on May 4, 2007
This book is an excellent introduction for those who want to find out more about where our food comes from. It is not preachy or aggressive. Rather, it opens your mind to the various arguments, while still offering the authors' views on the ethics of different food choices.
The text is very well-researched, from their own first-hand experience, talking to various farmers, as well as from the existing body of literature in science, dietetics, agriculture and philosophy.
No one could accuse this book of being unduly biased. They note the arguments of producers and concede ground where it is appropriate to do so. For example, they note the way some vegans overestimate the amount of water that it takes to produce different types of meat and reach a compromise figure that they believe more accurately reflects the amount of water that goes into beef. They also respectfully recognise the pressures that lead people to make unethical food choices and encourage a way forward without making people feel like they're being whacked over the head with a moral stick.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the origins of our food and how ethics relates to that.
on July 25, 2007
There are several books lining the shelves that contain information on animal rights, vegetarianism, and organic and fair trade food items. However, none seem quite as well-rounded, or nearly as objective and succinct as Peter Singer and Jim Mason's The Ethics of What We Eat. These two authors have put together an incredibly well-crafted and unbiased argument regarding making ethical choices at the grocery store, and "voting" with one's diet and wallet.
The book begins by taking the reader to the grocery store on a routine shopping trip with a few different families. The first family is what one might consider your stereotypical "meat and potatoes" American consumers. The second family, in contrast, are "conscientious omnivores" who pay fairly close attention to their purchases, buying certified organic and fair trade items, and eat little meat. The third family is vegan. The authors even foray into "dumpster diving" with a few people who contend that ethical eating involves not letting disposed of edibles go to waste. The day-to-day purchases (or scavenges) of each of these families are dissected and analyzed. Which one of these families is truly making the most ethically sound decisions when it comes to their daily food choices? What lies behind that "Certified Organic" label? What does it mean when something is labeled "free range" or "fair trade?" Is it worth paying extra money for something with the aforementioned labels?
While focusing quite a bit on factory farming, this book also discusses the ethics of buying locally grown food, sustainability of marine ecosystems, environmental impacts of food production (including water and gas use), and the global economy. Pros and cons are given for each side of each argument, and, though they ultimately seem to side with a vegan diet as being the most ethically sound decision, they do note that this may be too drastic a decision for many and leave it up to the reader to come to their own conclusions about what to place in their shopping cart. The authors are never "preachy" with regards to the information presented, as many of the books found in this genre so often are.
As if this book itself weren't packed full enough with useful information itself, the back of the book provides several good books, websites, and stores where more information can be found on any of the included issues. Overall, this book is very highly recommended for those who want to put some thought and attention into what they put on their plates and into their mouths. The food industry does indeed try to keep consumers in the dark, and it's time everyone took some initiative to educate themselves on their dietary choices. This is a great place to start.
on July 26, 2012
Like the school bully who gets in his hardest kicks once you're down on the ground and have essentially given up, this book drives home a message in powerful, painful punches. "For modern animal agriculture, the less the consumer knows about what's happening before the meat hits the plate, the better... one of the best things modern animal agriculture has going for it is that most people in the developed countries are several generations removed from the farm and haven't a clue how animals are raised and processed." (p.11) With this, Peter Singer lobs the ball in the air and then proceeds to light the court on fire.
Some of it is hard to read. "For ten hours we grabbed and wrestled birds, jerking them upside down, facing their pushed-open [$%&@], dodging their spurting [$%&@], while breathing air filled with dust and feathers stirred up by panicked birds." (p.29) I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit.
The dairy cow section was hard to read too, and I admit to my ignorance here. I suppose I thought dairy cows just made milk. I've thought that to be a humane way to farm with cows, and you can imagine a gawky 8-year-old boy straddling a three-legged stool in some ancient barn as the sun rises over the meadow, milking the lone family dairy cow before heading out to school. My quaint image was shattered when Mason informed me otherwise, painting a picture of a cow bellowing for the calf taken from her, and then we're told the calf is dead within a few days, "his body was lying on the farm's compost pile." (p.58) Oh, do I HAVE to keep reading?!
