A discussion with a friend up the street, a professor of biology at CWRU, about what regular folk could do effect environmental change simply by altering a few every day default choices compelled me to do what I’d been meaning to for a while: read two books, The Way We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, and  What to Eat by Marion Nestle.
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   I’ve finished The Way We Eat, or rather read as much as I intend to.  That’s why I can only call this a review of sorts, because I found much of this book frustrating.  The writing is clunky, especially in “scenes” in which families are described, interactions are recorded, trips to the food store are reported.  Also, other journalistic forays to actual farms and interviews with farmers were frustratingly brief and incomplete (e.g. an overview of the Niman company) and awkward, however earnest (they include two endings for their too-brief description of a mainly conscientious hog farmer, theirs and his).  Much of it has a grad-school journalism feel, and I found my self skimming so that I could get to the important information and observations they obviously had to offer.  Huge kudos, though, for whichever one of them did a day’s work as a turkey inseminator.  That’s some serious involvement in what you’re writing about.  And I would have loved more of that.
    Moreover, the authors, Jim Mason, an attorney from a farming family and author, and Peter Singer, an influential philosopher currently teaching at Princeton (the book is written in first person plural, but I’ll bet it wasn’t he who did the bird juicing!)—they’re both vegan advocates (based on beliefs fully described in the last third of the book) and at times I was skeptical of the bias their information took; they did their best to present observations objectively and but I was always on high alert.
    The authors follow the food choices of three families (much as Pollan followed three meals), American thoughtless, American conscientious and vegan (that their portrayal of the vegans was flattering and generous was no surprise, but that I believed it all was—they found some pretty reasonable vegans, a term I’d have called an oxymoron before reading this book)
    My objections aside, I’m really glad I made it to the end of this book.  Singer has written widely on the ethics of our eating animals.  Pollan, in Omnivore’s Dilemma, describes Singer’s work as so powerful that one couldn’t remain neutral on the subject—if one continued to eat meat, one was obliged to defend the act.
    Singer’s arguments are described and defended with almost mathematical precision, and they are hard to deny.  Pollan gives an overview of them in his book; Singer writes about animal rights at length in Animal Liberation; and here in this book, he devotes a chapter to the fundamentals of the argument against eating things that had a face when they were alive.
    Having shot my mouth off about this on more than one occasion, and most recently defended the practice of raising ducks for foie gras as being a model of humane animal husbandry, I, committed carnivore, was shaken.
    Singer made me feel like the drunk at the bar spilling beer and cigarette ashes down my shirt as I mouthed ignorantly on.
    I’m not going to go through the reasoning here—read it in Pollan if you have it, or better, from the source itself.  Suffice it to say that Singer is deadly serious and demands that we be too, that we account for our actions rather than live our lives like morons staring at an endless car dealership commercial on TV.
    I will not give up eating the flesh of animals just yet.  But the arguments are strong enough for me to work hard to do anything and everything possible to avoid buying any animal products produced by agribusiness.  They use the term "conscientious omnivore."  This means finding a humane source of pork and not buying the crap at the grocery store, which frankly is shitty pork that’s been grown under horrific circs and slaughtered miserably.  It means finding locally grown beef.  It means not buying the cheap eggs.
    The down side is that this gets really expensive.  But I’m willing to eat less (I’m a miser and a glutton—I love to eat a lot of food) and spend a little more.  Everyone can’t do this, but a lot more people can.
    I’m still finding it hard to believe a vegan did this to me.  I’m usually stronger than this.
    But it’s true.  The authors aren’t trying to convert the country to veganism (much as they’d love to see it happen).  Their ultimate aim is to encourage us to be “conscientious omnivores.”  In this they couldn’t be more right.  In this book and the Nestle book figures are noted: we spend $350 billion at the grocery store and a trillion dollars on food annually.  If everyone who could afford to refused to buy the inferior animal products at the grocery store, it could change the way our entire food supply is created.  We could move from one that is environmentally catastrophic, unconscionably inhumane both to the animals that are butchered and the workers who do it, bad for our bodies, inferior to the cooks, a food supply that’s vulnerable to both virulent bacteria and, potentially, terrorism, from all this we could move to food supply that reverses those traits, and we could do it in part simply by better choosing how we spend our cash, cash that agribusiness badly wants and will bend over backward to get.
    Despite its flaws, and largely because of its powerfully argued finish, which is both philosophical and practical, The Way We Eat is a valuable addition to the national discussion about our food choices and the impact they have on this earth.
    (I still can’t beleive a vegan was so convincing to me.)

