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Book Review

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter

When I first stopped eating meat almost twenty years ago, many of the vegetarians that I met – and especially the vegans – were concerned mostly with rooting out new items that had some type of animal product in them or connected to their production. This was when the list of animal products (and companies that tested on animals) grew every year, until it eventually became a book.

Now, more people see veganism as a practical tool for preventing suffering, and advocacy, via their example, as at least as important as their personal choices. Even today, though, many individuals are concerned with whether something is "vegan," with "vegan" being a stand-in for "good." This is understandable, as tracing back the actual impact of our food choices is often difficult and time-consuming.

Yet there is little reason to "choose vegan" if there is no impact from these choices. One person who is not afraid of asking difficult and time-consuming questions about the impact of our choices is Peter Singer, who, along with Jim Mason (previously, co-authors of Animal Factories), have delved deeply into the questions of what impact all our food choices may have. In their new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Singer and Mason trace back the food purchases of three families in the U.S., showing the origins of these foods.

Or, they would if they could. Singer and Mason wrote to 87 corporations, and only 14 indicated that they were willing to assist the authors in any way (most of the 14 being small producers of organic foods). Even Steve Kopperud, head of the Animal Industry Foundation, who has been on record saying that his industry must show the public "accurate" information about how animals are treated, refused to help. "Accurate information," obviously, means staged photos of cows in pastures, but not any visits to – let alone pictures of – real farms.

Through various anonymous farmers and undercover work (the description of time spent as a turkey inseminator is particularly gripping), Singer and Mason are able to paint a horrifying and infuriating picture of today's modern animal agriculture (for example, see "Enter the Chicken Shed" – pdf). They also get to much of the behind-the-scenes politics of the industry – for example, how McDonald's doesn't even take the advice of their own hand-picked Animal Welfare Council (p. 72).

Singer and Mason are also able to discuss, at greater length and with more honesty than elsewhere, various externalities (tax breaks, environmental damage, health consequences, etc.) of different farming and production practices. Their unwillingness to accept anything as inherently and unquestioningly good (organics, "fair trade," buying local) has been discussed at length elsewhere (Mother Jones, Salon, May 8 interview at Vegan.com). Being presented both sides to these and other issues is unique in this age of advocacy journalism.

Searching for nits, the pickings are slim:

  • Perhaps in an attempt to err on the side of caution, Singer and Mason state flatly that fish are able to have the subjective experience of suffering, while this is, to me at least, an open question with advocacy implications. They include shrimp (p. 276) as capable of feeling pain, which is almost certainly not the case (Singer and Mason do discuss the more accurate argument against shrimp – the by-catch).
  • I was glad that they discuss health issues and refer to Vegan Outreach's article "Staying Healthy on a Plant-Based Diet" by Jack Norris, R.D. Unfortunately, they skimmed over some important questions. For example, they say "most people get enough vitamin D by going out in the sun" (p. 228). Actually, a lot of vegans likely don't get enough sun to produce adequate vitamin D, and this manifests itself in many ways not commonly associated with vitamin D deficiency. Please see Mr. Norris' article on the "forgotten nutrient."

These are, however, minor quibbles to an otherwise impressively thorough and thoughtful book. To some, it may appear to be too complete, as Singer and Mason acknowledge:

Sometimes the very success of the ethical consumer movement and the proliferation of consumer concerns it has spawned seems to threaten the entire ethical consumption project. When one ethical concern is heaped upon another and we struggle to be sure that our purchases do not contribute to slave labor, animal exploitation, land degradation, wetland pollution, rural depopulation, unfair trade practices, global warming, and the destruction of rainforests, it may seem so complicated that we could be tempted to forget about everything except eating what we like and can afford.

But they answer:

But this rule-based view isn't the only possible approach to ethics, nor the best one, in our view. ... We are not too concerned about trivial infractions of the ethical guidelines we have suggested. We think intensive dairy production is unethical. Because dairy products are in so many foods, avoiding them entirely can make life difficult. But remember, eating ethically doesn't have to be like keeping kosher. You can take into account how difficult it is to avoid factory-farmed dairy products, and how much support you would be giving to the dairy industry if you were to buy an energy bar that includes a trace of skim milk powder. Personal purity isn't really the issue. Not supporting animal abuse – and persuading others not to support it – is. Giving people the impression that it is virtually impossible to be vegan doesn't help animals at all.

Given their thorough, honest, and non-dogmatic approach (unlike, for example, Michael Pollan's convoluted rationalizations of meat-eating in The Omnivore's Dilemma), Singer and Mason have crafted a guide for all thoughtful, ethical individuals. Everyone already concerned with the impact of their purchases should read this book. Its non-strident tone and its lack of photos make it a perfect gift for a relative or friend who won't read Why Vegan? or watch Meet Your Meat.