15 May 2007

Singer, Sing Me a New Tune

At this point, there is more than a murmur in the air and a whisper in the ears of grocery store customers as they cross paths in the tangle of store aisles in the multitudes of American grocery shops. Their comments hint at, mumble towards and hesitantly discuss the subject of organic, sustainable foods. What are these confusing mystery foods? Where are they? What does organic mean? How can you be sure the food’s labels are telling the truth? Is local better than organic? Is organic better than sustainable? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!?

Good question. Unfortunately these questions are much easier to ask than to answer. This is for a least two very apparent reasons—1) there is a limited and difficult to find any functional, non-partisan literature on the topic; 2) the answers found are almost always far from black and white, much of the organic debate takes place in that complicated grey-zone shared by politics, religion and the like.

Luckily, I have found a lantern to help guide me through the dimly lit path of confusion that is the organic mental muddle of grocery store bafflement. The beacon I am speaking of is Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s, “The Way We Eat and Why Our Food Choices Matter”. This 296-page wonder of a non-fiction offers a fully-fledged discussion of organic issues including but not limited too--animal husbandry, agricultural farming, food labeling, seafood farming, and more, more, more. Happily this informative book does not bog you down with facts or inaccessible data. It is written in a familiar, friendly style, similar to the way you would hope an extremely knowledgeable university professor would speak to his class.

In “The Way We Eat and Why Our Food Choices Matter”, the co-authors follow three families through week or more of food choices; what they eat, where they shop, what they buy, and the reasons behind their food choices. One family is, what Singer calls, “the typical American diet”. They eat meat, shop at your typical American mega-mart, munch on fast-food chicken sandwiches, etc. The second family also eats meat, but “tries” to buy and eat only sustainable or organic meats and organic produce. They shop at what is considered to be ethically mindful grocery stores such as Trader Joes and Whole Foods. The third family is totally vegan and has raised their two daughters vegan. Throughout the book’s entirety, Singer and Mason very honestly, fairly and non-judgmentally follow, interview and discuss the choices made by the families and the ultimate impact of these choices.

This is what makes the book much more interesting than the average “Eat What’s Good For You” one-sided and obviously single-minded food book. Not only did the co-authors explore three diets-lifestyles, they also traced all of the foods bought and eaten back to its original source and then examined how it was produced. Along the way they explore the real meaning of organic, the way that words like “sustainable” are used and the truth about the environmental impacts of importing foods, green house foods, and local/seasonal foods.

Most people probably hear the name Peter Singer, role their eyes, think of “Animal Liberation” and assume that they know exactly what this book is about. This would be a mistake. Although, at times the content is gory, horrific, and reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s, “The Jungle”, Singer and Mason reach some unexpected conclusions to say the least. Logically, and to be frank, the book’s overwhelming resolution is one which urges the reader to make more conscious choices about the foods they eat. At the book’s conclusion the reader rests assured that the authors did an amazing amount of research, traveling and studying with the mission of writing a clear, honest, accurate account of the foods in America. Foods which ultimately reflect not only the people who eat them, but the culture that produces them, the companies that sell them and the way they are enjoyed—by us.

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