The Way We Eat

The Way We Eat – Why Our Food Choices Matter by Jim Mason and Peter Singer

I generally have two concerns with any book about food ethics. First and foremost, that the authors are inadvertently “preaching to the choir”; that is, unless you are already interested or concerned about where your food comes from, you’re unlikely to read such a book in the first place, thus the knowledge shared from reading such a tome is not reaching the people who need it most. Secondly, it’s important to know the author’s personal stance on the issues, because no matter how unbiased they might try to be, generally their own opinions show through.

Which is why Peter Singer and Jim Mason want us all to be vegans.

The Way We Eat examines the eating habits of three different families, and traces their food choices back to their point of origin. Singer and Mason visit with a family that eats the Standard American Diet (SAD); another who are split between a predominantly vegetarian diet focussed on organic foods and a small amount of sustainably-raised meat; and finally a family who are completely vegan.

As they cruise the supermarket aisles, each family offers various justifications (or excuses) for their choices – time, cost and taste are just a few of the reasons. Concerns about supporting local businesses, animal welfare and health are also mentioned.

All three families face some surprises when Singer and Mason reveal to them the path their food had taken to arrive at their table. The SAD family and the organic-focussed family are shocked to find that many of their choices are not as great as they seemed to be – they had no idea of the conditions that chickens (even “free-range” chickens) live under to provide eggs. The mother of the organic family was buying expensive fish by mail-order without realizing she was eating species that were being over-fished or that destroyed other sea animals as they were harvested. Even the vegan family, the most virtuous by far, were shocked when they learned of the impact their locally-grown, out of season tomatoes was having on the environment – Singer and Mason calculated they would be better off buying imported tomatoes in the off-season, as the energy needed to heat the greenhouse for the local tomatoes was greater than the energy needed to truck the fruit from Florida.

Looking at every aspect of where our food comes from and how it gets to us, Singer and Mason measure not just the impact our food choices have on the animals, but also the impact we have on the environment as well as farm and factory workers. They make a decent case for not eating exclusively local produce with the reasoning that trade with foreign countries brings economic benefits to the farmers there.

The encourage people to eat locally, in-season produce, but bring up other issues, such as:

Local food: There are various reasons why, other things being equal, it is better to buy local food. The most important is reducing the use of fossil fuels. Greater transparancy is another. But other issues arise. Some of these are directly related to energy usage:

– Local early vegetables may have been grown with heat, using more fuel than required to transport them from a warmer growing region.
– Delivering small quantities of local products to many different markets may use more fuel than trucking a full load to a more distant supermarket.
– Consumers who drive to outlying local farms or markets instead of doing one-stop shopping at a supermarket may use as much fuel as would have gone into bringing the products from more distant growers to their supermarkets.
– Food production in another country may be less energy intensive than domestic production, and the difference may be greater than the energy used in shipping the food thousands of miles.

Being ardent animals rights supporters, Singer and Mason ultimately determine that the most ethical food choice regarding meat, chicken and fish is to not eat any at all. They concede that animals from places such as Niman Ranch live far better lives than their factory farm counterparts, but still feel that the slaughtering process (which by law must be done in a slaughterhouse and not on the farm) is still harmful to the animals as it places them back in the “factory” setting where little care is taken to adhere to proper animal husbandry practices, and because ultimately an animal still dies to feed us.

My biggest concern with the book is the overall tone it takes. Singer and Mason believe we should all know exactly where our food comes from, and what it went through to get to our table, but seem oblivious as to exactly how much work that really involves. If it took them months of research to track down the origins of a few select foods for a book, how practical is it to expect the average overworked household to know the exact path every morsel of food they eat has taken? Instead of encouraging individuals to visit farms and spend hours doing research on every food item they eat, I’d have preferred to see the authors encouraging changes to a variety of standards so that we can all be assured that our food has been raised in a safe, healthy, ethical environment.

Readers already interested in the issues of food ethics will find this book hard to put down, but I suspect everyone else will feel overwhelmed by all the work they are expected to do before they even begin to think about getting dinner on the table.