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20 Wonderful responses to “A Review of Sorts”

  • Becky Vartabedian

    I teach ethics at a few higher education institutions around my town and I often discuss Singer’s influential work on animal rights. Not many of my students are convinced, but we did have a rousing discussion a couple of weeks ago about humane treatment of animals. My students weren’t compelled by the arguments Singer makes about converting to veganism (in the context of his “specieism” argument in Animal Liberation), but they did agree that the unnecessary suffering of animals is a moral evil. I mentioned the foie gras debate, in the hopes of inspiring louder arguments, but they didn’t bite.

    I think the larger problem that faces ethics–both in general and w/r/t the food industry–is that it requires us to draw conclusions antithetical to our contemporary ways of being and eating. Singer’s proposals are viewed–at least by several semesters worth of students–as mere pipe dreams and rantings.

    Students overwhelmingly believe their pets should be protected from undue suffering, but eating a chicken sandwich from McFunster’s isn’t of concern to them…yet. I don’t think this is anyone’s fault, but as someone who cares about eating it seems like it should become an issue.

    I think a variety of philosophical viewpoints might come in handy to address the problems faced by the food industry here in the U.S., and ones that offer different alternatives than the one Singer provides. This seems to be a “new frontier” of sorts for applied ethics. If we start being critical about our food practices on a variety of levels–practical and theoretical–things may begin to change. This book seems like a step toward bringing theory to the popular consciousness. My favorite.

  • ruhlman

    Becky,

    How can your students simply dismiss singer? he’s hardly ranting. being a crackpot is the one thing you can’t accuse him of. how do they explain why racism is different from specieism? do they even try? you can’t just say, well, converting a nation to veganism is impossible, therefore the guy is wrong.

    and i agree–scrutinizing our food system from multiple angles is already changing the popular consciousness.

  • Simon

    Please note that I have not read the book, it is on the wishlist as of now.

    The main problem that I have with the concept of conscientious omnivore, and its behavior, is the same problems we are currently seeing with the organic products now: it works on a micro level but not on a macro level. Locally grown meat is all fine and dandy but how local and how good can beef, or pork, be when it comes from peripheral New York City or Los Angeles? They are going to come from huge farms and huge slaughtering house. When it comes to less populous areas, what then is considered local? How can you economically justify a slaughterhouse for a town of 15 000?

    I, too, try to buy the good stuff most of the time and I have limited my intake of meat just in order to be able to afford the good stuff, be it meat or produce. I can’t see American/Canadian (I am one of them people) eating less meat anytime soon.

    The only way I can see this working is government involvment (something you people down there loathe, as evidenced by the fois gras ban.) The main problem is that meat is too cheap for people to stop eating it, the west has a higher protein intake now than ever in the history of man. When Italian used to throw one, yes one, sausage at the bottom of a huge stock pot to flavour a whole meal of vegetables for the family, it wasn’t because they didn’t want more meat, it was because they couldn’t afford it.

    I could go on about what the poor people in my area (I live in a pretty poor area of town) buy at the grocery store but that’s a whole different discussion…

  • Joe Slag

    Thanks for the review, Michael. Having read a few of your books, it’s really interesting to see your take on Singer’s arguments. I’ve only skimmed through Singer’s book myself, but I’m curious if you’ve also read Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and if so what you find persuasive in Singer’s book that was absent from Schlosser’s? I ask because it was Schlosser’s work that set me on the path to being a conscientious-omnivore a number of years ago.

