Singer Back, with New Food for Thought
The Age, January 28, 2005
Australia's best-known philosopher, Peter Singer, is back in Melbourne for his latest piece of ethical research, which is as close to the stomach as the mind.
It is, simply, what we eat: where and how it is grown, whether it has been genetically modified, who grew it, how it has been traded.
Given his controversial theories on veganism, euthanasia and animal rights, his new work - and the book that will follow - is sure to give readers food for thought.
"I'm looking at it from the consumer's point of view, saying, all right, I'm about to put something in my mouth, I'm about to buy something in a supermarket - are there any ethical issues in this product," he said. Some obvious issues include intensive farming of chickens and pigs and, especially in the US, beef.
"They raise big issues in terms of cruelty to animals and in terms of the environment and energy use and so on," Professor Singer said. "That's certainly something we'll be talking about.
"The European Union has been making significant moves in that direction, but not Australia or the United States."
Professor Singer, 58, has spent the past five years at Princeton University in the US, where he has written books on international justice and the ethics of President George Bush.
He will spend three months each year in Melbourne for the next five years under Melbourne University's eminent scholars' program, while continuing to hold his Princeton appointment.
He will finish his research into food by April, when he will return to Princeton.
Having written a book in 1975 on animal rights, including intensive farming of chicken and pigs, he felt that it was time to revisit the issue - but expanded it to include food generally.
He said the topic involved human welfare as much as that of animals: is it ethical, for example, to buy imported food produced in sweatshop conditions overseas? He mentioned coffee from Africa and South America, and food that illegal Latino immigrants produced in the US, working in "close to slave conditions".
Some obvious issues include intensive farming of chickens and pigs."
But he said the US did have an advantage over Australia with organic food - such produce was only marginally more expensive than its genetically modified counterparts. He suspected this was because organic food in Australia was still a niche area.
GM food, of course, will feature heavily in the book.
"I've come to the conclusion that it's not a yes/no issue," Professor Singer said.
"It's not an issue that says there's something in principle wrong with GM food and it should never be used under any circumstances.
"On the other hand, it's not an issue that says that GM is fine, there's something to worry about . . . it's on a case-by-case basis."