal organizations ask their members to ‘vote with their shopping bags’ and scientists try to understand the schizophrenia of the citizen/consumer who is very much against intensive animal husbandry but keeps buying the cheapest meat. The underlying question for this paper is about the moral responsibilities of consumers on the food market. I will analyze the reproach of double moral standards which is addressed to the citizen/ consumer. I will show that this reproach implies three suppositions which need to be explicated, namely that it is more or less clear what we should strive for, that this is a moral aim, and that people have moral responsibilities in their roles as consumers.
After having elaborated on those issues, I will present two fundamentally different views on the distribution of responsibilities on the food market and I will argue in favor of one of those views, namely the idea that consumers on the food market should become ‘food citizens’. I agree with the reproach of double moral standards and do attribute moral responsibilities to people in their roles as consumers. However, people in all kinds of other roles do have responsibilities for reforming the agriculture and food sector as well. Fist, however, I will shortly describe the societal and political context of the debate.

1. Sustainability and sustainable consumption
Worries about the impact of current economic activities on future generations and on the natural environment resulted in thinking about sustainable development. The underlying idea is to create a balance between economical development and other values, as expressed in the slogan ‘people, planet, profit’. The striving for sustainability can be seen as a corner stone for modern environmental policy. Despite the institutionalization and common use of the term ‘sustainability’, there is disagreement about how the term is properly defined and implemented in day-to-day policy making. Right now, I will not engage in the discussion about what sustainable development really is and how the concept should be interpreted. I will have to say more about that later on. For the moment, I will assume that there is consensus about sustainability being a precondition for further development, and I will turn to the link between sustainable development and sustainable consumption.
Sustainability can not be realized without sustainable consumption, because unsustainable consumption patterns and levels, in particular in industrialized countries, are a major cause if not the major cause of environmental degradation in the world today. What exactly is sustainable consumption? Sustainable consumption can be defined as “… the use of services and related products, which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardize the needs of further generations.” (Ministry of Norway, 1994).
In order to strive for sustainable consumption, it is generally considered necessary to increase the efficiency of consumption via technological improvement. This is called ‘weak sustainability’. At the same time, it is necessary to realise a change in consumption patterns as well as a decrease of consumption level. This is called ‘strong sustainability’ (Daly, 1998; Princen, 2003; Spangenberg & Lorek, 2002). The focus on increasing the so-called ‘eco-efficiency’ of our actual consumption package is not enough. Research shows that achievements based on efficiency alone are very often overcompensated by a growth in consumption volumes. This is called the ‘rebound effect’ (Greening, Green and Difiglio, 2000). So, both weak and strong sustainability is necessary. Of course, the exact relationship between both components needs further elaboration and I will have to say something more about this later on.
So, sustainable consumption is crucial in order to realise the widely acknowledged (though still vague) aim of sustainable development. Therefore, it is tempting to point to the consumer as the main responsible for realizing the aim of sustainable development. It is, however not evident at forehand that the realisation of sustainable patterns of consumption is only or mainly the responsibility of the consumer. The focus on consumer responsibility is only one possibility when striving for sustainable consumption patterns. Besides the consumer, also other actors, namely producers, retailers and government could be held responsible. So, the question arises, who should be responsible for realizing sustainable consumption?

2. The reproach of ‘double moral standards’
In spite of the strong link between consumption patterns and sustainability, until recently nearly all the real policy efforts on the issue of sustainability have been put into making the production processes less polluting and more eco-efficient. Recently, however, emphasis is put on the role of the consumer. For instance, the Dutch minister of Agriculture said that he will not hesitate to call consumers hypocrite if they do not translate their values concerning animal welfare and sustainability into purchase behaviour. Also other politicians, societal organisations and scientists describe the double moral standards of the citizens/consumers as a huge obstacle for sustainable consumption. In the Wijffels report it is written that it makes no sense to strive for reforming the sector, if the citizen who ask for another agricultural practice keep refusing to consume accordingly. Members of parliament indicated as well that citizens are more and more emancipated and translate their concerns into political demands, but as consumers they refuse to pay. It is complained that little initiative is taken by the market, due to that ‘double moral standards’.
I can imagine three reasons for the recent concern about responsible consumption. First, the recent series of food scares, such as swine fever, foot and mouth disease and bird pest, as well as pictures about intensive animal husbandry in general, are shocking and lead to citizens’ demands for a more animal friendly production process. Politicians are confronted with those demands, but at the same time, people keep buying cheaper products which are detrimental to animal welfare. That means that politicians get an ambivalent message. Secondly, the success of the policy efforts on the side of sustainable production are dependent on the willingness of the consumer to buy the products that are produced in a more sustainable way. In Holland, for instance, organic pig farms had to close again, because of lacking consumer demand for organic meat. That means that consumer behaviour influences the success of those policy efforts. Third, societal organisations are aware of the link between sustainable development and sustainable consumption and encourage consumers to make a difference for a better world by their choices in the food market.
The reproach by politicians and societal organisations towards the consumers of having ‘double moral standards’ implies three claims. First, it implies that it is clear what should be achieved, that we agree about what we are striving for and which agricultural practice we want. I suspect, however, that this is in fact not clear enough. Secondly the reproach implies that the aim we are striving to realise is a moral aim. That means that it is supposed that people have something like a moral duty to achieve a certain agricultural practice or at least to refuse certain clearly unethical practices. It is supposed that the preference for cows outside on the meadow is not just an esthetical preference. I think that this issue needs further discussion as well. Thirdly the reproach of double moral standards implies that it is clear how the responsibility for achieving the stated aim should be distributed between the different actors in the food chain. That, however, is not at all clear, as I will show.

