What we eat and why it matters

Guest post by Hannah1cestmoi
Carrots and Eggplant and Turnips, Oh My!

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?

Comments on What we eat and why it matters

  1. I really agree with everything in this post, it really sums up my feelings about food and the ethics of what I eat. I was raised with a huge garden and a dad that hunted our meat, so it was a huge shock when I went to Toronto and some of my friends had never grown a plant, and no one knew where their meat came from.

    We turned to only buying local meat and eggs from our butcher or from family friends when we moved back to Sask, that way we know the source of the food, it also helps cut down on the overall carbon footprint of our meat.

    We have switched almost entirely to our local farmer’s market for produce, honey, jams, etc. It helps support our local economy and make it stronger as well. Sadly our farmer’s market is still not year round (January – March there is no market), and CSA’s are still very cost prohibitive.

    It’s also incredible at what you will find being produced locally. We have a local farm and mill that produces its own flours and oats for local consumption. I honestly never thought I would have found anything like that in a farming province where grain is usually produced and sold on a massive globalized scale.

    I also commend you on your choice to only choose fair trade things like coffee and chocolate. But I must also be the bearer of bad news in that situation. Much fair trade chocolate still uses child labour, and while there are penalties for doing so it isn’t always acted upon. Obviously fair trade is still pushing towards ethical food and child labour free food, but it isn’t totally there yet and is something you should also be aware of.

    I’m not sure if you can watch Canadian online tv or not, but if you can CBC put out a great investigative documentary on chocolate and child labour. They also take a look at fair trade chocolate. It is under “The Passionate Eye” – “Chocolate: The Bitter Truth”

    • Thanks for the reply!
      As for the child slavery issue; I know that a fair trade label does not guarantee exclusion of child labour. It is really sad. But I strongly believe that buying the Fair Trade label is a kind of voting with your wallet. It sends a signal ‘hey, I am NOT ok with horrible labour circumstances’. And I believe it will improve working conditions across the whole industry. Something of the like has happened with coffee, so there must be hope for chocolate too. I am mostly familiar with my own national Fair Trade organisation (www.maxhavelaar.nl) and I have read quite a bit on their control policies. I believe products with label are more ethical than those without. This is then where the ‘we are limited’-rule comes into play. In my opinion, Better-But-Not-Perfect is still WAY better than Doing Nothing because it is not perfect. 🙂

  2. What I find hardest about these choices is keeping up with them. Labelling laws seem to change at the drop of a hat and it’s really hard keeping up with who is doing what to whom and how to avoid helping them. I never buy cage eggs anymore to the best of my knowledge. I still eat meat but I choose free range chicken when it’s available or go without. I eat limited quantities of red meat and choose organic where I can. I try to buy local wherever possible and I also try to buy Australian when I’m in Australia. (I find it utterly ridiculous that I can’t get a piece of Australian dried fruit in the supermarket.) What I am finding incredibly difficult is that I have built up my knowledge over many years of shopping here in Australia but when I’m in America with my husband I have little if any point of reference regarding companies and their practices. I find myself staring at fruit from Uruguay or clothing from Thailand or searching hopelessly for the Made In America sticker and wondering if it is Made in America from local ingredients or just packaged in America. I have trouble finding cage free eggs. The “local” supermarkets are all spread out over the area and there seems to be a lot more driving involved in getting to them which seems to defeat the purpose of buying organic once I get to the supermarket. In Australia I avoid items with too much packaging and I try to buy brands with packaging that can be recycled in my area. We have bins. In America there is no recycling bin for the household. We have to implement a program where we sort and return recyclables to the supermarket OR pay to take them to the local recycle centre. I think I’m doing pretty well with my choices here having honed them over many years but starting all over again in the US really does my head in. I actually dread the grocery shopping.
    I think I will get that book. My Mum is always quoting Peter Singer at me. She’s been a vegetarian and taught me to think about the ethics of what we eat since I was a teenager. Oh and I stopped buying Vegemite! **gasp!** Seemed ridiculous to quit smoking then continue to give Phillip Morris my money because they own Kraft. Trying to work out who is ethical and who isn’t, and who you are really giving your money to and what you’re really supporting just boggles the mind really.

    • Where are you when you’re in America? A lot of the things you describe are not problems I have. All our recyclables just go in a bin and we tend to have many different options when it comes to cage free eggs.

      It IS hard to find things made in America, though.

