Stray Dog Institute believes in transforming the US food system to benefit animals, people, and the environment. As a funder, we support a diverse array of individuals and organizations driving the food system transformation movement. We elevate narratives and innovations with the power to deliver systemic change.
This guest blog by Amanda Hitt of the Food Integrity Campaign at Government Accountability Project presents an alternative ethical framework to help guide truly transformational charitable giving in the food system space. If applied to food system philanthropy, this ethical framework can turn today’s externalities into the drivers of tomorrow’s inclusive prosperity.
Perhaps you have been working in food system philanthropy for decades, or perhaps you are new to it. Either way, the odds are you are experiencing some tough choices when it comes to deciding how best to allocate philanthropic time, attention, and resources. The industrial food system has no shortage of problems. Reasonable people can debate what to do and where to begin, but make no mistake, the time for bold and decisive action is now.
The current food system benefits highly concentrated corporate agribusiness. Despite the occasional fashionable advertising label suggesting the contrary, industrial agriculture has little legitimate concern about a food product’s actual societal value. The blog below argues that focusing philanthropic giving in the food system solely on food as a commodity, rather than a common good to be enjoyed by all, undermines the public’s health and our relationships with animals, each other, and the natural world. Aligning food systems and philanthropic giving with the ethical framework of the common good could identify the most effective philanthropic targets and spur a paradigm shift in food production.
Deciding Where to Give
What does it mean to do “good”? Answering this question requires an ethical decision-making framework based on trust. Institutional standards and truisms within society play an important role in forming the ethical decision-making frameworks that govern charitable giving.
Historically, we derive these standards from trusted social institutions, including organized religion, government, police, small business, military, big business, media, public schooling, medical systems, and the criminal justice system. Over the last two years, public trust in traditional institutions has become increasingly eroded.
Changing perceptions regarding institutional trust, however, may present opportunities to forge new trust relationships that can bring about much-needed systemic change. The food system, for example, could be reimagined and reinvigorated by addressing the crises of trust through the implementation of new decision-making frameworks.
Particularly, the “common good” ethical framework, if used to inform philanthropic giving, could transform our food system from one that profits and plunders through cost-cutting externalities to one that invites those same externalities to become the drivers of critical food systems change and future prosperity.
Traditional Moral Decision-Making Frameworks in Charitable Giving
The number of charitable organizations in the US has increased over the last decade. In 2019, 1.5 million nonprofit organizations were registered with the IRS, contributing roughly 5.5 percent to the US GDP. Understanding how trust and altruism play a role in charitable giving has become an area of increasing interest across the growing nonprofit sector.
Public institutions have long contributed to establishing trust. Seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that public institutions in society play a critical role in interrupting humanity’s catastrophic nature. Trusted institutions, Hobbes suggested, work to facilitate relationships between individuals, governments, and corporations. In the process, they promote cooperation, mediate competition, and protect social cohesion.
Not surprisingly, these same institutions inform moral decision-making in charitable giving. The most common tools are rights-based and utilitarian models. Very simply, a rights-based framework is one where the giver aligns their giving with a moral good. A philanthropist using a utilitarian framework, on the other hand, gives to promote the greatest good. While scholars spend significant amounts of time debating the differences between these approaches, they both rely on trusted institutional standards to define “good.”
The “Trust Deficit”
Trust describes the belief that an individual or social entity will do what is right or good and forms the basis of moral decision-making in philanthropy. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of a cultural “trust deficit” that is undermining our relationships and our belief in institutions.
In 2021, global communications firm Edelman released its latest “Edelman Trust Barometer” indicating dramatic erosion of trust in governments, media, and religious institutions, traditionally the backbone of public trust. Edelman has been tracking consumer trust across sectors since 2012 to help business clients improve brand reputation. The report suggested broad and growing public mistrust of institutions, brought on by chronic exposure to misinformation coupled with the pervasive uncertainty of the global pandemic.
