Ask a vegan or vegetarian why they chose their diet, and you will get a variety of answers. They might be animal lovers, or maybe they’re more interested in the potential health benefits.
But one dietary justification you aren’t as likely to hear is a concern for people who work in the food system.
Because even if no animals suffered in the making of your tofu-spinach lasagna, some humans might have. That’s the message behind Philosophy of Food, an elective course being offered at Western for the second time this semester.
The half-credit course seeks to teach students about the hidden costs associated with the global food system, upon which our grocery stores and restaurants depend. From labour issues to animal rights to environmental impact, the course aims to make students more conscientious about their dietary choices.
“The problems with the food industry cut across, of course, being a vegetarian or vegan,” said Henrik Lagerlund, chair of the Department of Philosophy, who co-teaches the course. “Because part of the problem is the labour issue. Even if you just eat salad, at least if you eat salad coming from the grocery store, you’re still buying into this conventional food system.”
The course is part of Western’s Community Service Learning initiative, so Lagerlund’s students volunteer at local food-related businesses or organizations as part of the curriculum. One group of students, for example, helped create a seed bank – where seeds for heirloom and heritage crops are preserved and distributed – with the activist-gardening group Food Not Lawns. Together, they planted a vegetable garden on campus near Middlesex College.
By engaging with the local community, students are able to apply what they learn in the classroom to their experience in the field, and vice-versa, Lagerlund explained.
The course has only been taught once so far, last fall, to about 60 students. Organizing placements was a learning experience for everyone involved, said professor Benjamin Hill, who co-teaches the course with Lagerlund.
“Any time you’re dealing with community partners, there’s always a learning curve,” Hill said. “But on the whole, the response from the partners was very enthusiastic, and a number of them would like to be involved this year again. And I think the response from the students was equally enthusiastic.”
The labour conditions students experience in London, of course, are much better than those experienced by other players in the food system.
“Food is now cheaper than it’s ever been in the history of the world,” Lagerlund said. “And why is that? The really dark side of all our cheap food and our full supermarkets is this: The way this cheap food is being produced is by exploiting humans.”
For example, there is a significant demand in the West for cashew nuts. But the work required to get the nuts into the grocery store in the first place is largely hidden from shoppers, Lagerlund said.
“Almost all of them come from India, where women usually sit in rows to crack these cashews open,” he said. “You can’t use a machine to get the skin off because they would break the nuts, and we want nice whole nuts in the Western world.”
But cashews contain oil that, after prolonged exposure, is absorbed by the skin.
“After a while the skin becomes all sensitive and your hands start to hurt,” Lagerlund said. “This is just because we like cashew nuts. There’s a demand for cashew nuts and people see that they can make money out of this.”
The solution, Lagerlund said, is to pay more attention to where your food originates.
“When you start looking at that, you’ll be amazed at how far this food has come,” Lagerlund said.
The students in last year’s class were amazed as well, and many changed their eating preferences as a result.
“And that’s really what the course is about,” Lagerlund said. “Making people aware of these issues surrounding food.”