• Mark Wickson

Perspective on Symbiosis and its Relation to Ethics in Food Choices

I thought I might take some time away from COVID-related stories to write about a term that gets thrown around a little in the vegetarian and vegan circles when discussing food ethics. It is a word that I think is quite useful to have a familiarity with because it underpins the varied perspectives regarding the morality of our food decisions as they relate to animal agriculture. The word is symbiosis; a biological term adapted for particular purposes when discussing the numerous interactions humans have with nonhuman animals in agriculture. The usefulness in understanding symbiosis is that no matter whichever side you find yourself, understanding symbiosis can actually help you understand not just your position better, but also the positions of others in the discussion.


So what’s symbiosis? It describes any ongoing interaction between two different biological organisms, but within symbiosis there are several different categories of interaction. The three most important types of symbiosis are mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism. Within a mutualistic relationship, both biological organisms benefit. Within a commensalistic relationship, one organism benefits but the other remains unaffected. While within a parasitic relationship, one organism benefits but the other suffers. There are of course other categories of symbiosis, but these tend to be more ‘corner-cases’ of interactions.


As symbiosis relates to ethics, we tend to be able to agree that mutualism is great, commensalism is good, and parasitism is not so good. Naturally, there are disagreements. In my experience through discussing with people of various perspectives of animal agriculture, there are two arenas of disagreement.


1. Disagreement over the moral judgement of parasitism

  • Is parasitism actually moral because of some form of brutish Darwinism, might makes right?

  • Is parasitism immoral because a touchy-feely-can’t-we-all-just-get-along attitude?

  • Or is parasitism amoral because of an out-of-touch appeal to nature mixed with the fear of actually having to confront the consequences of our actions?


2. Disagreement over how to categorize a specific human action, usually whether an action falls under parasitism or not, e.g. is shearing wool mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism?

  • This faces the problem of objectively evaluating harm, e.g. how can a chicken tell me if it is having a good or bad time?

  • This also faces the slippery slope of boundaries, e.g. if a microbe could tell me that it is having a bad time, do I care?


The disagreements in the first group are difficult to reconcile as they represent fundamental differences in worldviews. Even when those you disagree with are arguing in good faith, and especially when they are not, the most you will accomplish here is making their arms sore from moving a lot of goalposts. But by understanding their perspective and value system around the concept of parasitism, you can at the very least save yourself some time and headache.


The disagreements in the second group are the ones that I think are hopeful. In many ways, these disagreements are formed by experience, knowledge and perceptions. As such, these disagreements are less emotional than the first. These disagreements can have points of compromise and mutual understanding; different parties can begin to construct a more reliable view of what constitutes suffering or benefit. In this arena, primary producers can share their firsthand stories of the treatment and lives of animals which are truly in their care, while animal rights activists can share their stories of how in some cases the livestock in animal agriculture face more hardship than just ‘one bad day’.

*Just in case any biologist stumbles onto this post: I know that the distinction between predation and parasitism, as well as not discussing sub-cases of symbiosis, could be muddled for people here, but explaining them would only add to the word-count not the idea-count. Moreover, calling industrialized animal agriculture predation is a little disingenuous.

Recommended citation format: Wickson, Mark. "Perspective on Symbiosis and its Relation to Ethics in Food Choices". Food Focus Guelph (86), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, May 17, 2020.


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