Zak sent me a link this morning to this Alternet article covering ethicist Peter Singer’s new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, because he thought I would probably be interested in what he had to say about eating locally.
And I was. Singer is probably best well-known as the author of the 1975 landmark book, Animal Liberation, a volume which helped kick-start the animal rights movement and turned many carnivores into vegetarians. The Ira W. DeCamp professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne is considered to be a “practical ethicist,” basing all ethical considerations and constructions upon concepts of utility. Every action is examined under the completely objective lens of how much suffering the action will cause. Singer asks us to contemplate, “What is the best consequence this action can have?” before we take that action.
I feel rather silly, in fact, taking this 30-year veteran ethicist on and disagreeing with some of his points, since I am no philosopher, nor even ethicist, but I can’t help it. While I agree with much I have read of his opinions, not only in Alternet’s “It’s Not Enough to Be a Vegetarian,” but also the recent Mother Jones interview, “Chew the Right Thing,” and Salon.com’s “The Practical Ethicist,” I do not agree with all of his statements on eating locally, because he just does not make his case as well as he thinks he does.
When the Mother Jones writer asked him about the ethics of eating locally, here is what Singer had to say:
“You have to ask yourself what’s particularly good about being local. People say, “Well, I want to support my local economy.” But if you’re living in a prosperous part of the United States, what’s really ethical about supporting the economy around you rather than, say, buying fairly traded produce from Bangladesh, where you might be supporting smaller, poorer farmers who need a market for their goods? So I think that just in terms of supporting your local economy, I’d say no, you should support the economy where your dollars are needed most. But then people will say, “Yes, but there’s all the fossil fuel used in shipping it over from Bangladesh or wherever.” But people often don’t realize that if you’re shipping something like rice by sea, the fuel costs are extremely low. Shipping is a very efficient way of transporting. It may be that if you’re buying rice in California, the rice from Bangladesh has used less fossil fuel than California rice, even counting what it takes to get there. We also found that when we looked at tomatoes produced in New Jersey early in the season by being grown on heat, when you calculate the amount of oil that goes into heating the greenhouses, it turns out that you could have trucked them up from Florida with a similar amount of oil. If people are prepared to eat locally and seasonally, then they probably do pretty well in terms of environmental impact. But there’s not many people who live in the northern states of the U.S. who will say, “I’m not going to have any tomatoes between November and July.” So I think there’s a certain amount of double talk about local food that’s just too rosy.”
First of all, let’s examine this very wide-ranging answer point by point.
First, Singer assumes that he is talking to a person who is living in a prosperous area of the United States, when he says that we are better off ethically giving our money overseas to a Fair Trade farmer in Bangladesh than supporting already affluent rice farmers in California. (For the record, I buy imported rice, and agree with Singer’s points about California rice being grown unsustainably in fields artificially flooded by water piped in from other states, thus draining aquifers unnecessarily.)
However, I don’t live in an affluent area of the United States.
I live in one of the poorest counties in Ohio, where 51.9% of the population and 14.8% of the families live below the poverty line. Now, I reckon that by Bangledeshi standards, our farmers in Athens County are still rich, but the US is not Bangledesh. Not everyone in the US is living well, and I would like to support the people in my own community who are helping to provide good food that is grown sustainably and healthily with my money. Remember the catchphrase, “Think globally, act locally?”
Besides, shopping at my local farmer’s market does not preclude me from buying non-locally produced Fair Trade food products. Just a few seconds ago, in fact, I was nibbling on a bit of Fair Trade Certified chocolate, while my (decaf) morning coffee was shade grown Fair Trade organic Cafe Mam from Mexico.
On to Singers next point.
We also found that when we looked at tomatoes produced in New Jersey early in the season by being grown on heat, when you calculate the amount of oil that goes into heating the greenhouses, it turns out that you could have trucked them up from Florida with a similar amount of oil.
So, my answer to this is, “Don’t buy those crunchy, unseasonal tomatoes, dude. I don’t.” And I don’t. Nor do I buy them from Florida, because, frankly, whether they are grown hydroponically in a greenhouse in the winter or picked green in Florida and shipped north in refrigerated trucks, they taste like nothing, and why pay money for nothing?
Singer further remarks,
If people are prepared to eat locally and seasonally, then they probably do pretty well in terms of environmental impact. But there’s not many people who live in the northern states of the U.S. who will say, “I’m not going to have any tomatoes between November and July.”
Okay, well, here is one of those “not many people” who refuses to eat “fresh” tomatoes between November and July, standing up, waving her arms and demanding to be counted by Singer and others.
I hate unseasonal “fresh” tomatoes, so I don’t buy them. Not at the farmer’s market, not at the greengrocers, not at Whole Foods, and not at the grocery store. I don’t give a darned if they are grown in Ohio, Florida, New Jersey or Holland, I am not buying them because they taste like utter crap. If I want tomatoes in the winter, I buy them canned, thank you. (Or I use the ones I froze myself during the summer glut.) They taste better than unseasonal ones and contain more nutritional value than the faux fresh ones in the marketplace in the winter.
