Photograph by Peyri Herrera, Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Peyri Herrera, Creative Commons 2.0

Coming to Grips with Food Ethics for Chefs

As a chef, I know I’m just one link in the chain of people who are responsible for feeding the world.

A group made up of farmers, truck drivers, purveyors; the people who grow the food, transport it, and package it. And it also includes the people in the government, who are responsible for making sure all of this is done in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the environment and ourselves.

It’s a big responsibility, and it’s one that is much more than deciding whether to serve duck on a menu or which tablecloths to use in a restaurant. Yes, these are all things that I consider as a chef and a business owner, but my responsibility in the food industry goes beyond the restaurant walls. It’s looking at the entire world and deciding how we’re going to be feeding ourselves down the road when we are 10 billion people strong—a message that resonates with everything we discuss here on the Future of Food. My answer to that question, as well as the farmers, and the producers and the lawmakers’ answers, is going to help shape the big decisions about food.

So, with this responsibility, I see a lot of debate about whether we use hormones or pesticides to grow our food, and whether genetically modified crops is the answer to feeding us all in 50 years time. They are some pretty difficult questions, and as a chef, I have to be practical about how I can best answer them.

One person who has been incredible with helping me come to these answers is my friend and colleague Chef Tom Colicchio. You may recognize him from his restaurants or Bravo’s hit TV show Top Chef, but did you know that he’s actually a pretty familiar face among Congress? Along with running his empire of Craft restaurants and making television appearances, Tom plays a huge role in making sure issues with our food systems are handled correctly at the highest level. He does this with his group Food Policy Action, an organization he started in order to hold Congress accountable for how they vote on food-related issues.

Listen to Chef Tom Colicchio discuss food security on TEDx.

For Tom, the answer to the debate of genetically modified crops is simple: the right to know. As a chef, and even more importantly as a parent (like so many of us are), he knows that his role in this ongoing debate about GMOs is not taking a single side of the argument but to make sure that everyone has the power and ability to make informed decisions. He’s very clear about what he does and does not know. He’ll admit that he hasn’t seen any cold, hard proof that GMOs are bad for us. Nor does he say that he thinks they’ll improve the agriculture industry. But he’s dead set that it should be the consumer’s choice of whether to buy products grown using GMOs or not.  As he once said, “you can debate the ethics of tinkering with the DNA of the plants and animals we eat—but it’s beyond debate that consumers have the right to know what they’re buying for their family.”

And so, with his role defined for this particular issue, he carries out his responsibility. Through his efforts with Food Policy Action, he influences Congress by creating “scorecards,” or ratings that reflect their performance with voting on key issues like GMOs. These scorecards make Congress’ actions transparent, and it holds them accountable.

This past year, as about 25 state legislatures addressed GMO labeling, there was a bill proposed that tried to ban it. It was the time to act, and Tom worked to spread the word at home in New York and throughout the country to get people involved. He dubbed the proposed bill the “DARK Act,” or the “deny American’s the right to know,” and he wrote letters to Congress informing them that the passing of this bill would reflect negatively on their scorecards.

As a chef and an influencer, he spoke up, and he got others to speak up as well. Because he knows that without our collective opinion on these matters, we’ll never achieve the kind of balance that it will take to feed the world.

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The Cedar Circle Farm and the Vermont Right to Know Coalition marched to the Vermont State House in Montpelier on May 24, 2013. Photograph courtesy Cedar Circle Farm

Just this past spring, Vermont became the first state to pass a law requiring the labeling of GMOs. Colorado and Oregon have it on their upcoming ballots. States are starting to act, but wouldn’t it be incredible if we were all able to make this decision as one country? Already countries around the world have food-labeling laws, including Japan, China and the EU. A bill proposing the nationwide requirement of GMO labeling has been sitting in Congress since 2013, and it’s people like Tom and me, and other authorities in the food industry, who might be able to rally everyone together to start demanding these changes. I have faith in my friend Tom.

One of Tom’s favorite quotes that he has shared with me is “the freedom of man is the freedom to eat.” It’s a powerful statement, because the freedom to choose is what America is all about, and we have to be fighting for that. We have to be fighting for that knowledge, knowledge that is real wealth that we can all have and share. And that’s my answer to this small piece of the puzzle, one that I hope we can complete to help us better feed the world. 

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.