Friday, January 09, 2009

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter

I was browsing the library shelves since I often find my books this way at our small central library and when I came across this book I knew I had to read it. I've never read Peter Singer which seems shameful for a vegan like myself to admit, but it's true (I guess that bumps me down a level on the vegan scale). So here was my chance and now I can say I'm so glad to have read this book.

Singer and Mason meet with three families, grocery shop with them, discuss why they choose the food they do and then visit the farms and factories that produce that food. They look at the environmental impact that food production has and also examine the ethics of raising animals for consumption. From the “standard american diet” family to the “conscientous omnivores” to the vegan family, Singer and Mason cover all areas of the animal food chain. They conclude the book with five areas to consider when we make our food choices.

Singer and Mason's details of how all animals are raised for meat, dairy and eggs clearly demonstrate the damage being done to the environment and the lack of consideration to an animal's welfare. It wasn't surprising to learn that the “standard american diet” is the most inhumane and environmentally destructive choices of diets. So what is the cost of cheap food? Raising tens of thousands of pigs, for example, crowded and housed in something that doesn't really resemble the idea of a farm at all, leads to all kinds of problems. The pigs have more illnesses and therefore need more antibiotics. The animals are stressed out which leads to aggressive behaviour so their tails are docked to prevent them from biting another pig's tail and this is done without anesthetic (as is castration) because anesthetic would incur extra cost that would mean you pay more for your bacon. The environmental cost is not pleasant either when you consider that
“an adult pig produces about four times the amount of feces of a human, so a large confinement operation with , say, fifty thousand pigs, creates half a million pounds of pig urine and excrement every day. That's as much waste as a medium sized town – but remember that human sewage is elaborately treated before being released into the environment and factory farm waste is not.” (p. 43).

Oddly enough out of all the factory farmed animals the least inhumane was the beef cattle since they at least get to go outdoors. However, this is hardly any comfort when you read about the rest of their life that ends in a slaughterhouse. Environmentally Singer and Mason conclude that beef production is the most damaging as the land cleared for raising cattle has consequences on the land and water that seems irreparable and the contribution of cattle on these feedlots to greenhouse gases (methane gas) is perhaps more damaging that drivingan SUV.

I struggled through Part I “Eating the Standard American Diet.” The struggle wasn't because it was too dry a read or anything like that, but rather because I had to stop reading whenever I felt like crying. The unbelievable horrors that go into raising chickens, turkeys, dairy cows, calfs for veal, pigs and cattle were too upsetting. However, this is one of the important points of the book, there should be some transparency to our food. We should know how our food is raised when we walk down the grocery aisle or shop at the farmer's markets. We should be aware of how that animal lived its life. After all what we eat affects our health and well being. Shouldn't we be completely aware of where and how our food is obtained?

Once I got to the chapters on the “conscientious omnivores” and the vegans the reading was a little more digestible. I did delight in reading about a farm where sows are raised so that they live a “normal” life and can behave instinctively. Singer and Mason describe watching a sow as she collects twigs from the surrounding woods and builds a nest. It was very moving and a bit of a revelation for me since I had no idea it was a pig's instinctive desire to build and nest. What a shame that most are raised in metal crates that they cannot even turn around in.

Another topic of interest in the book was the discussion on buying local which has become so popular lately with the rise of farmer's markets and the interest in the 100 mile diet. I once wrote about my struggle being vegan and wanting to buy locally, questioning if a healthful and varied diet was possible for me. I haven't come up with an answer, but Singer and Mason raised some new questions for me concluding that it is better to buy locally and seasonally whenever possible, which is something I try to do.
“To reduce the amount of fossil fuel that is involved in producing our food, we should buy local food, if it has been grown with similar energy efficiency to food from somewhere else – but not if the local grower had to burn fossil fuel to provide heat, and not if there is a lot of extra driving involved in picking the food up, or getting it delivered.” (p. 150).

The book also gave me something new to consider:
“sometimes the most environmentally friendly food is grown far away, under natural conditions more favorable to growing the food, and transport by sea is so efficient, in fossil fuel terms, that buying food from distant countries can contribute less to global warming than buying locally. (...) (W)e also have an obligation to support some of the worlds' poorest farmers, and under fair trading conditions, the best way to support them can be to buy the food they produce.” (p. 150)

Hmm now that I have more to think about when I shop you might wonder if this is all overwhelming when confronted with the grocery aisle. Not at all. I find it empowering because it means I can make a more informed choice about what I'm consuming. This made the book worth reading.

I highly recommend this book. It is an important read if you care about what you eat and what the costs are when we make the decisions we do. I will leave you with a brief look at how the authors conclude the book with their five guidelines to help us choose what we should eat.
1.Transparency: We have a right to know how our food is produced. (This is) an important ethical principle and a safeguard against bad practice.
2.Fairness: Producing food should not impose costs on others. The price of food should reflect the full costs of production.
3.Humanity: Inflicting significant suffering on animals for minor reasons is wrong. Kindness and compassion toward all, humans and animals, is clearly better than indifference to the suffererng of another sentient being.
4.Social Responsibility: Workers should have decent wages and working conditions.
5.Needs: Preserving life and health justifies more than other desires.

One more quote because I loved so many quotes in this book.
“If Americans were to cut back to meat-eating levels of the 1950s, that would improve health and slash health care costs. It would also reduce the number of animals suffering on factory farms by about the same amount as if roughly 80 million Americans became vegans.” (p. 281)


Captain Karen said...

This sounds absolutely fascinating, SP. I'll have to check out my library to see if they have a copy. great review!

SME said...

Admittedly, I haven't read any Singer either. Around the time I went veg, he was very controversial for sticking up for David Irving's right to be a freaking moron. I happen to agree that people have a right to be ignorant, but I also think that when you decide to go out on some limbs and embrace ideas for which there is zero evidentiary support, you're on yer own. As our mothers always said, "Don't come crying to me when you break both your legs." Irving has his own lawyers and supporters; he doesn't need any more help.

That said, this seems like a good read and I should probably give Singer a chance.

red jane said...

Astonishing. Thank you so much for this review. It was Singer's book Animal Liberation which greatly affected me and influenced my decision to become vegan; I can't wait to read this one as well. I have a feeling it will be one I will buy and give out to others.

sp said...

SME, I'm not aware of the Singer/Irving controversy so I'll have to look that one up.