Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Way We Eat: A Look at the Real Costs of What's in Your Cart

People watching. Some people like to do it at a sidewalk cafe or a park bench, but my venue of choice: the supermarket. If you're intrigued as I am as to what people are filling up their carts with and why, some insight into their decisions is revealed in "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter," by Peter Singer and Jim Mason.

The authors follow three American families. One shops heavily at Wal-Mart and eats the traditional meat and animal by-products centric diet. Another, more conscious consumers, who spend more to purchase sustainable seafood and free range eggs and meats. The third are the vegans. The authors interview each family, then trace the origins of their diet, examining every angle, including the impact on animal welfare, the environment, workers rights, and the local food movement.

Are vegans perfect? Of course not. Case in point: Yellowtail wine. I hear this Australian wine recommended all the time in our vegan community. But does it not matter that this is a non-organic wine that comes from across the globe? Are we cancelling out the impact to the animals' and our environment of all those food miles to transport it to our table, just so we can pat ourselves on the back for drinking a vegan wine, vs. a non-vegan wine grown locally?

Why farm animals?
The authors pose an interesting moral issue, noting that animal movement has focused on animals used in research, for fur and in circus. In the U.S., about 20 to 40 million birds and mammals are killed annually for research, but even the higher end estimate of 40 million represents less than two days' production in America's slaughterhouses each year. Perhaps many in our animal movement think fur and circuses are so frivolous and easier targets than getting people to shun their hamburgers for good. As an animal advocate, the amount of exploitation is overwhelming...clothes, entertainment, food, experimentation, and since they cannot defend themselves, the burden on us to stand up for them is heavy.

On low prices at any cost
"The cult of low prices has become so ingrained in the consumer culture that deep discounts are no longer novelties, they are entitlements," John Dicker writes in his book, The United States of Wal-Mart, the authors noted. I thought of this as I passed a Boston Market and saw a large sign advertising a whole chicken for $1.99. As UK chef Jamie Oliver has remarked, "A chicken is a living thing, an animal with a life cycle, and we shouldn't expect it will cost less than a pint of beer in a pub."

The loss of morality
One of the sentiments that stuck with me most was expressed by Jake, the mother who shops heavily at Wal-Mart, even though she could shop at a store where everything is organically grown and the meats are free range. "Laziness is a part of it," she remarked, as the store is about a 30 minute drive away. The prices are also two to three times higher than at Wal-Mart. "Isn't it a sad thing when our morals become so disposable?" This, to me, is one of the takeaway points of the book and one of the great dilemmas of our time. I've walked into many a household filled with multi-thousand dollar entertainment systems, vast DVD and clothing collections, and more "stuff" so to speak. But when it comes to our food choices, people often put little thought into what they put into their body, and where it came from, and just look for the cheapest choice available, especially now. People are trained to not think of the hidden costs to the animals, workers, environment, or the health care system, and just 'consume.' A shift in values that respects the animals, the land, our fellow humans and ourselves is sorely needed...and the winds of change begin with us.

No comments: