The Ethics of What We Eat
To answer this timely and important question, coauthors Peter Singer, or most probing ethicist, and Jim Mason, an environmentally conscious writer and attorney, undertake a modern-day odyssey both shocking and illuminating. Beginning their adventure at the dinner tables of three typical families with differing tastes and grocery-shopping habits, they set out to trace the origins of the foods we eat.
Singer and Mason pursue the story with the kind of investigative and intellectual tenacity behind such landmark titles as Silent Spring and Fast Food Nation, hauling in pots from the Chesapeake Bay with a commercial crabber and dumpster-diving with an urban band of “freegans.” Along the way they check the validity of such labels as “Animal Care Certified,” “Certified Humane,” “organic,” and “Fair Trade.” They expose the working conditions in Southern food-processing plants as well as in other countries. They weigh the pros and cons of buying local, the complex dynamics of sustainability, the controversy over genetically modified organisms, the ethics of obesity, and the health implications of raising children vegan.
The Ethics of What We Eat concludes with five simple principles that consumers can use to make better food choices. Should we eat meat? If so, what kinds of meat are most humane to eat? What kinds of produce and dairy products? Wild fish, or farmed? Veal — ever? Recognizing that not all of us will become vegetarians, Singer and Mason offer powerful reasons for eating more conscientiously.
After many years of correspondence back and forth, Peter Singer and I once again found ourselves at the same place at the same time — at the Animal Rights 2001 conference in Washington, D.C. Over several days, we sat together and discussed the history of our collaboration on Animal Factories. Peter suggested that we renew our writing partnership with a new book on the same subject.
We went home and continued the conversation in emails and phone calls.
At first, we considered a rewrite and update of Animal Factories, but rather quickly concluded that we couldn’t get the same kind of access to factory farms that we had back in the late 1970s. Today’s factory farms operators, having faced decades of critics and bad press, are on the defensive and have — as we would soon find out — closed ranks and slammed doors to inquiring reporters. Peter thought that our focus on factory farms had effectively made its case, that the word was out now in the mainstream media, and that we should enlarge the scope of the book beyond industrial animal agriculture. We began to discuss covering the broader range of modern farming and food production and the major ethical concerns presented. Now the question became: what kind of a book? How to make such material interesting?
As the author of many books, Peter knows how to compose a book and then how to pitch the idea to a publisher. He suggested that we look at the way Americans eat, note their food choices, and trace some examples back to the farm. We would follow those foods from farm to the families’ plates and discuss the ethical concerns raised along the way. We decided to look for families whose food choices reflected a range of ethical concerns: from very strict to very little. We chose three diets: vegan, conscientious carnivore, and standard American diet. We pitched the idea to publishers, and Rodale bought it in February 2003.
Now we set out to find families who would be willing to endure months of sharing information with us.
We contacted friends, neighbors and relatives and asked them to ask friends, neighbors and relatives who might want to join our project. This produced an initial list of about 20 families across the country; but after a few months of doing their “homework,” only about five or six families maintained commitment. We settled on three and began cataloging their food choices. We asked them to keep a record of what they bought, whether at a supermarket, grocer, farm, restaurant, or take-out. We went shopping with them and took notes; we ate meals with them and took notes. For each family, we made a listing of each food item and its producer or manufacturer. We wrote to each farm or firm — some 80 in all, described our project, and asked them to work with us in tracing the food items according to our plan. Most never responded — even after a second letter.
We got a few hostile replies — from the big labels and names in fast food chains. Some of the phone follow-up work brought interesting conversations. One of our families bought Oscar Meyer bacon. I called headquarters (a division of Kraft Foods) and eventually got someone in public relations. I told her about the project, the three families, and said that one family enjoyed the company’s bacon. I said that we would like to see where it came from — the pigs and the farm of a typical supplier. She hesitated, saying that this was an unusual request and that she would have to talk to someone and get back to me. Several days later, she called again to tell me that “information about our procurement and processing of our product is considered proprietary in nature” and referred me to “a great source,” the American Meat Institute, a meat industry trade association based in — where else? — Washington, D.C.
And so it went with the big names in farming and food. We did manage to visit some farms — mostly of the kind that cater to the more ethical consumers, those who buy organic, free-range and the like. One big name broke ranks and called us: Chipotle, the fast-food chain that specializes in fresh ingredients and “food with integrity,” which, according to founder Steve Ells, means knowing “how the vegetables are grown, how the pigs and chickens are raised.” A vividly memorable visit was to Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where I went out early one cold, windy morning with to haul crab pots with Eddie Evans and his son, the 12th and 13th generation of “watermen” on that island.
