Feeding our ethics: A conversation about food and values with Samantha Noll

October 26, 2023 Washington State Magazine Season 3 Episode 26
Feeding our ethics: A conversation about food and values with Samantha Noll
Show Notes Transcript
A simple decision about what to order for lunch can have profound effects on others.

“Food is interesting because it touches so many other communities,” says Samantha Noll, an associate professor of bioethics in the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs at Washington State University. “When we decide that we're going to eat that falafel sandwich, or that burger, or that salad, we're impacting others with that seemingly simple choice.”

In this episode, Noll talks with Washington State Magazine writer Becky Kramer about how her childhood on a farm shaped her views of food and some of the environmental and socio-political implications behind our food choices.

Noll recounts how wealthy New Yorkers forced immigrants to give up keeping livestock, triggering the Piggery War. She discusses the complicated history of avocados in the United States and the “food miles” traveled to bring people their daily cup of coffee or piece of chocolate.

Noll encourages people to eat mindfully, considering how their decisions around food can align with their values.

Some of Samantha Noll’s favorite food podcasts:

The Sporkful

Gastropod - Food with a side of science and history

A Taste of the Past - Where food, culture, and history meeting in a podcast

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 Viewscapes: Episode 26 – The ethics of food and eating

Larry Clark  00:00

The battle around raising pigs in New York City, the complicated history of avocados, the cultivation of coffee, chocolate, and bananas—all of these represent choices around ethical eating.

And they offer food for thought for Samantha Noll and her students studying ethics. 

Samantha is a bioethicist and associate professor of philosophy at Washington State University, where she studies food justice and food sovereignty, local food movements and the application of biotechnologies in food production. 

Welcome Viewscapes—stories from Washington State Magazine, connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. I'm Larry Clark, editor of the magazine. 

In this episode, Samantha joins Washington State Magazine science writer Becky Kramer to discuss how Samantha's childhood on a farm shaped her views of food, New York's piggery war, eating local food and meeting local farmers, and many other topics around the ethics of food.



Becky Kramer  00:52

Samantha, thank you for being here today.


Samantha Noll  00:56

It's a pleasure to be here. I'm happy to talk about food.


Becky Kramer  01:00

So you told me that you grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. And how did that shape your perceptions of food?


Samantha Noll  01:09

That is a very good question. Pennsylvania, I know it's a bit far from this good state of Washington, but it had a great impact on the development of my understanding of food. So just to give you a bit of an idea where I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, it's 50 miles outside of Philadelphia proper. And so it's right in the middle of the Philadelphia farm belt. And so prior to the development of refrigeration in the 1850s, this region produced most of the food that Philadelphians consumed on a daily basis. And so as you can probably guess, food, not only growing food, but also preserving food was a huge part of that culture. And so just growing up in that region, I remember being tied to my grandmother's apron, apron strings, so to speak. And just taking in all of the various ways that we preserve the harvest, growing up on a farm out there, and including canning, I would go down to my grandmother's root cellar and pick out cans of peaches. And that was like a huge thing. I was like, oh my own can of peaches, this is amazing. We would have strawberry festivals. And, you know, preserving, my mother would pick, especially cherries and preserve them every year. And she still had a little preserving cupboard and preserves cover, which was awesome, and a pie cabinet and whatnot. 

And it wasn't until later, when I went to college that I realized that all of these sort of traditions that you grew up with, that a lot of other people hadn't grown up with. Like people don't typically learn how to can or to make cheese or things like that. And so one of the first presentations that I gave in college, in a communications class actually, was how to make cheese in your dorm room in 20 minutes. I wasn't probably the best roommate, but you can do it and mozzarella is very easy to make. And so it very much influenced my idea that food is always connected to agriculture and how we produce it. And just the sheer amount of work that is involved in producing, processing, and then distributing food to where it needs to go.


Becky Kramer  03:35

How has urbanization over the past century changed how we get our food in the United States?


Samantha Noll  03:43

That is an excellent question. And so I mean, just to riff from, you know, the development of refrigeration and how it's changed where we source our food, food systems have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. We shifted from systems where neighborhoods were growing their own food, or at least some of their own food, even in urban areas and urban hot houses, for example, and raising animals to account for part of their daily diet to the point where we're fully reliant on markets now. And we typically purchase food that's been packaged, or at least beautified. Even our apples are covered in wax. They're beautiful, and they last for a while. But they even have a different feel from those that you pick, to talk a Washington state language with the Cosmic Crisps. 

