Philosopher and bioethicist Anne Barnhill looks at the ethics of the food system from many angles.

A research scholar with the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at Johns Hopkins’ Berman Institute, she’s interested in everything from how food production impacts the environment, to the cultural significance of certain foods, to how dinner time goes for families. 

Barnhill co-authored “Food, Ethics and Society: An Introductory Text” and co-edited the upcoming “Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics.” We spoke with her about her research, the ethical tradeoffs of food policy and what it means to be an ethical eater. 

What kind of projects are you working on now? 

I’m part of a group looking at beef production and consumption in the U.S. We’re exploring different policies that would reduce beef consumption, in order to reduce environmental impact and improve people’s health. We’re trying to understand, from an ethical standpoint, the tradeoffs for each policy we identify.

Can you walk us through one of those tradeoffs?

Let’s say we enacted a policy that caused people to consume less beef but eat more chicken. We would have more chickens raised in animal agriculture, and we might be concerned about their welfare. That’s an example of a tradeoff. We’ve reduced the environmental impact associated with the beef, but maybe we have introduced or exacerbated animal welfare problems. 

We hope to find policies that give us a win-win, that would reduce the environmental impact of animal agriculture, that would shift people to eat in healthier directions and would not have a negative economic impact on people who work in animal agriculture. If we can’t find those win-wins, we have to figure out what’s ethically preferable.

Has thinking through these sorts of tradeoffs changed your eating habits?

It has made me a lot less confident in some of my food choices. I’m ambivalent about the value of buying local. It depends upon how the food was produced, whether it’s in season. It’s complicated.

In other respects, I feel more confident in my choices. For example, eating less meat, eating less animal-sourced food, for a number of different reasons is typically an ethically better choice for people to make. Not in every case, but in most cases. 

What are those cases when it’s not a more ethical choice to eat less meat?

A good example would be people who are resource-constrained, especially in low-income countries, for whom eating meat or animal-sourced foods is effective way to meet nutritional needs. Even if they could in principle meet their nutritional needs with plant-based foods, if they don’t actually have access to those foods, that’s a compelling reason to eat animal-sourced foods. 

Something that’s more complicated is cases in which eating meat has a lot of cultural significance, but the meat or fish isn’t needed for nutritional reasons. What are the right tradeoffs there? How much environmental impact should be tolerated so that people can engage in culturally meaningful meat-eating? That’s where I think the ethics get really interesting and complicated.