07 October 2015
6 min read

For all those black and white ethical matters, and those considered ‘common sense’, there are also some matters that are shrouded in uncertainty. Top of the ‘uncertain ethics’ list is food.

When most people think of ethics, they might think of the rules distinguishing between what’s right and wrong; do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so on.

In terms of living a more ethical life, one of the areas where people become most uncertain, or even protective about, is food.

The case for ethical eating

Many people are overwhelmed when they realise how much suffering and injustice goes into making the familiar products that line our supermarket shelves. Whether it’s the abuse of animals, exploitation of workers, failure to offer nutrition, environmental devastation, low farm wages, or all of the above – there’s enough problems to cause you to admit defeat and claim it impossible to make ethical food choices. But is it really?

Sure, making food choices that align with your personal values is not going to be easy at first. But as with every minefield, there are ways to navigate around the issues.

One of the major ways many people choose to address the issues that are important to them is by refusing to eat animal products. We can’t argue with the principles of this as the majority of methods used to ‘farm’ animals are appallingly cruel, with livestock kept cramped in close quarters, often unable to move. And because farm animals are viewed as commodities, the treatment they receive is nothing short of unjust. With chicken production, for example, at the very least there’s overcrowding, disease, high death rates, and observable unhappiness of the animals. Giving up meat means you'll save more carbon than giving up owning and driving your own car. And livestock production globally uses one-third of the world’s fresh water. There’s no doubt that eating meat has a negative environmental, moral and social impact.

We could go on, but that’s not the goal here – we’re not out to make omnivores feel bad! We know that not everyone wants to give up meat, eggs, and other animal products. So what are the alternatives? Can you still eat ethically without going completely vegetarian or vegan?

Eating ethically without being vegan

Ethical eating involves a number of process, including:

  • Scanning your options
  • Respecting human rights
  • Avoiding cruelty
  • Eating seasonally
  • Cutting out processed and fast food
  • Choosing the eco-friendly options
  • Lowering (but not necessarily stopping) your intake of meat.

Let’s look at each of these points in more detail.

1. Scan your options

If you want to be smarter about what you eat, do your research and get to know what’s out there. Release your inner-nerd and spend some quality time learning where your food is coming from, and what processes are involved in producing it – you’re reading this, so that’s a great start! Find out whether or not your chocolate is fair trade. Fair trade foods help ensure that the workers involved in production are paid a fare wage, particularly important with foods such as chocolate, coffee, strawberries, and oranges. Check out the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide, and the Palm Oil Investigations app which includes an easy-to-use barcode scanner. A couple of good films to watch include Just Eat it, Cowspiracy, Supersize Me, and That Sugar Film.

2. Respect human rights

Australia has strict workplace laws surrounding food, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for many countries around the world. A lot of popular products, such as coffee, tea, and chocolate, come from developing countries where the workers are not treated fairly. Thankfully, the introduction of Fairtrade-certified products makes choosing wisely a simple process. You can also use the Shop Ethical app to find out about the environmental and humanitarian record of the brands you tend to buy.

3. Avoid cruelty

Apart from the obvious (saying no to that juicy porterhouse), you can reduce your support of animal cruelty by making smarter choices when it comes to buying meat. Of course, nothing avoids cruelty more than just choosing not to eat meat. But better meat choices than factory farmed meat include selecting products with the RSPCA Paw of Approval label, or buying from a farmer’s market so that you can chat with the farmers directly about their processes to ensure they're as ethical as possible. Choosing certified-organic meat is another good way to reduce cruelty, as is looking out for a free range certification.

4. Eat seasonally

Eating seasonally not only means that your produce tastes better, but it’s also better for the environment, farmers, and your health. A call for tomatoes out of season means they must be ripened in an energy-surged hothouse or transported from far away. When transported over a distance, fruit and veggies must be picked early to accommodate for the time it takes to get to you, as well as sprayed with radiation and preservatives. Yuck!

