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The Way We Eat

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Ethicist Peter Singer and author Jim Mason wrote their first activist book together more than 25 years ago: 1980's Animal Factories. (Singer got an even earlier start in the animal-rights category with 1975's Animal Liberation.) Their latest, The Way We Eat, expands on their interest in animal rights to include "ethical consumerism in general." 

Indeed, The Way We Eat looks not only at the way we farm animals, but the ways we think about the terms "organic," "fair trade," and "eating locally." The authors take a broad look at the numbers involved in our global food system, dispassionately advocating, for example, buying food shipped in from far away rather than local food based on fuel costs alone. 

They profile three families (who shop, respectively, at Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's, and Wild Oats) following three different diets: anything goes, mostly organic, and vegan. Singer and Mason are calmly detached in their descriptions of the families and refrain from judging them for their choices, while using their purchases to track how our food is produced, sourced, shipped, priced, bought, and consumed.

But despite all the numbers and anecdotes, the authors' chief prism for viewing the world is, as always, ethics. And by the last few chapters of The Way We Eat, it's hard not to suspect that the reader has been taken for a ride. 

With the unrelenting logic of all good sophists, Singer and Mason introduce various arguments for and against eating animal products, then tick them off until they reach what feels like a foregone conclusion: Veganism is the only acceptable way to eat. (Because their arguments are almost entirely ethical, those interested in the health aspects of veganism will do better reading elsewhere, such as Nina Planck's Real Food.) It's the same argument, in different eco-friendly packaging, that Singer made way back in 1975 with Animal Liberation. 

As the authors finally declare on page 257, near the end of the book: "The line between what conscientious omnivores can justify eating and what they cannot justify eating is vague. Since we are all often tempted to take the easy way out, drawing a clear line against eating animal products may be the best way to ensure that one eats ethically — and sticks to it."

This personal bias — along with the occasionally strident tone of the writing — undermines the authors' otherwise well-built tower of evidence. And that's a shame, because Singer and Mason have compiled a powerful indictment of our food system and offer thoughtful suggestions for change. 

Animal Factories, Singer recalls in the preface to The Way We Eat, "sparked a wave of publicity about factory farming" when the book appeared in 1980. "And yet," he confesses, "the publicity that Animal Factories stirred up subsided without any significant changes taking place." Shame on all of us.

p(bio). [ "Caroline Cummins"] is the managing editor of Culinate.

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