Book Review: The Way We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason
—by Katie Dahl, HPC Member
What does it mean to eat ethically? If you are reading this newsletter, the chances are great that you’ve considered this question. Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s 2006 book, The Way We Eat, addresses ethical eating from farm to grocery store to dinner plate.
The book is divided into three sections, each tracking the food choices made by a different US family. As Singer and Mason describe, family number one follows the most common American diet. They shop at big box stores that promise low-cost food and eat some type of meat or fish at most meals. Ultimately, the factors of affordability and convenience shape their food choices.
Family number two is categorized as the “conscientious omnivores.” They are careful to buy food from companies or farms that uphold certain standards in their production or farming practices. This family relies on terms like organic, fair trade certified, free range, or grass fed to inform their food choices.
And finally, family number three is a vegan household, opposing human consumption of any animal-based products. They live by the conviction that all animal farming practices lead to the undeserved suffering of animals.
Woven throughout the stories of these three families is a picture of the current US farming situation. Singer and Mason are primarily critical of factory farming*, graphically describing their visits to farms where animals are over-crowded and abused. They explain the practices of beak clipping on chicken farms (said to be necessary to keep chickens from attacking each other in close quarters) and hormone injection on dairy farms (said to increase a cow’s milk production). Singer and Mason closely examine the cost that factory farming has on the animals, on the environment, and on consumers.
The Way We Eat touches on the topic of worker rights as well, emphasizing the importance of fair trade and labor protection. The authors commend the 2005 Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ boycott of Taco Bell that resulted in higher pay for tomato pickers. Such advocacy is necessary to ethical eating.
By and large, however, this book concentrates on the humane treatment of animals as inseparable from the ethics of our food choices. This theme isn’t surprising, since Peter Singer also authored Animal Liberation, the 1975 touchstone within the animal rights movement. Singer and Mason never claim that a vegan lifestyle is the only viable option, but they do uplift vegan-ism as a highly ethical eating choice.
Aside from a small typo that describes Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch sustainable livestock cooperative, as a graduate of the University of “Minneapolis” (caught by my Minnesota eye!), this book is a highly provocative reminder that our food choices do matter. As the extensive footnotes and resource lists indicate, your reading on this topic won’t end with this book, but it’s a great place to start.
*Factory farming: “A term used to describe a set of often controversial practices in largescale, intensive agriculture, usually referring to the industrialized production of livestock, poultry, and fish...[and] geared toward making use of economies of scale to produce the highest output at the lowest cost” (www.en.wikipedia.org).