One of the entire points of the Eat Local movement that Singer is either ignoring or is unaware of, is the principle of seasonal eating. We eat our fresh food in the season it is meant to be enjoyed, when it is at the peak of ripeness, when it is full of flavor and nutrients and when it really does cost less in energy to produce and bring to the “local” market. He can think that there is a “certain amount of double-talk about local foods that’s just too rosy,” but he is commiting the fallacy of making sweeping generalizations and painting an entire group of quite ethical eaters with a very broad brush.
I expect a better argument than that from the Ira W. DeCamp professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a man who is considered to be a “professional ethicist.”
At the end of the Salon article, the interviewer asked Singer what advice he would give to readers who might want to change their dietary habits after reading his book.
This is how Singer answered:
Avoid factory farm products. The worst of all the things we talk about in the book is intensive animal agriculture. If you can be vegetarian or vegan that’s ideal. If you can buy organic and vegan that’s better still, and organic and fair trade and vegan, better still, but if that gets too difficult or too complicated, just ask yourself, Does this product come from intensive animal agriculture? If it does, avoid it, and then you will have achieved 80 percent of the good that you would have achieved if you followed every suggestion in the book.
I am so with Singer when he says, “Avoid factory farm products.” I do avoid such products, and I will continue to urge others to do so, as I have done for years. The practices of industrial farming are cruel, unhealthy, unsustainable and in the end, produce a lower-quality product that may be harmful to human health.
I also will not argue with him when he says, “If you can be vegetarian or vegan,” that’s ideal, although I think that statement is not as absolute as he makes it out to be. I believe it is perfectly possible to be an ethical omnivore and eat some amount of meat, but I will give Singer that statement free of charge and let him make his request, because frankly, lots of folks eat more meat than is necessary, and if they slowed down a bit or stopped, it is probably not a bad thing.
However, when he says, “If you can buy organic and vegan, that’s better still…” I catch my breath and shake my head.
Because there is an inherent problem in that statement, one which I do not think that Singer, or many other vegans are aware of.
In choosing to buy organic food, which is arguably much better for the environment, they are supporting the meat industry, albeit indirectly.
How can this be, one might ask? Read on.
What exactly makes food “organic?”
It is grown without artifical, petrochemical-derived pesticides or fertilizers.
So, where do the fertilizers for organic foods come from?
Animal manure. Specifically herbivorous livestock manure. Such as the stuff that comes from cows, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens and (admittedly omnivorous) pigs.
That is the flaw in the popular argument that if we fat Americans all just became vegans, the world would instantly be a better place, and animal suffering would end, and uh, all that horse-hockey. Because many vegans also are consumers of organic foods, and great supporters of organic agriculture as being more sustainable, I cannot help but wonder what kind of fertilizer they expect farmers to use if there are no more cows, chickens, pigs or sheep being raised for meat, eggs or milk.
There are other statements in those articles that Singer makes that I take issue with. It seems that he is against any sort of confinement for chickens, including rolling outdoor pens with open bottoms so they can scratch in the grass, eating bugs and plants, because such pens, even though they give ample room for the birds to move around and engage in natural behaviors, are, to his mind, too small. A few of his statements sound as if he is against egg farmers keeping chickens in coops with protected yards, too. I cannot help but wonder what kind of sense this makes since chickens have no real way to protect themselves from predators such as foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and even worse, feral dogs. (The former three animals tend to just kill to eat, so they take one or two chickens at a time, while feral dogs will tear apart a whole flock just for the fun of it. Believe me, I have seen it happen.)
I just want to say to Mr. Singer, “Sir, sometimes hens are confined to protect them from being killed by predators.”
I just get the feeling that Singer doesn’t understand that many small farmers feel very attached to their livestock, and care deeply about them being hurt, not because it hurts the bottom line, but because it is really awful to come home and see the devastation of a bunch of chickens torn to pieces senselessly in your front yard.
I don’t think Singer has spoken with very many small farmers, like the man I buy chicken from at the Athens Farmer’s Market. He told me about a flock of chickens he lost in an outdoor pen this winter, because the prevailing wind shifted, and was not blocked by the solid sides of the pen as usual. Instead, during a storm, the wind came from the opposing direction, swooping through the chicken wire, causing the chickens to huddle together for warmth. They suffocated each other before the farmer got to them.
When he related this sad story to me, the grief in the man’s face was obvious. “Those poor birds,” he said. “It made me sick to lose them that way. The poor little things.”
These are not the words of an unethical man who is not concerned witih the welfare of the animals in his care.
While I agree with his vehement arguments against CAFOs, feedlots and factory farming practices, I cannot help but think that Singer’s experience with the ways in which smaller, local farmers live and work is limited. I also feel that he either is ignorant of or ignores the nuances involved in the movement to eat more locally and sustainably.
That said, I did just order a copy of his book, so be prepared for a long review of it here on this blog sometime in the near future.
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