Big Ideas: Engaging in debate over future food systems

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

On Aug. 10, 1973, our food system fundamentally changed.

On that day, U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973, which replaced the United States’ long-standing policies of price supports with new policies geared toward maximizing production.

With unprecedented demand for farm commodities, it is important to provide expanded production by allowing farmers the freedom to make production decisions. The effect of the bill is to set up a new system of price guarantees for American farmers, Nixon said upon signing.


The bill meant to ensure farmers could expand production at a time of a worldwide food shortage, without fear of a serious drop in income. This policy shift was driven as much by the Malthusian crisis of the early 1970s as by Nixon’s desire to use food as a weapon, by the new means for increasing production.

The long-term results of this policy shift, however, were the development of today’s globalized food system – a system of cheap, highly processed foods, dependent on highly technologized and industrialized production techniques, controlled by large, multinational agribusinesses.

Now, the debate about the nature and value of our industrialized food system has resurfaced.

During the previous debate, philosophers were completely absent. They must not be absent from the current debate, and, thanks to the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, they will not be. The philosophy of food is becoming an increasingly important voice in the discussion of our contemporary food system and future food policy.

Philosophers are already contributing to discussions of the ethics of food. These discussions largely focus on the humane treatment of farm animals and the environmental consequences of industrialized farming. But the philosophy of food is much broader than just that.

One issue of increasing significance is the nature of ‘good food.’ Does food simply reduce down to its chemical constituents? Is food more than just a delivery system for calories and nutrients? And if so, what else is it? What is, or ought to be, the role of terroir – rather, geography, geology and climate – in our foods? Are hybridization and genetic manipulation adulterations of food? Should food be as psychologically nurturing and sustaining as it is biologically nurturing and sustaining? What is ‘real’ food?

A second food-related topic of increasing concern centres on human rights and well-being.

There is growing recognition of the fact the cheapness of food currently rests on the commoditization of labour and marginalization of farmers, farmworkers and most of those involved in the processing and distribution of food. Many are beginning to question the value of a food system built upon unjust and exploitive economic and labour practices. Should we in Canada, for example, continue to support an exploitive guest worker program through our food purchases?

Attention is also being paid to the fair and just distribution of foods, especially fresh and wholesome foods, within our communities. What are the obligations we, as a society, have in making food accessible to everyone, and for making sure that food is good food? Concerns about the continued (and increasing) inequality of access to local and organic food systems across socio-economic classes also need to be considered and addressed.

A third topic within the philosophy of food concerns the role food plays in human well-being and flourishing. Certainly, it is necessary for sustaining life, but questions about the role it does, or should play, in a complete, full or fulfilling human life need to be considered, too.

Can a full human life be lived without flavorful and aesthetically pleasing foods? How are friendships and social relationships improved by the character, quality and quantity of the food involved in social engagements? This topic is inseparable from the proper characterization of good food and must be at the front and centre of any discussion concerning the just and equitable distribution of food and food access.

Intimately related, too, is the unexplored social dimension of food – what is the social role of food and meals and how do the foods themselves contribute to our social interactions?

Finally, philosophers need to be involved in discussions concerning the purposes of agriculture policy and the regulation and government oversight of the food system. That issue concerns the purposes of food and the food system, as much as the importance of ensuring a safe and adequate food supply. It was, after all, the absence of any discussion of additional values and goals, other than safety and adequacy, that directly led to the development of today’s industrialized food system.

The philosophy of food focuses on the values that do, or ought to, animate our relationships with food and our food systems. This is a re-conceptualization of our relationship with food. Rather than conceiving of it in terms of an individual’s relationship to particular items on his or her plate, the philosophy of food approaches the topic in terms of a community’s relationship with a whole food system.



It is this re-conceptualization that expands the kinds of values that must be addressed, and fosters the move to include social values. It is by leading the way into a richer and more extensive discussion of food values that the philosophy of food will contribute the future of food in the next generation.

Benjamin Hill is a Philosophy professor who explores the research areas of early modern philosophy and epistemology.