Thursday, August 16, 2007,9:05 AM
Eating Ethically
I just finished reading The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. Even though the book deals with issues that I already cared and knew something about, I was still overwhelmed and greatly challenged by what they wrote. I'm still processing most of it and examining my philosophy of ethics in response to the really hard questions they ask in the the book. This is a disturbing and necessary book. If we are to be truly ethical people, our ethics must apply to how and what we eat. I think this book should be required reading for anyone who, well, eats food.

To comment on one small aspect of the book - the general complaint that to eat ethically (or healthy for that matter) is just too expensive. The average person can't afford to be ethical excuse. Here are a few quotes from the book that put that into perspective -
"The cult of low prices has become so ingrained in the consumer culture that the deep discounts are no longer novelties. They are entitlements. Bargain-seeking seems to be such a basic aspect of human nature that to question it can appear quixotic. But... the bargains hide costs to taxpayers, the community, the animals, and the environment."

"Organic food costs more partly because ... intensive industrial agriculture leaves others to pay the hidden costs of cheap production - the neighbors who can no longer enjoy being outside in their yard; the children who cannot safely swim in the local streams; the farm workers who get ill from the pesticides they apply; the confined animals denied all semblance of a life that is normal and suitable for their species; the fish who die in the polluted streams and coastal waters (and the people who previously caught and ate those fish); and the unknown numbers of low-lying lands in Bangladesh or Egypt who will be made homeless by rising sea levels caused by global warming. It is understandable that people on low incomes should seek to stretch their dollars by buying the lowest-priced food, but when we look at the larger picture, the food produced by factory farming is not really cheap at all."

"Americans spend far less of their income on food than people in other countries ... we spend a smaller proportion of our income on food now than we used to - on average, only 6 percent of our total income goes toward buying groceries, down from 17 percent fifty years ago. In fact, we probably work for fewer hours to feed ourselves than people have anywhere, in all the millennia of human existence... if Americans want to eat better quality food, most of them have the means to pay for it."

"The price of food should reflect the full cost of its production. Then consumers can choose whether they want to pay that price. If no one does, the market will ensure that the item ceases to be produced. Meanwhile, if the method of producing food imposes significant costs on others without their consent - for example, by emitting odors that make it impossible for neighbors to enjoy living in their homes - then the market has not been operating efficiently and the outcome is unfair to those who are disadvantaged. The food will only be cheap because others are paying part of the costs - unwillingly. Any form of food production that is not environmentally sustainable will be unfair in this respect, since it will make future generations worse off."

Someone somewhere is paying the cost for low price. If we care about being ethical (instead of just saying screw you), we have to be willing to pay a fair price for our food. That may mean getting over our sense of entitlement to a certain lifestyle (meat at every meal, or even everyday) in order to afford better food. And it isn't just about passing the costs on to others, they do eventually catch up to people. Tax dollars that go to cleaning rivers, insurance costs that rise as more people get sick from the toxins used to produce our food. For example, I personally have spent thousands of dollars this past year (above insurance) to figure out what is making me ill (I have had a constant swollen throat for 7+ months). Having gone through the "it might be cancer" or it "might be this" tests, the thought is that since moving to a rural area, I have developed chronic allergies to the massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers I am surrounded with. I am constantly sick so that cheap corn can be grown so Americans can eat more crap full of high fructose corn syrup. And I am just one small example of the collateral damage of cheap food where the full cost isn't assumed by the producer or the consumer but is passed on to others. Can we really be ethical and continue to do that?

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posted by Julie at 9:05 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 8/23/2007 08:53:00 AM, Blogger Kay

    And eating ethically doesn't really cost more. I've worked at a natural foods store since 1993. Organic produce isn't that much more expensive, and meat alternatives are usually cheaper than actual meat (and damn tasty too).

    One area that an ethical stance has come to cost me more is the cock-fighting and pitbull fighting thing. Buying from B&N is definitely more expensive. Sigh. :)


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