And so I bet you didn't know that pigs roamed the streets of New York at one point.


Becky Kramer  04:48

No, I had never heard that.


Samantha Noll  04:51

There was a battle between the between the law enforcement and neighborhoods that wanted to keep their food animals in place. And so this was at the birth of the modern city. And so picture it, you have various immigrant communities coming into New York City and New York City is growing dramatically during the 1800s. And many of these neighborhoods, especially Irish American neighborhoods, German American neighborhoods, and African American neighborhoods brought their animals with them. And so they would have chickens and pigs, and the pigs would roam the streets. And Central Park was actually a processing area for pork at the time. And you wouldn't think that because now it's a very expensive region. 

And so with the changing of sensibilities, and with the rise of the markets of food markets, in that particular context, the upper class decided that this will not do, along with changes in conceptions of how germs impact the transmission of diseases. And so they're like, we have these animals in the city. This isn't sanitary, and so we need to remove them. And so there was a battle back and forth in the courts, with various groups arguing that they should be taken out. And with the neighborhood saying, No, we need these animals to feed our families. This is part of our food security, and our food sovereignty, our ability to choose when and how we obtain food. And it ended up where there was a smear campaign. If you look at some of the newspapers, they have cartoons with the Irishman laying with his pigs, and it was incredibly biased and incredibly hurtful. And it was meant to place these neighborhoods in a negative light.

And they also eventually went back and forth to the courts. The courts eventually sided with those who wanted to remove the animals. And there were riots, the neighborhoods rose up. And they were fighting with police officers. And the police officers literally had to go door to door and physically remove the food animals from New York City. And so I think that's an excellent example of how our food systems have changed, and how it hasn't been as smooth a process as we would like to think it is. And now we go to the grocery store when we purchase our food. But that's an ideal that comes out of all of these struggles for who gets to control the food system. What does it look like? And how is food distributed? It was called the Piggery War, by the way, the Piggery War of New York.


Becky Kramer  07:55

So, from an ethical standpoint, why should we pay attention to what we eat?


Samantha Noll  08:04

Well, what I like to say, especially when I'm talking with students, and we're going back and forth about why are we in this class, ethics, food, I mean, we can go down to the curb, and, you know, buy food, like we don't really need to think so deeply about it. But food is interesting in that food touches so many other communities. It impacts our environment. There are socio-political  elements concerning our food and trade regulations. And so when we decide that we're going to eat, say, that falafel sandwich, or that burger, so to speak, or that salad, we're impacting others with that seemingly simple choice.


Becky Kramer  08:49

Yeah. So, you had mentioned avocados as a food that's very common to most of us. And you note that avocados have quite a long, quite an interesting history on American plates.


Samantha Noll  09:05

Yes, and that's an excellent touchstone for discussing food ethics in that avocados have a unique history. I bet you didn't know, and I'm almost laughing when I say this, where the word avocado comes from?


Becky Kramer  09:20

No, I'm not familiar with that.


Samantha Noll  09:23

So avocado originally derives from the word, an old Aztec word for a testicle. And because of the way that avocados. Look when they're hanging on the tree, and that always gets a good guffaw you know, whatever. You know, it's great at parties, you can just bring it up fun fact. 

But, the name not only was difficult to pronounce, the original term for avocado, but also because of its connotation. US growers of avocados decided around the 1920s, 1930s to change the name from the original term to avocado. And this was also because it was easier for North American buyers to pronounce. And so that also came along with a marketing campaign to increase the amount of avocados that Americans were purchasing. It was known as the king of the fruit salad. And so it was a luxury item, something that you could show off. So we have a growing avocado market in the US. 

It's working, the marketing campaign is working well. Avocados are now featured in fruit salads, which sounds kind of weird to us, but I prefer guacamole. But you know, to each their own. Even on toast, it's good. And avocados are expensive as a luxury good. 

And so thus we have a trade war occurring because avocados can be grown in California. But they can and are also grown in Mexico. This is where they were originally propagated. And so you have California growers, trying to ensure that their California avocados corner the market, so to speak, and are not impacted by Mexican grown avocados. Fast forward. And avocados are such an important export for Mexico, that the cartels begin taking over avocado farms, for example. And not only this, but they're also utilizing slave labor in certain areas as well. And when inspectors are coming down into these farms, they're also potentially causing harm to the inspectors as well. So I believe kidnapping was involved, but don't quote me on that. And so you have now we have the US government and they put a stop on all purchases of avocados in Mexico. And avocados are likened to the blood diamonds. 


Becky Kramer

When was this? 


