The Face on Your Plate (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
The growing movement that asks critical questions about where food comes from will welcome The Face on Your Plate, a provocative book by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001) called attention to the way the U.S. food system is controlled by corporations that put profit before health. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) exposed the recent food-safety scares and the dangers to health caused by a lack of government regulation. Masson’s The Face on Your Plate also seeks to raise public awareness of the ethical nature of food choices and challenges individuals to make a difference. This book documents the damage to the environment that the food production system causes and decries the cruelty to animals inherent in that system.
Without its extensive footnotes and comprehensive list of recommended readings and Web sites, The Face on Your Plate would be a slim volume. The text is only about 170 pages, but it is not a fast read. Masson presents a mix of passionate activism and scholarship. He is convinced that vegetarianism, more especially veganismabstaining from all animal products, including eggs and dairy productsis the only choice rational, compassionate human beings can make. Once they understand the implications of their food choices, not just for their health but also for the well-being of animals and the environment, he says, people can no longer ignore the ethical dimension of how they eat. He backs his arguments with staggering statistics, persuasive reasoning, and quotations from respected health, environmental, government, and scientific authorities. The facts are not controversial; they are just not explicitly recognized.
Masson is at his best in the first chapter, “The Only World We Have,” where he mounts a dramatic case to argue that choosing to eat animal products is not good for the planet. The typical American diet damages the environment in many ways, such as by contributing enormously to global warming. Masson debunks the widespread belief in the myth of “Man the hunter” that implies that humans are like other animals“beasts of prey” and naturally carnivorous. Anthropologic research suggests that human beings were originally omnivorous scavengers who actually ate very little meat. Different animals eat distinctly different diets, and most animals seem to have little choice in their diet. In contrast to other species, human beings, apparently do not have the instinctive ability to choose foods that make them healthy. However, humans are the only species that can take the moral high ground and choose to stop eating meat and animal products in the interests of saving the planet.
In page after page of impressive statistics, Masson presents an indictment of the modern industrial food-production system. Food in the United States no longer comes from the family farm that most people naïvely associate with their food. Farming is now a megabusiness. Human beings, and all other animals, are significantly affected by factory farming. Huge animal farms and concentrated feeding pens hold hundreds of thousands of animals being fattened for slaughter. Such animal feedlots pollute air, water, and land. Citing the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Masson states that the manner in which humans raise animals and dispose of their waste (urine and excrement) results in at least 33 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Methane has 23 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide, and two-thirds of all methane emissions worldwide come from industrial farming, largely from huge waste lakes (manure lagoons) that are often as big as several baseball fields. The method of growing fruits and vegetables also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrous oxide has 296 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide, and three-quarters of the nitrous oxide emissions in the United States are caused by industrial farming, mostly from nitrogen-containing fertilizers.
Factory farming (which produces three trillion pounds of raw waste) causes more pollution of American rivers and lakes than all other industries combined. Animals produce 130 times more waste than all the people in the United Statesfarm animals produce five tons of waste per year for each person in the country. A contaminated water...
(The entire section is 1806 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
The Atlantic Monthly 304, no. 2 (September, 2009): 98.
Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): l4.
Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 24 (December 15, 2008): 1294.
Library Journal 134, no. 5 (March 15, 2009): 118.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 17 (April 27, 2009): 128-129.
The New York Times, April 15, 2009, p. D1.