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that we lack the ability to assess good given our unprecedented access to information via the internet. However, twentieth-century futurist Alvin Toffler warns against what he calls the “dark side” of information technology: That our capacity to create deception has outpaced our ability to verify truth. This, he warned, could mark the end of truth. As phrases like “fake news” and “conspiracy theory” become part of our daily discourse, Toffler’s prediction seems to have come to fruition.
A public “trust deficit” threatens to upend philanthropic giving. Simply put, without trusted institutions upon which to base definitions of “good,” it becomes impossible to determine how to “do good” with either rights-based or utilitarian philanthropic giving.
Toward the “Common Good”
Fortunately, rights-based and utilitarian approaches are not the only ethical frameworks that can help direct philanthropic resources in the food system. The “Common Good” approach derives a definition of “good” from the multiple perspectives of varied stakeholders and beneficiaries rather than from a single unitary institutional source such as a government, academic body, or religious tradition.
Similar to the maxim “a rising tide lifts all boats,” the Common Good ethical lens is rooted in broad public benefit and mutual reciprocity.[i] A healthy, equitable, thriving food system is a common good with broad societal benefit similar to other public goods such as functional economies, public safety, justice, and a healthy environment.
Using this approach illuminates barriers to philanthropy that come from unitary definitions of good. For example, philanthropic givers in the food system often fail to incorporate stakeholder perspectives into strategic conversations. The common good ethical approach provides a useful check. By definition, common goods are those identified by multiple stakeholders. To be a true common good, the food system must represent and benefit all sectors of society.
Moreover, the common good approach can avoid tradeoffs that markedly improve the lives of one stakeholder group while running the risk of “shifting oppression” to another group or externality such as the environment.
The Common Good Framework in Action
Slaughter speeds at pork processing plants provide one recent example of how the common good ethical framework can clarify which interventions create systemic change vs. which interventions achieve unitary benefits while shifting the burden of oppression from one externality to another. Pork slaughter plants are struggling to meet demand. With workers in short supply since the COVID-19 pandemic, plants are asking staff to work longer shifts and extra days. Despite dangers to their own health and safety, employees would prefer to work fewer hours with higher-speed lines. In response, the industry has asked for waivers to go faster. This sounds like a reasonable solution from a singular workers’ rights perspective. But the common good approach demonstrates that many other externalities are still being left on the table. The line speed compromise does not do anything to address food safety issues from lack of worker training and federal oversight, animal welfare concerns for pigs entering high-speed slaughter lines, or transmission of illness between workers, animals, and the consumer public. Moreover, it does not address underlying problems with industrial pork farming, including corporate concentration and environmental justice impacts for neighboring communities.
At first blush, the idea of expanding your philanthropy’s reach to a systemic level rather than narrowing your giving to a specific interest area might seem counterproductive. Can’t we do the most good by focusing our efforts? In response, it can be helpful to view the common good approach as an opportunity to pool money with other philanthropic interests to grow their collective impact. Pooled funding in the food system can aggregate capital from diverse sources to achieve a greater level of systemic change. This unified approach should be seen as not merely beneficial but necessary when considering the challenges we now face: the impending need to feed 10 billion people while responding to climate change and revolutionizing food production. Broadening your perspective and working in tandem with—or actively funding—system-wide reform allows your philanthropic values to enter into a larger discussion.
Shifting the Narrative: Externalities as Stakeholders
During the 20th century, industrial agriculture aimed to achieve the societal “good” of cheap, abundant food, but used a unitary definition of good based only around quantity. To produce low-cost food, the industry externalized costs and ignored impacts accruing to animals, food system workers, farming communities, rural economies, public health, and the natural environment. Cheap and abundant food became normalized and supported human population growth. However, the “good” of industrial productivity was never a common good, as it was not enjoyed equitably by all sectors of society. The externalized costs and stakeholder perspectives ignored by industrial agribusiness have continued to grow to their breaking point.
The environment is one of industrial agriculture’s primary externalized costs. The list of damages is long: pesticide runoff, depleted soil, loss of biodiversity, animal waste pathogens, contaminated waters, and desertification. Agriculture also generates 10% of US GHGs. Livestock and poultry production generate over one-third of US methane emissions due to the digestion processes of meat animals, manure management on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and the fertilizers used to grow animal feed.
