I am pleased to announce the publication of my essay “Questions about Food and Ethics”

“Questions About Food and Ethics,” in Emanations: When a Planet was a Planet. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2021. 403-408.

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

selection from “Questions about Food and Ethics”

Is there a benefit to stating kind intentions? Should you explain that you planned to do something thoughtful (but couldn’t actually do it) or simply keep quiet? I would like to use this question as a starting point to think about how what’s “good” and “right” in terms of eating and disposing of food as perceptions can change dramatically between cultures.

What interests me about this topic is the question of whose ethics are you talking about? A behavior which makes perfect sense in one culture, looks odd in another. There is no way to resolve the issues with one ‘best’ answer, but I think it’s helpful to see examples of how ethical systems differ.

First, if I bring cookies to a picnic, I don’t want to open the package because if no one wants them the cookies will get soggy from the humidity and the cookies will be ‘wasted.’ This is not acceptable in Oman. I should open the box, pass the cookies around and then set them out for birds if no one eats them.

I don’t want to feed the birds, especially not my prized Fortnum and Mason cookies but in Dhofar it is shameful to bring something to a picnic/ group meeting and then try to leave with it. If you have brought any kind of prepared food or foodstuff, it should not return to your car and be brought back to your home. If I have brought cookies, either the box needs to be opened or I should give the unopened box to one of the men to give to his children.

A second example is that unwanted food is never spread on sand or dirt as that is seen as unkind to the animals. If there are no rocks, the food is left on pieces of plastic. A few times when I have tried to pick up the plastic that leftover food was placed on, not wanting to leave litter, I was told to leave it. The Gibali men in my research group pick up all the trash from campsites, but it is judged worse to put leftover food on sand than it is to leave it on plastic bags.

Leaving plastic on the ground is not just litter; when eaten by camels and cows, it can cause illness and death. But even a man who owns camels will leave food on a piece of plastic so foxes and birds can have ‘clean’ food, valuing the idea of making sure that the food is eaten, more than the idea of keeping the area clean and preventing a possible future harm.