Samantha Noll

This was only a couple of years ago. This is before the pandemic. And I was reading The Guardian, and I was like no, wait a minute, we have like a halt on the imports of Mexican avocados. And I read through and I'm like, man, like cartels are taking over avocado farms in Mexico, because it's just so lucrative. And rightfully so, I mean, we eat millions of avocados, even just during the Superbowl. And so granted, it's been worked out now, you know. We do have the import-export NAFTA agreements concerning avocados. But there are also other issues. 

Now, what my students like to think about is the environmental harm, right? So if we're growing avocados, it takes roughly 50 gallons of water per avocado to produce. We're growing them in California. California is drought ridden. That's a lot of water to be using to produce avocados. Whereas in Mexico, certain environmental conditions might be better for avocado production. From a socio-political  context, buying that avocado might be inadvertently supporting cartels, and the utilization of forced labor. But then we have the environmental impacts. Well, where is it better to produce avocados environmentally? And is it too much of a strain on California ecosystems to be growing a crop that is so intensive? And this helps students sort of understand that when you buy that avocado, especially if you're thinking about “do I buy a US avocado? Do I buy one, you know from Mexico or one from another context? What environmental factors influenced that?” Like if you buy that avocado, you're supporting a particular farming system in a particular region? Is someone is profiting from that? Do you value the environmental impacts? Is that an important consideration for you? Or are you thinking about the socio-political  aspects? Do you not want to support, say, cartel owned farming systems? And this all comes up with avocados. I mean, it's like something that I can go to the grocery store right now. And there are at least three different types of avocados you know on the on the shelf. It's become such an important part of our food system that we don't even think about these larger impacts to the point where there are jokes about millennials and avocado toast.


Becky Kramer  15:15

So do you look at where an avocado is produced? When you purchase? 


Samantha Noll  15:20

Yes, I'm always very curious. And there are several different places where they are produced. And so different places will have employed different agricultural methods, will have different environmental impacts. And not to mention the socio-political component.


Becky Kramer  15:38

That actually was an area I was really interested in. You talked about crops with high irrigation needs. So what about the carbon footprint of some of our foods? Can you give an example of a food, perhaps something we take for granted that might have a carbon footprint we've never thought of.


Samantha Noll  16:01

Oh, there is so much. And in fact, when people are attempting to buy local, or to eat locally, you know, 12 months out of the year, which is very difficult in several contexts, but you can actually do it here in the Palouse, if you're very careful about preservation, food preservation, I don't do it. But well, of the things that people tend to not be able to live without that have huge, or at least large, carbon footprints is coffee. So coffee is always imported from, you know, a location that's far away. It'd be Ethiopia, or Guatemala, or Colombia, or one of the great coffee regions. I once toured a coffee plantation in Costa Rica and it was absolutely fascinating, all of the steps that go into producing coffee. Not only with growing, but also with processing and roasting and all of that stuff. And so coffee has a huge, huge footprint. Also, chocolate, you can go into a grocery store, there are how many different types of chocolate, but all of that chocolate is imported from somewhere and oftentimes from very far away. 

I did a chocolate tasting from the Rhine River Valley. In Germany, a friend had come back and went to all the chocolatiers and purchased single source chocolate bars to taste the differences. It was delicious. I'm not going to lie, it was amazing. And you can really tell the difference between the different single source chocolates. But I was thinking as I was enjoying it, “Wow, like the amount of food miles involved in getting all of these single source different types of chocolate here for us to taste is extravagant.” 

And so those are those are two things. Most of our fruit, you know, other than what apples—Washington state is known for apples—but you know, anything like pineapples, for example. You know, those bananas. Pina and bananas, they typically come from Costa Rica. And so that's quite the quite the trip. Papaya from Hawaii, you know. And so we sometimes don't realize how global our food system is, and how lucky we are to have so many different everyday foods that are actually quite exotic when you look at how far they came.


Becky Kramer  18:43

Some of your work is in the areas of food justice, and food sovereignty. And tell me what those terms mean, and how they’re part of ethical considerations around food.


