The Ethics of What We Eat

Food and eating become a matter of ethics when the choices made regarding them affect more than just the consumer making the choices. So argue moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of the modern animal rights herald Animal Liberation, and animal activist Jim Mason, co-writer with Singer on the 1980 work Animal Factories, in The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Since the 1970s, consumer awareness of what goes into the food we eat has swelled, and major chains and companies have enacted change in response, but Singer and Mason, writing in 2006, demonstrate that the food industry still fails in many ways – and current practice and consumers’ engagement with them are harming people, animals, and the environment in devastating ways.

The Ethics of What We Eat builds its case off the grocery shopping experiences of three American families who fall into three “camps”: Standard American Diet, Conscientious Omnivores, and Veg*ns. Singer and Mason accordingly divide the study into three parts, beginning each with an introduction to the family “representing” the eating pattern, a typical grocery trip for that family, and their motivations for eating the way they do. The grocery lists of the family provide Singer and Mason an easy transition to discussions on particular foods and aspects of 20th and 21st century food production.

Photo from iStockPhoto

For example, representing the Standard American Diet are the Nierstheimers, a family of four in Arkansas. In their weekly groceries they included a packet of Oscar Meyer bacon and a jug of Coleman Dairy milk. From these purchases Singer and Mason launch into an in-depth look at the meat and dairy industries, tracking down the origins of the products that the Nierstheimers purchased and the production conditions of the bacon and milk. Among the purchases of the vegans, the Farbs in Kansas, is a package of organic tofu and a bag of organic lemons, which segues into a look at the logistics and impact of organic farming and agriculture.

Following on this model, Singer and Mason address issues that include:

  • animal husbandry and fishing in the industrialized world
  • the harm that the all-too-common concentrated animal feeding units wreak on the animals in them and neighborhoods both adjacent to and long separated from them
  • worker and environment exploitation that has created the perception of cheap food
  • the meaning of labels like “Animal Care Certified”, “Certified Humane”, and “All Natural”
  • the pros and cons of eating local versus organic or imported
  • the idea behind fair trade and to what extent it fulfills what it advertises
  • at the conclusion of the Vegans section, the ethics of eating animal products in general
Photo credit Xuan Long from Wired

Interspersed in their investigations of these primary matters are histories of stores like Whole Foods and restaurants like Chipotle, narratives on the evolution of standards that aim to improve food industry conditions and consequences, wanderings into nutrition science, economic considerations of the food industry (e.g. how a farmer in Africa may benefit more from the $1000 that an American buys of his imported produce than a farmer in America would from the $1000 spent on his local produce), and snapshots of regions that irresponsible production management have marred. Some of Singer and Mason’s evaluations, such as the effect that intensive factory farming has climate, are expected; others, like their suggestion that buying imported tomatoes could sometimes be more environmentally friendly than buying local tomatoes, are surprising.

The New York Times called The Ethics of What We Eat “vital, urgent, and disturbing.” Supported by first-hand accounts from the workers directly involved in food production, statements from agencies who “make the rules”, and social and scientific data on how our food choices tumble into our lives beyond the kitchen table, Singer and Mason thoughtfully illuminate what food has become in the modern world – and what consumers can do to change it for the better. I highly recommend this book for anyone willing to dig into the messy parts of the food industry and discover how to best vote with their dollar.

Image from The New York Times

Note that as this book was published in 2006, some of the information does not reflect current legislation or individual company policies. For example, at the time of writing the USDA organic standards did not require that livestock have a minimum of 120 days of pasture a year. Singer and Mason note that the Department of Agriculture was only considering this policy at the time. Today, the standards include the 120-day pasture requirement. Such changes notwithstanding, the animal and worker abuses and environmental ramifications that they highlight do, unfortunately, in large part continue.