I didn't believe the part about the "drop kicking" of chickens (p.27) so I looked it up on the Internet. Not too hard to find the Pilgrim's Pride video... and in watching it, my husband asked of me, "why are you watching this?!" I told him how disgusting this all was, that I could never buy a Tyson food product again (how many "bad lists" are they on, anyway?). For Pete's sake, where could I find a humanely raised chicken to eat? Then my husband asked if we should add fryers to our egg-laying hens this year.
The gloves came off in the final round of the book. The last 50 pages of The Ethics of What We Eat delved hard into omnivore versus herbivore - with the authors' call to action clearly being for all us to convert to vegans in order to achieve ethical eating bliss. The language was harsh, reminding us that the industrial food model is "systematically abusive" and that "discomfort is the norm, pain is routine, growth is abnormal, and diet is unnatural." (p.242) Even Pope Benedict XVI is brought into the argument, being quoted on hens becoming "caricatures of birds" (which is also lyrically descriptive - Singer is a very good writer).
The pages devoted to freeganism, or dumpster diving, were also interesting, and my mind brought up images of documentary coverage I had seen on TV a while back. While I generally don't have a problem with this - I'm not, say, grossed out by this or repulsed by the idea of eating wrapped food from the garbage... I think most parents have salvaged something incorrectly thrown away at one point or another - but I also posit that it isn't a practical way for a family to eat on a regular basis. I'm not going to pack up my kids late at night (or leave them home alone) to go sort through urban trash bins looking for stuff to pack in tomorrow's lunch boxes - so it's a bit laughable that this passage is essentially included in the call to action on what readers should do to make more ethical choices.
The concrete What Should We Eat chapter tries to lay a clear foundation with simply-stated guidelines like "look for farmers' markets and buy directly from local farmers" (p.275). But the authors loaded too many heavy concepts, which shattered the foundation, and for me, rendered the final section ineffective.
However, I really loved this: "It's this whole American thing about having cheap food. It's a fallacy. That guy thinks his food is cheap, but you and I are subsidizing that cheap food by paying for the social and ecological issues that are occurring in that community." (p.98) That's the real story behind much of this whole food ethics/politics/sustainability issue, and I hadn't seen it articulated so well until this passage.
If you're up for it, this is a fantastic book worth reading. But if you find yourself nauseous, or lacking an appetite while strolling through your local supermarket, or offended by any of the [real] horror stories described in detail throughout the book... I warned you.
on July 22, 2007
This book was very well written and well researched, but I felt that basing the whole book around the eating habits of these three families was a bit contrived. Also, although I figured (being familiar with Singer's other books) the book was headed toward an advocation of a vegan lifestyle, I would have preferred the authors be upfront about that and intersperse it throughout the whole book instead of waiting until the last 10 pages or so to get to their real point which was not to eat animals at all.
Still, it had a lot of good information and will hopefully make people more aware of what they are eating. However, I fear they are probably just preaching to the choir.
on May 3, 2007
I really enjoy this book and found it to be very informative and inspirational in terms of eating more carefully. I just feel that the title is a little misleading. It doesn't say much about the problems with non-meat that we eat such as wheat and grains---which many don't tolerate well and they take up a lot of natural resources like water and space as opposed to some things grown using agroforestry like bananas, mangoes, plantain and coconuts--which feed a lot of people and take up less space (from animals) and less water. They talk alot about eating local which I agree with to a large extent but I also know it is helpful to people with fragile economies when we eat produce they grow--it actually helps others outside of the United States. Then too there is the issue of clearing land and maintaining it with ploughs which kills lots of indigenous wildlife like rabbits and other small animals as well as nesting birds. So while I really enjoy the concept of this book and realize it contains vital information for the public, I hope in future editions they will address some of the other issues people are less familiar with at this point, like eating cash crops grown by indigenous people, leaning more on agroforestry and less on massive land crops that kill animals and use nature resources.
