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It's Not Enough to Be a Vegetarian

He got us to stop eating meat. Now ethicist Peter Singer is out to demolish environmentalist mantras like 'buy local' and 'eat organic.'
 
 
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There wasn't much wiggle room left for the casual carnivore when über-ethicist Peter Singer got finished with us in 1973. That's when his uncompromising assault on trans-species suffering, Animal Liberation, had millions of readers trading in their T-bones for tofu.

But now even the moral high ground of a vegetarian lifestyle isn't good enough. Singer's new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter argues that, all things considered, only a vegan lifestyle will do. The reasons go far beyond Singer's past exposés of animal abuse and factory farming. Tracking the source of food served at three very different American tables, Singer and his co-author Jim Mason uncover more than they could swallow.

How we eat can influence the very health of the planet even more than switching to hybrid cars or solar heating. The hidden costs of even the most prudent food choices -- costs in terms of social injustice, poverty, waste and pollution, as well as animal cruelty make us all collaborators in environmental destruction. Especially Americans, who consume one quarter of the world's fossil fuels, and whose food industry "seeks to keep Americans in the dark."

Looking for transparency in how our food is produced, Singer visited fields, farms, organic facilities and fisheries guided by the food-buying habits of three families -- one embedded in the "standard American diet" of Wal-Mart and fast food, another of "conscientious omnivores" and finally a family of vegans who consume no animal products at all. It wasn't hard to predict that the family shopping for bargains would be chastized for their convenience-based gastronomy. But when Singer sourced the politically correct fare bought by the conscientious consumers, the results were sobering. Looking at farms behind the "organic" and "certified humane" label, Singer did not like what he saw. Even farm-raised seafood smelled fishy.

Much of what Singer points out in the book flies in the face of the reigning environmental folklore. The "buy locally" mantra, for example. It is not necessarily the case that local products are less costly -- if by cost you include the environmental costs of carbon dioxide emissions, or social justice issues such as how much more your dollar could buy in a village in Sri Lanka versus what it might mean to an upscale Palo Alto community. Just as "cheaper" isn't always cheap, so "organic" isn't always good enough. At least if you're willing to do the homework Singer did for his book, uncovering the high fuel costs involved in growing organic tomatoes out of season. The "buy local" choice makes ethical sense, it seems, only when paired with "seasonal" consciousness. Out-of-season goods, even organic ones, always bear a high environmental price tag.

Singer's maddeningly strict utilitarianism has made him famous. It can also make him tedious. Sidestepping the tricky issue of intrinsic rights, Singer bases his ethical considerations on the issue of calculating interests. Since animals (including us) have interests, such as avoidance of suffering, then those interests must be respected, as long as doing so does not entail greater suffering on our part. Poverty, hunger, abuse -- these all cause suffering which those in affluent cultures might easily prevent. That is, if we're willing to make some sacrifices. And under Singer's moral microscope, we are obligated to make those sacrifices. He even makes the bold and sure-to-be-mocked suggestion of reviving the religious prohibition against gluttony. This idea, at once silly and sensible, is pure Singer.

In "The Way We Eat," Singer carefully addresses the issue of making enlightened food choices, of buying and consuming only those animal products whose provenance is well-known and well-documented, for example Niman Ranch products. Even in these cases, Singer warns that we cannot know exactly how far the concepts of "free range" or "humanely slaughtered" might be stretched. Time constraints on production line workers have a way of trumping careful handling. So to be safe, Singer says (over and over), we should simply not consume any animal products, except -- he admits with a certain sangfroid -- delicacies without central nervous systems, like mussels, clams and scallops.

His new book is rife with disturbing facts, never mind that much recent literature (Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" and Marion Nestle's classic "Food Politics") has amply prepared the inquiring reader for the horrors of modern chicken production and cattle slaughter. More disturbing than simply the graphic accounts of turkey insemination and poultry abuse that pepper "The Way We Eat," are Singer's revelations about hidden eco-costs.

If we carefully choose only farmed salmon, we're supporting the huge wild harvests needed to feed the farmed fish. Even humanely raised animals are land hogs, taking up space that might be better used to grow plant food for humans and repopulate wild species. Here's another eco-bomb -- it makes more ethical sense to buy rice from Bangladesh than rice grown in the Sacramento Valley. Singer has plenty of reasons, but the focus is on social justice. Money going to developing countries -- especially on purchases of fair trade items -- makes a much larger impact than money reinvested in an affluent American community.

In ethical terms, the consumer literally gets more moral bang for the buck. Add to that the fuel savings by shipping from Southeast Asia rather than trucking from Sacramento, and purchases of goods a half a world away become environmental "bargains." Cheap food is only apparently cheap. Others -- workers, animals, endangered species -- are paying for our "out of sight, out of mind" consumption style.

Singer himself sets a brisk moral pace, donating 20 percent of his income each year to UNICEF and Oxfam. (It would be interesting to calculate how many fossil-fuel guzzling flights Singer takes per year between his joint teaching appointments at Princeton and his native Melbourne, Australia.) Still, I can't help feeling that he is asking us to be better than we actually can be. Given the facts -- and he certainly supplies them -- we are called upon to avoid eating seafood, eggs, meat, milk -- any animal products -- period.

So suspicious is he of even the most scrupulous producers that no evidence could convince him to rethink his conclusions. Like many who have devoted a life's work in support of a philosophical stance, Singer has never met a fact that could stand up to his argumentation. Or so it seems. If I grew it and killed it myself, it would still be wrong, says Singer, because actually eating it could set the wrong example for observers. How are they to know how humanely this little filet mignon was dispatched? Short of veganhood, we have no excuses.

And no more patience! How much should we agonize over the ethical price tag of free-range chicken, for chrissakes? Where do we stop the calculation of suffering? With pigs? Or scallops? What about the bugs I crush walking through my own organic garden? Numbed into ethical exhaustion, I came away from Singer's message, bloodied but unbowed. Living a moral life is arduous. The hidden price of the vegan lifestyle is, for me, too high in time and anxiety. So I will continue to eat seasonal, organic produce, cage-free eggs, free-range chicken and wild salmon. But Singer's book did affect me. I've increased my contributions to Heifer International.

Christina Waters, Ph.D., writes about food and wine, and teaches environmental ethics at UC Santa Cruz.