Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Singer Diet

Copyright (c) 2007 by Joel Marks
Published as “Book makes case for thinking about what we eat” in the New Haven Register, May 16, 2007, page A6

America’s slaughterhouses kill 10 billion animals every year. Think about that. That is what philosopher Peter Singer asks us to do in his new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Rodale, 2006). Co-authored by former farm boy Jim Mason, this book demands a strong stomach to read. It is not often that a philosophy book informs you that an important “factor relative to global warming concerns cows burping and farting” (page 206). By the same token, you are not likely to learn from the typical book on animal husbandry that our treatment of nonhuman animals for food rivals anything in Dante’s vision of hell.

It is important that we expose ourselves to this kind of shock treatment. It is a morally necessary antidote to the deceptive depiction of wholesome livestock lives foisted upon us by the food industry. Nevertheless Singer and Mason’s book goes about its business in a non-sensational way by reciting the facts and holding up the arguments on both sides of each issue to critical scrutiny. The book also has an inviting narrative “hook,” introducing us to three families and their diets and then tracing all of the food to its source. But the contrast between what ends up on the dinner table and the manner in which it arrived there could not be more extreme.

The book contains surprises. While reviewing the production of veal, the poster child of animal cruelty in the popular consciousness, the book reveals that most mammals in the food chain are treated about as miserably. But the real shocker turns out to be poultry. Nine billion of the animals slaughtered annually are chickens. Those who “Enter the Chicken Shed,” a four-page section of the book, are advised: “May be disturbing to some readers.” If you have a human heart, you cannot read these pages without resolving to change your food shopping habits. And the chickens’ conditions of living are if anything worse than how they die. Even the eggs you buy in the supermarket are in most cases the product of lifelong cruelty almost too painful to imagine empathetically.

It did not use to be that way. The chief culprit is factory farming, the thoroughgoing mechanization of food production from animals for speed and efficiency. The result most noticeable to the consumer has been cheaper meat and poultry and fish and eggs and dairy products. But the toll of animal misery has also been increased to the limit. According to Singer and Mason, “The core issue is the commercial pressures that exist in a competitive market system in which animals are items of property, and the conditions in which they are kept are not regulated by federal or state animal welfare law” (page 55).

Therefore it is we, the consumers, who must act so as to change the direction in which these pressures push. The virtue of the market system is that it is indeed sensitive to demand. There is now every reason to demand that all animals be treated humanely in the production of food. This is not just a matter of a healthy diet, although there is that too. It is first and foremost a moral issue. The amount of animal suffering brought about by modern methods of food production could well rival and indeed surpass all of the evil perpetrated by humans on other humans. Add to that a concern for treating workers fairly and protecting the environment, and the case is complete.

Meanwhile the solutions could turn out to be surprisingly simple. “The idea that we need high levels of protein was disproven in the 1970s, and health authorities reduced recommended protein intakes to about a third of what had been thought to be required” (page 227). Thus, simply eating less is one way to reduce the demand for factory farming, not to mention address obesity and heart disease. The book is filled with other practical suggestions and food sources to make the transition to an ethical diet feasible. And, yes, their final recommendation is a vegan diet of plant-based food exclusively.

For more information on becoming a vegan, check out my Website, "The Easy Vegan."

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