October 2016 Issue

Ethical Eating

The foods you buy can make a difference in the welfare of farmers and the environment.

You’ve likely seen fair trade seals on foods, such as bananas, chocolate, and coffee, and wondered what they mean. These labels can help you make purchases that protect the wellbeing of the planet and those who produce its food. Additionally, use of these labels typically forbids the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and restricts the use of pesticides, although not all of the products are organic. Here’s a glimpse into ethical issues encountered in the production of plant-based foods.

Equal Exchange bananas

Equal Exchange bananas

Purchasing fair trade certified foods, such as bananas, can help support fair labor.


“Bananas are typically grown as a monoculture, meaning only one crop as far as the eye can see on large plantations, year after year,” says Jessica Jones-Hughes, MS, RD, the banana coordinator for Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange, a fair-trade, worker-owned cooperative. “When a single crop is repeatedly grown like this, the soil becomes less healthy, so more pesticides have to be used, which can harm workers and contaminate water sources nearby.” Generally, bananas bearing a fair trade certification have been produced with some restrictions on pesticide use, greater protection for workers, and reasonable minimum pricing for producers.


“Child labor, which is used to keep prices competitive, is a big problem with cocoa production,” says Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, a Las Vegas-based dietitian. This puts children in dangerous working conditions and often deprives them of education. For brand names of ethically produced chocolate, consult the Food Empowerment Project’s Chocolate List.


By far, coffee is the largest fair trade industry, which advocates for ethical treatment and a livable income for workers. “Ask your favorite coffee shop where their beans came from and if they have a fair trade certification,” says Jenna Larson, senior communications manager for California-based Fair Trade USA. “If you do find fair trade coffee or other products, reward that store or brand with your purchase. Each time you buy something your dollar casts a vote, and believe me, companies listen.”

Palm Oil

Nearly all of the world’s 10 largest food and beverage companies rely on palm oil for many of their products. This high demand for palm oil has encouraged child labor, wiped out forests to make way for palm oil production, and is pushing many animals in the wild, such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, toward extinction. Opt for products with the Green Palm Sustainability logo, which supports sustainable palm oil production.


When conventionally grown, this much-loved fruit requires heavy pesticide use. The USDA says that pesticide residues in strawberries don’t pose a safety concern to consumers. However, that doesn’t consider the exposure of farmers. “Pesticides pose a risk to the workers who are applying the pesticides and the surrounding communities, which tend to be where the migrant farm workers live and go to school,” Bellatti says. Some strawberry growers also are advocating for fairer payment. Learn more at BoycottSakumaBerries.com.


A whopping 51 percent of sugar that’s produced is used in highly processed, low-nutrient foods, such as soda, candy, baked goods, and ice cream. Many small farmers are being pushed off their land in deals that illegally or unfairly take away land to make way for huge sugarcane plantations, which supply global food companies. You can help nudge big companies to do better through social media links at Behind the Brands.

Equal Exchange logo


“The documentary Food Chains revealed that tomato farmers in Florida often work under slave-like conditions and have annual salaries that are well below the living wage,” says Chris Vogliano, MS, RD, an environmentally-focused nutrition consultant in Seattle, Washington. “If retailers pay just a penny more per pound of tomatoes, it can make a big difference in the lives of farm workers.” You can sign pledges to urge specific restaurants and supermarkets to support ethically grown tomatoes at Alliance for Fair Food. You also can buy directly from local farmers.

Fair Trade logo

Signs of Fair Trade

These are a few fair trade seals you may see on food products. Visit the websites listed for details.

Equal Exchange: A worker-owned cooperative that trades directly and fairly with small-scale farmer co-ops around the world.

Fair Trade Certified logo

Fairtrade Mark: Indicates that 100 percent of a product, or all ingredients that can be sourced as fair trade, meet the standards of Fairtrade International, which works to secure decent working conditions and fair prices for producers.

Fair Trade Certified: The seal of Fair Trade USA (formerly part of Fairtrade International), which certifies products and ingredients under its own fair trade standards, which cover production, trade, and promotion.

You Can Make a Difference

“Try making one change a month,” Jones-Hughes says. You can start by just looking for fair trade certifications on items such as coffee and chocolate—whether in natural foods stores, coffee shops, or through church groups. When you’re ready to go beyond that, research online and locally to find companies that support practices you believe in. For example, investigate brands of strawberries or ask questions at the farmer’s market. Small, positive efforts by many consumers add up.