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Last Updated: Monday, 4 September 2006, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Composite image: Eating by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

On Monday's programme Newsnight speaks to controversial author Peter Singer. You can read extracts from his new book, Eating, and leave your comments about his interview, the book and the subjects it raises by clicking here.

Eating is published on 7 September, 2006, by Arrow Books.

By Peter Singer and Jim Mason


We don't usually think of what we eat as a matter of morality - that our decisions about food might be morally right of morally reprehensible. Stealing, lying, hurting people - these acts are clearly related to our moral character. But EATING - that essential part of life in which everyone participates?

Yet today organic foods are the fastest growing section of the food industry, and it is estimated that vegans are now almost as common as vegetarians. Veal consumption in the US has fallen by more than 75% since 1975, and in the UK, sales of free-range eggs have now passed sales of eggs from caged hens in value. Evidently we are concerned. But how concerned should we be about where our food comes from? Does the food we buy really affect the world around us? And can our individual decisions about food contribute to a sustainable future?

In EATING, philosopher Peter Singer and environmentalist Jim Mason follow three families with varying eating habits, from fast-food eaters to vegans, and explore how the food we eat makes its way to the table, and at what expense. The authors peel back each layer of food production, and examine how they ought to factor into our buying choices. And recognising that we are not all likely to become vegetarian or vegan, they go on to offer ways to make the most ethical choices within the framework of a diet that includes animal products.

Written with investigative vigour, provocative and controversial but always accessible, EATING is a hard-hitting book that addresses difficult questions that will only become more crucial to our future.

ETHICS AND ANIMALS (From Chapter 17: The Ethics of Eating Meat)

The prevailing Western ethic assumes that human interests must always prevail over the comparable interests of members of other species. Since the rise of the modern animal movement in the 1970s, however, this ethic has been on the defensive. The argument is that, despite obvious differences between human and nonhuman animals, we share a capacity to suffer, and this means that they, like us, have interests. If we ignore or discount their interests simply on the ground that they are not members of our species, the logic of our position is similar to that of the most blatant racists of sexists - those who think that to be white, or male, is to be inherently superior in moral status, irrespective of other characteristics or qualities.

The usual reply to this parallel between speciesism and racism or sexism is to acknowledge that it is a mistake to think that whites are superior to other races, or that males are superior to women, but then to argue that humans really are superior to nonhuman animals in their capacity to reason and the extent of their self-awareness, while claiming that these are morally relevant characteristics. However, some humans - infants, and those with severe intellectual disabilities - have less ability to reason and less self-awareness than some nonhuman animals. So we cannot justifiably use these criteria to draw a distinction between all humans on the one hand and all nonhuman animals on the other.

In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, made a "modest proposal" to deal with the "surplus" of the children of impoverished women in Ireland. "I have been assured," he wrote, "that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled." The proposal was, of course, a satire on British policy towards the Irish. But if we find this proposal shocking, our reaction shows that we do not really believe that the absence of an advanced ability to reason is sufficient to justify turning a sentient being into a piece of meat. Nor is it the potential of infants to develop these abilities that marks the crucial moral distinction, because we would be equally shocked by anyone who proposed the same treatment for humans born with serious and irreversible intellectual disabilities. But if, within our own species, we don't regard differences in intelligence, reasoning ability, or self-awareness as grounds for permitting us to exploit the being with lower capacities for our own ends, how can we point to the same characteristics to justify exploiting members of other species? Our willingness to exploit nonhuman animals is not something is based on sound moral distinctions. It is a sign of "speciesism," a prejudice that survives because it is convenient for the dominant group, in this case not whites or males, but humans.

If we wish to maintain the views that no conscious human beings, including those with profound, permanent intellectual disabilities, can be used in ways harmful to them solely as a means to another's end, then we are going to have to extend the boundaries of this principle beyond our own species to other animals who are conscious and able to be harmed. Otherwise we are drawing a moral circle around our own species, even when the members of our own species protected by that moral boundary are not superior in any moral relevant characteristics to many nonhuman animals who fall outside the moral circle. If we fail to expand this circle, we will be unable to defend ourselves against racists and sexists who want to draw the boundaries more closely around themselves.

ARE VEGANS BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT? (From Chapter 16 of the same name)

Some people think that factory farming is necessary to feed the growing population of our planet. The truth, however, is the reverse. No matter how efficient intensive pork, beef, chicken, egg, and milk production become, in the narrow sense of producing more meat, eggs, or milk for each pound of grain we feed the animals, raising animal on grain remains wasteful. Far from increasing the total amount of food available for human consumption, it reduces it.

A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO, is, as the name implies, an operation in which we concentrate the animals together and then feed them. Unlike cattle on pasture, they don't feed themselves. There lies the fundamental environmental flaw. Every CAFO relies on cropland, on which the food the animals eat is grown. (Aquaculture for carnivorous fish like salmon has no need of cropland, but the basic principle is the same - they don't catch fish, fish must be caught for them.) Because the animals, even when confined, use much of the nutritional value of their food to move, keep warm, and form bone and other inedible parts of their bodies, the entire operation is an inefficient way of feeding humans. It places greater demands on the environment in terms of land, energy, and water than other forms of farming. It would be more efficient to use the cropland to grow food for humans to eat.

Cattle in feedlots mostly eat grains - in the U.S., corn, but in other countries it may be wheat or another grain. This is what Frances Moore Lappé famously called "a protein factory in reverse" - meaning that you start out with a large amount of protein, channel it through cattle, and end up with a much smaller amount. In her 1971 classic Diet for a Small Planet, she calculated that it took 21 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, and that an acre of land devoted to cereals could produce five times as much protein as an acre devoted to meat production. Since then, beef producers have improved their efficiency, but when we take into account the fact that only about half the weight of a steer is boneless beef, 13 pounds of grain are required to produce that single pound of beef. With pigs, it takes about six pounds of grain to produce one pound of boneless pork. But even these figures are flattering to meat production, because a pound of meat contains much more water than a pound of grain does.

Raising chickens is less inefficient. According to the U.S. National Chicken Council, it takes just two pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken, but this is a live-weight figure. After slaughter, when blood, feathers, and internal organs have been removed, a 5-pound chicken won't produce much more than 3 pounds of meat. That puts the grain-to-meat conversion ration back up over 3 to 1, including bones and water. So the National Chicken Council's own figures prove that, even with the most efficient form of intensive meat production, if we really want to feed ourselves efficiently, we'll do much better to eat the grain ourselves than to feed it to the chickens. If it is protein, rather than simply calories, we are after, we'll do better still growing soybeans. Although in the past some nutritionists claimed that animal protein is higher in "quality" - that is, in the balance of amino acids - than plant protein, we now know that there are no significant differences in the quality of protein between soybeans and meat.

Copyright Peter Singer and Jim Mason 2006. Published by Arrow £7.99. The rights of Peter Singer and Jim Mason to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

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