Singer discusses the ethics of American eating habits, environmental choices

You may not be what you eat, but what you eat should reflect your ethics. This message lay at the core of the lecture, “The Ethics of What We Eat,” delivered by Peter Singer to an audience of almost 350 last Thursday at the ’62 Center. Singer is a controversial author and philosopher and the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values of Princeton University.

A well-known animal rights activist and author of the seminal 1975 book Animal Liberation, Singer spent much of the lecture advocating veganism and vegetarianism. “The evidence that mammals, birds and vertebrates are conscious is extremely strong,” he said. Because animals can feel pain and unhappiness, Singer urged the boycott of animal products from factory farms that sacrifice animals’ quality of life for the sake of efficiency and cost minimization.

To illustrate this point, Singer showed pictures of sows individually confined in small pens with concrete floors and chickens crowded into a massive barn that houses 25,000 animals. He described the slow deaths of chickens whose weak bones collapse under the weight of their own bodies and are then left to die of thirst in massive chicken coops. He also criticized the cold efficiency of farms where chickens don’t receive any individual attention and sows are not able to have close contact with their piglets.

These conditions, Singer said, offend “the mainstream [view] that humans should avoid being cruel to animals.” He attributed the disconnect between widely held beliefs about animal cruelty and the gruesome realities to a lack of transparency in the meat production industry. Many producers refuse to allow individuals like Singer or groups like PETA to photograph and publicize poor treatment of animals. As a result, Singer said Americans are largely ignorant of the animal suffering their eating habits cause. “Isn’t there something wrong with a society that doesn’t know how its food is produced?” he asked.

In making the case against factory farms, Singer compared meat eaters to NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who is currently serving a 23-month prison sentence for his involvement in a dog fighting ring. No form of human enjoyment, Singer said, outweighs the animal suffering entailed.

In addition to animal treatment, Singer identified two other areas impacted by the ethics of what we eat: the world food crisis and the environment. He argued that raising animals is wasteful of grain as 70 percent of U.S. grain is fed to them and it takes about six pounds of feed protein to produce one pound of meat protein. This enormous demand causes grain prices to increase, contributing to the food crisis.

Singer also raised the issue of land use efficiency. When comparing protein yields per acre, soybeans are by far the most efficient, while beef has the lowest yield. “It would be impossible for everyone in the world to eat as much meat as we do,” Singer said. “Living in a way that cannot be sustained or equitably spread around the world [is unethical].”

Singer described the harmful environmental effects of factory farms, which cause pollution when vast manure “lagoons” flood or leak into rivers. The livestock of such farms also exacerbates climate change through their emission of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Singer cited a study by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago showing that switching from a typical American diet to a vegan one would cut carbon dioxide emissions one and a half times more than switching from a typical car to a Prius.

While Singer voiced his support for buying organic and fairly-traded food, he noted that “the boundaries have been pushed” by some larger companies with organic certification whose farms are “not quite what you might have imagined an organic farm would be.” In discussing local food, Singer encouraged consumers to consider the environmental and social impacts of their purchases.

Despite the environmental costs of transporting food and the benefits of strengthening the local economy, it is sometimes best to buy food from far away – growing tomatoes in Williamstown in February, for instance, probably requires more energy than growing them in Florida. “In addition, favoring those close to us sometimes comes at the expense of those with greater need,” he said.

While Singer believes that veganism is the most ethical diet, he acknowledged extenuating health, financial and personal considerations in saying that the best policy is probably to “do the least evil in your diet.” He described Roger Scrutons’ “conscientious omnivorism,” which involves buying meat from farms where animals are treated humanely and killed painlessly, as “tenable” and “a step forward,” but maintained that it has practical and philosophical flaws.

“It is not a large-scale solution,” he said. “And to argue that it is ethical is to compare existence with nonexistence: is it better for domestic animals to live a pleasant existence ending in slaughter or not to live at all?”