Make no mistake; our broken system has taken a toll on all of society. Climate change has already altered weather patterns, contributing to stronger hurricanes, heavy rain and flooding, heatwaves, and droughts. Our highly consolidated food system and its supply chain were put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they didn’t pass. Overreliance on a single concentrated supply chain maximizes profits for agribusiness at the risk of multiple looming catastrophes. Fortunately, there are immediate steps that can prevent catastrophic food system failure and transform our system for the better. Philanthropic giving driven by the common good can smartly support those actions.
The transition to a common good food system must incorporate a diversity of solutions informed by local culture and environments, with full participation from producers and consumers, and genuine benefits to all rather than monopoly profits for agribusiness. We must respect the diversity of interests at all scales of production and resist easy one-size-fits-all solutions.
Urban and rural stakeholders will bring different problems to the table, and farmers at different scales will need different solutions. For example, in large rural row-crop contexts, mechanization could allow for intercropping, which encourages soil health, and hedgerows can create habitat for native species. At smaller scales or in urban contexts, small-scale agroecological farming with abundant human labor can be both highly productive and biodiverse.
A food system reimagined using the common good framework would make the environment a beneficiary rather than a victim of food production. Food produced for the common good would not damage the planet but actually improve the health of the environment. Rather than contribute to global climate change, the common good food system would actively mitigate its impact.
Food System Laborers
Industrial agriculture advantages itself on the backs of low-wage workers who perform dangerous, dirty work. Agribusiness consolidation has left the predominately immigrant workforce of slaughterhouses and farms with little bargaining power and few workplace safety protections. By recruiting an increasingly disenfranchised and migratory workforce, the agricultural industry has escaped accountability.
In the absence of a common good approach, it is tempting to look to technology for the answer to exploitive labor conditions. There is considerable interest in developing robots that can perform grueling tasks on farms and in slaughterhouses. Ostensibly, these innovations seem to solve the problem of abusive labor practices. In reality, these solutions simply bandage the failed status quo. Looking closely, the driver of this innovation is yet more profit for agribusiness, not workers’ best interests within the common good. These solutions treat workers as expendable and ignore animal welfare, pollutants, water use, or the copious use of agrichemicals (think fertilizer, pesticides, or antibiotics and chemical disinfectants with animal products). Food system philanthropy comes with the responsibility to be mindful of promoting solutions that merely prop up an abusive system.
The common good approach would demand addressing labor exploitation while also considering impacts to other externalities and stakeholders. Remember, it was short-sighted technological advancement to produce cheap food that brought us today’s broken food system. The current system can’t simply be improved; it must be turned on its head.
While farmers in today’s industrial food system certainly fare better than their labor force, farmers also suffer as agribusiness corporations continue to consolidate and exert power throughout the industrial supply chain. To mitigate market risks, farmers are increasingly entering into contracts that require taking large loans, making them vulnerable to corporate exploitation and trapping them in a lifetime of debt. Making matters worse, many of these risky loans are backed by federal guarantee programs that, upon default, hit the taxpayer in the pocketbook and leave communities to bear the blight of farm bankruptcies.
Farming in a common good food system would offer farmers better options than being squeezed between agribusiness control and ruin. Common good farming would mean economically beneficial jobs with dignity that reflect commonly held values and beliefs. The common good approach to farming would center on producing wholesome products for human health with forward-thinking land stewardship and ecologically beneficial farm practices. Food production under this framework would never privilege volume or cost efficiency over the health of neighboring communities or the wise use of shared natural resources such as water, soil, and air.
Fortunately, there is a growing societal appetite for food production that serves the common good. Polling indicates that Gen Z and Millennials care deeply about the environment and trust brands that mirror those values. Feeding a growing population without relying on risky industrial agriculture will require many more farmers and a bright future for farming.
