What is Humane Food?

A few weeks ago, I got a text from my brother-in-law Jeff. He'd just discovered a restaurant he thought I'd love, and the message said, "it was awesome. Put it on your highly recommended list." Jeff has great taste -- I can't think of a time he's steered me wrong -- and I take his recommendations seriously. But Jeff doesn't get all hung up on how his food is sourced the way I do, and I didn't assume that his "it was awesome" meant that I'd feel good about it. I needed to ask.

Jeff and I were texting each other, you'll recall, and I assumed he was at a stoplight or something, so I didn't want to mince words. I considered typing the words "local food?" but that wasn't exactly what I wanted to know. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture classifies all sorts of things I won't eat as "local," and the facts agree with them: these things are produced in our state, and selling them has a positive impact on our economy. But whether the food had a positive impact on our state's economy was not what I wanted to know.

My next thought was to text the words "organic food?" but I eat loads of non-organic, sustainable, local food. "Sustainably sourced?" seemed somehow more "clinical" than I wanted to be via text message, and left too much up for debate. I realized that this process was forcing me to decide what I really wanted, and to pick the few words that would help me figure out if this restaurant would cut it.

I considered the words "fair trade certified?" I'll admit to not caring much for certifications in general, especially with so many meaningless ones out there, but fair trade is important, and the certification process makes it easier to measure and to hold businesses accountable. Still, I'm pretty sure the local, organic, and sustainable food in my Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box isn't fair trade certified, although the farmers are paid a living wage.

Photo credit Kate NG SommersPhoto credit Kate NG SommersFinally, it hit me. Two simple words that pulled the whole thing together and allowed me to succinctly articulate what I care about most:

"Humanely sourced?"

What Matters Most

When I think about it, I don't especially care if the food I eat is local, organic, sustainable, or fair trade. When I don't know my farmer personally, I use these words -- individually or together -- as a quick way to distinguish the good stuff from the bad stuff. The Free Dictionary's definition of "humane" is as good as any I've seen:

1. Characterized by kindness, mercy, or compassion 
Marked by an emphasis on humanistic values and concerns 

When I think about what matters most to me when it comes to the food I eat, this hits the nail on the head. Humane food shows:

Kindness Towards Animals

 The organization Certified Humane's standards include "nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors." I agree. But certification is only one way to know whether your food is humanely sourced.

A few weeks ago, while writing a story about local food at Target Field, I spent an afternoon calling Minnesota restaurants to find out how they sourced their food. My method was purposefully extreme -- I wanted my question to be very clear.

"Can I be sure that the meat I eat at your restaurant did not come from animals that were tortured?" I aksed.

"No," they replied, every single time.

I wasn't asking these people whether or not it's ever humane to eat meat, whether they favored grass-fed beef over corn-fed beef, or whether they knew their farmers. I simply asked if I could be sure that they weren't serving animals that were abused. And every one of them said "no."

In Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent book Eating Animals, the author tells us that there are all sorts of reasons why we shouldn't eat meat, and only one reason why we won't give it up: it's delicious. But is it delicious at any price?

Respect For Our Environment

Any sensible definition of the word "humane" can be applied to our environment as well as to people and animals (and these things are intimately related, are they not?). Our industrial agricultural system shows a lack of respect for our environment in too many ways to name here. For example, in 2006, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that:

Expansion of grazing land for livestock is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America: some 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as pasture, and feed crops cover a large part of the reminder. About 70 percent of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded, mostly because of overgrazing, compaction and erosion attributable to livestock activity.

At the same time, the livestock sector has assumed an often unrecognized role in global warming. [...] FAO estimated that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport. It accounts for nine percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, most of it due to expansion of pastures and arable land for feed crops. It generates even bigger shares of emissions of other gases with greater potential to warm the atmosphere.

Livestock production also impacts heavily the world's water supply, accounting for more than 8 percent of global human water use, mainly for the irrigation of feed crops. Evidence suggests it is the largest sectoral source of water pollutants, principally animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feed crops, and sediments from eroded pastures [...]

The sheer quantity of animals being raised for human consumption also poses a threat of the Earth's biodiversity. Livestock account for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass, and the land area they now occupy was once habitat for wildlife. In 306 of the 825 terrestrial eco-regions identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, livestock are identified as "a current threat", while 23 of Conservation International's 35 "global hotspots for biodiversity" - characterized by serious levels of habitat loss - are affected by livestock production.

Photo credit Kate NG SommersPhoto credit Kate NG SommersDeforestation, erosion, deteriorating water supply, acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and more. Is this humane? By the way, humane food isn't wrapped in unecessary plastic, either.

Compassion for People

Humane food shows compassion for both workers and eaters. Here's how:

Put simply, when food is humanely sourced, the workers get paid a fair price for their work. They are not forced to work without water or breaks, and they are not afraid of being shipped back "home" for expressing an unpopular need or opinion. Humane food is not produced by modern-day slaves. It is not produced by major corporations who hit their quarterly numbers by refusing to pay tomato pickers another penny per pound. When we eat humane food, we risk putting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) out of work, in the best possible way.

Humane food does not have to be certified fair trade, Shared Planet, or Whole Trade. But if it isn't, you might want to ask a few questions before you eat it.

Humane food is not full of high-fructose corn syrup or empty calories, and humane food is not full of healthy promises it can't keep. In fact, humane food doesn't have to promise anything at all; since it doesn't usually have a package, there's not really a place to print those promises anyway.

Humane food doesn't try to talk us into consuming more calories than we need, either. As Michael Pollan wrote in In Defense of Food:

Since 1980, American farmers have produced an average of 600 more calories per person per day, the price of food has fallen, portion sizes have ballooned, and… we’re eating…at least 300 more calories a day than we consumed in 1985…. Nearly a quarter of these additional calories come from added sugars (and most of that in the form of high-fructose corn syrup); roughly another quarter from added fat (most of it in the form of soybean oil); 46 percent from grains (mostly refined)…. The overwhelming majority of [these added calories] supply lots of energy but very little of anything else.

Humane food doesn't leave us “both overfed and undernourished.”

A Question of Language, or of Knowing What We Want?

The language of the local food scene has become inadequate, if not -- at times -- downright useless. The words local, sustainable, organic, and fair trade (to list just a few) have been co-opted, distorted, overused, and shaken down like a criminal on CSI. I still believe we can have these words back if we want them. But do we? In order to find the words to express what we want, we need to know what we want in the first place.

Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Organic Farm in Delano, MN, has said that "organic certification is a substitute for knowing who's growing your food and how they're growing it." The same is true for "fair trade," "sustainable," "local," and "green." What is it we really want when we use these terms? Do we know, and are we prepared to ask tough questions in order to make sure we get it? Are you?


Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. E-mail him at or follow him on Twitter.