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The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter [Paperback]

Peter Singer , Jim Mason
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 6 2007
Peter Singer, the groundbreaking ethicist whom The New Yorker calls the most influential philosopher alive teams up again with Jim Mason, his coauthor on the acclaimed Animal Factories, to set their critical sights on the food we buy and eat: where it comes from, how it is produced, and whether it was raised humanely.

The Ethics of What We Eat explores the impact our food choices have on humans, animals, and the environment. Recognizing that not all of us will become vegetarians, Singer and Mason offer ways to make healthful, humane food choices. As they point out: You can be ethical without being fanatical.

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The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter + The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
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"An absolutely indispensable book for anyone who thinks about what they eat ... I cannot recommend it highly enough."--Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of When Elephants Weep and Raising the Peaceable Kingdom

". . . vital, urgent, and disturbing."--Dorothy Kalins, New York Times

". . . clear and persuasive."--Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"A no-holds-barred treatise on ethical consumption."--Publishers Weekly

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What We Eat Can Make a Difference July 12 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book, as the title suggests, is about the impact of what we eat on the lives of animals in the food production industries.
It adopts an interesting approach to this task. Three families, differing in their food choices, are visited by the authors and their preferences discussed and where possible the foods they buy traced back to the origins of production.
What follows is a detailed discussion of the various husbandry practices regarding cattle, pigs, poultry and fish. The reader is left in no doubt about the mistreatment and exploitation of these animals under the broad heading of factory farming. Also the description of some slaughtering procedures,the final event in the lives of food animals, is very disturbing and reflects an inexplicable lack of compassion.The only conclusion one can come to is, that the principle motivation in factory farming is maximum production for maximum profit, and to hell with the animals.
If the goal of this book, is to encourage us to reflect on the consequences of our food choices, then the seed has been sown; it then depends on the soil, the sensibility of the reader, as to whether change will be forthcoming.
There is no doubt in my mind, after reading this book, that of all animals those raised to provide us with food deserve, at the very least, a change in our food purchasing habits, as this will help reduce the suffering these animals experience during their short lives.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everybody should read this book! May 6 2012
By Milonga
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I just finished reading Singer and Mason (2006) "The Ethics of What We Eat." People should know where their food comes from, how it is produced, and what is the impact of that production. The book explores the production of meat (chicken, porc, beef), fish and seafood, and dairy products in North America, it explains the unethical issues about the production and consumption of these products. It also explores topics such as buying organic, local, free range. The authors' opinions are well thought and carefully justified, they are persuasive but also take into account several limitations people face when trying to make ethical food choices. This book is a MUST!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding, balanced and persuasive text May 4 2007
By Dave G - Published on
This book is an excellent introduction for those who want to find out more about where our food comes from. It is not preachy or aggressive. Rather, it opens your mind to the various arguments, while still offering the authors' views on the ethics of different food choices.

The text is very well-researched, from their own first-hand experience, talking to various farmers, as well as from the existing body of literature in science, dietetics, agriculture and philosophy.

No one could accuse this book of being unduly biased. They note the arguments of producers and concede ground where it is appropriate to do so. For example, they note the way some vegans overestimate the amount of water that it takes to produce different types of meat and reach a compromise figure that they believe more accurately reflects the amount of water that goes into beef. They also respectfully recognise the pressures that lead people to make unethical food choices and encourage a way forward without making people feel like they're being whacked over the head with a moral stick.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the origins of our food and how ethics relates to that.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ethical Consumption July 25 2007
By CreepyT - Published on
There are several books lining the shelves that contain information on animal rights, vegetarianism, and organic and fair trade food items. However, none seem quite as well-rounded, or nearly as objective and succinct as Peter Singer and Jim Mason's The Ethics of What We Eat. These two authors have put together an incredibly well-crafted and unbiased argument regarding making ethical choices at the grocery store, and "voting" with one's diet and wallet.

The book begins by taking the reader to the grocery store on a routine shopping trip with a few different families. The first family is what one might consider your stereotypical "meat and potatoes" American consumers. The second family, in contrast, are "conscientious omnivores" who pay fairly close attention to their purchases, buying certified organic and fair trade items, and eat little meat. The third family is vegan. The authors even foray into "dumpster diving" with a few people who contend that ethical eating involves not letting disposed of edibles go to waste. The day-to-day purchases (or scavenges) of each of these families are dissected and analyzed. Which one of these families is truly making the most ethically sound decisions when it comes to their daily food choices? What lies behind that "Certified Organic" label? What does it mean when something is labeled "free range" or "fair trade?" Is it worth paying extra money for something with the aforementioned labels?

While focusing quite a bit on factory farming, this book also discusses the ethics of buying locally grown food, sustainability of marine ecosystems, environmental impacts of food production (including water and gas use), and the global economy. Pros and cons are given for each side of each argument, and, though they ultimately seem to side with a vegan diet as being the most ethically sound decision, they do note that this may be too drastic a decision for many and leave it up to the reader to come to their own conclusions about what to place in their shopping cart. The authors are never "preachy" with regards to the information presented, as many of the books found in this genre so often are.

