Book Review: The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

I’ve mentioned this book in another blog about demi-vegetarianism that relates to other books and issues if you want to check it out.  Out of all the books that deals with food, this is the must have book to read!  I have been trying to find some chapters or segments that I can use to teach to my class about animal rights, food politics, and the environmental concerns dealing with food.  I was expecting to only find a chapter or perhaps a segment to use. To my surprise, the whole book is worthy to be taught in class.

The Ethics of What we Eat by Peter Singer

The Ethics of What we Eat by Peter Singer

Peter Singer is well-known in philosophical circles as an ethicist and utilitarian.  He has written many books about animal welfare and the farming industry.  What I like about this book is that you don’t have to be a philosopher to understand the principles behind this book.  Indeed, this book was written for the common person.  What I also like about the author’s is that they are intellectually honest about their results.  They aren’t coming from any perspective and try to defend it any way they can.  They look at the results and determine “this is the most ethical thing to do in this situation.”  So there are times where eating local is actually harmful, and there are some fish in Wal-Mart that’s actually better than buying it wild.

The book takes you on a journey through three families.  Each of these families has a different philosophy of eating food.  In order, the book starts from (1) the conventional American diet, (2) the conscientious omnivore, and (3), the vegan lifestyle.  I’ll go in that order and display any interesting tidbits of information along the way.  The book follows a simple formula where we explore a family’s eating habits and then the author’s trace the food to the original source.  So if a family bought Tyson Chicken, the author’s find out where this chicken is produced, how it’s slaughtered, how it’s raised.  There were even moments where the author worked on a turkey insemination farm for a day.

The Conventional American Diet

Where does the typical family do their grocery shopping?  Usually, it’s Wal-Mart.  Singer and Mason tag along with a family to Wal-Mart to see what this family buys.  What do they buy?  Oscar Meyer bacon, Tyson chicken, eggs, Gordan’s fish. . .

  • The Chicken: The authors bring up some interesting tidbits about chickens.  With Tyson chicken, it’s a factory farm.  While visiting the farm, they mention that the chickens are cooped up in a cage that’s barely enough space for their body mass.  (Imagine being in an airplane bathroom for 24 hours a day.)  Chickens naturally peck at the ground, but because there is no ground, they can’t peck which causes them stress.  Thus, they peck at other birds.  This can’t happen, so their beaks get cut off!  The workers barely get paid.  It’s one of the biggest turnover rates at Tyson chicken.
  • Eggs: The label “Animal Certified Care” doesn’t mean much.  It’s the same as above with the chickens.  The label was just a way for more people to buy the eggs if they thought the eggs were cared for.  But it’s a misnomer.
  • Pork: Pigs are actually intelligent creatures.  The sows, however, can’t move around because they’re in crates for their whole lives.  As soon as they give birth, they are impregnated again.  Their whole lives are basically pregnancy after pregnancy.  Inside, pigs spend their lives in small concrete and steel pens. They can’t turn around, roll, root or exercise. The stench from their excrement is so sharp that people wear masks, while the pigs suffer damaged lungs and eyes.
  • Beef and Milk: Cows are given steroids to bulk them up for bigger beef.  With milk, you have to impregnate the cows because they can’t have milk unless they give birth.  As soon as the cows give birth, the calves are basically discarded.  After all, economically speaking, you don’t need the calf (unless you’re going to use it to sell veal), you just need the mother for the milk.
  • McDonald’s: McDonald’s has been getting a lot of flack lately because of their high fatty foods.  Over time however, the authors do contend that they are striving to get better with their environmental impact.
  • Wal-Mart:  The employees live off of almost minimum wage.  They can’t form unions and advancement in the company is so bureaucratic that it feels like being a peasant in a corporate world.

Again, it’s the idea of these factory farms that evades our knowledge.  Singer and Mason believe we tolerate the sins of industrialized food production because these practices aren’t known to the public.  As Pollan puts it: “Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it.”

(Note: I could talk more about these chapters, but to be honest, I remember the end of the book more vividly.  So if I give a bigger review about the vegan lifestyle, it’s not because I’m short-shifting the conventional American diet or propounding the vegan diet.  It’s basically because, like all books, you remember the ending better.)

The Conscientious Omnivores

In a previous blog, I stated that I was a demi-vegetarian.  However, after reading this part, this applies to me more effectively.  Thus, I may go back and change my position from demi-vegetarian to “Conscientious Omnivore.”