on April 7, 2015
On a positive note the book is a quick easy read. There is a reasonable effort to look at some pros and cons for different consumer choices and it does not just go with all things plant based are good and animal based bad. Vegans might find the book too kindly disposed towards corporations like McDonald's. It is more of an introductory level book on food ethics that gives some guidance on books and on-line resources for learning more about the topics discussed. One part I really really disliked was a page near the end on the ethics of obesity, it does not offer any balance or counter opinions just a straight forward obesity is unethical and fat folk should show some restraint and stop committing the sin of gluttony. There is no discussion of the impact on animals or the environment or sustainability like the rest of the book just a utilitarian point of view on the shared financial cost of treating obesity related health problems. I was left wondering if a thin meat eater is more ethical than a fat vegan or was there a false thought that meat eaters are obese and vegans are thin? What is the environmental toll of producing a salad compared to a bag of potato chips? The ethics of obesity would be interesting if explored considering consumerism, socioeconomics, politics, marketing, education, genetics, body shaming, etc but is so poorly dealt with it really finishes off the book on a very negative note.
on October 17, 2013
A powerfully written discussion about food production, food choices, and the importance of consciously considering how our food is grown, treated, and delivered. Singer's opening line: "We don't usually think of what we eat as a matter of ethics" (p. 3). Gulp. He's right, I was, still am sometimes, an unconscious purchaser and consumer. I was convicted after reading this book to be more conscious, more educated, more deliberate in understanding what I'm eating, where and how it was grown, and the practices surrounding it. This is the power of this book! It's a tough commitment to live up to. Admittedly, there are days when I fail miserably (sigh). But I'm no longer unconscious and this is a start.
Singer's device of using three families with three differing approaches (Standard American Diet; conscientious Omnivores, and The Vegans) was useful in illustrating a continuum of choices and awareness but also in illustrating the challenges of each, and the difficulties we have in making wise, informed food choices. The power of Singer's book is in the way he presents the complexity of decision making (for example - buy local but if their food practices are unethical, is it wise to buy local?!) - these are not two dimensional easy choices, even when trying to pull the thread - it can be difficult to ascertain practices of food producers, and then there's the practical - at the end of a long work day, I just want to get supper on the table.
While reading I felt as though Singer was trying to present information in a conversational way to get me to thinking, to raise awareness - the balance between information, questions, and sympathy with the challenges of ethical decision making when we perhaps don't have all the facts, it's not black and white, etc. was really helpful in being able to digest and consider the material (i.e., I didn't feel preached at and like a loser because I don't always know or consider...smile).
The section labeled Where to Find Ethical Food included good URLs and additional reading on a variety of topics.
on July 23, 2015
For quite some time I had been concerned about the effects of my eating habits, however I had been overwhelmed with all of the information and options that were out there. I had many questions: Are all animals wrong to eat? Is there anything wrong with milk and eggs? What does cage free, humane certified really mean? What are the reasons (other than health claims) for going organic?
This book blends philosophical arguments, thoroughly researched evidence, and hands on experience to provide excellent insight into these questions.
on January 30, 2015
The book is well researched and straightforward to read. If you are considering veganism and are partial to arguments concerning the suffering of animals, I would highly recommend this book. With a primary focus on factory farming, it covers a range of topics from the ethical treatment of animals, to environmental impacts, to fair trade. Arguments were generally well written, but sometimes fallacious (although not necessarily unsound) and often appealed to animal suffering even in claims that did not call for it. I was disappointed that it did not cover more ethical qualms about the types of plant based foods we produce and consume; focusing mostly on reasons to avoid animal products. The concluding sections were quite good, particularly on not being fanatical about veganism and resources linked.
on January 27, 2015
I admit I was not expecting too much from this book even before I opened it, as I've not found articles by Peter Singer to be particularly compelling analysis. However, at first I was pleasantly surprised as I started getting into this book that the authors were mostly fair and friendly towards the people who shared the details of their lives, even the ones eating in ways the authors disagreed with. The book looks at three families: one with a mostly Standard American Diet, one of conscientious omnivores (and one vegetarian), and one vegan. The authors follow the chapters on the families with investigations into the sources of their meals, such as visiting a hog farm when researching bacon, and analyzing some of the ethical and environmental implications of their food choices. The parts involving descriptions of the families and their approaches to food, and also the parts where they met individual food producers such as the hog farmers (confinement and pastured) and a Maryland crabber, were done with humanity and a reasonable amount of balance, even if the authors' opinions showed. If I were judging the book only by these descriptions, I would have rated it higher.