2.Three relevant questions
As we can see from the reproach of double moral standards and from what I have said before about sustainability, sustainable consumption is considered to be very important. However, at least three discussions are still open:
1. What exactly should we strive for in the field of agriculture and food?
2. Is this a moral aim?
3.What should be the role of the consumers in realizing that aim?
Before deciding upon the best distribution of responsibilities, it must be clear what to strive for. In the case of food, this touches upon issues regarding animal welfare, as well as social and environmental consequences of food production and consumption. How much human violence towards animals, for instance, do we find acceptable? What kind of agricultural practice do we want? So, the first sub question is about clarifying the aim. Note that the reproach of ‘double moral standards’ implies that it is clear what people should strive for and that the problem is only that they are not doing it. But, what exactly are the aims, and how much consensus on that issue is necessary?
The second sub question is about the nature of that aim. Is it something we consider morally obligatory or is it a mere aesthetical preference? This touches also upon the meta-ethical question about what we mean when we talk about moral responsibilities. Note that the reproach of ‘double moral standards’ implies that both, the reasons why people should buy certain products and the reasons why actually they are not doing it are considered to be moral reasons. We would not reproach someone of double moral standards if she would claim to like opera’s but never listens to them. If people say that they prefer cows in the field to cows in intensive confinement, this is considered to be not merely an aesthetical preference, but a moral one.
In order to answer the third sub question the previous two must be answered. The question then is: “How can the specified (moral) aims best be realised?” Or: “How should the moral responsibility for realising the specified aim be distributed?” That touches upon big issues, such as the role of the market versus the role of the state and the role of people as citizens versus their roles as consumers. If it is clear that people do have a moral responsibility to treat animals in a certain way (and – meta-ethically - what it means to make that claim), then the question about the distribution of moral responsibility presents itself.

3. Two views on the distribution of moral responsibility in the food market
Within the scope of possible answers to those questions, there are two fundamentally opposing views that I would like to present you, the first being the idea that consumers should become food citizens and the second being the preference for a strict distinction between food consumer and citizen. These are two general ideas or positions that emerge in the debate about ethical consumption and the future of agriculture which I am going to systematically work out in some more detail.

