Friday, May 24, 2013

The Way We Eat - by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

In case you haven't noticed, I'm straying ever so slightly from the 24-hour news-cycle imperative in order to rehouse some of my earlier work, no longer available on the new website of The Aquarian

So in that self-serving spirit, I give you a review from 2006 of one of the first - and best - books on ethical eating. 


from The Aquarian, Fall 2006
The Way We Eat 
Why Our Food Choices Matter 

By Peter Singer and Jim Mason 


Rodale, 2006 
Hardcover, 328 pages, $34.95 (Canada), $25.95 (U.S.)


available at Amazon.com | Amazon.ca

Reviewed by SYD BAUMEL

In 1975, ethicist Peter Singer's classic, Animal Liberation, helped fuel the modern ethical vegetarian and vegan movement. In its second edition – published in 1990 – it still does. 

Our notions of ethical eating have grown much more complex since then; so it's fitting that one of the world's preeminent logicians of moral complexity has returned to the field with an enlightening addition to the current first crop of books on ethical eating.*

If you've ever found yourself stuck to the floor of a grocery aisle not knowing which product to buy lest some animal, farmer, patch of land or body of water should suffer more if you buy product A than product B, C or D, this book's for you. Singer and co-author Jim Mason – himself the author of 1980's seminal Animal Factories – take an admirably impartial look at the moral questions that haunt today's food shelves. And while that impartiality sometimes leads to ethical uncertainties that may leave you as stuck to the floor as ever, at least your worry lines will grow deeper and wiser.

Take the "locavore" imperative – the conventional food-politics wisdom that local food is a more ethical and sustainable choice than imported food. Singer and Mason affirm the virtues of minimizing greenhouse gas emissions from food transportation and supporting local family farmers and rural communities. But when they bring out their slide rules and factor in the ethics of importing fairly traded, sustainably produced foods from the world's poorest farmers, the conventional wisdom becomes conditional. 

Much of this conditionality hinges on the fact that "transporting a given amount of food by plane uses the most energy per mile, almost twice as much as road freight and 20 times more energy than sending it by ship or rail," as Singer and Mason write.

The implications can be startling. For example, "taking the average car just five extra miles to visit a local farm or market will put as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as shipping 17 pounds of onions halfway around the world, from New Zealand to London."

Then there's the energy and resource cost of producing locally. Singer and Mason give a few examples to show how that local greenhouse tomato or bag of rice (if you live somewhere like California) can come at a resource toll (fossil fuels to heat the greenhouse, water to irrigate the rice field) that dwarfs the low-input production methods of most smallholder, developing-world farmers and the food-miles lite of shipping from port to port. 

Finally there's the question of who benefits more from your shopping dollar: a local farmer who may (a big may) be living well above the poverty line or an impoverished farmer in the developing world for whom your dollar is equivalent to a day's earnings. 

One of the things I like about this book is that, whatever the subject – farm animal welfare, overfishing, GMOs, big corporate retail vs small independent – Singer and Mason ask you to learn and reason along with them. Their process (aided by reference throughout to three American families who span the ethical-eating spectrum) is scrupulously transparent, a model of how we might think our way through these dilemmas ourselves. 

Getting back to the relative merits of local, imported and fairly traded food, Singer and Mason conclude that there is no across-the-board moral prescription. "However, there is a strong case for buying from the least developed countries, at least when it comes to products transported by ship rather than plane and when a significant proportion of the purchase price is likely to end up in the hands of low-income farmers." 

That's the stuff. Spocklike logic on subjects where most ethical eaters have feelings to spare. 

*I know of at least six others: Fast Food Nation (2001) by Eric Schlosser, The Eco-Foods Guide (2002) by Cynthia Barstow, Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating (2005) by Jane Goodall, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen (2006) by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, The Ethical Gourmet (2006) by Jay Weinstein and The Omnivore's Dilemma(2006) by Michael Pollan. 

Aquarian co-editor Syd Baumel is the publisher of eatkind.net which is cited in The Way We Eat as "a useful Website for those interested in more compassionate eating."
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