Stephen B. Young is the global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of experienced business, political, academic and community leaders who work to design the intellectual strategies, management tools and practices to strengthen private enterprise and public governance to improve our global community. His e-mail is

Jeanette Leehr is the board chair of Via International, a nonprofit community development organization, and honorary event chair of the Caux Round Table conference "Together at the Table: Ethics in Food and Health Systems" held in Minneapolis last month. Her e-mail is

It's time to talk about the ethics of food

  • October 18, 2009 - 5:56 PM

The great national debate today is over the cost of health care.

But what if different food choices could lower the cost of health care, which is 16 percent of our GDP, by 5 percentage points or more? That would be a huge savings. We also would be living longer, healthier and happier lives.

What if different ways of producing food would reduce global warming?

And what if different diets made us smarter and better able to compete with foreign nations?

As you can see, we have good reasons to discuss the ethics of food. Let's begin with our daily bread: More and more research shows that something is wrong with our collective diet. To give just one example, the majority of Americans now contend with obesity. Our ancestors did not. And obesity causes some of our major health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. These illnesses impose significant emotional and economic costs. Bad diets also harm productivity in the workplace -- with absences because of illness and with diminished physical capacity on the job.

Second, let's consider thinking: Unhealthy diets adversely affect brain function and have been linked to developmental problems in children. And brain development can be compromised by malnutrition -- not only for lack of food but for lack of the right foods, ones filled with key nutrients.

Third, let's consider the environmental impacts: Pesticides and fertilizers that increase yields and lower costs but lead to runoffs that pollute streams, lakes, rivers and oceans; disease risks in the mass production of livestock; and release of greenhouse gases that raise the risk of irreversible global warming.

We have advocates for such scientific and industrial methods applied to farming; we have other advocates for small-scale and organic production at higher costs. We debate what is ''good food'' and what is ''bad food.'' However one views this debate, given the health crises we face, it is imperative that we all now take a very serious look at food. We must work together to regain the certainty that what we consume promotes our health, sustains life and brings enjoyment.

Questions to consider

In today's consumer society, what we eat is what we buy. We use business and free market capitalism to produce, distribute and sell our food. What is the most socially responsible way to grow food?

What price should we pay for our food? Is low cost the best test of ethical business practices in food production and retailing? Lower costs and the abundant variety of foods available to nearly every American add immeasurably to our quality of life. But do they, at the same time, encourage bad eating habits and wasteful consumption?

Does the agribusiness worker figure into this cost calculation, too? Do the sometimes perilous, arduous and psychologically intense tasks within a processing plant or in the fields contribute to physical and mental health problems? What is the impact of harsh working conditions, restrictive contract terms and discrimination on those employed in the food sector?

And what is the ethical role of chefs and restaurants? Do they have a special role to play with food producers? Is there a duty to procure and present healthy foods as more and more of us source our food outside of the home? And in school cafeterias?

If the ethics of food stands at the intersection of health, well-being, enjoyment and saving money, then it stands at the center of Minnesota's future.

We are a center of agribusiness -- Cargill, General Mills, Pillsbury, Hormel -- and a center of farming. We are also a center for health care: Mayo Clinic, Medtronic, St. Jude's, University of Minnesota Medical School, UnitedHealth Group, HealthPartners and others.

Minnesota is also known for leadership in ethics and philanthropy. We are a state that can blend these considerable commercial strengths, professional talents and public sensibilities to articulate and champion ethical standards for food and health.

It is probably no coincidence that President Obama decided to visit Minnesota last month to deliver his health care message. It underscored the important role this state plays in health matters. And the same holds true for food production and ethical leadership. Let's tie our competencies together and lead the way to a healthy and delicious future.

An ethical approach

The Caux Round Table's Principles for Responsible Business can lead the way. Built on the initiative of Minnesota business leaders like Charles M. Denny Jr., Robert McGregor, Tony Andersen and Winston Wallin, the Caux Round Table Principles outline how a business can balance the bottom line with stewardship for its customers, employees, owners, creditors, suppliers and communities, including the environment.

The first principle of an ethical approach to food must be the care of the individual consumer's well-being. Products that do not contribute to health and happiness should not be produced or sold. Merely making a profit is not the sole test of business success.

If the production of our food is an industry "too big to fail," then it, too, must subordinate its short-term profit goals to higher standards of service and responsibility.

© 2018 Star Tribune