Years of value extraction with no investment have decimated rural communities that rely heavily on agriculture to survive. Nearly 60 million Americans call rural America home. Sadly, these small towns have been in a relentless economic decline driven by agribusiness consolidation. The latest US Census Bureau estimate shows rural areas lost 226,000 people between 2010 and 2020. Lack of investment has meant too few job opportunities and young people migrating elsewhere. Declining rural communities with little technological enhancement have become prey for opportunistic industries, including tobacco and later poultry.
Make no mistake; industrial agriculture is built on economic disenfranchisement and systemic racism. Demographically, US farmers are male (64%), older (62% over 55), and white (95.4%). This lack of diversity is a consequence of decades of policy that has prevented Black land ownership and exploited Black labor. Meanwhile, adjacent low-income neighborhoods, primarily communities of color, have borne the brunt of agribusiness pollution for decades. Powerful agricultural corporations have profited from placing polluting facilities in Black and immigrant communities where residents are exposed to higher air pollution than white communities.
Recent demographic reports are already giving a strong indication that rural regions are trending toward non-white population growth, making white-dominant one-size-fits-all approaches unwise. In a recent blog about the changing demographics in rural America, the Brookings Institute strongly encouraged adopting policies programs that are responsive to the changing rural landscape and that look beyond “antiquated frameworks and “acknowledge the importance of nurturing diverse, dynamic, and connected rural communities.”
Reimagining food production as a common good could correct the depopulation of rural America and bring about an inclusive economic renaissance in farming. A food system serving the common good would embrace participation across cultures and backgrounds and naturally eschew longstanding institutionalized racism and white supremacy. Increasing investment in rural communities would support diverse farmer entrepreneurs and widespread prosperity.
Our consolidated industrial food system provides cheap, abundant food, particularly processed foods and industrial animal products. However, this cheap abundance comes with public health consequences similar to long-recognized societal risks such as industrial pollution, smoking, and high alcohol consumption.
The inexpensive, highly processed food produced by industrial agribusiness has been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Public health research indicates that diet is a major contributor to chronic disease. Industrial animal agriculture supports high per capita consumption of animal-source foods with substantial health consequences. Meat consumption is linked to cardiovascular disease,, cancer,,,, Type 2 diabetes,, and food pathogens. Moreover, like second-hand smoke, the meat industry wreaks havoc on the health of others—not just the product’s end-user. While health impacts affect individuals, the societal cost of treating and managing widespread chronic disease is a burden borne by all.
Furthermore, consumer health damage from industrial processed foods and high animal product consumption exacerbates existing health disparities between racial and ethnic groups. These existing disparities are the result of many additional factors that lie beyond the scope of this conversation, including systemic racism, income inequality, language barriers, immigrant status, and health and food access concerns.
Our food system is already in flux following the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to overhaul the industrial model and build a new system. This is not merely an emotional call to action but an opportunity to think strategically about how to create a new kind of wealth and prosperity in an uncertain future. As society comes to fully understand the fragility of industrial food production, opportunities arise. Innovations range from biotechnology to agroecology; from large-scale robotics to small-scale skilled farm work; from reclaiming rural lands damaged by industrial agriculture to repurposing vacant urban buildings for vertical growing. At all scales and across all regions, the possibilities are myriad.
Philanthropy has a crucial role to play in inverting the externalities of industrial food production to become the drivers of tomorrow’s inclusive prosperity. While philanthropic opportunities abound, it is important to allow the common good framework to guide the identification of systemic, inclusive solutions. Some philanthropic targets that benefit one interest group or externality may, in fact, deepen systemic problems if evaluated according to the needs of the common good.
Critical to addressing this challenge is making sure philanthropic resources are allocated in a way that fosters a transformative food system vision rather than continuing failed paradigms. We must produce food in ways that simultaneously build economic inclusion, respect animal wellbeing, and strengthen environmental health. This means encouraging inclusive innovation to develop a food system in which all stakeholders thrive. Achieving the promise of food system philanthropy will require forging a new, inclusive framework for public trust and collectively forging a shared common good.
[i] The common good approach can be fortified by infusing it with principles of justice and emphasizing diversity and inclusion of individuals into structures.
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