Friday, October 13, 2006


And points out the follies and dubious ethics of the Greenie "food mile" brainstorm

'I want a pig that's had a happy life," a gourmet friend of mine declared to a local butcher recently. Like him, you are probably concerned about your family's health and aware of your food shopping's impact on the environment. You dip into farmers' markets and buy organic. You are suspicious of GM crops and worried about food miles. Peter Singer has a term to describe you: conscientious omnivore. With his new book, Eating: What We Eat and Why it Matters, the Australian philosopher also brings a challenge. As a conscientious omnivore you are a little like McDonald's: you have improved your food habits a bit but you could do an awful lot more.

Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University in the US and author of Animal Liberation, the seminal treatise that sparked the animal rights movement more than 30 years ago, has written, with co-author Jim Mason, not about healthy eating but the ethics of eating. The pair examine how the purchases made by three American families (a price-conscious family of supermarket shoppers, a middle-class family of conscientious omnivores and a family of vegans) affect the people, animals and the environment from which the food came.

Beginning as a familiar - if powerful - critique of industrial farming and the "fallacy" of cheap food, Singer and Mason provide unusually forthright guidance for consumers struggling with the ethical minefield that is the modern food shopping trip [How pathetic! How about the ethical minefield of pandering to vicious Islamics?]. Confusing labels, disingenuous producers, conflicting research and the lack of any kind of system to weigh up the merits of, say, food miles versus organic: the time-poor consumer can easily be overwhelmed by the effort of right-thinking. Singer, who became vegetarian after meeting a graduate who refused spaghetti bolognaise in an Oxford University canteen 36 years ago, says the first ethical step meat-eaters should take is to buy organic. With US consumers spending 6% of their income on groceries compared with 17% 50 years ago, everyone should pay more for their food, he says.

"Food is absurdly cheap by all historical standards," he says. "There has never been an era in human history when people have been able to feed themselves for so few hours of work as we can today in the developed world. That cheapness has come at a price. It has imposed costs on animals, on the environment and on workers in the food industry."

Eating is not a rant against big corporations. Singer's arguments are a challenge to knee-jerk antiglobalisation campaigners for whom McDonald's is an unmitigated evil. Trapped in a small town and forced to choose an independent takeaway or the golden arches, Singer would plump for the latter (as his book points out, in the US, McDonald's has insisted its eggs come from hens given more space than the legal minimum, among other "ethical" innovations). "The fact that a big chain has a national and international reputation to protect means they need to be a bit more cautious about what they are doing than someone who has no brand and is not going to suffer from any kind of disclosure," he says. In this country, Singer dishes out praise for Marks & Spencer and Waitrose for banning battery eggs from their shelves. Big corporations are not intrinsically unethical. "I see big corporations as following what consumers will buy. If you have sufficiently educated consumers, you can get ethical food from big corporations."

Singer makes a compelling argument against cheap food. But what about time? Trapped in market capitalism, don't we simply lack the hours to source our food ethically? He thinks we can choose to spend more time on food shopping and says the growth of farmers' markets shows that some people are treating it as "a recreational activity". While recent reports have exposed fraudulent mislabelling of meats and other produce on farmers' markets, Singer is a big fan and sees them as a chance to chat to producers and even perform your own farm inspection. "You can say, 'Can I come and see your farm?' and if they say no you should be suspicious. If they say yes, that's a good sign but you should try and take them up on it." He accepts, however, that consumers cannot do it all themselves and must be helped by a tough regulatory framework.

He offers some sharp thinking on issues that have traditionally bamboozled conscientious omnivores. Genetically modified crops are not dismissed as evil foods. "I don't have a general ideological objection to GM. I don't think there is anything intrinsically wrong with altering the genetic nature of beans," he says, accepting there are hazards but arguing it is not always best to apply the precautionary principle. "The difficulty here is that some of the benefits that advocates of GM talk about are significant. They may benefit developing countries. And they may lead to ways of reducing pesticide use."

On the fashionable preoccupation with food miles, Singer also offers some clear - and sometimes surprising - guidance. He argues that it is better at times to support agriculture in developing countries than "selfishly" protect local farmers. "Not all miles are the same. Miles by ship are not nearly as bad as miles by truck, and miles by truck are not nearly as bad as miles by plane. Something to be said in favour of supermarkets and centralised distribution systems is you can make one trip to the supermarket and buy your stuff there. If you are going to drive around the countryside in your four-wheel drive to pick up a dozen free-range eggs here and then pick up a lettuce there, you have probably run up more miles than a truck would." Is it better to support developing economies over the local economy? "I don't see why we should favour British farmers over Kenyan farmers just because they are British. We should favour farmers who most need economic support to make a living, and that's likely to be developing-world countries."