5. Cut out fast food

Most, if not all, meat, eggs, and dairy products used in fast food are produced at factory farms. In an effort to make the fast food industry more profitable, animals in some overseas countries are fed hormones that increase growth and milk and egg production. This can lead to painful inflammation of the udder, known as mastitis, as well as crippling and debilitating conditions for poultry. Fast food also uses a hell of a lot of packaging materials. It’s not rocket science – eating at home means controlling what goes into your mouth!

6. Pick the eco-friendly options

With food accounting for 28% of our ecological footprint, it’s crucial that we consider what we are eating so as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Five key ways to reduce your food footprint include:

  • Support local produce, or shopping at a farmer’s market. This means that you’re cutting out the fuel required to transport goods;
  • Cut back on processed foods and packaged goods that involve extra resources to produce;
  • Buy organic produce and products free of antibiotics, added hormones, pesticides, and fertilisers;
  • Be selective about seafood, and looking for locally caught and raised fish;
  • Avoid endangered, threatened, or at-risk species or habitats – such as Patagonian toothfish, abalone, sharks, and krill (krill is key to the Antarctic food chain, so it makes sense not to mess with it!). Threatened habitats where food is grown include Indonesia’s rainforests that are threatened by palm oil plantations, or mangroves that are removed for prawn fisheries.
  • Compost your fruit and veggie skins, leftover pulp, eggshells, coffee grounds, loose tea, and so on. Organic waste in landfill creates methane, which is about 12 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

Ethical eating is fast gaining popularity amongst the masses, thanks to the rising number of initiatives looking at promoting ethical practices. By supporting as many of these as you can, you highlight consumer demand for ethical food. More demand means more companies will jump aboard the ethical train. The best way to crowd unethical companies out of the market is to use your power as a consumer and buy the better alternatives!

7. Lower your meat intake

As omnivorous animals we do not ‘need’ meat to survive. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of people who don’t enjoy it, however. If you can’t quite bring yourself to give up meat, try to instead reduce your intake to just one or two nights a week. Don’t stress about nutrient intake – with a bit of simple planning, you can still ensure you get enough protein, Iron, Vitamin B, Vitamin A, and Omega-3s through non-animal sourced foods.

Still not quite sure how to eat more ethically? Try these great recipes that might just make you think twice about vegan food.

Cheeseless Black Bean Lasagne, by Trisha Yearwood:


400g extra firm tofu

2 cans black beans

1 can diced tomatoes

1 tsp oregano

1 small onion

1 can tomato paste

1 cup water

¼ cup raw cashews

¼ tsp garlic powder

¼ cup nutritional yeast

3 tbs olive oil

2 tbs chopped basil

225 g oven ready lasagne sheets


  1. Wrap tofu in paper towel and place something heavy on top of it for approximately an hour,
  2. Meanwhile add the black beans, tomatoes, paste, water, onion, oregano, and garlic powder to a medium saucepan. Season with salt to taste and stir occasionally over a low boil for 30 minutes,
  3. Meanwhile add the black beans, tomatoes, paste, water, onion, oregano, and garlic powder to a medium saucepan. Season with salt to taste and stir occasionally over a low boil for 30 minutes,
  4. Pulse cashews in a food processor until finely ground. Transfer to a bowl and crumble tofu over the top. Mix together with your hands to create a ricotta-like texture. Season and stir in yeast, oil, and basil,
  5. In a baking dish layer the bean sauce, cashew and tofu mix, and lasagne sheets, finishing up with a layer of the sauce,

Bake in oven for 40 minutes and prepare to be blown away by this cheeseless wonder.

Zucchini Cake, by The Ethical Chef:


500g grated zucchini

2 mashed ripe bananas

240g margarine

260g plain flour

400g Palmyra Jaggery (natural sweetener)

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract


  1. Mix the zucchini, margarine, and vanilla in a bowl,
  2. Add the dry ingredients one by one, stirring in between each addition,
  3. Pour into a greased loaf pan and bake at 180 degrees for 30 minutes,
  4. Enjoy a guilt-free dessert!