The surest way to start working against factory farming is to stop consuming its products. You can refuse to eat ‘milk-fed’ veal, factory eggs, feedlot beef and other factory-farmed animal products. Of course, you can stop consuming animal products altogether, as is recommended by an increasing number of health experts. In either event, consumer demand can make a difference in that it will encourage independent farmers to seek the safest, most humane methods in animal production lest they destroy their markets.
Individual dietary changes will not be enough, however. While you get your food shopping, preparation and eating habits under control, you should work actively toward broader changes in agriculture and food policy. Since consumer demand affects food production, we should begin by making the following demands:
- Demand the prohibition of the use of antibiotics, growth pro-motants and other feed additives in animal agriculture. The Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to ban or regulate these drugs are under way, but they are being stymied by drug and agribusiness corporations. Without these shortcuts to genuine animal care and health, animal losses in crowded factories would be so great that factory systems and methods would not be profitable.
- Demand an end to the public subsidies that prop up factory farming. If society is to subsidize agriculture, it could make much better choices about the kinds of production to be supported and the kinds of food to be produced.
- Demand an end to tax-supported research and technological development of factory systems. The present funding scheme is one big boondoggle for drug and equipment manufacturers. Demand that this money and expertise be directed instead to work on farming methods that farmers can afford and manage, and ones that give consumers safe, wholesome food.
- Demand local markets and food co-operatives where farmers and consumers can trade directly. Every community has a square or park where space could be set aside for outdoor markets. Find the food co-operative in your community; if there is none, start one.
- Demand meatless meals and non-factory farm products from restaurants, hotels, airlines, caterers, school lunch services and all other public food outlets. Let them know that you are aware of where food comes from and that you are worried about food produced by factory methods.
- Demand labelling laws that will ensure the marking of all factory-produced animal products. (Don’t settle for a statement to the effect that the farming systems have been approved by an animal welfare organization; there are some that will rubber-stamp anythingjust to get their names around.)
- Demand that supermarkets and other food outlets separate factory and non-factory foods. (In the USA there is a precedent for this in state laws regulating the labelling and display of kosher foods and, in some states, ‘organic’ or chemical-free foods.)
- Demand a tax on meat and animal products that would provide funding to subsidize the production of other crops. This would be no more absurd than our present policy of subsidizing the production of what are essentially luxury foods. If people want to continue to prop up costly, risky animal production, they should have to pay a premium, and the premium could be channelled towards the support of better foods and production methods.
- Demand an end to meat industry propaganda in local schools; demand to know how nutrition is being taught to your children.
- Demand a change of government policy so that it puts good food and farm livelihood first. The present prevailing pro-agribusiness bias is a scandal that has driven millions of farmers from the land and has saturated consumers with junk food.
- Demand land reforms and zoning laws that would bring small, diversified farms closer to populated areas. Too large a proportion of the cost of food is attributable to transport, handling and profiteering as food moves from the farm to the consumer.
- Demand that food products be labelled to carry the name of the corporation that owns the brand line. This would expose the monopolism behind the myth of a competitive food industry — and the lie that your ham, eggs, milk, etc., come from good old Farmer Jones down on the farm.
- Demand an end to the animal products industries’ ‘check-offs’, which charge consumers and small farmers for advertising that props up our diet which is wasteful and weighted towards animal products.
The Ethics of What We Eat was a Top Ten bestseller in Australia and is published in the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Portugal, and South Korea. It is also published in Spain in the Catalan language and is in press in France.
“You can be ethical without being fanatical.”
—Jim Mason and Peter Singer
“Three men forced 700 workers into slavery as fruit pickers in Florida. The men threatened the workers with death if they tried to leave, and pistol-whipped and assaulted — at gunpoint” — passenger van service drivers who gave rides to farm workers leaving the area. Without antibiotics, Metzen admitted, it wouldn’t be possible to fatten cattle on corn. “Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space,” he joked, “I wouldn’t have a job.”
More than 40 percent of the food grown in the United States is lost or thrown away — that’s about $100 billion of wasted food a year. At least half of this food … could have been safely consumed.
Our love for fish is wiping many of them out. World consumption of fish and fishery products has more than tripled since 1960. A quarter of the world’s commercially important ocean fish populations are depleted or slowly recovering from past over-exploitation; another 47 percent are fished to the full extent of their capacity.
Some people think that factory farming is necessary to feed the growing population of our planet. The truth, however, is the reverse. Far from increasing the total amount of food available for human consumption, it reduces it.
Making better food choices doesn’t require hours spent reading labels or rigid adherence to any particular diet. All it takes is the information we provide in this book, which we hope will bring a little more awareness about the significance of the food choices we all make.