  • Steve

    Careful Michael, you’re beginning to sound like a convert to Singer’s way. I need people like you to tell me I’m not a bad person for eating meat!

    Peter Singer is surely one of the most relevant philosophers of our time. I don’t think anyone can read his work and dismiss him as a lunatic or polemicist. He has a good point.

    I’d love to hear what Bourdain has to say about Singer and/or about your reaction to the book.

  • Bux

    Pollan takes Singer seriously. Many of his references come as he starts to write about his own hunting experience–something he felt he needed to do as research for his book. He doesn’t dismiss Singer, but he speaks of the existence of carnivorous animals and Singer’s dilemma in wondering “whether we should do anything about it.” Pollan’s parenthetical comment “(Talk about the need for peacekeeping forces.)” provides some comic relief amid the concerns. Pollan’s hard pressed to argue with Singer, but ultimately comes off suggesting there’s a midway between being a vegan and eating meat by looking the other way when it comes to raising and slaughtering livestock. I have not read Singer and currently hide behind Pollan’s arguments for the more humane treatment of our food animals.

    One of the things Pollan argues for are smaller slaughter houses that are open to public display as a way towards better understanding of the process and more humane treatment. One of the things he rails against are the governmental regulations that force small slaughter houses out of operation. One of his poster farmers would like to slaughter his own beef, as he does his own chickens, open to observation and inspection by his customers.

  • Josh Bradley

    I have not read any of the books discussed, but plan to soon, after reading this post. I am curious about the mention of speciesism and whether Singer’s or Pollan’s arguments get applied to native cultures that have no other choice?

    If you travel to the northern villages in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, etc., there is no other ready food source. Without killing their food, they would cease to exist as a people. I am sure that it would be argued that they are “conscientious omnivores”, but how does one fight against speciesism while using exceptions?

    If you make a moral and ethical statement against something and then justify the opposite in certain situations, than it is not truly an ethical stand, but a political one.

  • Steve

    Josh, Singer does not have a problem with eating animals if it is necessary for survival. He does rank humans morally “above” animals due to our ostensibly greater capacity for suffering.

    But humans are not obligate carnivores, and the inflicting of suffering on animals for what amounts to a human luxury is morally indefensible.

  • Tana

    Michael, I love this quote: “The down side is that this gets really expensive. But I’m willing to eat less (I’m a miser and a glutton—I love to eat a lot of food) and spend a little more. Everyone can’t do this, but a lot more people can.”

    I have said many times that I would rather have a small piece of exquisite cheese—which I can truly savor and marvel over—than a five-pound hunk of crap cheese from the super(-sized)market.

    I don’t consider myself a miser, but maybe more like Frank Lloyd Wright: “Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.”

    Great post.

  • Josh Bradley

    Steve,

    In the case of the Inuit (and other northern tribes), they are practically “obligate carnivores” with nearly all of their diet coming from meat out of a sheer lack of anything else besides the occasional berry. If you don’t think that evolution has prepared them in some way biologically then you should spend some time around them while in “civilized” society and how the “standard” human diet effects them.

    If Singer is against speciesism and that all beings are worthy of “equal consideration”, then setting that aside for “survival” would indicate that he would hold the same for eating humans for “survival”.

    His position (as I have read it) on animal testing is that in certain circumstances it’s benefits outweigh the harm and that similar testing should then be allowed on humans. how would that “equal consideration” not be applied to food?

    My point is that I am most curious of the impact of this book and it’s position on Ruhlman, given his very clear thoughts on the subject of meat prior to this and his defense of Singer’s “strong” positions when it all seems like “convenient ethics” to me.

    As long as it is for OUR survival, i guess it is okay… as long as testing animals benefits US greatly it is okay…

  • ruhlman

    these are all great comments, every one, and i don’t think i have more to add.

