TBR: The Way We Eat

Today’s book is The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason.  I requested it from the library after reading the interview with Singer that I discussed last month.  It’s an exploration of the ethics of food, focusing mostly on reducing unnecessary animal suffering and environmental impacts.  Singer and Mason organize their discussion around the diets of three American families: one that shops at Walmart and eats whatever is cheap, convenient and tastes good, one that shops at places like Trader Joes and Whole Foods and tries to make generally ethical choices around food even if it means paying more, and one that follows a vegan diet.

The basic argument behind The Way We Eat is that mass-produced food, especially meat, milk and eggs, is incredibly cheap because the price doesn’t reflect the real costs, both in animal welfare, and in environmental damage.  Singer and Mason don’t think it’s inherently wrong to kill an animal for food, but say that if we have to pay 10 cents an egg more in order to allow the chickens to have the room to turn around and access to grass, we ought to be willing to pay that price.  (More formally, they argue that it is "speciesist" to refuse to take animal quality of life and suffering seriously.)

Overall, I found the book interesting and readable.  (I was a little nervous, since I’ve tried reading one of Singer’s other books and found it inpenetrable.)  Singer’s much less of a moral absolutist in this book than I was expecting. He makes a strong case for avoiding the products of factory farms, but recognizes that it may be more important in a specific case to eat your grandmother’s cooking than to maintain a purist stance.  He doesn’t think that the benefits of genetically modified foods are worth the risks in developed countries, but notes that the calculus may be different in places where starvation is a real threat.  (Although he fails to acknowledge the political problems in trying to explain why GM food is good enough for Africans if it’s not good enough for Europeans.) 

Singer and Mason are also willing to zing some of their allies.  They suggest that it would be a good thing if we could grow cloned meat in vats, since it presumably wouldn’t have any ability to suffer, a suggestion that I think would give most environmentalists the queasies.  As noted in the Salon interview, Singer’s not a big fan of the Eat Local movement, arguing that it may be more sustainable to buy food from far away that is transported by ship and rail than local food that is trucked to market.  And they note that improved taste may be a good thing, but it is not an ethical requirement.

So, has reading this book changed my eating habits?  The sections that made the most impact on me were the discussion of mass poultry production. (I was already more or less aware of the issues in beef slaughterhouses, from Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation, and I don’t eat pork for other reasons.)  Right after reading that section, I walked through the meat aisle at Shopper’s Food Warehouse and found it hard to pick up my usual pack of boneless chicken breasts.  So I left with mushrooms and bok choy, but no meat for the moo shu chicken I was thinking of making.

Later in the week, I made it over to Whole Foods (for the first time in the several months since it opened near me) and started looking at the prices.  I couldn’t bring myself to pay over $4 a pound for chicken that we wouldn’t be able to taste very much of over the sauce, so instead I bought a small package of beef.  I think the beef was slightly more per pound than the chicken, but it wasn’t as proportionately more expensive than I’m used to paying for beef, if that makes sense.  If I were to commit to buying only non-factory farmed meat, I definitely think the costs would help push me toward using less of it.  Which Singer and Mason would approve of, of course.

9 Responses to “TBR: The Way We Eat”

  1. Decomposition Says:

    Oh god.
    You are so going to think that I am running around the internet picking on you, but I promise, on my grandmothers’ graves, that I wrote tomorrow’s post before I read yours today. (And I’m not so much in disagreement as in a different emphasis again–the problem to me is not so much that organic food is too expensive as that consumers of organic food have to pay for the costs of food production twice, through the increased costs of responsibly produced food as well as the subsidies they are forced to fund for the social and environmental costs of conventionally produced food; whereas purchasers of conventional food only have to pay for it once, through the subsidies. Changing prices would definitely change behaviour; the question is, how to change prices?).
    I am going to pick on one of Singer’s arguments: It’s true that foods grown far away are first put onto a ship or a train and moved relatively sustainably closer to their intended market. But then, unless teh grocery store is on a canal or a rail line, the food is put into a truck for the remainder of the distance. Which one ultimately consumes more fuel and produces more pollutants really depends on the area, the distance, etc. (Unless they addressed it in the book?) I know in Ontario, there is a big (government? I think?) produce warehouse in Toronto that all groceries ultimately get most of their produce from, regardless of where it originates. So it seems that unless trucked produce is coming from very far away, the amount of time spent in a truck is likely to be close to the same no matter what the point of origin was. And most of our produce from California is trucked all the way in–just because it can be put on rail doesn’t mean that it is. (My Dad works for Canada’s biggest grocery chain in the supply management side so I get the inner dirt.)