“It’s going to get better,” [Mary Ann] says, “There some sort of a circle to it. As more consumers get aware, they make demands and create new markets. Then more companies get interested and are willing to invest in these alternatives. Then consumers have more options available to them.
Once we found out what our three families ate, we wrote to 87 corporations who had manufactured at least one product that a family had bought. We informed each corporation of our project and asked for their assistance in identifying and facilitating our visits to the farm or facility from which the product came. Few companies bothered to reply. So we sent follow-up letters, adding that we were keen to get the producers’ side of the story. After all this, only 14 companies indicated that they were willing to assist us in any way. Most of these companies were relatively small producers of organic foods.
Factory farming spread because it seemed to be cheaper than more traditional forms of farming. We have seen that it was cheaper to the consumer, but only because it was passing some of its costs on to others.
Jake thought that she was buying milk from local farms because Coleman Dairy … is an Arkansas-based corporation. When we called and asked if we could see their cows, however, Walt Coleman told us that they hadn’t had any cows since 1935. They buy their milk from Dairy Farmers of America, a big dairy cooperative. Coleman wasn’t willing to help us any further in our quest to see the source of Jake’s milk.
We asked Jesse how long the farm had been producing organic eggs. “About eight years. It really saved the family farm. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. My grandfather started this farm. He could make a living with 5,000 hens. Nowadays, in the conventional industry, a million hens is a small farm. It’s get big, or get out.”
When people complain about the cost of her eggs, she says: “Look, you can’t spend an extra ten cents an egg, or twenty cents an egg, to make the chickens’ lives better? You can’t spend 20 cents an egg and then you go out and you buy a $4.50 latté? And it’s not even food!”
If the Norwegian salmon filets Mary Ann bought from Horizon came from Norway, they were almost certainly from fish farms. Wild Atlantic salmon has largely gone the way of the cod. So few survive that 300 farmed fish are sold for every one that was caught swimming freely.
A British study calculated that the ingredients for a single meal, consisting of chicken from Thailand, runner beans from Zambia, carrots from Spain, snowpeas from Zimbabwe, and potatoes from Italy, could have traveled a total of 24,364 miles. A similar meal could have been made with ingredients traveling only 376 miles, if domestically produce ingredients were used and seasonal vegetables … had been substituted.
Plantations and factories can use the fair-trade label if employers pay their workers decent wages, comply with health, safety, and environmental standards, allow workers to join unions or other forms of associations, provide good housing if workers are not living at home, and do not use child labor or forced labor.
“I just try to keep the variety there, that’s the main thing. And we’re not getting empty calories. We just don’t keep empty calories in our house.” —JoAnn, vegan mother
Organic food costs more partly because, as we have seen throughout this book, intensive industrial agriculture leaves others to pay the hidden costs of cheap production — the neighbors who can no longer enjoy being outside in their yard; the children who cannot safely swim in local streams,; the farm workers who get ill from the pesticides they apply, the confined animals denied all semblance of a life that is normal and suitable for their species; the fish who die in the polluted streams and coastal waters (and the people who previously caught and ate those fish); and the unknown number of inhabitants of low-lying lands in Bangladesh or Egypt who will be made homeless by rising sea levels caused by global warming.
[Scott] Jurek, a vegan, shattered by more than 30 minutes a [Badwater Ultramarathon] course record that some thought unbreakable, finishing a full two hours ahead of his nearest rival. Starting below sea level in Death Valley, he ran 135 miles, some of it in 115-degree heat, to finish over 8,000 feet up on the slopes of Mt. Whitney.
Most states with major animal industries have written into their anti-cruelty laws exemptions for “common farming practices.” Effectively, then, cruelty is legal as long as it is done by most farmers, and you can’t prosecute anyone for it.
Within animal agriculture, a few people speak frankly about why the industry is so secretive. [One, an author and professor of animal science] writes: “For modern animal agriculture, the less the consumer knows about what’s happening before the meat hits the plate, the better.”
The surest way to avoid harming animals and the environment is to avoid animal products altogether. If you feel that you can’t go all the way, all at once, at least try vegan meals some days each week. You may already be doing this unintentionally if you choose some of the offerings at Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, or Indian restaurants. It’s really not that difficult, and you’ll like the food.
When we feel overwhelmed, it is important to avoid the mistake of thinking that if you have ethical reason for doing something, you have to do it all the time, no matter what. But this rule-based view isn’t the only possible approach to ethics, nor the best one, in our view. Ethical thinking can be sensitive to circumstances. You can be ethical without being fanatical.
The Ethics of What We Eat
IBSN-10: 1594866872; IBSN-13: 978-1594866872
Book (paperback); Rodale Press; March 2007
6 x 8.7 inches; 336 Pages; $19.95