Jonathan Safran Foer, 2009
The title of this book is bold and to the point. Eating Animals explores the forgotten and often hidden costs of the carnivore lifestyle. Foer is upfront about his personal choice to eschew carnivorism for the vegetarian lifestyle, yet he honestly admits that he has been a vacillating vegetarian who has enjoyed meats and fish throughout his life. Therefore, with an understanding and appreciation of the carnivore life, the author presents a case that is a balanced exploration of the environmental and moral costs of cheaply produced, factory farmed meats without coming off as an outright manifesto for vegetarianism.
Jonathan Safran Foer is famously the successful novelist and author of the humorous and touching breakthrough work, Everything is Illuminated, and the equally enjoyable follow-up, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both of which I am a huge fan. I fondly recall a laughable passage from Everything is Illuminated where the protagonist was attempting to explain his vegetarianism to the waitress at a café in the Ukraine: the waitress failed to understand that anyone could contemplate ordering a meal without meat and the protagonist was eventually served potatoes with a side of meat as the closest alternative to his “no meat” request. Everything is Illuminated was a work of fiction partially based on Foer’s travels through the Ukraine and although the journalistic content of Eating Animals is a departure from the fictional genre of Foer’s two prior works, Foer adeptly utilizes his entertaining and fast-paced narrative storytelling ability to personalize the journalistic content in a book that is unique from the similar subject matter covered in Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
As a storyteller, Foer was prompted to write this book when he learned he was going to become a father and was thus faced with the dilemma of determining the diet he would offer his son. Foer acknowledges the importance of food as a social bond between family history, culture, and identity and the book begins by exploring the diet choices of his own upbringing with a fond recollection of his grandmother’s chicken and carrots recipe. Foer recants his grandmother’s obsession with food, largely shaped by the inspiring hardship she endured as a young Jewish woman on the run from the Nazis in Eastern Europe. During the wat she subsisted on unmentionable scraps she would forage from the garbage and was near death due to her extreme malnourishment. Despite the despicable state of her health and the tough choices she was forced to make, she demonstrated a fortitude of character when faced with a culturally significant food choice, as illuminated by her conviction to deny the offering of pork presented to her by a Samaritan farmer. Foer asked his grandmother why she would deny the life-saving meat when her situation was so poor and her simple response was that “if nothing matters, there’s nothing to save” (17).
Carrying on the inherited conviction of his grandmother, Foer’s investigation into what it means to eat animals reveals that the American food industry has developed into a system that has increasingly moved away from “what matters” in pursuit of profit and efficiency. In the past 20-30 years the agriculture revolution that first maximized the efficiency of crops has spread to the development of the “factory farm.” The idyllic family farm with animals roaming freely and cared for directly by the farmhand cannot compete with the factory farms that house thousands of animals in tight corners, operated by cheap and replaceable labor, and managed by administrators in offices thousands of miles from the “farm’s” location who have more concern for efficient productivity than the social, environmental, or humane impact of their business investments.
Through his investigative work (which at one point included sneaking into a Tyson chicken factory) Foer reveals how animals such as turkeys and chickens have been bred to grow so large that they would be unrecognizable when compared to birds of the idyllic pasture, are routinely kept up long hours with artificial light and undergo long periods of starvation to manipulate their growth cycle, are fed grain and meat based diets unnatural to their digestive system, have their beaks scalded off to prevent them from pecking each other to death because they are kept in close quarters, are susceptible to disease because of the close confinement and are routinely fed antibiotics that promote antibiotic resistance (thus putting humans at risk to antibiotic resistant diseases), routinely die and are trampled upon, and are slaughtered in a mechanized factory system that is subject to error and grossly inhumane practices with animals often being bled alive and washed in waters fouled with feces. The animal nature has been removed from the animal now considered a food product. Animal farming scientists are really engineers concerned with mass sewage treatment and mechanization of the growth and slaughter factories. Foer claims that 99% of poultry, 95% of swine, 78% of beef, and 60% of the dairy consumed in the US are produced in conditions that are so deplorable that the operators of said factory farms are mired in secrecy and refuse interview. Factory farming is so widespread that it utilizes one third of the habitable land and accounts for “18% of greenhouse gas emissions, 40% more than the entire transport sector” (58). The culture of consumerism has promoted these conditions to artificially maintain a low product cost. Remarkably, since the 1950’s the cost of animal products has only doubled each decade whereas the cost of housing and labor has increased a thousand-fold over the same time period.
While reading Foer’s depictions of the factory farms in light of his grandmother’s story I couldn’t help but think that despite having two generations passed since the fall of Nazism, in a weird way, fascism has been reincarnated in a new form. Although Foer never goes so far to explore this thought, his writing caused me to reflect on the reality that capitalism has run so far out of control that the incessant rush for cheap and readily available food has developed a system that is as blind to its cruelty just as the SS were blind to the cruelty of their actions. Factory farming is a proxy system where someone else is providing the services tendered. The majority of animal product consumers are removed from the reality of source of their food: the neatly packaged shrink-wrapped cuts of meat are hardly recognizable as an animal product and therefore the consumer is emotionally detached from the source of their animal cheap cuts of meat. This separation from the source of the animal product has promoted the unchecked development of the factory farm. Foer does acknowledge that there is a movement for more sustainable and humanely produced meats, but it is slow growing and the cost differential is too wide for the public masses to prompt change in the food supply industry. Since the reality of the source of animal’s meat is removed from the table it is easy for the public to live blissfully ignorant of the effects of one’s dietary choices.
“Our situation is an odd one. Virtually all of us agree that it matters how we treat animals and the environment, and yet few of us give much thought to our most important relationship to animals and the environment.” (74)
Any reader who knows me must be thinking that I have been avoiding the obvious self-reflection inspired by this book. For those who don’t know me, I must explain that I have been a long-standing vegetarian/pescatarian for a number of years (perhaps 15 now). Not being a particularly outspoken person, I’m not one to push my diet on others and have never been a self-righteous vegetarian (I know that plenty of those types do exist). I haven’t ever really been moved by animal “rights” as a motivation for my diet choices: my reasons have been mostly personal for health and environmental reasons. Specifically, my grandfathers both died of heart attacks so I’ve opted to keep my cholesterol low to protect my health and oddly, I was inspired by the effects of cattle grazing on stream ecology when I was working in a riparian laboratory during college and was therefore further motivated to give up eating land animals. What about chicken? Well, I have an odd and rare chicken allergy (which may actually be a reaction to the artificial hormones fed to the chickens) that made giving up chicken an easy possibility. Only recently in the past couple of years have I flexed my previously longstanding convictions by occasionally adding pork products into my diet. This choice was largely for personal reasons to better share the table with my wife. The dining table is a communal table and refusing to share the table creates tension in relationships because the denial of an offering shared is often misunderstood. Sadly, this book has caused me to recognize that in flexing my long lasting convictions I have opted to support a cultural belief process that I recognize as damaging. Although my meat choices are rare and I continue to primarily consume a plant based diet, what I am committed to is but a small effort and I have demonstrated that I am equally shaped by the cultural forces that motivate those around me. For these reasons I found Eating Animals to be a troubling book.