The Ethics of What We Eat – Part I

I’ve just finished reading “The Ethics of What We Eat” by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (apparently called “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” in the US). Not the sort of thing I usually read, but I was offered it by a vegetarian friend of mine who thought it would turn you off eating meat. I thought I might as well read it and, if the arguments really were that persuasive, well so be it (not likely but I would give it a go). Anyway what I have to say about it was getting long so I am cutting it into a few pieces so I actually get it out.

My wife commented that if someone sees you reading this book they’ll think you are a vegan (and possibly smelly), and I think she’s right. It’s a bit sad that people will assume that you read to confirm your beliefs rather than challenge them, but its probably what people mostly do. Certainly when I searched for reviews it seems that they are mostly done by people sympathetic to the general thrust of the arguments.

Over all I enjoyed the book, although I have numerous objections. In general I think the ethical logic is pretty well argued, its just I’m starting from some different precepts. I’ll come right out now and say it hasn’t convinced me to stop eating meat, but perhaps in one or two issues has swayed me a little into thinking about what food I should buy. In the end though I just plain disagree with the authors on the degree we should care about animal’s welfare. I value the suffering of the cow I eat my way through every 5-6 years less than my enjoyment of eating meat. Sounds a little heartless but I’ll elaborate later on.

The biggest weakness, from an Australian perspective, is that the book concentrates on the US which differs significantly both in production and consumption on a number of areas. Although some effort is made to distinguish Australia with, for example, a section on the Australian beef industry. In particular this section mentions that while the majority of cattle are feedlotted in the US only 25% of beef cattle are feedlotted in Australia and for a much shorter period of time (feedlotting being something they disapprove of). However it fails to mention that almost two thirds of this feedlotted meat is exported. Representing less than 10% of the domestic market, feedlotted beef is clearly labelled in most places in Australia and generally avoided unless you choose to eat those cuts.

The most glaring omission from an Australian perspective is the complete absence of discussion of sheep farming. This is not surprising given the book considers what three families of Americans eat. Americans eat on average 300gms of lamb per person per year compared to around 13kgs in Australia, where it represents a significant proportion of our total meat consumption. Perhaps sheep are excluded also because they are not kept in feedlots. It is an exclusively free range meat and does not have many of the ethical issue they complain about.

Similarly many of the issues of environmental pollution are not as great here because of tighter laws protecting the environment. As this review by Katherine Wilson in The Age pointed out Australian fish farming does not incur many of the problems described in the book because of tighter regulations and requirements to stun fish etc.

As I understand it the poultry and pig sections are close to what is done in Australia, I suspect however that we slaughter chickens significantly more humanely than the book describes.

The fact that we really have an American book with some references to Australia is one of the let downs as I see it. In the next installment I’ll actually describe what the book discusses about rather than what it doesn’t.

Continued in Part II.

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11 Responses to The Ethics of What We Eat – Part I

  1. yobbo says:

    I don’t know the figures, but I’m guessing that no country (except New Zealand) eats as much lamb as Australia does.

  2. Steve says:

    Its a mystery to me. Lamb is so damn tasty.

    A friend of mine living in the US took it upon herself to educate the yanks and cook them a leg roast (which none had ever had before). Most of them found it too strong apparently.

  3. yobbo says:

    It’s also very fatty, which may explain some of the resistance to it.

    In the 6 months I spent in Asia last year, I never saw lamb or mutton on the menu anywhere.

    Most countries eat a lot more pork than Australians do. I guess this is the substitute.

  4. tigtog says:

    One hypothesis for Americans not eating lamb much I heard ages ago was the habit of drinking icewater at mealtimes. Lamb fat congeals instantly in a mouth chilled by icewater, whereas many other meat fats don’t.

    Seems quite possible.

  5. […] In the first part of this I dicussed what I saw as shortcomings from an Australian perspective, here I’ll actually discuss the book. […]

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