What we eat and why it matters

Guestpost by Hannah1cestmoi on Mar 6th
Carrots and Eggplant and Turnips, Oh My!

Carrots and Eggplant and Turnips, Oh My! © by ilovebutter, used under Creative Commons license.

Food is a ridiculously difficult topic. Once you find your way through the jungle of health claims (is non-fat yoghurt healthier than normal yoghurt?), you still have to face ethical questions. Does it matter what we eat? Are we responsible for the type of food we buy?

Last summer I read The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. I was given the book for my birthday, together with some cookbooks. You get the point, I love food. But I care about how it found its way into my kitchen, too. Let me tell you about what we decided works for us, after much book-reading and value-weighing.

Does what you eat matter?

The answer to that one is yes, for me. I'm a master student in philosophy, and I can't deny the cause and effect chain between a caged chicken and me buying the cheapest eggs in the egg aisle.

But it is incredible hard to know which foods are ethical and which foods are not. The Ethics of What We Eat was enlightening, and I recommend it to everyone who wants to know more about their food. The authors track the diets of three families: 'the standard American diet', the conscientious omnivores', and 'the vegans'. They accompany the families when they go shopping and track down how the foods they select are produced.

The results are telling and sometimes surprising. In the chapter Are vegans better for the environment? the authors say: "As far as water usage is concerned, no vegan willing to consume a 200-gram bag of potato chips is in any position to criticize someone who eats an egg." The conclusion is, however, "making the switch to a vegan diet [is] a more effective way of reducing one's contribution to climate change than driving a hybrid car. (Though it would, of course, be better still to do both.)"

Before and after reading the book, my husband and I discussed our eating habits. This is what we decided works for us.

  • Food ethics matter and may cost us something. This means fewer video games and eating out so we can afford to make better food choices. We're fine with that.
  • Protecting the environment takes precedence over animal suffering, although we should avoid animal exploitation. I do not have a problem with eating animals; I think it's natural. But we should avoid horrible, suffering-causing conditions for those animals. Protecting the world and its natural resources is important for the survival of my children and animals, so that comes first.
  • Human rights are important too. How can I worry about animal welfare when I am not concerned with the welfare of my fellow humans?
  • We cannot save the world. We are limited. It is okay to make choices and stick with them. This means we will not feel guilty about the need 'to do more'. We will critically ask ourselves if we are doing what we can, but once we made that choice, we are doing what we can.

These principles lead us to eating vegetarian or vegan five out of seven main meals during the week. When we do eat meat, we make sure it has a certified organic label. For lunch and breakfast, we cut out meat entirely and looked for alternative sandwich fillings. We try to buy organic dairy.

We both had no experience at all with meat-free food, so we felt that we could best start modestly. To help ourselves, we bought a vegetarian cookbook and got a CSA subscription to challenge ourselves to try more different veggies.

We also made the choice not to buy coffee and chocolate (or products that have chocolate in them) without a fair trade label, after reading about the child slavery involved in the production process.

I found it helpful to use the facts in The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter to confront myself with the facts. It made me re-evaluate our choices. It inspired me to keep trying to find plant-based alternatives (hello, quinoa!).

The last line of the book is "We can make better choices." You now know our choices. I'm curious, what are yours?