    Joe, it’s been a while since i read the schlosser book, but that is a reported book and gathers its power from observation; we react to the visceral descriptions of the workers and the slaughter house and the information about how they’re designed and how they work. Singer’s power comes purely from intellectual argument. two different forms of writing with similar results.

    steve, I don’t know what Bourdain would say on this. nothing kind to me here, alas. I’d ask him to read the singer argument and comment but i don’t think the guy’s read a book in a year so i’m not hopeful about his reading singer, nor could his once fine but now celebrity-addled brain process it reasonably if he did. kind of a sad story but a sign of the times…

  • Ray

    Actually Michael, accusing Singer of being a crackpot would be putting it mildly. Admittedly, this isn’t related to his stances on food/agribusiness, but Singer is also well-known for advocating the euthanasia of disabled babies. The last guy that did that was Hitler.
    I don’t mean to go beyond the scope of your blog or this discussion, but those are the kind of views that make me take everything Singer says with a grain (or a pound) of salt. Which is absolutely not to say that I don’t agree with him on certain things.

  • Steve

    Ray, drawing parallels between Singer and the Nazi “euthanasia” program is popular among Singer’s critics, but it is reductionist, takes his arguments out of context, and is totally unfair to Singer’s position.

    Singer does not argue that there is any directive or moral duty to euthanize disabled infants (or severely mentally retarded adults, for that matter). Rather, he is saying that in certain circumstances, it may be justifiable to do so once the varying moral interests are weighed. Essentially, he is rejecting the idea that human life is intrinsically inviolate.

  • Tags

    Rejecting the idea that human life is intrinsically inviolate brings us right back to Hitler.

  • tess

    This makes me rather grateful that I’m currently going to school at what amounts to an ag-college with a decent engineering college tacked on (guess which one I’m in). The college has its own population of cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs which students regularly ship off to a slaughterhouse run by a sister university before butchering them on-campus, and so I get some pretty good meat at supermarket prices (because the students aren’t paid). But if I were to go back to where I lived prior to attending, I wouldn’t have that advantage — all the small orchards and farms that used to dot the scenery have long-since turned into condos and business parks. Most of the farmers at the farmer’s market had to drive about 60 miles to get there.

    If all those suburbs started converting the endless expanses of badly maintained turf into small herb/veggie gardens (with tigher regulations on pesticides and fertilizers), and city ordinances allowed people to grow their own chickens, then I think people can finally eat locally and affordably. But as of right now, I don’t see people changing their habits of buying the cheapest, worst eggs, and frozen pre-made meals.

  • Steve

    I grew up about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, and my hometown used to have several farms and dairies. I’m not sure what those farms produced or whether it was sold locally (not the sort of thing an 8 year-old worries about), but about 10-15 years ago they all converted to housing developments, golf courses, and the like. We can’t exactly convert the urban sprawl around the country back to local farms, and you’d be hard-pressed to find enough people willing to take up the life of an American farmer anyways. The problem is that there’s just too many damn people in the world. If only we could euthanize the more useless ones… (just kidding, Tags, just kidding!)

  • Lauren

    Michael, I wonder if you know about the Food, Ethics, and the Environment conference that’s happening at Princeton in November. My guess is you do. Maybe you plan on attending?

    If anyone is interested: http://www.princeton.edu/~eating/
    I will be there myself, hoping to meet and talk to folks like you all. It should be very interesting.

  • Tags

    25 miles west of Philly, would that be Phoenixville? I lived there myself for about 10 years (1980-90). Sounds a lot like the place you’re describing, they even had milk in glass bottles with cream on top.
    BTW, Steve, I have no problems with euthanizing as long as they can still have a decent life afterwards.

  • Steve

    Yeah, Phoenixville! I lived there for the first 18 years of my life (1976-1994). My parents still live there. Interesting that you think euthanasia is OK, Tags, though you also seem to support the statement that human life is intrinsically inviolate. They seem like two opposing views to me. But that’s not really a discussion for a food blog…

  • Anna Banana

    Thanks for singing my song. I’ve been deeply affected by The Omnivore’s Dilemma, haven’t been able to blog http://www.shoppingisimportant.blogspot.com/
    about anything else. Glad you have more readers than I do. We need restaurant chefs to make vegetarian and vegan food elegant and chic. Can you do something about that?