The Ethics of What We Eat

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Food And Ethics.

Many writings on the ethics of the food industry take a firm and sometimes biased animal rights stance. The Ethics of What we Eat is a surprisingly balanced read considering it is written by two authors, Peter Singer and Jim Mason, who had previously published a book called Animal Factories, and Singer’s long back catalogue of animal and human ethics publications. Mason comes from a lawyer/ teacher/writer background while Singer is one of the world’s most renowned ethicist’s and a loud and proud animal welfare and vegan movement advocate.  The Ethics of What We Eat follows the diets of three families with differing budgets, values, and consumption habits from supermarket trolley back to the farm looking at the ethics of their purchasing decisions in regards to the impact it has on animals and the environment. While the focus of the book is heavily weighted towards the impacts our food choices have on the animals we choose (or choose not) to eat, the environmental sustainability angle is firm back up into the investigation into each families diets. It is important to bear in mind the background of the authors when reading a publication like this one if you are not vegetarian or vegan or interested in animal ethics as while one diet may suit one person, it will not be appropriate for all. You are the decision maker in you own life! Provisos out of the way… let’s look at the three diets that the authors tracked from shelves to origins.

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The Standard American Diet

Despite the Australian background of the authors much of this book is written with an American factory farming approach. However, there are tid-bits of Australian farming facts and figures scattered throughout that assist in giving a more geographically accurate context (for us Aussies anyway). If you have seen pretty much any American reality TV series with a focus on weight loss, food or dieting there is a good chance that you are aware of what the ‘Standard American Diet’ might look like. The family in focus is what one might call ‘working class’ and has a diet that is high in meat, eggs, dairy products, carbohydrates like sugar, bread and rice (eaten in refined form) and low fruit and vegetable intake. The factory farming and large scale monoculture (and GM) crop industries in the USA has made these diet staples cheap, and readily accessible for the masses. For the majority of people this type of diet is the most affordable way they can satisfy their families needs and keep a roof over their heads. If you have seen any foodie/food ethics docos you will know what’s coming next. Factory farming is gross. You don’t need to be a genius to know that keeping large amounts of animals all mushed together, feeding them diets that they wouldn’t eat naturally, and pumping them full of hormones really going to make for happy animals or healthy meat options. Let’s spare you the gruesome details of what life inside a factory farm is like! What you might find surprising is some of the flow on environmental effect of factory farming. One small example (can’t blab on too much or this post will become a book in itself) is a place called Delmarva Peninsula where more than 600 million chickens are raised per year. The chickens produce more manure than a city of four million people but unlike human waste which is treated before entering the environment, the chicken waste is spread on fields. While a little chicken manure can be absorbed, the manure of 600 million chickens cannot and excess nitrogen and phosphorous washes into streams and groundwater. Resulting in the much of the groundwater being higher than the federal safe drinking water standards in nitrate, and stimulating algal growth in rivers and bays creating ‘dead zones’.

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The Conscientious Omnivores

The second family consist of a vegetarian environmental editor and omnivore corporate worker and their children. The family still consume meat and dairy products but in a reduced amount to the first family, however they try to opt for more ethical and environmentally friendly options (organic, cruelty free, cage free etc.). Unlike the first family this one also likes to include seafood in their diets. The family are described as one that eat meat or fish but only when it fits certain ethical standards, hence the term ‘conscientious omnivores’. A large portion of this section of the book focuses on what certification standards really mean for animals. It is interesting to see that what we perceive to be a ‘cruelty free’ way of raising animals can in fact still require some painful or uncomfortable practices. This post won’t delve into the nitty gritty of how labelling standards can differ depending on the terminology and the country in which you like, but the take home message is that if you are passionate about animal ethics and like to buy more humane options in meat, eggs and dairy, do some research into the certification standards in your local area. A large potion of this section examines the fishing and aquaculture industry. It suggests that wild caught sustainably managed fish species are more ethical than farmed due to animal ethics and the environmental damage of some fish farming operations. As the wife of a recirculated aquaculture system designer/builder I believe that people can eat sustainable fish protein from fish farming (as long as the system is closed loop, the energy to run the far is clean, and the fish aren’t fed wild caught protein) but those who eat it will have to understand that it is from an animal that was sacrificed for your belly and that animal was kept in captivity.

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The Vegans

The vegans are a vegan family with vegan children who choose not to participate in the exploitation of animals and that vegan eating is better for their health. He is a sales entrepreneur and she is an author (of a vegan parenting book) and a microbiologist. The family are incredibly mindful of what goes into their bodies and choose to shop organic and GM free and opt for dairy replacements like tofu cheese and soy meat alternatives. Much of this section of the book is focused on explaining things like GM foods and what organic farming means for you and the environment (quick fact in a 1990’s study in the US more than 90% of fish and water samples from streams had one or more pesticides…YUCK). It also looks at the impacts of Vegan eating on health and wellbeing of children, pregnant women, and adults. Results suggest that Vegan eating can be good for your body and kinder for the environment.

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So What Should We Eat?

You might have heard it all before (good chance you have if you are into sustainability) but the fact is that eating less meat and animal products is better for the environment. While the proteins and energy in meat, and dairy is a quick fix for our bodies many of these animals are fed grains that would otherwise have been fed to humans and can require vast amounts of water and energy before they land on our plates. Obviously this is a blanket statement and there will be exceptions to this based on your location, the practices in your area and your values. Say for example you keep pet chickens, fed them scraps, and enjoy their eggs this may feel like the right path for you (however many people believe that keeping chickens is unethical you can read about it here). My ‘devils advocate’ for the Vegan lifestyle described in section three is that many vegan foods come in non-recycable plastic packaging and are often shipped from far-off exotic locations. Sure they don’t contain animal products but they do contribute to landfill and had a load of carbon miles if they have arrived by plane.  Each and every person is different and has different values, the best you can do is to educate yourself (by reading books like this one) and make your own decisions. Mason and Singer suggest that one ‘meat’ source that could be cruelty free and sustainable (based on harvesting practices) is oysters, muscles, and scallops, as studies suggest they do no feel pain. This book was a thought provoking one for me and despite it’s descriptions of inhumane animal practices it was quite a well balanced and palatable read. My diet is largely based on vegan eating, however as someone who grew up on a close to ‘self sufficient’ farm I am aware of where my meat has come from, so the source isn’t a surprise for me. However my digestive system has never handled eggs, soft cheese, milk, or yoghurts well, and I have never been a huge meat eater so cutting back on either wasn’t difficult. I do no classify myself as vegan as I still eat hard cheese on occasions, mostly when dining out as my garlic intolerance makes it difficult to find food (why must vegetarian equal bucketloads of garlic there other flavours people) and I also eat fish every now and then if it’s a sustainable species but mostly when my hubby has caught and kept one while out kayak fishing (we don’t have farmed fish at home as all the farms he builds are overseas). I have also decided to eat any leftovers (meat and dairy) that might be wasted if others do not eat them, however this hasn’t really occurred very often. Some might consider me a monster, others might think my diet is extreme, while many might think I’m not committed by not labelling myself. To be honest my diet makes me happy and my body loves it so not fitting into a neat little box doesn’t bother me.

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What do you eat? Do you classify yourself in a neat and tidy box (vegan, vegetarian, carnivore) or do you have your own classification?  Is there anything you have learned about ethical and sustainable eating that you would like to share? Shout it out below.

Author: Katie

Katie Roberts is a self confessed 'write-a-holic' Environmental Scientist with a passion for Sustainable Fashion.

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