Tuesday, February 23, 2010


For my Ethical Controversies class this week, we read Peter Singer and Jim Mason's book The Ethics of What We Eat (formerly known as The Way We Eat) which was a compelling prequel to Eating Animals (Jonathan Safran Foer) which I read over winter break. I should have read the Singer/Mason book first, the JSF is just a basic re-write of the facts with a sort of more philosophical twist. I use the term 'philosophical' there lightly--both Singer and Safran Foer are philosophers, have studied and have degrees in philosophy, but, in the interest of popular attention-grabbing, they seem to both shy away from any depth in that area. Too bad.

In any case, I was to lead the discussion and instead ending up writing some sort of manifesto on the food movement (typical). Half the class seemed to dig it and the other half seemed completely weirded out. I focused on the second section of the book, which highlights a family of 'conscientious omnivores'. If you feel like reading my manifesto, here it is without further ado:

What this section poignantly outlines is the amount of degradation within the ethically food conscious. We learn how much we do not know, in essence, and this can be extremely disconcerting for someone that thinks they are making earth-positive ethical choices. It’s kind of that “you think you know, but you have no idea” kind of thing. If there is one thing that is certain is that there is an incredible amount of uncertainty, even when we are trying to ‘be good’ and make the right and proper decisions surrounding our food choices. When even labels from the government and spending money are not a guarantee, how do we eat ethically? The heart of this section seems to be the question that Singer and Mason state on page 132, “What is the ethical response to such a state of uncertainty?”

And really, they offer few answers to that. Lord knows we can’t eat oysters all day every day and we’re not rich, but there are a few points that resonate well with regards to re-thinking the grander system in a sense, that I find they have highlighted well and that get left out of much of the other popular literature on the topic:

First, do not self-aggrandize and think that you are the end-all be-all perfect consumer and global citizen when it comes to your food choices. If you think you are doing well in one aspect, you are most likely failing in another:

-More than 90% of pigs are in total confinement
-Cage free means little when you are beak to beak with another chicken
-Free range means even less, could be just a window in the barn
-Billions of creatures are caught every year as by-catch to the fish we eat and dumped overboard as trash
-Singer/Mason even take issue with eating locally

Second, we need to consider it a completely normal and good decision to spend more of our income on food. As John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, says, “Mackey’s response to criticism of his pricing is that Americans spend far less of their income on food than people in other countries do…” and that “on average, only six percent of our total income goes toward buying groceries, down from 17 percent fifty years ago.” (183)

Third, as students that are constantly educating ourselves on these topics and concerns, we are lucky that we have this sort of material as required reading, but the general population needs to understand, as a general principle, that unless you are going to put an incredible amount of time and energy into researching and tracing back your food, there is no guarantee that what you are eating is an ethical choice. In essence, unless you are growing it yourself, there are no guarantees. Guarantees have lost their meaning; greenwashing and labeling have been co-opted by marketing which does not have our health or the health of our planet in mind. We need to stop patting each other on the back and start asking more questions.

I had a couple of minor critiques of the section in which I disagreed with Singer/Mason’s ideas, which were often very boldly and clearly stated.

First, you can imagine that I took issue with Singer/Mason’s treatement of big business. On the one hand, I felt like they were willing to be uber-critical of general practices of, say, fishing or farming, but when it came to putting a label on it, they were very generous to the corporations that hawk products that have gone through these methods. The book, like its theme seems to warn against, was ethically choosy. McDonald’s and Chipotle were almost praised for their efforts made to go more sustainable, green, etc but they do not acknowledge that fast food is one of the reasons we are in such a state in the first place, contributes to an enormous amount of health problems in this country and does little good for society on the whole. Same with Chipotle, who was recently under attack for employing unfair labor practices with their tomato pickers. Singer/Mason want to encourage readers to take into account every aspect of ethical consideration when it comes to food (production, the environment, the workers, your health, the animals/plants themselves, who you’re buying it from, etc) but fail to fully critique big businesses and instead highlight their positive strides toward sustainability, etc? I’m not sure I follow or respect this logic.

Second, I found the argument against locavorianism less than satisfying. To refute only the claims that being a locavore is good for protecting the environment, support endangered family farms and strengthen your local economy are only certain parts of the pie. It seems that assuming global citizenry’s absolute duty in an all-for-one, one-for-all sense is a bit absurd. The locavorian movement aims to enhance awareness, more than anything, at the idea of taking a conscientious look at where your food comes from. Yes, it emphasizes community and seasonality, but is that such a bad place to start? Additionally, 2009 was the first year in hundreds that small farms actually grew by 4% in the US. This seems significant to me. Additionally, I think their idea of a free market is a bit idealistic and in fact we are living in more of a corporate socialist state where farmers in, for example, Africa, would have a very difficult time getting a decent price for their crops on the ‘free’ market. So to say buying a bean from an African farmer is more ethical than from that of your local farmer is a big stretch, one I’m not easily willing to make.

Now, after all of that, things may seem bleak and depressing. Being an ethical omnivore seems like a complete oxymoron and it may seem like there is nowhere to turn. On the other hand, perhaps you felt empowered by the knowledge in this book and validated that you are on the right path to help reform these problems. Perhaps you see hope that is not evident in this book since it was published in 2006. I welcome a discussion of both of these aspects, but, above all, how do we act ethically with so much uncertainty?

For me, the takeaway is as it is with philosophical ethics. We continue the search and rarely feel satisfied. We step back and consider the larger perspective of a system gone awry. Instead of feeling unfortunate to stumble into the course of history when our food has become so convoluted, we can consider ourselves lucky to be part of a revolution to rapidly and whole-heartedly change it. We can understand that ‘voting’ with our food choices is not interesting, because we are voting in a system we do not respect; a system that is un-democratic thus making voting meaningless. We can work to change this system. We can raise consciousness and awareness about these issues in every possible way that we can. We can opt out.