This month we review a book that demonstrates the power of food choices in influencing personal health and the well-being of the planet.
The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
By Peter Singer and Jim Mason
When Peter Singer and Jim Mason combined their talents to create the book Animal Factories, they exposed the horrible conditions of animals in the factory farm system. They hoped their work revealing the suffering of these sentient creatures and the resulting harm to the environment would spark public outrage and elicit change.
Now a quarter century later there is more awareness of the problems caused by factory farms, but there is still little movement toward change, even though a prominent senator has spoken about this issue on the Senate floor and a presidential candidate is a vegan. With The Way We Eat the authors are attempting to remind people that food choices are the crux of the problem.
"We therefore decided to write a book that would respond to the widespread interest in taking an ethical approach to all of our food choices," they write. "Food ethics has been such a neglected topic in our culture."
Eating a steak, for example, involves an ethical choice. Was the animal humanely raised and slaughtered, or did it suffer as it was crowded into a narrow space before being dragged into an assembly-line slaughterhouse?
Is it ethically wiser to choose an organic apple from New Zealand or a non-organic one grown locally? The non-organic apple may have been sprayed with pesticides, but it requires less fossil fuel to reach the consumer and is a less polluting to the planet.
In examining the ethics of food choice, Singer and Mason decided to focus on three American families to examine what they eat and determine the process that brings food to their tables.
The Hillard-Nierstheimer family (Jake and Lee) of Mabelvale, Arkansas, eat a Standard American Diet and shop at a Wal-Mart Super Center. Buying organic and locally grown produce are the goals of the Masarech-Motavalli family (Jim and Mary Ann) of Fairfield, Connecticut, who are concerned about their personal health as well as the environment. The Farb Family (Joe and JoAnn) of Olathe, Kansas, consume a totally plant-based diet as organic as possible.
The authors interviewed each of the families, accompanied them on shopping trips, and then analyzed the steps that brought the food items to their homes.
In a section called Eating the Standard American Diet they reveal how Jake and Lee's choices support the existence of cheap meat, chicken, and fish as cows, chickens, and pigs are subjected to appalling conditions while local environments are polluted in this mass production of animal products. Since this family visits Wal-Mart and McDonald's, the authors have an opportunity to discuss the ethics of both companies in the type of food they purvey and the treatment of the workers who handle it.
Jim and Mary Ann are described as "conscientious omnivores" who eat meat or fish, "but only when it satisfies certain ethical standards." Looking at this family's lifestyle gives the authors the opportunity to explore subjects like range-free eggs, animals raised humanely, and fishing practices and farm-raised fish. They even provide scientific support to show that fish feel pain. Discussing this family's desire to purchase locally grown produce as much as possible gives Singer and Mason a chance to suggest advantages of this practice:
Buying locally or being a "locavore" may not always be the best ethical choice. If the local farmer uses fossil fuel to heat his greenhouse to produce crops out of season, his produce may not be the wisest purchase. Buying locally and in season is a better ethical choice.
Fair trade and the treatment of workers is another issue raised by the authors. They also describe companies like Whole Foods, Chipotle, and Niman Ranch that attempt to incorporate ethics in their business plans.
Looking at the food choices of Jo Ann and Joe Farb, the authors explain the philosophy of veganism as well as returning to a discussion of organic practices because this couple prefers to buy organic for health reasons and to protect the environment. For them, choosing organic means not ingesting pesticides or genetically modified food.
So what should we eat if we want to make ethical choices? Singer and Mason present these five ethical principles:
The book concludes with chapters on Where to Find Ethical Food and Where to Find Information.
Many times in reading The Way We Eat, we paused to exclaim, "I didn't realize that, " or "I didn't know that!" By focusing on the three families, Singer and Mason have humanized and personalized a vast amount of information to make people aware of the impact of their food choices. After reading this book, one becomes conscious of the power of one spoon or fork in changing a system of animal exploitation that is horribly misguided. Hopefully, we can return to this book 25 years from now and say it provided the impetus to a new ethical path. Whether you are a vegan, a vegetarian, a carnivore, a conscientious omnivore, or a SAD diet devotee, this is a book you need to read.
Reviewed October 2007