Eating by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

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Eating by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Eating is an honest, searing deconstruction of modern food production. Its strength lies in its deconstruction of very complex issues. However, it is too US-centred to be the best primer for a British shopper interested in taking the first steps along an ethical path.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: September 2006
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 0099504022

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Food is a political act. So thinks Cyd Szymanski, owner of the White Dog Café. She is quite right. The ethics of food are under discussion in Eating, which attempts to put a moral and political background to the food we eat. There are three main strands to an ethical analysis of any product or group of products - how the product affects animal welfare, how it affects human rights and how it affects the environment. Peter Singer and Jim Mason address these issues working backwards from plate to source. As they explore the plight of the factory-farmed animal, the poverty endured by many food workers and the horrifying degradation caused to an increasingly fragile environment, it makes for some difficult reading.

Singer and Mason are at their best when deconstructing the complexities of our ethical choices. How do we choose between supporting our local communities and people living on less than a dollar a day in other, less fortunate, parts of the world? Is it better to buy imported but organic produce or to reduce food miles and buy local, but intensively farmed produce? When trying to shop ethically, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed not only by the scale of the task, but also by the way an attempt to address one problem can often give rise to another. Calmly, logically, patiently, Eating unravels the tangle. I particularly appreciated Singer's philosophical input, which certainly cleared some rather muddy thinking of my own.

In following the specific food choices of three very different families, Eating has given the reader a very simple mechanism to identify exactly where they sit on the ethical ladder. Despite a rigorously critical ethical analysis of each family's shopping basket, Singer and Mason are not accusatory or vituperative and this certainly enables the reader to feel welcome, even if their own buying habits are all on the ethical sin list. This authorial tone is very important, because people may want to learn, but they never want to be made to feel small. Some of the descriptions of factory farming are shocking, but they are not presented in a hectoring, holier-than-thou way.

For me, Eating was well worth the cover price. Without doubt, it added texture to my thinking generally and it helped me make sense of and refine some of the decisions I had already made. It deconstructs some very complicated issues without debasing them and it presents some very unpalatable facts without resort to harangue or hysteria. If you are coming from a reasonably knowledgeable place, and you want to read further, then I heartily recommend Eating. I will never find my way as far along the ethical path as its conclusions - that we follow a vegan diet, supplemented by bivalve marine life, such as oysters and mussels, and organic, humanely slaughtered livestock from land unsuitable for crops, such as Welsh lamb - but that really is not its point. Its point is to enable the reader to choose a position with which they are comfortable and to empower the buying decisions commensurate with it.

However, the moral deconstructions and the encouraging tone do not make up for Eating's enormous drawback. This is the UK edition of an American book. The families are American, the foodstuffs are American and the businesses and brands discussed are American. In a preface, Peter Singer says that he thinks readers will need to make only "minor modifications to be applicable to the choices made by British families". I do not really feel this is true, at least not for those people looking for a primer in the ethics of food.

I found Eating a valuable read, but I already know a reasonable amount about the subject. Had I not, I would have found the book rather frustrating. There simply isn't enough background information on the shops, brands and regulating bodies based in the UK. Readers new to the field would find out enough to distress them, but not enough practical background information to begin making their own ethical choices within the context of a British market. Additionally, the American citizen swims in a far larger sea of ignorance than his or her British counterpart does. While a full fifty percent of British shoppers recognise the Fair Trade logo, less than one in fifty Americans do. European legislation on both animal welfare and workers rights is way ahead of anything across the pond.

If you are new to the thought that "food is a political act", then I don't think Eating is the first book you should read. Try The Food We Eat or Shopped by Joanna Blythman, both of which will certainly give you a stronger sense of the story behind the food you are actually buying. Put Singer and Mason's book on your list for future reading.

Y'know, food IS a political act. You might like to turn away from the thought, but even that is a political act. The production of food, especially that for the markets of the developed world, is causing untold suffering to animals, abusing the rights of workers and is a major cause of environmental degradation. You might like to think that ethical food choices are the preserve of the chattering classes. You might like to say that you would love to be able to buy ethically, but you just cannot afford it. The fact is, though, that is simply not true. In the UK, people throw away on average 14% of the food they buy. Tell yourself the truth. Would you really prefer that animals suffered, workers suffered and the environment was degraded just so that you can throw away 14% of your shopping basket with callous disregard for any of it?

Whatever is your honest answer to that question, it's a political answer and one you should face up to.

This book was kindly sent to Bookbag by the publisher.

Booklists.jpg Eating by Peter Singer and Jim Mason is in the Top Ten Green Books for Eco-Warriors.

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Magda said:

I was terrified that this would include bits on how nasty sueprmarkets cannily force us to eat foods supposed to be bad for us (and I am seriously allergic to the idea of 'bad foods' and I have even been considering writing a letter to the school after my daugter came back day after day with a message that 'sugar is bad for you' and the next day 'crisps are bad for you' and the next day 'you are not allowed juice in your water bottle'!). That is off-topic however.

But it seems that this book concerns the *important* aspects of food issue, not the ones that can be solved by simply not eating crap.

NB. I have never been to the US but it seems to me that people here (even in the UK) just don't realise how much more civilised Europe (for all its issues) is. Enough to look at the statistics that show how many TV commercials would an average child see by the age of 7 or the fact that schoolchildren in the US are actually MADE to watch ads, or the whole health insurance thing, and things like that.

Magda said:

I have just read a review of this on Spiked, and it seems like it's a completely different book. You write mostly about human-ethic issues and neatly skip over condemnation of gluttony, supposed dangers to health and ethical vegetarianism, while Fitzpatrick (whose review is, as a Spiked one would be, critical) slides over human ethics issues and concentrates on how the book is about ethical issues to do with 'farm animal abuse' and animal suffering.

It seems to me that I would like the book you reviewed and would rather dislike the one reviewed on Spiked, I wonder which is closer to how it is.

Jill replied:

Yes, I saw that review. Singer also got an enormous roasting on Newsnight. Pardon the pun. I mention in the review that his final prescription is to eat vegan, plus bivalves, plus, if one must, humanely slaughtered meat raised only on land unsuited to agriculture. This is what seems to be upsetting everyone else. I don't really understand it, I must say. While I certainly wouldn't turn vegan under any circumstances - and say that - I didn't find the book in the least rabid. I'd say Singer puts animal welfare above people welfare and even environmental welfare, but I didn't think the book was about ranking one over the other. I thought it was about working out for oneself what there is to rank and how to go about doing it. Neither did I feel nagged or hectored. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone just beginning to think about the ethical implications of what they're eating, but I did find it of use. And I didn't think it was at all at all at all polemical. Gosh! I must be getting tolerant in my old age!

Magda replied:

Thanks!!! Yes, I know you mentioned it, I just wasn't sure what was the main focus of the book. I think I couldn't NOT get seriously rabid myself about somebody who puts animal welfare above people welfare, even leaving environmental issues aside for a while. And it's not lack of tolerance, it would be more suspicion that all other arguments are also made with the secret agenda of animal protection. But then I eat all kinds of meat, happily wear leather and would wear fur if I could only afford it...

Perhaps I should read it after all.