As if this book itself weren't packed full enough with useful information itself, the back of the book provides several good books, websites, and stores where more information can be found on any of the included issues. Overall, this book is very highly recommended for those who want to put some thought and attention into what they put on their plates and into their mouths. The food industry does indeed try to keep consumers in the dark, and it's time everyone took some initiative to educate themselves on their dietary choices. This is a great place to start.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very hard to read, hard to forget, but a powerful read July 26 2012
By Laura Smith - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Like the school bully who gets in his hardest kicks once you're down on the ground and have essentially given up, this book drives home a message in powerful, painful punches. "For modern animal agriculture, the less the consumer knows about what's happening before the meat hits the plate, the better... one of the best things modern animal agriculture has going for it is that most people in the developed countries are several generations removed from the farm and haven't a clue how animals are raised and processed." (p.11) With this, Peter Singer lobs the ball in the air and then proceeds to light the court on fire.

Some of it is hard to read. "For ten hours we grabbed and wrestled birds, jerking them upside down, facing their pushed-open [$%&@], dodging their spurting [$%&@], while breathing air filled with dust and feathers stirred up by panicked birds." (p.29) I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit.

The dairy cow section was hard to read too, and I admit to my ignorance here. I suppose I thought dairy cows just made milk. I've thought that to be a humane way to farm with cows, and you can imagine a gawky 8-year-old boy straddling a three-legged stool in some ancient barn as the sun rises over the meadow, milking the lone family dairy cow before heading out to school. My quaint image was shattered when Mason informed me otherwise, painting a picture of a cow bellowing for the calf taken from her, and then we're told the calf is dead within a few days, "his body was lying on the farm's compost pile." (p.58) Oh, do I HAVE to keep reading?!

I didn't believe the part about the "drop kicking" of chickens (p.27) so I looked it up on the Internet. Not too hard to find the Pilgrim's Pride video... and in watching it, my husband asked of me, "why are you watching this?!" I told him how disgusting this all was, that I could never buy a Tyson food product again (how many "bad lists" are they on, anyway?). For Pete's sake, where could I find a humanely raised chicken to eat? Then my husband asked if we should add fryers to our egg-laying hens this year.

The gloves came off in the final round of the book. The last 50 pages of The Ethics of What We Eat delved hard into omnivore versus herbivore - with the authors' call to action clearly being for all us to convert to vegans in order to achieve ethical eating bliss. The language was harsh, reminding us that the industrial food model is "systematically abusive" and that "discomfort is the norm, pain is routine, growth is abnormal, and diet is unnatural." (p.242) Even Pope Benedict XVI is brought into the argument, being quoted on hens becoming "caricatures of birds" (which is also lyrically descriptive - Singer is a very good writer).

The pages devoted to freeganism, or dumpster diving, were also interesting, and my mind brought up images of documentary coverage I had seen on TV a while back. While I generally don't have a problem with this - I'm not, say, grossed out by this or repulsed by the idea of eating wrapped food from the garbage... I think most parents have salvaged something incorrectly thrown away at one point or another - but I also posit that it isn't a practical way for a family to eat on a regular basis. I'm not going to pack up my kids late at night (or leave them home alone) to go sort through urban trash bins looking for stuff to pack in tomorrow's lunch boxes - so it's a bit laughable that this passage is essentially included in the call to action on what readers should do to make more ethical choices.

The concrete What Should We Eat chapter tries to lay a clear foundation with simply-stated guidelines like "look for farmers' markets and buy directly from local farmers" (p.275). But the authors loaded too many heavy concepts, which shattered the foundation, and for me, rendered the final section ineffective.

However, I really loved this: "It's this whole American thing about having cheap food. It's a fallacy. That guy thinks his food is cheap, but you and I are subsidizing that cheap food by paying for the social and ecological issues that are occurring in that community." (p.98) That's the real story behind much of this whole food ethics/politics/sustainability issue, and I hadn't seen it articulated so well until this passage.

If you're up for it, this is a fantastic book worth reading. But if you find yourself nauseous, or lacking an appetite while strolling through your local supermarket, or offended by any of the [real] horror stories described in detail throughout the book... I warned you.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good, but. . . May 3 2007
By Stephanie Rose Bird - Published on
I really enjoy this book and found it to be very informative and inspirational in terms of eating more carefully. I just feel that the title is a little misleading. It doesn't say much about the problems with non-meat that we eat such as wheat and grains---which many don't tolerate well and they take up a lot of natural resources like water and space as opposed to some things grown using agroforestry like bananas, mangoes, plantain and coconuts--which feed a lot of people and take up less space (from animals) and less water. They talk alot about eating local which I agree with to a large extent but I also know it is helpful to people with fragile economies when we eat produce they grow--it actually helps others outside of the United States. Then too there is the issue of clearing land and maintaining it with ploughs which kills lots of indigenous wildlife like rabbits and other small animals as well as nesting birds. So while I really enjoy the concept of this book and realize it contains vital information for the public, I hope in future editions they will address some of the other issues people are less familiar with at this point, like eating cash crops grown by indigenous people, leaning more on agroforestry and less on massive land crops that kill animals and use nature resources.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but the premise was a bit contrived July 22 2007
By Amazon Customer - Published on
This book was very well written and well researched, but I felt that basing the whole book around the eating habits of these three families was a bit contrived. Also, although I figured (being familiar with Singer's other books) the book was headed toward an advocation of a vegan lifestyle, I would have preferred the authors be upfront about that and intersperse it throughout the whole book instead of waiting until the last 10 pages or so to get to their real point which was not to eat animals at all.

Still, it had a lot of good information and will hopefully make people more aware of what they are eating. However, I fear they are probably just preaching to the choir.
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