      • We’re in New England, Annie but we’re not in a major city so for collected recycling we’re outside the town boundary. (We are now in Australia too but we have a system in place whereby we can take our rubbish/recycling back in to the town house bins when we leave.)
        I am also a little stuck in the US in that I don’t have my own car and public transport is…well…it appears to be practically non-existent in the area so I have to rely on my husband or family members to take me shopping. I’ve only found cage-free once in BJs and I couldn’t work out from the packaging if it meant cage-free and free-range or if they were still housed in enormous barns with no fresh air, sunshine or grass. I’d prefer eggs from hens who get to live and scratch around in daylight. In the summertime when I’m there I go to the Farmer’s Market but it’s not that close and occasionally we make special trips to Trader Joe’s & Wegman’s but it annoys me that we’re in what I would consider a fairly built up area and we have to drive too far just to get to the kinds of stores I’d rather shop at.
        It’s fairly intimidating going from one system to another even if they are similar. I didn’t realise how much I do pay attention to the products I buy until I got somewhere where none of that information really applies. I’ll get the hang of it but for now it’s incredibly daunting.

  3. Beware the certified organic label. All it means is that the animals were fed organic feed and were never given any medications (even when sick or injured). It does not mean that their living conditions are any better than their non-organic brethren. Organic beef is still fattened up on grain in horrible feedlots. Instead look for pastured or grass finished meats (grass fed means that they had grass at some point in their lives but most likely spent their last days in a feedlot). Know your farmer is the most important thing when it comes to animal products.

        • I’m sad to hear this. I wrote from an European perspective (UK and EU regulations are the same). The wikipedia link included in the article provides some info on certification worldwide.

      • Unfortunately this is so true 🙁 That is why I stopped buying meat from anything but local butchers and farmers. Supermarket meat is still really skeptical especially with feedlot influence (In North America anyway).

        If you can, find a local butcher, talk to them about where their meat comes from. Most are more than willing to talk, those that aren’t willing to talk probably aren’t the best place to buy meat.

        Also, non feedlot meat (beef in particular) has a really gamey smell to it and is super super lean. The difference is super noticeable. Venison is also a great option if you can find it. There is far less demand for venison and is usually raised on small local farms (though still ask to be safe).

        • “Those that aren’t willing to talk probably aren’t the best place to buy meat.”

          Sadly this was my experience with our local butcher. I asked where their beef came from and got a “oh not another one of THOSE” look and a reply of “Cows love. Now are you buying or not?”

          Given the choice I’ll buy from the supermarket who clearly label their meat. (And having read these comments feel extremely grateful that I can trust the labels.)

      • Thanks Katy. We’ve had quite a thing go on here a while back about what cage free, barn laid, free-range & organic actually means and how it isn’t necessarily what you think it means. Watching it all unfold it basically narrowed the choices down to two kinds of eggs. And that’s just eggs AND it’s just Australia. I think people are really getting a bum deal out of their governments in terms of labeling laws. To me manufacturers/corporations and this globalization that we had to have seem to have created more trouble than it’s worth. I don’t want to buy fruit imported in from every other country in the world when i know that all the fruit here is being packaged off overseas. It makes zero sense to me and companies seem to take great delight in this ridiculous game of pulling the wool over their customer’s eyes.

    • know your farmer is so important. another side of the organic certification is that it costs a farm many thousands of dollars a year to get and keep it. which means that small farmers selling at the market probably can’t afford it, but may be using organic methods – but without the certification it is illegal for them to call their food organic. if you know your farmer, you can ask them how they grow their food, though – and you can probably even visit their farm sometime!

  4. I appreciate this especially because I’m also a philosophy student… I taught Peter Singer to my Intro to Ethics students last semester and he’s so fabulous because he really makes students consider how the most seemingly basic choices they make about what to eat have ethical impacts.

    My question is: What is the best way to do this on a graduate student income? I make 15k to 18k a year (depending on how much I work during breaks) and I feel like most of that goes to paying my rent, utilities, and other miscellaneous school stuff that’s somehow not covered by my stipend. I’ve been trying to eat less meat and buy organic, but it’s tough with a tight grocery budget! Additionally, I live by myself, so if I buy a big bag of organic spinach at the grocery store (because it only ever comes in big bags) I can’t finish it before it goes bad. So, I end up throwing food (and money) away a lot.

    • When my income was barely scrapping by I lived on dried beans, rice, and stock. I’d mix them up, make soups, make ‘gruel’, burritos if I was feeling rich, etc. Veggies could be added easily or eaten as a side. To keep veggies from going bad I’d find a vegetable heavy cooked dish that froze well and prepped that in advance (one of the reasons I cook so many soups, stews and chili). Cuttings from vegetables were frozen until I could make stock.