3.1 Food citizenship
The first view is excellently captured in the concept of ‘food citizenship’. The word citizenship generally indicates that someone belongs to a place or nation by birth or naturalization. Citizens are conceived as having certain rights and duties. According to Jennifer L. Wilkins, “[f]ood citizenship, then, can be interpreted to mean that, in relation to our food choices, we have certain rights associated with living in a particular place – the right to safe unadulterated food or truthful product information, for example, but that there are also responsibilities that go along with this kind of citizenship.” (p. 269) Wilkins defines food citizenship as “the practice of engaging in food-related behaviours (defined narrowly and broadly) that support, rather than threaten, the development of a democratic, socially and economically just, and environmentally sustainable food system.” (p. 271)
There is a clear claim on the individual responsibility. Wilkins refers to Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) who said: that “we must become the change we want to see in the world.” Consumption is not excluded from the moral or political domain. Consumers are called upon to ‘vote’ with their ‘food dollar’. Wilkins, as well as other advocates of food citizenship are aware of the fact that consumers are actually not worrying too much about what has been called the ‘predential’ considerations about food, such as how it is produced, where and by whom. Nevertheless, they argue that consumers should become less passive. Wilkins cites a white paper published by Cornell University’s Polson Institute for Global Development in which the authors propose that “the idea of food citizenship captures a shift in which consumers move beyond [mere food] shopping to a broader engagement with the food system in its many dimensions” In 1986 Joan Gussow and Kate Clancy, leaders in the fields of nutrition as well as food systems, coined the term ‘sustainable diets’ in order to point to a broader spectrum of important considerations concerning food choices beyond the health aspects.
Both, Wilkins as well as the authors of the white paper she mentioned, argue that it is a task of particular universities ‘as leaders in life sciences, social-economic development and human ecology “to provide public and private decision makers with the information and tools they need to support an engaged food citizenry, a sound public food policy, and a vibrant food landscape” (2003: 7). The motivation for ascribing that task to universities is the huge impact of public and private decisions about food and the centrality of food to people’s well-being. The presumption of the advocates of food citizenship is that by their food choices people support a certain food system. Food citizens should be aware of those influences, and they should know what kind of food system they would like to support and how that can be realised. Wilkins claims that it is in the interest of industrial food production and the dominant food industry to keep the consumers passive and prevent them from thinking about food systems and their sustainability.
Wilkins herself, as a president of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, favours a so-called community food system: “a collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies […] in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental, and social health of a particular place”. Those community food systems are also called ‘civic agriculture’ and the consumers in there role of food citizens are fitting within that ideal. Not only are the food citizens fitting within that ideal, becoming an engaged consumer is also a way of realising that ideal. People, according to that ideal, should choose foods that are ‘grown in a manner that regenerates natural systems’, that are ‘processed and marketed in a way that distributes, rather than concentrates the profits’ and that are ‘transported locally’. Besides by their shopping choices, food citizens can also lobby for the availability of the desired food in canteens, restaurants and supermarkets and ask questions about the origin of the food in order to make informed choices.
This view is held by academics involved in the debate, such as the people and institutions mentioned above. It is also embraced by societal and environmental organisations, such as the Dutch “Goede Waar & Co”, who refer to the ‘power of the shopping bag’ (“de macht van de boodschappentas”), for instance in their campaigns to buy clothes that are not produces by child labor (“schone kleren campagne”) and food stuffs that do not contain gmo’s. Another example is the campaign ‘Nederland gaat biologisch’ of Natuur en Milieu in cooperation with 30 societal organisations with the aim of encouraging their members to buy organic products. The view I described here as ‘food-citicenship’is also implied when politicians, such as the Dutch minister of agriculture, Veerman, refer to the hypocrisy of the consumers whose behaviour on the market is not in accordance with their claimed values.

3.2 “Citizen, don’t bother the consumer!”
An opposed view on consumer responsibility that has been influential in the Dutch debate has been brought forward by Paul Diederen. Instead of pleading for a merger of consumer and citizen, he proclaims that the citizen should mind his own business and stop bothering the consumer. Diederen argues that it makes no sense to point towards the responsibility of the individual consumer in the project of realising a more animal and environmentally friendly agriculture. It is not useful to hold consumers responsible, because each individual contribution is much to small in relation to what is needed in order to realise a different agricultural system. It would be useless and thus irrational for an individual consumer to pay more for animal- and environmentally friendly products.
According to Diederen the aim of realising a better environment has the typical properties of collective goods, namely non-exclusiveness and non-rivalry. Take, for instance clean soil and air and nice landscapes. No-one can be excluded from its profits and the use that any one person makes of it has no consequences for the possibilities of use of all the others. The same, according to Diederen, holds for animal welfare, although that could probably better be called a ‘collective service’. Collective goods and services - such as animal welfare, natural resources, the quality of nature and the environment - are most appropriately provided by the collective, that means by government. Diederen states that making animal friendliness in the agriculture a private good means that one is expected to be happy with the marginal effect that one’s individual purchase behaviour has.
The basis of Diederen’s view is economical theory. He acknowledges that the economical point of view is different from the moral or ethical point of view and has no means of dealing with anything like the appeal to and of morality. Central to the economical point of view is the idea of rational behaviour according to which people are mainly interested in the effect of their choices and behaviour. There is no such thing as intrinsic ethical qualities of behaviour. Buying an egg from a free-range chicken, according to that view, is not good or recommendable, if it doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the welfare of the chicken. This view is shared by politicians and citizens in the debate. It subscribes to the classical distinction between consumer and citizen that is described by Michiel Korthals as follows:
“Traditional ethical and political theories make a huge conceptual distinction, indeed a gap, between citizen on the one hand and consumer on the other, which is to some extent comparable to Rousseau’s distinction between ‘bourgeois’ and ‘citoyen’. Rousseau connects this distinction with the other distinction between ‘amour propre’ and ‘amour de soi’, or a love centred on the relation between self and others, and a love centred on the self and addressed to its natural needs (Rousseau, 1956). In virtue of this distinction, it would be possible to assign to the consumer (bourgeois) a properly public/ private domain in which the consequences of his or her action affect only him- or herself: the market. The non-egocentric notion of amour propre is assigned to the public domain of politics, by acting together as citizens (citoyen) in virtue of citizen sovereignty.” (p. 202)
Thus, consumers were figured as apolitical, because their actions were seen as regarding only themselves. (Elster, 1997, p. 10) Consumers were conceived as passive and manipulated by the producers in their purchase behaviour. (Schumpeter, 1999, p. 65) Consumers were seen as following their own interests on the market.