Samantha Noll  19:00

That's another very good question. And it's interesting, food justice and food sovereignty, they're part of the ethical plates so to speak. When we talk about food ethics, justice issues do come to the forefront, especially when we're looking at how harms and benefits concerning the food systems are distributed. Is one group shouldering more of the harms associated with the food system and not enjoying the benefits? And so food deserts, for example, are areas without access to fresh food stuffs. Food deserts is now a contested term, but in areas where there's a lack of access, we can argue that individuals are contributing to the food system, especially if they're working in the food industry without enjoying the benefits of actually having access to the food. And so food justice then comes out of the environmental justice movement in the 1970s. These and environmental justice movements sparked from the Warren County demonstrations in North Carolina, where a landfill was going to be placed in a low-income and predominantly African American neighborhood. It launched a large sort of pushback against the placement of various toxic facilities in these neighborhoods and framed this as a justice issue. And so in food and environmental justice, the argument goes, that individual communities are shouldering more of the harms of these various facilities, landfills, or trash, burning facilities, etc, while not enjoying the benefits, right? And so they took that framework in the 1980s and 90s, and applied it to the food system. And so how is the food system built? Who are the winners and losers? Who is enjoying, say, the deserts of the food system and who is shouldering the harms? 

And so in the pandemic, a huge justice issue concerned necessary workers in agriculture, and how they were being made to work and in hazardous conditions, especially in meatpacking. And so you had meat packers, and workers in that context, working 10, 12, 14 hours potentially being impacted by Covid and still needing to produce food for this large population. And so worker rights is a huge issue in EJ, of farmer workers, farm workers, and how farmworkers tend to pretend to provide a lot of the labor necessary for food production, while not being adequately compensated. And so food justice sort of comes down again, like highlights this distributed issues in the food system. And if we want an equitable food system, then we should all, no matter which group you're from, what neighborhood you grew up in, you should be able to enjoy the benefits of our food systems. And we should all shoulder the costs of that food system as well.


Becky Kramer  22:27

You also study local food movements? Why is eating locally grown food a good choice? Or is it a good choice?


Samantha Noll  22:38

Eating local is an interesting topic because it's been highly contested in the food ethics literature. So Helen DeVries, for example, has this provocative piece called “Why local?”, where she breaks down several of the arguments for eating local, and she shows that they're problematic. So one of them includes food miles. And she's like, well, you know, the food miles, it doesn't really stack up, that we're not really saving that many food miles when we just eat locally, because a lot of inputs, a lot of petroleum inputs, are used in agricultural processes themselves. And so the, the distribution of foodstuff is just a small portion of these food miles, too, as she critiques whether or not we're actually helping local communities, and that's one of her arguments. 

Well, I mean, we could just give to charity, you know, why simply help farmers when we could do more good, you know, in other ways. But I want to push back against that. Personally, I think that eating locally is an important way to get to know your food system. So Paul Thompson at Michigan State University, he is an environmental philosopher, and he does work in agriculture. And he likes to call eating local, as he calls it, a heuristic. And so we all want to make good food choices. But it's really difficult. I mean, food systems are complicated. Agriculture is huge, like what agriculture, which agriculture methods, like there's a whole range of these different ways to produce your food. And there are various different products. 

I bet a lot of listeners probably didn't realize that brussels sprouts grow in a stalk. When I was a kid, when I first saw a stalk of brussels sprouts, I was absolutely amazed. This was like new knowledge for me. I'm like, whoa, chase my brother around with it. They also make good fencing tools. But did you know? That's a piece of knowledge. And so what Thompson is basically pointing at is this idea that when we eat locally, we connect ourselves with local producers. And we get to know about our local food system. 

So for example, you go down to Moscow, the Moscow farmers market, I love that place. I've learned so much I've learned about like, what heritage pigs do well, in like in the Palouse, and I've learned about the different varieties of wheat that we produce. And there's this lovely lady, who's also a WSU professor, who raises sheep. And I've learned all about like, sheep, this is not an area that I'm familiar with. I'm not like a sheep person. But I find I want to learn more about sheep, this is great. And all of the information that you sort of glean, and you just take in, sometimes not even consciously, that helps inform your food choices. And so I think eating locally is very important from a personal perspective, especially for people who care about what they eat, and where it comes from.


Becky Kramer  26:14

I've only had mutton a couple of times, and I think both times it said product of New Zealand. So let's switch gears a little bit. I know you also do a lot of work in biotechnology. What are some common examples of biotechnology in our food?


Samantha Noll  26:39

Oh, that's the million-dollar question. What a lot of people don't realize, and when I talk to students, we have a long conversation about this, that the majority of food, especially processed foods that we eat in the United States, includes genetically modified ingredients. And so the United States food system is at least tacitly on board with GM products. Now, the question is, should we be on board with GM products? And so someone like Pamela Ronald, who is a plant geneticist, she has a TED talk, where she discusses the health impacts of GMOs. And she argues that they have been tested more than any other food products that we have on the market, and that they're found to be safe. And the FDA and USDA are very serious about food safety. And so of course, there's going to be testing done. 

