Ethical Food Consumption - The prospect of market-driven improvements in farm animal welfare and environmental protection

PhD defence
Lennart Ravn Heerwagen


So-called ‘ethical’ food products have spread across the industrialised world. These are products that are produced under labelling schemes with extraordinary attentiveness to issues such as farm animal welfare and environmental protection. Political decision-makers increasingly express the belief that improvements regarding issues such as animal welfare and environmental impact may be achieved by stimulating markets for these products.

The purpose of the thesis is to investigate the prospect of market-driven improvements in animal welfare and environmental protection. In particular, it aims to examine the concrete improvements that may be pursued through markets for ethical food, and how these improvements are influenced by factors related to individual consumers’ choice of food. This thesis is structured around three research papers that illuminate different aspects of ethical food consumption and, based on this, provide concrete policy inputs. The scope of the research is highly interdisciplinary, and includes perspectives from ethics and the social sciences on food consumption.

In the first paper, low meat diets that are associated with the consumption of organic food are investigated as well as the capacity of these patterns to mitigate climate change. In the second paper, the role of quality labels in market-based ways of improving animal welfare is analysed by using the Danish market for pork as reference case. In the third paper, the factors that shape relatively successful instances of market-driven improvements in animal welfare are illuminated by taking the large Danish market for so-called ‘grass milk’ as a point of departure.

Together, these three research papers identify both opportunities for and challenges to the prospect of achieving improved animal welfare and environmental protection through ethical food consumption. In Denmark, dairy cows are more and more likely to be stabled on an all-year basis but the considerable demand for grass milk ensures that a number of animals are still put to grass. Successful cases of the magnitude of grass milk consumption in Denmark are likely to be a rarity, but markets for ethical food may also have other and broader effects. This thesis suggests that organic food consumption is correlated with reduced meat consumption, and that this pattern has the potential to mitigate climate change. Markets for ethical food are not only driven by consumers who have a strong interest in animal welfare and the environment, but also by consumers who mainly view ethically sound production methods as indicators of other food qualities. Therefore, it is important to sustain a market structure where different preferences for ethical food are addressed. The development of markets for ethical food products is also dependent on low consumption barriers, including ready availability, reliable labelling and relatively low price premiums.

Principal Supervisor

Professor Peter Sandøe, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen.

Assessment Committee

Associate professor Mickey Gjerris, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen;

Associate professor Morten Dige, Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University;

Senior Researcher Unni Kjærnes, SIFO, National Institute for Consumer Research, Oslo, Norway.