Why Our Food Choices Are Determined by Price—and Not Ethics or Morals

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The cost of moral consideration is cheap, and the marketplace enables consumer choice to trump food ethics.

By James McWilliams

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Health advocates wear T-shirts during a rally in favor of a soda tax at San Francisco City Hall on July 22, 2014. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Two bits of recent food news accomplish something worth pondering: They make an obvious point that confronts a less obvious assumption. The obvious point is that food choices are primarily determined by price. No shock there. The less obvious assumption is that there’s meaningful ethical consideration driving our food choices. This claim should now give us pause. For all the rhetorical angst around the morality of eating, we now have to wonder: Could a downward shift in price obviate traditional moral consideration of our dietary decisions? And if so, why?

A new study on meat consumption by researchers at Rabobank illuminates the nature of this dilemma. Following the decline in overall meat consumption in the United States between 2005 and 2014 (when prices were ticking up), the trend did an about face in 2015, when there was a 5 percent increase in per capita meat consumption. This annual leap was the largest in 40 years. A drop in meat prices, ranging from 5 percent to 22 percent (depending on the product) provides the most logical explanation. “Consumers are responding to falling prices,” writes the study’s lead author. Any rational person would be hard pressed to disagree.

Sensible as this explanation is, though, it confounds advocates who have long seen meat as a moral issue. The Humane Society of the United States has been touting the 2005–14 decline in meat consumption as evidence of a growing ethical awareness that meat comes with considerable ecological and animal welfare-related costs. Programs such as Meatless Mondays, it has suggested, have helped encourage lowered rates of consumption informed by a more enlightened sense of the underlying ethical considerations. “Meat reduction,” said Paul Shapiro, HSUS’s vice president of farm animal protection, “is what is sparing astronomical number of animals from torment and misery.”

The average consumer will see the market economy itself as a moralizing entity, a kind of invisible conscience that by virtue of its existence ensures that if you want something, and can afford it, then that something is ethically sound.FO

So then what to make of the seeming fact that cheaper meat seems to negate the moral imperative to reduce consumption? “It’s bad news, no doubt,” Shapiro told me. But, he added, “the silver lining is that it’s not likely due to genuinely increased demand, but just to lower chicken prices, which have been largely caused by a major oversupply of chicken in the market.” This assessment, made on the defensive, strikes me as optimistically reasonable, and time will be its arbiter. (Still, it doesn’t tell us much about the rise in pork and beef consumption.) Either way, we’re left with the strong impression that the ethical hand wringing over the morality of eating meat — for which I’ve done my fair share — may be more sound and fury than Sturm and Drang.

The second bit of news involved a soda tax imposed by the city of Berkeley, California, in 2015. What happened here couldn’t be simpler: The city raised taxes on soda by a penny an ounce and self-reported rates of consumption, at least according to one study just published in the American Journal of Public Health, dropped 21 percent. Across the Bay in San Francisco, where citizens rejected the tax, rates of consumption went up by 4 percent. As the agricultural economist Jayson Lusk remarked, “Yay Econ 101!”

And, one might add, “Boo for Intro to Ethics.” Sure, we don’t normally think about soda as a moral issue, at least not in the way we do with meat. But in so far as soda has become a proxy in the crusade against Big Food, as well as the symbolic patsy for recent increases in obesity and diabetes, the choice of whether or not to consume soda has assumed a political stance with clear ethical implications. At the least, it’s an issue whereby, at least rhetorically, moral considerations are thought to mingle with economic ones.

Or perhaps not. The fact that critics of excessive soda consumption have long been crusading to reduce the trend, marshaling all kinds of persuasive arguments about its dire public-health consequences, only to have their goal finally accomplished (provisionally) by a miniscule tax increase reiterates the same lesson learned from the increase in meat consumption: When it comes to food and drink, moral suasion is ushered out the door on the cheap.

To understand why requires a deeper appreciation of the justifying power of the sanctioned marketplace. One should never deny the influence of consumer ethics. There will always be a cohort of consumers who see their spending as a question of morality as well as economic rationality. But the fact remains that, when a commodity is legitimated with legal status and a market price, most consumers automatically understand themselves to be exonerated from any conventional moral consideration of that commodity, and encouraged to think about it only in terms of free choice guided by the logic of economic reality.

Morality might get dragged in every now and then by professors and activists, generating some interesting discussions in university seminar rooms. But the average consumer is going to eat more meat and drink less soda for economic rather than moral reasons. Or, to put this more accurately, the average consumer, however implicitly, will see the market economy itself as a moralizing entity, a kind of invisible conscience that by virtue of its existence alone ensures that if you want something, and can afford it, then that something is ethically sound. (Although the point is rarely made, I suspect this is why opponents of legal prostitution are so appalled by idea of sex having a legitimate market price while the supporters of assault weapons are desperate to keep them legal.)

In an excellent overview of U.S. meat consumption, Eliza Barclay holds out hope that, along with several experts she interviewed, that “One day, the majority of Americans could be turning down burgers and bacon for reasons other than price.” I hope this prediction is correct. And while I have no idea how such a transition could occur, I do know that it will require some serious re-thinking about what it means when a good or service comes to us at a market determined price, one that buys away our need to consider its moral implications.

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