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July 31, 2006 | by  | in Arts Books |
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The Ethics of What We Eat

Most of us shy away from those animal rights activists dressed in chicken suits who accost passers-by on Courtenay Place. Firstly, because we might catch hippie germs; secondly, because we suspect that they might have a point. We’ve all seen the pictures of battery farms, maybe we buy free-range eggs, but what more can you do? Stop eating chicken? That’s just not normal. It’s a significant step towards ostracism from the non-hippie community, like wearing a home-knitted jerkin or growing a wispy beard.

The Ethics of What We Eat follows the meals prepared by three families:one all-American chicken-cheese-and-beer, one family of ‘ethical carnivores’, and one vegan. They trace the food they eat back through the chain of production to the farms and fields of origin. It’s a very loose structure that allows the authors to explore the ethical concerns surrounding pretty much every sort of food.

You might already have read a fair bit about the appalling conditions of industrial chicken farms and pig-raising units, with animals forced to stand perpetually in their own filth and unable to turn around. It really is hard to justify eating that cheap chicken breast and bacon, unfortunately. I know they’re delicious. But unless they’ve been organically farmed, which you probably can’t afford as a poor student, then that meat came from a very poorly treated animal indeed. Singer and Mason extend the ethical net further though, to explore questions of environmental and social responsibility. Some horrifying examples are included of worker and farmer exploitation, corporate corruption, environmental despoilation, and animal cruelty. It’s generally unflattering to the agriculture industry, but Mason and Singer do pull out a few surprises. They praise McDonalds for efforts to improve animal welfare in farms and slaughterhouses, and mount a defence of free trade in agriculture, basically arguing that an African or Chinese farmer needs that three cents for his tomato more than your local farmer does. It’s good to see them endorsing views that won’t necessarily sit easy with their likely readership.

While, thankfully, a lot of the very worst examples listed do not apply to agricultural production in this country (excepting, again, chicken and pork), Singer and Mason do argue that eating meat is ethically wrong in general. Eating a happy, free-range cow is ethically better than eating a tortured chicken, but still not as good as avoiding meat altogether. I eat meat, and would like to think it was morally defensible; ultimately it’s difficult, other than to say that everyone else is doing it, so it can’t be all bad. Which, obviously, isn’t rigorous enough to counter the arguments of philosophy professor Singer.

That’s the problem with this book. It’s a clearly written and impeccably logical argument against doing something almost all of us do, namely eating factory-farmed and industrially produced food. When everyone’s eating chicken, it’s hard to believe it can really be wrong. Having read The Ethics of What We Eat, you might start to question a lot of unthinking choices about the food you buy. It’s also a fascinating and horrifying expose of big agribusiness, and recommended for anyone even a little interested in the real cost of what they eat.

RRP $35

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