4. Consumer responsibility on the food market
I will argue that the position I described as food-citizenship is the stronger one and that the other position has serious shortcomings. I will give you three reasons for that.
First, I think it is important to realise that our purchase behaviour is an activity that has consequences not only for ourselves, but also for others. Our choices on the market can make a difference to the world, for instance in not contributing to practices we condemn and in contributing to practices we appreciate. By buying organic products, for instance, we are supporting organic agriculture. By buying products from intensive animal husbandry, we are supporting those practices. If we find those practices problematic, we can chose to stay a part of the problem or rather to become a part of the solution.
Secondly, because of the relevant consequences which our behaviour on the market has, it is not morally indifferent. As consumer behaviour has consequences for other living beings and actually can harm others, the sphere of consumption cannot be free from moral considerations. To the contrary, consumption offers us a unique possibility for translating our values into concrete action. We consume everyday, we make choices and our choices matter.
The distribution of costs and benefits and the use of resources are subject to a concern with fairness. The question how we should live together on this planet is not of only personal concern, but is a moral and political question.
I agree with the aim of realizing an agricultural practice that is animal friendly and sustainable. Therefore, I choose to support a vegan and organic agriculture and by adopting a vegan lifestyle. As Sapontzis points out, the avoidance of animal products appears to be the best feasible option when we are concerned with the avoidance of unnecessary suffering and the increase of welfare of sentient beings. It is evident that animals suffer very much during the actual production process and they would still suffer when the process would be changed in order to make it less cruel. The ‘costs’ inflicted on the animals in terms of the deprivation of a fulfilling life stand in no relation to the gain of their use by humans. This holds especially if we consider the alternatives that already exist (and very likely would be developed) for fulfilling human needs. Vegan agriculture makes possible a much more efficient use of soil, water and energy and thus is a more efficient way of providing food for people. Besides, it is less polluting to the environment and it leaves more space that could be used for nature and free animals. With respect to sustainable development especially changes in the consumption of animal produce are of interest, because along with sugar, coffee and wine, dairy, meat and fish are components of a Western diet with a considerable environmental impact (e.g. Carlsson-Kanyama, 1998; Gerbens-Leenes & Nonhebel, 2002; Gerbens-Leenes, Nonhebel & Moll, 2002; Kramer, Moll, Nonhebel & Wilting, 1999; Nonhebel & Moll, 2002; Stockholm International Water Institute – SIWI, 2004.) I am in favour of an organic vegan agriculture, because organic agriculture is less polluting, as no pesticides are used. The ground is kept more healthy and free animals such as insects, birds and reptiles, can more easily coexist with organic agriculture.
My third reason for favouring the approach of food citizenship is that it is indeed not completely unclear in which direction the agricultural sector should develop. There is a general agreement about the importance of sustainability and at least some forms of consumption are surely not compatible with that aim. At the same time, I think that people should make up their minds about what kind of agricultural practices they want and how they can contribute to that. There is a deliberative aspect in the idea of food citizenship which is important.

I think that people indeed do have double moral standards and that they should orient themselves towards the idea of food citizenship. That, however, does not mean that only the individual consumer is responsible for changing the agricultural practices. Everyone should take the moral aim into account in his or her choices. That can be as a consumer, as a citizen when voting or engaging otherwise for certain policies, in societal organisations, as a politician, as a farmer, as a teacher or what ever. The question is falsely posed as whether the consumer or the citizen should be responsible. These options are not mutually exclusive. We are responsible in all our roles. While we are engaging for appropriate collective agreements, nothing hinders us from making the choices that are available to us in an animal friendly and sustainable way. Instead of being a part of the problem we can chose to become a part of the solution.
In terms of the topic of this conference, the market being like it is, we can already translate our moral concerns into consumption behaviour. The market is not a sphere of action that lies outside the scope of morality. By really acknowledging this and taking our individual responsibility, we can influence the way the market works. We can do this everyday as consumers. We can do it in our other ‘roles’ as well, which are not mutually exclusive. Once we have determined our moral aim, we can – as citizens, as politicians - also change the way the market works in order to make it work more efficiently. Regarding animal friendliness and sustainability, we could represent the external, societal and environmental costs in the prices. We could also take more drastic measures and legally ban some forms of agriculture in order to indicate the limits of the market. The market is a means and as such should be evaluated and adjusted in order to serve our ends.