It’s the same procedure again.  The authors find a family and go shopping with them.  Where do they shop?  The family goes to a Trader Joe’s.  This is what the family buys:

  • Niman Ranch Bacon: This bacon comes from pork that is raised in humane ways.  No crates, no stress.  The sows can take their time and they can actually build their own bedding if they want.  Singer and Mason visit an organic pig farm, revealing that pigs are sentient and delightful, at least as intelligent as domestic pets.  So the pigs are treated humanely.  However, feedlots to feed animals thrive on corn.  But the corn for feedlots requires chemical fertilizers.  In other words, oil.  Based on this, how much oil does it cost to feed a 534 lb. to a 1250 lb. steer?  284 gallons of oil just to fatten the steer.  To know more about it, check this out:
  • Certified Humane Eggs”: I was actually surprised by this chapter.  The chickens are raised a little bit better than on a factory farm, but according to the authors, the floor was just a “sea of brown hens, so crowded that the shed floor was visible only down the center of the shed.”  They sometimes practice debeaking the hens if it gets to the point where they get stressed.  But if they are raised humanely, why are they still stressed, I thought?  Nevertheless, the eggs are laid in nesting boxes.  The hens are fed organic grains which makes them considered organic.  But the “certified humane” is what really surprised me.  The hens aren’t in their own personal cages, they were free to roam in the barn.  But the authors were “disturbed by the fact that there were so many of them in a single shed, effectively unable to go outside, and certainly never able to enjoy scratching around in grass, or to be part of a normal-size flock in which they get to know each other as individuals.”  Detailing the cruelty in factory chicken farms, the authors conclude that organic or free-range poultry products are the only ethical choice.
  • Seafood: Fish is depleting heavily around the world.  Interestingly, however, the authors showed that buying the Gorton’s Fish Fillets from Wal-Mart is actually environmentally better than buying it wild.  It’s mainly because the fish is Pollock.  Thus, Horizon seafood (Horizon is known for selling organic foods) is worse than Gorton’s Fish.  Crab imported from other countries are the worst, thus it should be avoided.  For farmed salmon, about five liters of diesel fuel is used to catch about one kilogram of salmon.  Indeed, since salmon is the most popular, it causes the most amount of pollution.  Shrimp, as well, is the seafood that causes the worst environmental hazards.  Overall, the authors recommend to avoid shrimp (unless it’s from Canada).
  • Fruits: Ask yourself this.  Isn’t there something weird about buying apples from China when you can easily get it from Iowa?  You would assume that eating local food would be better.  However, the authors want to show that usually that is the case, but not always.  If you’re buying a local tomato (especially in the winter), then that farmer needs fuel to make the tomato.  The authors calculate how much fuel is used compared to buying a tomato somewhere else in the country and then shipping it here.  It’s actually better, environmentally speaking, to buy a tomato in Florida than it is to buy it locally (unless to tomato is in season).  With rice, it requires a lot of energy to grow it.  Indeed, you would save energy by buying rice from Bangladesh, rather than buying it form San Fransisco.  A better policy would be to buy locally and in season.
  • Fairtrade: Fairtrade is becoming popular and the idea behind it is to help out the farmers instead of the corporation.  Chiquita bananas is better than Dole, for example.  The farmers who don’t have fairtrade usually make about $7500 a year.
  • Eating Out: Where could the conscientious omnivore go out to eat?  Chipotle seems to be the best option.  Too bad there’s none in Utah.  I had some in Texas.  It’s actually pretty good.
  • Whole Foods Market: Of course, this is the market for these types of eaters.

The Vegans

These folks eat purely organic stuff and they don’t use anything that deals with animals products.  With this family, it’s because they still see it as part of the system.  Organic food contains less pesticides, it keeps the quality of the soil better without relying of fossil fuels for synthetic fertilizer.  Of course, it’s more expensive, but in the long haul, it’s actually not.  The manure from the factory farms spills off into the streams which makes the people unhealthy.  The air becomes so strong that it can actually ruin your lungs (and the animals are living in it).  Combined with other things, you’ll have to go to the doctor eventually.  But with health care, the taxpayers will have to cover some of it.

  • Milk: A problem is that you’ll need more cows to make more milk.  But this also means that it produces more methane.  Thus, just nip it in the bud and stop drinking milk.  Vegans usually drink soy milk or rice milk.  Indeed, the cows at Horizon are still crowded in pens and a dry landscape.  What does this mean?  Organic just simply means you were fed organic things.  It doesn’t mean that you were treated humanely. The authors conclude to avoid Horizon and go for Organic Valley, (which is nice considering that I don’t buy from Horizon anyways from luck).
  • GMO (Genetically Modified Foods): This is to be avoided because it’s seen as unnatural.