      Hope that helps or at least inspires you!

      • There are few things better than organ meats when it comes to nutritional bang for the buck. A mere 4oz of liver will give you a real leg up on your vitamins and nutrients for the week. And many local farmers sell the organs for cheap (or even give them away) since few people want them. Even if you get it from a CAFO animal at the local mega-mart you’re still ahead of the “ethics curve” as you’re helping use every part of the animal.

    • That’s tough to be honest. I made a lot of concessions when I was in school, at points I had to use a food bank, and there is no choice there.

      I did find that some farmer’s markets were great for buying lots of veg super cheap. Another option was called “the good food box”, there are other names for it depending on location. I could buy enough veg for myself for a week for $24 (organic, local, CSA). If you can try and find something like that it is honestly your best bet!

      • I feel your pain. I only earn $12k a year, yet eating healthily and mindfully is a top priority. I receive a food box ($37/week-eek!), but through meal planning and MAKING SURE I actually use what comes in the box, I manage to only go grocery shopping at the big box store about once a month. I don’t eat meat or dairy, so this helps with the cost tremendously. Meal planning is your friend.

    • I found that if I planned out my week ahead of time I didn’t waste much food and could be economical about it. Buy smaller quantities of fresh more perishable veg like salad greens for earlier in the week and then buy hardier veg like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, zuccini, etc for later in the week. I often do all my cooking on Sunday and then freeze portions for later in the week. Pasta bakes are a great way to use up spinach, chard, etc. and they freeze wonderfully. The farmer’s market often has better prices on organic(or organic equivalent) products than the grocery and they are often super happy to share recipes too!

  5. Having JUST finished “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” I think it’s required I read Singer’s book. Sounds like it’s the consumer’s side of the story. Thanks for the thoughtful review and letting us know how it impacted you.

  6. This is a really interesting issue. I became a vegetarian two years ago, mainly for environmental reasons rather than animal welfare reasons (though I also don’t really want to eat unhappy, over-medicated animals either).

    For me, it’s not an absolute moral meat-is-murder thing. I just believe that we’re over-reliant on intensive meat farming and fishing – and so my being vegetarian decreases the load a little. The more people self-identify as vegetarians, the more options are out there for everyone, because meat-free sandwiches, restaurant meals, etc, become more common. So even meat eaters can meat-avoid if they feel like it.

    If I could hunt or fish sustainably myself, or it was super easy to find out where ALL my meat/fish came from (including in restaurants), maybe I’d think about switching back.

    • I have a friend who did just this. He has been super vegan for over 30 years, but in the last few years had made concessions with meat. He will only eat meat if he killed it himself or if a close friend did.

  7. i have been focusing largely on knowing where our food comes from. clearly we are in the beginning stages of this, but so far it amounts largely to gardening (and canning, which has more to do with acknowledging that fruits and veg come from the earth and have seasonality), and buying local meat. basically, we have a somewhat generous grocery budget which we pull out in cash weekly, then, when some surplus has built up we make an order with the farmers’ market meat man and freeze it. also, we don’t eat a whole lot of meat.

    we’ve a long way to go yet, but i feel like we are moving in the right direction – i think the general goal is to shrink the size (as in physical area) of our food community. but i think growing the (people involved) size of that community is going to be an integral part. sustainability requires community – different folks with different skills.

  8. My fiance and I are anything but vegetarians, and neither of us grew up being food conscious. We were just given whatever tasted good and was cheap.

    By the time I was in high school, farmers markets were becoming popular again, and when I went to college, I started only buying vegetables from the market. Not only were they more environment friendly, but they were also much cheaper than what I could buy in the stores, generic or organic. I also went to the farms themselves during the winter to buy potatoes and other root crops. Unfortunately, it wasn’t financially possible for me to do this with meat which was far more expensive at the market. I was actually a vegetarian during those two years not because of choice but because of lack of finances.

    However, after working at my aunt and uncle’s meat market for two years, we really had to face facts about where our meat comes from. My uncle, as a butcher, was always up front with people about the truths of free-range chickens and the like in America. Most of the time, “free-range” only means that the barn doors are left open during the day. It meant he lost a bit of business every now and then, but at least he wasn’t given them any illusions to what they were buying.