But again, to circle back to Paul Thompson, he has this interesting piece. And he wants to push back a little bit against that. And he argues that, well, you, as consumers, we love choice. We like to be able to purchase one type of veggie burger over another type of veggie burger, or, you know, one type of heritage tomato versus another type of heritage tomato. And so one of his concerns is that we don't really have choice, we can't opt in or opt out of various agricultural systems. And so he's a big supporter of labeling. If you want to be able to eat non-GMO products, then we should be able to do so we should have various products available to us. And the food system should respect our autonomy as eaters. 

And in a way we're actually going that route, in that the US organic standard has a non-GMO clause in that. So if it's certified organic, it will not include any GM inputs, or additives or anything like that. And so I sort of align with Thompson in that I think we should respect the eater. And yes, the USDA and FDA should do their job and make sure that our system is safe. And I wish you guys could see me, I'm like, you know, thumbs up here to food safety, yay. But we should also respect the consumer and allow consumers to opt in or opt out of production systems that align with their values or don't align with their values.


Becky Kramer  29:30

So eating ethically, this is a really large area. If you want to be a more thoughtful eater, more conscious of the decisions you're making around food, what are one or two ways you could start?


Samantha Noll  29:48

Well, there's two ways. One, we talked about it, supporting your local your local farmers and producers and getting out there to the farmers market, even if you're not purchasing the elderberry jam or the huckleberries, which can be so incredibly good, but so incredibly expensive. Just talking to your farmers is a great way to begin learning more about your food systems. 

Also listening to podcasts, like this one, is another good way. I'm a big aficionado of food podcasts. And I've learned so much just listening to those. And three, paying attention to labels, where your food is coming from, and what the label is telling you concerning the agricultural production method used or methods used to produce that product. So take eggs, for example, you know, is it free range? Is it cage free? You know, humanely raised, all of these labels provide some information to you. Although I'm not a fan of the natural label, because I'm still not sure what natural is. What is natural?


Becky Kramer  31:03

Does that have a government definition or is it a descriptor from the seller?


Samantha Noll  31:10

I believe it's a descriptor from the seller. The last time I checked, although this was pre-pandemic, the USDA didn't have a definition for natural, although don't quote me on that, or do quote me on that, but just know that I haven't checked in a few years. 

But that's a big issue with labeling personally. There are some standards. There are some labels that are backed by standards. Like the organic label, for example, there is a robust standard behind that. And farmers need to meet strict criteria in order for their products to be labeled organic. I remember, I used to work at a student organic farm at Michigan State University. And the little piglets that we're raising are running around, and they love marshmallows. But they're certified organic, you need to make sure that even the marshmallow treats that you're giving to those pigs are certified organic. Otherwise, they're not organic. 

But then there are these other labels that manufacturers like to use that sort of make you think something is healthier than it is. And so you're like, yeah, this is all-natural, gluten-free. It's great. I even saw chicken once with a gluten free label on it. And I was like, well, I should hope so. It was like, you know, I feel confident that this chicken is gluten free?


Becky Kramer  32:41

I'm still trying to picture feeding the pigs marshmallows. So that's a great visual.


Samantha Noll  32:46

They’re so cute, and they come running up to the fence for their favorite treat.


Becky Kramer  32:55

Do you have any parting thoughts on eating ethically?


Samantha Noll  32:59

When you're thinking about eating ethically, it's important to think about what you value. Because food ethics is huge. And because our food system is vast and complex and impacts so many different groups. And I think starting from self-reflection is really helpful. If you care about the environment, then you can eat in certain ways to limit your environmental impact. If you care about animal welfare, there are certain ways that you can eat as well. If you care about farmworkers, and you want to make sure that, you know workers are treated fairly, there are these various different products that you can choose, you know, that help support that vision and products that don't. 

And so, for me, food ethics is a very personal journey. And it's as much about self-reflection as it is about learning about our food system.


Becky Kramer  33:54

This has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time.


Samantha Noll  34:00

Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate this.


Larry Clark  34:05

Thanks for listening. You can read about how Washington State University researchers are adapting food for a changing climate in the Winter 2023 issue at magazine 

Are you enjoying the podcast? Please rate us on Apple Podcasts, share the podcast, or send us a note on WSU-related topics you want to hear about. To connect, visit 

Thanks to WSU emeritus professor, composer and saxophonist Greg Yasinitsky for the music.