Unfortunately, the related analysis was a mixed bag, with too much weak content alongside the normal content. Their discussions of local food and fair trade were very good. The descriptions of factory farms were usually good, although they use spurious feed conversion numbers. They relied on Eric Marcus's unimpressive book rather than doing additional research on the feed, it appears. Those bad statistics (see Wilkinson's 2010 paper on how feed ratios can be misleading, admittedly published after the book, but CAST found similar results in 1999) and relatively lazy effort contrasted strongly with their excellent exploration of the water-use numbers for cattle, where they contrasted multiple sources and understood the differences in how they were modeled to explain the disparities between them. The content on organic was just okay--I'm largely sympathetic to their conclusions, but to get to those conclusions (generally favorable to organic production) they downplayed counter-arguments more than I think is justified, particularly not looking deeply enough into yields or fertilizer availability.
The biggest problems, however, all seem to stem from their established ethical positions creating a number of blind spots on the environment (and, to me, this thinking is a serious flaw, as in environmental concern should be in the best interest of animals in aggregate, so their focus on suffering seems myopic). Their land-use analysis was not particularly strong, where they suggested the most production comes from vegan systems. This idea is false: While feeding dedicated crops to animals is inefficient for total calorie production, the most production from a given land base always includes livestock; for an example, see Peters et al. "Testing a Complete Diet Model for Estimating Land Resource Requirements" or see Vaclav Smil's analysis in his book Should We Eat Meat?.
In another example, they had damnably bad position on sustainably done wild fishing and hunting. For both, they stuck only to Singer's well-known suffering perspective, and focused only on directly inflicted suffering, suggesting that hunting and fishing are perhaps less ethically questionable than factory farm alternatives, but these still are to be avoided if one can go vegan ("the suffering fish experience while dying is a compelling reason for avoiding fish," or on crustaceans, after admitting it's not actually clear if they even can feel pain, "causing unnecessary suffering to beings who are, or may be, capable of feeling pain, it begins to seem better, as well as simpler, not to buy seafood at all" or, worst of all, on hunting, including a comparison to a pro-slavery argument when shooting down a pro-hunting strawman). That's a rather indefensible position to take if one has concern for the environment. What they completely--and ridiculously--failed to consider was the trade-offs from not using those resources: Any food produced from fish or game reduces the amount of food required from agriculture, thus reduces the required land for agriculture. While good management is essential, foregoing those resources entirely means expanding cropland, and overall would be of massive negative environmental consequence, and, indirectly, on the suffering caused by the environmental damage, arguably worse than the suffering Singer focuses on and ignored by him.
Less important, but a bit annoying, were some lame excuses for some rather questionable things regarding vegans: for example, when a respected nutrition expert with experience working in developing countries said, "What makes me angry is when people say that we shouldn't be giving animal foods to people in developing countries..." and the authors pretended to not know what she was talking about, that vegans and vegan organizations don't engage in that sort of damaging, misguided advocacy, writing on how they asked two rights activists from particular nonprofits and neither held that position. I have witnessed firsthand precisely that sort of misguided thinking when discussing development policy, and it's widespread among vegans, so they must not have asked around much at all. Many more vegans, particularly among the "intellectual vegan" crowd, ignore the issue by suggesting animal agriculture be abolished as a goal, but not describing how poor people would then be fed (James McWilliams does this, as does Gary Francione and others). By avoiding the topic while calling for elimination, they at least leave open the idea of not allowing animal products for people in developing countries, and their drones can be quite aggressive about insisting on it. I also found the part about the vegan child featured being drastically underweight was too casually dismissed as probably not being due to the veganism. To end on a positive, there is some good stuff about there being no need for fanaticism at the end of the book.