    Because we have so much frozen meat left over at the end of the season, they’re only open from May until October, all their employees get a winter care package. When we run out of meat, we’re just out of meat.

    Next year, we’re moving out of the city and into an area where hunting and fishing is a reasonable option. I can also finally grow my own garden. I’m really looking forward to all that fresh game and vegetables, but I’m even more happy that I no longer need to worry so much about where my food comes from.

  9. A vegan who is eating grains and soy is *phenomenally* worse for the environment than someone who makes pastured (not CAFO) animals a large portion of their diet. Even aside from Monsanto-type shenanigans with GMOs and chemicals, monocrop farming is horrifically damaging to ecosystems. Cows who are eating the way they should (not CAFO) contribute to the ecosystem in a productive way. Grains grown en masse deplete an ecosystem. If you feel the need to replace animal products with vegetarian options for the sake of the environment, don’t do it with soy and don’t do it with grains. This is what kale is for.

  10. I have also been reducing my intake of animal products, butmostly for personal health reasons. I’m also very against the exploitation of people, the environment, and animals but really I don’t believe our shopping choices can affect significant change. Our economic system is inherently exploitative, and no amount of “ethical comsumerism” can fix a sydtem that prioritizes profit over everything else.

    • We definitely have the power to change the system. The most recent thing is Campbell’s announcing they will no longer be using BPA cans with their soups because of consumer pressure. Hormone-free milk is another example of food that has changed because of consumer pressure.

    • Fairtrade is another one I’ve really noticed. I had a friend at school who was really into promoting fairtrade products when we were about 11 – no one knew what it meant then. Now, 12/13 years later, everything and its uncle wants a fairtrade label.

      Obviously, I’m not saying there are no problems with the fairtrade system as it stands. But I think that big companies like Cadbury’s etc wouldn’t be bothering to get fairtrade status unless they thought consumers wanted to buy it. All those people voting with their wallets and buying smaller, more ethical brands did make a difference to how the companies market themselves.

      Line-and-pole caught fish is another one in the UK, actually. And dolphin-friendly tuna. (Again, not to imply that fishing is all done ethically, just that those options are now out there if you want them.) Sometimes, enough people make enough of a fuss that it does filter through to companies and their practices.

  11. Re fish, my understanding is that the Only label worth crediting is MSC. If it’s not msc labelled it’s not ethical. I can dig out why if anyone is interested
    (UK based post)

  12. Ever since reading this article in the Costco Connection, I’ve been OK about buying organic eggs from Costco: http://www.costcoconnection.com/connection/201108?pg=26#pg26

    Not the same as raising chickens in your backyard, but the conditions are humane. Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “the good”.

    I’ve found a good, affordable source of ground beef at the farmer’s market from cows that are actually frolicking around grassy hills until they get turned into people chow.

    I never, ever touch fake-meat soy products. Terrible for your body and the environment.

  13. I totally agree with the sentiment that you have to remember that we are limited in the impacts we make individually, and that’s ok. We always buy fair-trade coffee and tea, and buy gifts from local stores. We do buy non-organic on some produce products to save money, but always try to buy types of produce that are produced in the region and in-season. Rather than buying a lot of $$$ meat from local producers, we eat less meat, and add in a little local or hunted meat here and there. We’re not perfect, but that’s ok.

    Another important piece is food policy advocacy. This can have a HUGE impact on the local and state level. Does your community allow hens? Is there public space for food gardening? Food Policy/Systems Councils are a great place to start if you want to learn about policy and activism in your area.

  14. Thank you for this thoughtful post. As an animal welfare motivated vegan, I don’t agree with everything you said, but I definitely respect the thought that has gone into your decisions.

    Personally, I think local food is the most important issue, whether it’s plant or animal. Local, small agriculture promotes animal rights, human rights, local economies, environmental issues, etc. But boy, that’s tough to do!

  15. Great post, very thought provoking! As for us we have beef farmers in the family who raise grass fed cattle (the taste is so much better than the beef from the grocery store, I was amazed!) so we get a freezer full of beef every year and that takes care of our beef needs and we get chickens from a Hutterite colony, and any other meat we get from one of two local butchers we trust 😉 fruits and veggies from either the farmer’s market, or the grocery store if we must but the quality always seems so much better at the market. As for coffee, there is a specialty coffee and tea shop down the street from us that we buy our beans from, one of those ones that has been in business for ages and has dozens and dozens of types of coffees and teas available in whatever size you need and is a privately owned company, I adore them 🙂 and that’s how we eat (and drink) at our place.

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