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Book review: The Way We Eat August 11, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Peter Singer, author of the classic 1970s animal welfare text Animal Liberation, has teamed up with Jim Mason to write another book that should be a cornerstone of the animal welfare movement of its time. However, its publication in 2006, the same year as Michael Pollan’s celebrated Omnivore’s Dilemma, may have unfairly relegated it to relative obscurity.

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter is no vegan diatribe against meat; Singer and Mason honestly assess the food animal industry. Those who brand Singer as an extremist or radical will be surprised by his even-handed treatment of animal “growers” and his ungrudging praise for those who do it well. He credits pig farmers like Niman Ranch suppliers Mike Jones and Tim Holmes for creating farms where “pigs really can be pigs” and has mostly positive things to say about big retailers like Chipotle and Whole Foods who are serious about animal welfare. Further, against the liberal intellectual tide, he turns a critical eye to such sacred cows as eating local, eating organic, and the horrors of genetically modified foods. Though in the end he cautiously agrees with the standard liberal views of these practices, he presents the cons as well as the pros and does not pretend that the debates are satisfactorily closed.

Ultimately Singer does affirm a vegan diet as the optimal ethical choice, the one “sure way of completely avoiding participation in the abuse of farm animals.” He does this partly for environmental reasons, though he allows that a vegan diet is not necessarily better in this respect than a diet that “includes some organic animal products from animals grazing in a sustainable way on pasture that is unsuitable for growing crops.” His support for veganism is largely based on the hidden abuses that even most humanely-raised animals suffer: the killing of superfluous male chicks and perpetual hunger of breeder hens in chicken farming; the unanesthetized castration of male piglets in the pork industry; the short life spans of all farmed animals.

Singer is a philosopher, and his writing is never as lyrical, his anecdotes never as engaging, as a stylist like Pollan’s. Framing his investigation of the food animal industry as a peek into the pantries of three families – the standard Americans, the conscientious omnivores, and the vegans – is an attempt to personalize the project that ultimately distracts more than it illuminates. But his honest, unsentimental, and thorough examination of how we use animals for food makes The Way We Eat a must-read.

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