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.)