Scary stories from a lovely place
Since living back in Australia the whole organic food thing has come to the fore of my mind. I’ve always been pretty skeptical of spending more on food marketed as organic, and cynical of the benefits. Whenever I’ve visited a Farmer’s Market or a speciality Organic store they’ve always reeked with a middle class vibe. Caring for the environment or for the suffering of animals seemed to me to be something not everyone could afford to do.
Even so, issues of food production aren’t new to me. Back in my good old early 20’s when I was a conscientious vegetarian I read lots of books and researched statistics about the environmental effects of mass food production. I’ve seen movies like ‘Fast Food Nation’ and ‘Food Inc’, both of which had a profound effect on me. ‘Fast Food Nation’ sunk into my bones and made me feel such misery for the dual lives of employees and animals in the factory farming industry.
But ‘Fast Food Nation’ didn’t push me to action in the same way as ‘Food Inc’. Nothing in that movie was new to me, but I was inspired by the way the issues stirred Stephen’s conscience. ‘Food Inc’ started us eating less meat. We instituted Meatless Monday, whereas previously we had eaten meat usually once a day, or even twice.
And so I opened Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s book ‘The Ethics of what we eat’ with a semi-closed mind. But it was an amazing read. This book has brought together all I’ve been thinking and reading on this issue over the last ten years. It’s justified my guilt, educated my cynical mind and driven me to more action.
Singer and Mason visit, shop and eat with three families and assess the ethics of their food decisions. This format makes the book really readable, even while it is dense with information. They visit various types of farms, get jobs artifically inseminating factory farmed turkeys (who are bred to have such large breasts they are physically unable to procreate with each other). While they get little help from large corporations, they find smaller farms, both free range and factory style to be accommodating to their interrogation. This I found refreshing – it wasn’t full of the secretive tension of Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Supersize Me’.
Singer and Mason appear to be unequivocal in their own decision to be vegans, and thus they conclude that the best way to avoid damage to the environment and suffering for animals is to adopt this mode of eating. But, they accept that this will be too big a step for most people. And so they concede that we should drastically reduce our meat intake. They write that for previous generations meat was used on special occasions, whereas now it’s an everyday thing. Animals have become a mere ingredient in our consumption.
They warn against misunderstandings of ‘organic’ as well as the misuse of this word by corporations. They are wary of organic certification, because it can be hijacked, and also because the system is so bureaucratic that smaller farms are unable to attain it. They don’t accept the complaint that to buy organic and free range is too expensive. They envisage a food industry where such options are within the reach of every consumer.
For me, the genius of the book is the ethical framework that underpins Singer and Mason’s argument. They aren’t just banging the drum of the organic movement. In fact they expose a lot of its inherent contradictions and errors. They show that it isn’t necessarily better to buy local, as this deprives farmers in developing countries their income, who would be far poorer than the local guys. They also give the example of a local farmer growing tomatoes with the help of artifical heating, and that this is actually worse for the environment than eating tomatoes that are transported from a warmer climate thousands of kilometres away. And they present lots of data to show that it’s worse for the environment for me to drive my car (the bigger, the more petrol) to a farmers market than visiting a local store, or make various stops at a butcher, greengrocer and deli, than to visit one large supermarket.
This stuff blew me away. I liked that the book wasn’t just another treatise on the doctrine of organic food, rather turned some of that on its head. I liked that it gave me a framework for thinking through the issues in my own context. It has stirred me to more understanding and action than any of my previous reading on the subject. We are now buying organic milk. I had previously balked at the price, but we have taken the plunge. There’s still the issue of yoghurt, cheese, butter and ice cream – we haven’t yet switched from the supermarket brands.
I’m enjoying my local Manic Organic, in Woonona. I have asked a lot of questions about their eggs, meat, fruit and veg, and on the whole their prices aren’t too overwhelming (indeed their free range eggs are cheaper than in the supermarket). The staff are relaxed and full of information. Along with the milk I’m buying tofu, nuts, pulses, some fruit and also tried their Earl grey tea (too strong).
Most of these decisions will only have a small impact. The most effective thing that we are doing is cutting down majorly on meat. We’re trying to only eat meat on Monday nights, and maybe on the weekend as a treat or if we eat out. This way, when we do use meat, we will be able to afford to buy something special and enjoy it as a novelty, rather than a staple ingredient. That was a few weeks ago. So far, so good. This is a pretty massive step for us, considering how much meat we ate previously, and that I am married to a red-blooded Irishman. Have you heard of Black Pudding? That’s what they eat on cold mornings in Ireland, and it’s just made from blood! And the other major thing is that we live close to the main street and so I am able to walk to buy food, so as to avoid adding to the miles the food I buy accumulates.
These are only little things that our family can do. Hopefully we will get to a point where we can understand the issues more and make better decisions. Eating is such a personal issue, and debates over the issues of ethical consumption abound and can be divisive. Singer extols asking questions about what we are eating and where it has come from. This is an important and effective step. In shops or restaurants if we all started to enquire about what sort of conditions our food was produced under, and considered what effect that would have on our health, the lives of animals and the environment, that would make a mammoth difference.