My parents didn't do much cooking while I was growing up. So when I left for college and started doing a lot of cooking and baking on my own, I would sometimes be incredibly surprised at what someone can make on their own, no food factory required. Take pasta, for instance, it is suppose to come dry out of a box, right? Who would have thought that someone could just take some flour, water and eggs and make fresh pasta right at home? I think our country's industrialized food has made it easy and cheap to get food fast, but it also makes it a rather thoughtless process, where foods like pasta are just kind of magically made and delivered to your local grocery store. So when I first read The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason a couple of years ago, I awoke to the fact that ethics could even concern something like food. Growing up, I had always had a low meat diet, partially because I didn't like a lot of it and partially because I loved animals. Reading Singer and Mason's book finally made me take the relatively small leap (since I wasn't eating much meat anyway) to becoming a vegetarian. After reading Anna Lappe's Diet for a Hot Planet recently, I realized that I still have quite a bit of room for improvement in my own eating ethics and decided to revisit The Ethics of What We Eat.
This book takes the reader to the grocery store with three different families and then looks into the ethical concerns regarding their choices. The first is the stereotypical american 'meat and potatoes' family; the second are the 'conscientious carnivores' who buy organic, limit the amount of meat, and overall pay pretty close attention to what they buy; the last family are vegans. Singer and Mason delve into many issues throughout the book, including eating locally, buying organics, fair trade, environmental sustainability, factory farms, and humane raised animals. For each of these topics the authors present information and evidence in order to draw ethical conclusions. Over the next couple of blog posts I will present some of the ethical topics that the authors presented as well as their conclusions and evidence.
One major concern about the meat products that are produced, is about how humanely the animals were treated and killed. Both Singer and Mason have written about the poor treatment of factory farm animals in previous works. They've found that in order to produce meat cheaply, factory farms keep large amounts of animals densely packed together, typically with no access to pasture, meaning that the animals have little room to move around, behave in normal ways, are more susceptible to diseases and thus need more antibiotics, and are generally uncomfortable. The animals discomfort increases as they make their way to slaughterhouses where they are packed even tighter together, mishandled, and then killed without the certainty of even being unconscious. Even reading the accounts of how the animals are treated makes me feel rather sick and uncomfortable, and the authors note that if these farms and slaughterhouses had glass walls more consumers would likely become vegetarians. Singer and Mason argue that if one cares about the treatment of these animals, consumers ought to at least buy certified humanely raised meat products. However, even these animals can be subject to mistreatment, and beef cattle are subject to the same slaughterhouses as factory farmed ones due to regulations. This would bring one to eating no meat. But, the authors point out that egg laying chickens often suffer worse conditions than do 'broiler' chickens, and that dairy products are still produced from cows living in densely packed, uncomfortable conditions, further ruling out these products from an ethical diet.
I obviously find Singer and Mason's argument to be compelling since it originally led to my becoming a vegetarian and I would like to decrease my use of dairy and egg products. Their main argument is simple: factory farmed animals are treated poorly; if you care about their well being don't eat them. Despite this the vast majority of people are not vegetarian, vegan, or only eat humanely raised animals. If I try to talk to my parents about it, for example, they simply say that they don't want to think about it and change the subject. So perhaps people refuse to acknowledge how animals are raised because it would be inconvenient to them by either not being able to enjoy meat at all or facing the higher humanely raised meat prices. It seems almost doubly unethical to me that not only do many people not want to stop the inhumane treatment of factory farmed animals, they want to pretend that it is not happening. But then again, perhaps many people were like I was with pasta, and think that the food magically gets from pasture- no harm done or ethics involved.
Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Rodale Books, 2007. Print.