Can seasonal feasting be ethical? Yes, says Michael Bateman: with careful selection even the most puritanically inclined can indulge themselves with a clear conscience

Christmas was once a period of intensive feasting, of cramming seasonal delights into over-stimulated mouths with gay abandon. But for many of us the once obligatory orgy of gluttony is increasingly under threat from what can only be called the feel-bad factor. Each year, with each new food-related health scare and each new report of global despoilation or exploitation, stuffing ourselves with traditional Christmas fare seems harder to justify - and consequently harder to enjoy.

Christmas was once a period of intensive feasting, of cramming seasonal delights into over-stimulated mouths with gay abandon. But for many of us the once obligatory orgy of gluttony is increasingly under threat from what can only be called the feel-bad factor. Each year, with each new food-related health scare and each new report of global despoilation or exploitation, stuffing ourselves with traditional Christmas fare seems harder to justify - and consequently harder to enjoy.

Roast turkey? But what conditions was it reared in? And what was it fed? In what pesticides have your vegetables been doused? Is nothing on your table genetically modified? Has nothing been imported an environmentally irresponsible distance (leaving a large "ecological footprint")? Is your smoked salmon starter wild or farmed? And as for the chocolates and the coffee - have no developing world farmers been taken advantage of in their production?

It's tempting simply to abandon the whole idea of feasting; and, indeed, there are those of a puritanical temperament who were never very comfortable with the idea of self-indulgence, even at Christmas. But surely it ought to be possible to prepare a little seasonal pleasure in a responsible, ethical way? Luckily, it is.

The tabloids may have scoffed at the Prince of Wales when he threw himself into organic farming a decade ago, but today organic food is a product whose time has come. Sainsbury's (recently voted organic supermarket of the year by the Soil Association) are in cut-throat competition with Waitrose, Safeway and Tesco for this ballooning market, and all four are surely raking in the profits.

This is hardly surprising. Ten years of worrying about our food supplies, our beef and our chickens and eggs, have created an environment in which consumers demand more and more assurances, above all about their food safety.

Back in the 1970s, when the politicians first decided to halve the nation's food bill, consumers saw nothing wrong with the idea of advanced food technology. Half of our food was imported, and the intensive farming of beef, pigs and chickens seemed an obvious way forward. Precise animal feeds with balanced proteins and nutrients were evolved, and we did not ask what was in them (though I remember a "chicken lab" researcher telling me about her work recycling the feathers and droppings from the cages). Within 10 years we had become virtually self-sufficient. We grew beet for sugar and British wheat for bread and biscuits.

No one questioned the safety aspect of nitrates which filtered down into the water table, the result of intensive fertilisers. Nor the heavy doses of insecticides which were necessary to keep aphids and such-like off the fat stalks of the new super-wheat. By the 1980s, however, we were starting to worry about the health of the new food; excess of fat and salt in the diet, excessive use of additives, E-numbers. Then, in the 1990s, our chickens came home to roost, infected as they were with salmonella, along with eggs. And by then the horror of BSE was upon us - followed soon enough by the spectre of new variant CJD. Was anything safe to eat?

Such concerns easily grew into wider, ethical concerns. What was the effect of intensive farming on the well-being of animals? And this in turn led to wider questions: about the effects of our eating and purchasing habits on the environment, and on our fellow humans.

Luckily, just as it is no longer considered eccentric to insist on organic food, so those who would like to eat with a clear conscience are finding that their concerns are widely shared - and increasingly catered for.

In the articles that follow, we list a variety of options to help you track down food with a feel good factor, starting with top cook Shaun Hill's suggestions for a Christmas dinner that's full of Christmas spirit in the best sense, followed buy a guide to buying food that tastes good and also gives you peace of mind.

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