More alfalfa male than alpha male, Singer makes clear that the red-blooded west's hunger for meat cannot be replicated globally. A carnivorous lifestyle is unsustainable: there isn't enough land to farm meat for all. One moral rule he suggests is to eat meat only from a farm you have visited. Most people would therefore conclude it is simpler to avoid meat. Is Singer arguing that, ultimately, veganism is the only ethically defensible position? "I wouldn't phrase it in such absolute terms. It's pretty difficult to be a conscientious omnivore and avoid all the ethical problems, but if you really were thorough-going in eating only animals that had had good lives, that could be a defensible ethical position. It's not my position, but I wouldn't be critical of someone who was that conscientious about it."

When he is visiting London, as he is now, Singer enjoys dining at the (modest) Soho vegetarian restaurant Govindas. Is dining in a fancy restaurant ever ethically OK? "I don't think there is something objectionable as such to eating out. It is good to talk to the people in the restaurants about where their food comes from and let them know their customers are interested in whether it is organically produced." Do people eat out too much? "Yes. A lot of fine dining is really a kind of gluttony or status-seeking. When people go out for a meal and spend something that could have fed a family in Africa for three months that strikes me as something that is not defensible." So is eating for pleasure ever defensible? Singer smiles. "I'm not that much of a puritan. Gee, I think pleasure is a good thing. I just wish that everybody, animals included, could experience more pleasure in their lives and less suffering"



Being very partial to a good Australian red, I won't criticize this study!

A little red wine every day could be exactly what the doctor ordered. A new study reveals moderate consumption of Cabernet Sauvignon actually prevents an Alzheimer's-like disease in mice. Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York wanted to know if the FDA's recommended servings of red wine per day, approximately one glass for women and two glasses for men, would have the same effect on health previous studies and surveys of populations have shown in the past. "We wanted to get as close as possible to the human condition," says researcher Giulio Maria Pasinetti, M.D., director of the Neuroinflammation Research Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He and his colleagues gave mice that mimic Alzheimer's disease the equivalent of once glass of Cabernet Sauvignon a day.

What the researchers discovered was that one glass of red wine a day was all the mice needed to get significant brain-protecting benefits. "Moderation is the key word, otherwise you lose all the benefit," says Dr. Pasinetti.

Researchers also report that they now have a better idea of what in the wine is so good for us. It's all thanks to the effects the chemicals in wine have on amyloid precursor protein, which is the stuff that hardens into plaques in the brain, causing Alzheimer's. The red wine chemicals seem to keep that from happening. "One of the mechanisms that red wine might have in attenuating memory function is indeed through this kind of mechanism by preventing the formation of more complex structures of soluble structures," says Dr. Pasinetti. Which means red wine can even help prevent or lessen age-related memory loss in people without Alzheimer's. That's because the amyloid precursor protein is in everyone's brain. Any time it comes together in any kind of structure, the brain works less efficiently.

The Cabernet Sauvignon used in this study, however, is no ordinary wine. Food science and human nutrition researcher Susan Percival at the University of Florida in Gainesville created a special Cabernet Sauvignon in the lab. Because the wine from any old vineyard can change from vintage to vintage, she created a wine that would remain consistent for lab studies like Dr. Pasinetti's.

Dr. Pasinetti says with this research scientists are one step closer to understanding the exact molecule that is responsible for protecting memory ... and closer to synthesizing that molecule in a lab where it can be used to create drugs that would prevent or even cure Alzheimer's.


The incorrectness of Coke again: "There was something oddly edifying about showing up to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) dual protest of a Starbucks and Landmark Cinema in Berkeley, Calif., last month, and being instantly recruited to help hoist the Dignity and Respect for the Working Class banner. "Your Fellow Worker's arm is tired," one of the black-clad protestors implored me and I answered the call. How could I not? It had that "Wow, political romantics don't immediately recognize you as a killjoy" ring to it. A reach for a revitalizing swig of Diet Coke, however, almost brought solidarity to a crashing end. One of my fellow sign holders literally gasped. I might as well have shown up to a Christian Coalition meeting with a bag full of recently aborted fetuses. "You buy that?" he asked accusingly, sighing to someone behind him when I nodded, "Get him some literature." Moments later a Killer Coke handbill-"Murder...It's the Real Thing"-was thrust into my hand. A couple dirty looks confirmed that whatever sheen I may have had was significantly dulled"


Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? [/sarcasm].


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