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The Future of Protein was a two day roundtable discussion on sustainable agriculture. Photo: Pixahere.

The ins and outs of agricultural ethics and sustainability

Thirty food experts recently landed at the University of Ottawa to introduce nuance into the conversation on the future of protein production.

On Oct. 25 and 26, the Alex-Trebek Forum for Dialogue sponsored a two-day symposium, titled The Future of Protein, where six roundtable discussions explored sustainable agriculture, and the ethical implications of protein production.

“There’s all of these debates happening, but they’re kind of in little silos,” said political studies  professor and symposium organizer, Ryan Katz-Rosene. The aim of the symposium, Katz-Rosene said, was to look at the future of protein production from interdisciplinary perspectives and “steer away from singular solutions.”

With an interdisciplinary focus, each round table featured four off-campus experts and one University of Ottawa moderator. Experts included the New Farm author Brent Preston, the Mindful Carnivore author Tovar Cerulli, Sustainable Dish podcast host Diana Rodgers, and Greenpeace campaigner Éric Darier.

A central debate at the conference examined the environmental and health impacts of protein-based foods, including animal, plant, and lab-created products.

“A slight majority of the conference participants agreed that we need to eat and produce less meat and less livestock,” said Katz-Rosene.

One of Greenpeace’s goals is to reduce current wheat and dairy production by 50 per cent.

“More data won’t necessarily lead to more action,” said Éric Darier, ecological campaigner for Greenpeace. “I think we have to think of systemic solutions; I think that’s really the key element.”

However, lab-created sources of protein also complicate food production by introducing capitalist motives and unknown ingredients, said Katz-Rosene.

“On one hand it gets rid of the ethical concern of human damaging and killing animals for sustenance,” he said. “(But) you just can’t wash your hands because there’s problems with the notion of shifting our entire production to industrialized methods.”

Another concern raised was how farmers will supply food to nine billion people in 2050.

“In farm country—if you stopped your car and walked into any particular field would there be anything there you could actually eat?” asked Brent Preston, organic farmer and author of the New Farm. “The answer is almost always no anywhere in North America.”

Food produced by Canadian farms usually needs to be processed or fed to animals, he said.
Panelists agreed that North American farms typically overproduce calories compared to dietary standards.

Addressing ethical concerns around protein consumption, philosophy professor at Dalhousie University, Andrew Fenton, said agricultural ethics are “the reduction or elimination of the physiological markers of stress.”

Fenton added that ethical practices include reducing the pain capacity of animals, exploring alternative protein sources like edible insects, and yielding greater production value from fewer animals.

In contrast, Donald W. Bruckner, philosophy professor at Pennsylvania State University, said the harms and benefits of dietary choices should be viewed as part of a bigger overall picture. 

Bruckner added that agricultural ethics become complicated by other factors, like the environmental effects of alcohol production. “Plant production required to produce alcohol takes up to 54-million acres worldwide,” he said.

Though panelists were divided on how to approach protein production in the future, most voiced approval at the diversity of expertise represented at the symposium.

“One of the things we want to do is to contextualize some of these issues so that when policy-makers are making some of their decisions they can be clearer on who is going to benefit, and who is going to lose, and what the potential outcomes (are),” said Katz-Rosene.

To help guide future research, Katz-Rosene hopes to have students analyze the symposium for the  main points of agreement and disagreement regarding the future of protein production.