Peter Singer: The Way We Eat (2006, Rodale, Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers) 4 stars

A thought-provoking look at how what we eat profoundly affects all living things--and how we …

Review of 'The Way We Eat' on 'Goodreads'

4 stars

Ethics is hard.

If I've learnt something all these years, it is this universal maxim. Everybody wishes they'd make ethically sound choices in their lives, but more often than not, ethical choices are in contrast with cost and convenience. Nowhere is this more apparent than the way we consume food.

There are a lot of similarities between food and religion. Both are deeply personal choices which are erroneously thought of as having a clear, set winning answer. Both divide people into disjoint sets where they vehemently try to outdo one another in following "The Right Way". And of course, both are deeply political.

My personal journey in food, as in religion, has been quite tumultuous. Coming from a vegetarian family, I used to feel discomfort in sitting at the same table where somebody was eating meat, used to scoff at the smell of eggs and couldn't go near anything related to fish (this is still the case). Then somewhere along the way, I decided that I don't have a right to reject things which I haven't experienced myself and started indulging in this forbidden fruit. I tried everything I could get my hands on, but never reached that stage where I could appreciate the hype. Having gotten a taste of the other side, I made the decision to quit everything and slowly move back to being a vegetarian/vegan.

This was the point where I started to seek out reasons to convince me of my choice, and came across this book.

I wouldn't call this a balanced book in the sense that the authors' convictions are clear from the start, however where this shines is the way they use evidence to reach their conclusions rather than playing on guilt and shame. The basic fact remains, and this I have confirmed with many of my non-vegetarian friends as well, that we know too little about where our food comes from and our choices would be different if we were armed with this knowledge. The authors visit few American families and observe their eating habits, and then take us through some factory farms where the brutalities are quite graphic and sometimes hard to read and difficult to digest.

However, one qualm that I had while reading through these chapters, was the over-importance of ethics in our everyday choices. Not everyone wants to live a Kantian life full of moments filled with questioning their every choice. Life is hard to live anyway. I was delighted though to find a section dealing with this exhaustion:

Sometimes the very success of the ethical consumer movement and the proliferation of consumer concerns it has spawned seems to threaten the entire ethical consumption project. When one ethical concern is heaped upon another and we struggle to be sure that our purchases do not contribute to slave labor, animal exploitation, land degradation, wetland pollution, rural depopulation, unfair trade practices, global warming, and the destruction of rain-forests, it may all seem so complicated that we could be tempted to forget about everything except eating what we like and can afford.

I'm facing this situation myself when I eat eggs and drink milk in the morning - if every time I consume an animal product, I have to think about where this is coming from and whether I've unintentionally hurt an animal - to say that my day-to-day life would be unpleasant would be an understatement. However, we should be cautious of throwing the baby out with bathwater - the choice doesn't have to be between over-indulgence and starvation; we just need to be a bit more conscious of what we consume. To borrow an economist's favorite phrase: there's always a trade-off. We just need to be aware of the ones we are making.

All in all, I found this to be quite an informative read, albeit a bit dry in places, but would definitely recommend.


This is also available on my website here.