Are Vegans missing something in their diet?  Vitamin B12 is the main culprit.  With protein, they actually get plenty of it from nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils.  It seems odd that we’re feeding 21 lbs. of grains just to produce one lb. of beef.  It takes 1,584 gallons of water to produce beef.  However, the authors do contend that eating chips actually uses up more water.  Beef, however, is the meat that requires the most amount of water.

In the end, the authors present these three families and let you judge their own conclusions.  However, the authors do want at least one thing.  It’s as if they’re saying, “If you can’t go vegan, try becoming a conscientious omnivore at the very least.”  The reason is because factory farms are simply unethical.  They present arguments that factory farming is completely wasteful and immoral.  To see why, go here.  (It’s not gross, I promise.)  The ending is mostly philosophy, but it’s presented with readable ease.


If you don’t know what freegans are, go here.  I didn’t know this lifestyle was politically motivated.  Basically, you go through dumpsters searching for food.  The philosophical idea is to get away from the industry altogether.  If you’re not buying food, then you’re not supporting it.  They avoid spending their money to those who exploit animals.  But once something is thrown out, it makes no difference to the producer.  If you oppose the abuse of animals, but still like eating meat, cheese, or eggs, get it from a dumpster.  When the authors talked to these individuals, two of them were in college.  Neither one uses their money to buy food because they can easily get it from a dumpster.  Indeed, the authors point to studies that 40% of the food that’s thrown away could’ve been safely consumed.

In the end, one could reply that eating the conventional diet is cheaper.  In actuality, it doesn’t fare out.  Because the manure slides to the rivers, taxpayers’ dollars are spent cleaning up environmental damage, building infrastructure, and subsidising fodder production (itself unsustainable).  It’s actually more costly to be on the Conventional American Diet.   Even economists agree: Cheap, industrial agriculture is false economy. “Economists – even those who are loudest in extolling the virtues of the free market – agree that the existence of such externalities is a sign of market failure.”  Unless you pay the real price of production with local certified organic (in which case the pig has roamed, was not fed antibiotics or hormones and had limited transport), eating pork products is ethically (and economically) indefensible.

Singer has written books about the suffering of animals, and while he does mention that briefly, the authors aren’t focused on that.  Instead, they want to point out the environmental and economic aspects as well.  It’s as if to say, “You’re eating this particular diet, well look how your eating habits are affecting the environment, animals, or the economy.”  They drive home the consequences of what we eat.  We don’t pay attention to that, and Singer and Mason point out that these are issues to think about, but more precisely, these are issues that we should think about.

I will finish with these last words.  If you eat food–whether it’s conventional American diet, a consciousntious omnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan–you owe it to yourself to read this book!

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Culture, Economics, Education, Ethics, Health, Peter Singer, Politics, Vegetarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Book Review: The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

  1. Jules says:

    Love ya sweets, but it spelled Gorton’s and Oscar Mayer. Thought You should know!

  2. thekillerj says:

    Thanks for the review, and the book man! I’ll for sure check it out. It’s behind an O’Reilly book I’m finishing (I know… I know…) and 1984, but I’m interested in being a conscientious omnivore.

    That’s some sad shit. I hope the book doesn’t have too much PETA propaganda in it. Either way, I’ll let you know what’s up when I read it.

  3. Fare and Paul says:

    We got this book in the mail the other day! Thanks again. I will start it after fast Food Nation. I wanted to read all of this blog, but I’d rather read the book, then read. I’m going to purchase The Omnivore’s Dilemma as well!

  4. Fare says:

    Thanks for the book Shaun! After Paul has finished it, I’ll check it out. Luckily with this new job, I should have more time to sit down and read a few good books.

  5. Pingback: Demi-Vegetarianism « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  6. thekillerj says:

    I liked this better than Fast Food Nation, just because it wasn’t as political. It was also more informative. I didn’t know the conditions of the animals I eat, and it sucks. I’ve been a bit more conscientious lately (I buy better eggs), although I still buy chicken that is factory farmed. I just hate the idea of driving across town just to buy a bag of chicken when it is conveniently there at Wally world. I don’t eat much red meat at all, so a lot of that doesn’t apply very much. The fish I eat says “wild caught,” but then I learned that doesn’t mean much.

    Basically, I learned food corporations are pretty corrupt and unethical. It almost was demotivating, as even if I make an attempt to eat ethical there’s a good chance the food company lied about its practices.

  7. Sebastian says:

    Nice post and blog! here I give you a website with a nice selection of documentaries about vegetarianism. Good luck with your blog and stay vegetarian ! :).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s