Friday, April 25, 2008

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

Peter Singer is the well known ethicist, philosopher and author of Animal Liberation. His co-author I’ve never read before. Jim Mason has authored books on the environment and animal welfare. He grew up in a farming family and now also works as an attorney.

The premise of the book is to take the diets of three families and trace back the food that each one buys. The three families span the spectrum of bad to good food choices. The first being your average joe American family who eats lots of meat bought from Wal Mart. The second lean more towards ‘organic’ meats, and try to buy responsibly where they can.

The last family are out and out vegans. Interestingly, when the children, who were raised on a vegan diet, are offered lollies or junk food by their schoolyard chums, they recoil because to them the sugary, artificially favoured treats smell horrible. It just goes to show, it’s what you get used to.

The book probably fails in what it sets out to do, which was to trace all of the foods the families ate back to their origins. Singer and Mason wrote to 87 companies, basically asking if they could visit their farms or food factories to see how their food is grown, or slaughtered, if that were the case. Only fourteen wrote back. And of those we are told they were mostly the smaller organic farms.

So what the book really ends up doing is investigating is a whole swag of food ‘issues’: how meat is made, how reliable ‘organic’ meat is, environmental costs of food production, genetically modified foods, the production of dairy products, how safe a vegan diet is, and a host of other controversies and topics of interest.

It goes without saying that the early sections of the book that deal with the industrial production of meat are a complete horror story. The only way the industry can go forward is with the public’s ignorance of how such meat is produced. Besides being a living hell for the animals, I can’t imagine how people would want to eat animals pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and raised in the most harrowing of conditions. Just the filth and stench of these farms should put anyone in their right mind off.

Singer and Mason even quote defenders of meat eating, who have killed their own animals to eat, as saying that they find the factory production methods of the modern meat industry abhorrent.

Well, enough said about that. I don’t want to get preachy about it. No, actually, I have one last point to be made. Even meats that are labelled ‘organic’ cannot ensure the animals are kept in the best of conditions. It’s just a salve to the conscience of the consumer. What you really need to do is investigate yourself what the company you buy from is up to.

The book also discusses a host of ethical issues to do with the food we eat. Should you buy local and in season etc. Why you shouldn’t waste food, as it has an environmental impact. Why you shouldn’t overeat, as this also contributes to global warming.

If you’re a vegetarian like me, you may think that you’re doing more than you’re bit by taking meat out of your diet. This book shows that you cannot afford to be so smug. When we have so little to do with our food, we have a lot to learn about how it is produced and the costs involved to the environment.

I’m going to talk about meat again. Meat production is notoriously inefficient. It is much, much, much cheaper to get all of your protein from plant food rather than animal food. Eat some nuts or soybeans and ditch the meat, or try reducing it. There’s a movement in the book that the authors talk about called meatless Mondays. Or something like, where people give up meat one day a week.

The simple fact of the matter is that meat eating on the West’s current scale is not possible for the rest of the world. We don’t have the arable land or water to produce meat for 6 billion people.

This book sounds like a salutary yet boring subject, yet like all of Peter Singer’s books, it will keep you thinking for weeks after you have read it.

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