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(DV) Hammer: Leaving Morals to the Market







Leaving Morals to the Markets

A Review of The Way We Eat
by Daniel Hammer
June 8, 2006

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The way we eat -- the way we select our foods -- is more than a matter of physical nourishment and sustenance; it also involves nourishing and sustaining the social life that surrounds us. This is why a book on what we eat is so important, and why The Way We Eat: Why Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, fails to provide the analysis and critical thinking needed to take humans, other animals, and our environment seriously.


The authors discuss animal husbandry, international trade, genetic manipulation and crop production all as sets of choices, some better than others, from the perspective of a US consumer. Choices fit well with the book’s utilitarian theme, which attempts to offer an ethic based on weighing costs and benefits of various options, thereby avoiding advocacy of any ethical baselines. Material that at first may appear to empower individual decision makers is undercut by many of the suggestions it contains. This includes disregarding the interests of animals to live on their own terms, as well as the interests of the world’s financially poor people to determine their lives and futures on non-corporate terms.

Chapter 17, “The Ethics of Eating Meat,” addresses the question of how many domesticated animals can be “humanely” raised on land appropriated for agriculture, versus how many free-living animals could be supported if that land is allowed to return to forest habitat. These superficial, quantitative alternatives miss the important qualitative factors needed to arrive at sound decisions.

True, animal agribusiness usurps land formerly inhabited by myriad free-living animals. But the former inhabitants -- unlike domesticated and commodified animals -- were able to live for their own reasons. This autonomy simply cannot be compared with the quality of life of farm animals. This omission glares through the authors’ repetitive suggestion that hens, pigs and dairy cows be allotted more space. In real life, allotting more space to our industries in order to facilitate a supposedly more humane farming paradigm means expanding farms and crowding out free-living animals. Taking the animals, the environment, and cash-strapped populations seriously couldn’t possibly wind up simply promoting free-range meat and dairy products. Lee Hall, author and legal director for Friends of Animals, puts the point this way: “If free-living animals were thought to have a claim to their territory and freedom, then finally, finally, the polluting and resource-consuming ranchers and animal farmers would meet a true challenge!”

The claims of free-living animals are not accounted for by Singer and Mason; and animal agribusiness certainly doesn’t meet its match in this book. If anything, the global vendors of animal flesh are implicitly deemed the experts with the capacity -- simply by meeting consumer demand for the right kind of animal products -- to supply morally appropriate options to society.


Not surprisingly, given that the book associates moral advancement with products we’d pay more to acquire, The Way We Eat does not attempt to discuss serious solutions for poverty either. Taking their cue from a 2002 report from Oxfam International, the authors present another sterile set of quantitative options. Singer and Mason conclude that “if you have a dollar to spend on beans and you can choose between buying locally grown beans at a farmer’s market or beans grown by a poor farmer in Kenya -- even if the local farmer would keep the entire dollar and the Kenyan farmer would get only two cents from the dollar -- you will do more to relieve poverty by buying the Kenyan beans. This example is imaginary, but it illustrates how easily growth in agricultural exports can have an impact on rural poverty in developing nations.” The authors display no interest in seriously calculating the difference between the autonomy of the hypothetical local farmer and the plight of farm workers who work for someone else to produce food that goes to wealthier regions.


In addition to citing the Oxfam report, the authors note that Charles Walaga, the Ugandan member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements’ Development Forum, “pointed out that in 1986, when Uganda had few exports and most smallholders were subsistence farmers, 56 percent of the population lived in poverty. By 2000, when economic liberalization had given Uganda farmers greater incentives to sell to exporters, poverty had fallen to 35 percent.” We next learn that Uganda export earnings from coffee enabled farmers invest in animal agriculture, buying pigs and goats for their own use. The Way We Eat does not stop to hear dissenting voice, voices that have risen in the international movement against corporate-driven globalization and in support of local empowerment.

Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, is one of those voices. In an article titled “What’s Wrong with the Oxfam Trade Campaign,” Bello’s voice contrasts with the Oxfam campaign and trade liberalization advocates on whose report Singer and Mason rely. According to Bello’s article Oxfam’s campaign “provides the wrong focus and wrong direction for the movement against corporate-driven globalization during this critical period.”

Counter to Walaga’s claim that liberalization benefits smallholders, Bello notes that Oxfam’s focus on market access “does, as Food First noted in its response to the Oxfam Report, promote the paradigm of export-oriented growth, since it is monopolistic export agricultural interests that will be the main beneficiaries of greater agricultural market access to northern markets. Even in the case of staple foods like rice and corn, it is not small farmers that benefit but big middlemen.” Bello points out that the indiscriminate liberalization of trade is far more destructive than the problems caused by reduced market access for Southern products, adding: “A focus on market access for agricultural products from the South in the North will also increase pressures on developing countries to open up their markets as the quid pro quo for the accelerated opening of markets in the North. Thus, this strategy simply undermines the effort of many small-holder-based agrarian movements in the South to reorient production from export agriculture based on big landed and corporate interests to small-farmer based production systems producing principally for the local market and protected by tariffs and quotas from unfair competition by subsidized products dumped by the Northern countries.”


Yet this paradigm of export-oriented growth via liberalization of trade is exactly what’s suggested in The Way We Eat.

A one percent increase in exports from a financially poor country may, in theory, “generate new foreign exchange earnings equal in value to 20 percent of current total income in the region.” But does that ameliorate poverty? Where a few wealthy landowners and multinationals control most of the land, little will change. A loss of autonomy is at the root of financial poverty and hunger.

Singer and Mason also believe that genetically modified crops offer the possibility of future benefits for financially poor regions. Citing, for example, the development of genetically engineered “golden” rice containing beta-carotene, the authors ask, “Shouldn’t we support corporations pushing ahead with these vital new products?”


But the authors neglect to consider the loss of biodiversity -- and a concurrent diminution of local nutritional self-sufficiency -- that monocultures impose. And while Singer and Mason suggest that transferring genes to existing food plants might able to produce plants with increased yields, Miguel Altieri points out that biotechnologists first need to “explain why GM crops will feed hungry Indians when 36.6 million excess tons of grain stocks in ‘godowns’ (silos) of India will not. Simply raising food output may be the last thing that is needed.” 

The authors’ endorsement of corporate authority is interwoven throughout The Way We Eat, and it blesses even McDonald’s. Never mind that McDonald’s is the quintessence of corporate dominance. We are told locally owned burger joints might not meet McDonald’s standards of animal husbandry and slaughter. Nowhere does the book recommend supporting the local vegetarian restaurant. The authors do cover a Philadelphia restaurant whose owner calls the business venture “capitalism for the common good.” Claiming that “I can’t go vegetarian because that could put me out of business,” the proprietor focuses in products that require more space per animal, such as pasture-raised chickens and pigs.

Several delightful vegetarian restaurants grace the Philadelphia area, including a few that use no animal products at all. Such commitment merits attention, not erasure.

Given the major ethical, logical, and environmental shortcomings in The Way We Eat, those aspiring to base their meals on justice and fairness would be well-advised to seek guidance elsewhere.

Daniel Hammer is a staff writer for Darien, Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group founded in New York in 1957. Daniel thanks Priscilla Feral and Raj Patel for helpful comments on the ideas in this review, and welcomes further comments: hammer@friendsofanimals.org.