  2. Christine Says:

    Where I live the price for organic-fed/free-range meat is not much more than a good cut of chicken or beef. Even when I couldn’t afford organic, I bought better quality and ate less. The purpose of eating organic is for health purposes (ex. pesticides, hormones, etc.). I haven’t read the book, but wonder how supersized appetites have increased the demand for cheaper, bulk meat purchases. I still can’t believe there is starvation around the world; I lose my appetite thinking about those without. In my experience most people don’t think about the repurcussions of the food industry on the environment, animal suffering or even food testing (ex. Mad Cow, etc.). There too busy eating on the couch watching American Idol.

  3. Christine Says:

    Where I live the price for organic-fed/free-range meat is not much more than a good cut of chicken or beef. Even when I couldn’t afford organic, I bought better quality and ate less. I haven’t read the book, but wonder how supersized appetites have increased the demand for cheaper, bulk meat purchases. My reason for eating organic is for health – no hormones, pesticides, etc. I still can’t believe there is starvation around the world; I lose my appetite thinking about those without. In my experience most people don’t think about the repurcussions of the food industry on the environment, animal suffering or even food testing (ex. Mad Cow, etc.). They are too busy eating on the couch watching American Idol.

  4. Jody Says:

    The question of food costs puzzles me a little. Forty years ago, it was assumed (and, I believed, shown to be true) that families spent, on average, 1/6th of their household income on food. Now it’s about 1/12th. Some of this has to do with the green revolution of the 1970s, when agricultural fertilizers/pesticides pushed acreage yeilds beyond anything seen before. There was a whole rapid chain effect on the nation’s food supplies. Obviously other necessities consume greater and greater percentages of household income (housing and health care, really). But I guess my question is, how much have cheap food costs allowed Americans to be consumers of cheap luxuries? We talk about people not being able to afford food under regimes where the food was produced more ethically/environmentally safely/healthily, but what do we mean by that?
    This isn’t really a real-world question, because it’s doubtful in the extreme that people are going to give up buying iPods, DVD players, and 35-inch TVs so that food can be produced better but more expensively. It’s just interesting to me at an abstract level to think about the trade-offs in quality of life in the last forty years, in particular the ways that the market potentially enables individuals to make all sorts of privately satisfying consumption choices that are disastrous in terms of public goods.
    Of course, even to enter those debates requires us to have some common valuation (or even definition) of public goods, and we very much do not. I’m just wondering whether, at some point, we’re choosing the cheap food whenever we buy new clothes every season with the expecation that they’ll last only one year…well, whenever we participate in the consumer economy as it exists in 2006. It’s such a vastly different consumer economy even from the 1960s, which was understood then to be a world-changing system compared to consumption patterns before World War II.
    I’m just continually struck by the newness, the revolutionary nature, of modern life.

  5. Christine Says:

    Jody, I really like your point about cheap food vs. general spending on consumer goods. Almost everything in society has moved towards cheaper materials, so why are we surprised that is occurs with food? Pressed wood materials for housing construction, leasing cars, clothing, electronics, etc. Everything is expendible. People might never be willing to spend more on food. Which is crazy since the healthier or better an individual takes care of him or herself, the less on healthcare costs they may incur in the future. The other question I ponder, has medical advancements allow people to eat poorly and not exercise knowing the therapies or drugs will be there in the future? Ofcourse no one wants to have bypasses or other procedures, but since the survival rates for these surgeries have increased and prolong life has it influenced everyday habits. One example how people have not changed their diets drastically is the number of children and adults with diabetes, a direct result of obesity and poor eating habits.

  6. Mieke Says:

    Where are you? I miss you.

  7. Jody Says:

    I’m assuming this is the price the faithful readers pay for you getting a new job? A new, non-federal-government job?
    Sigh.
    :-)

  8. mrscoulter Says:

    LOL, I came here to say that I miss you and find that I am not the only one. I hope you’ll find time to post something new soon!

  9. Nancy Says:

    I too miss the posts here. But I also know that Elizabeth has been traveling for the last week and no doubt will return with some great new perspective.

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