Eating Animals

Some thoughts about Jonathan Safran Foer's book, which I've been reading voraciously while enjoying holiday cheer with family.

Holiday cheer. Well, the book is bright green and some of the lettering is decorated with what looks like holly, but otherwise this is not a festive book. It's a horrifying book.

Foer's prime directive, writing-wise, seems to be "Not linear!"  He zigs and he zags.  The book is first about his own eating decisions, then (screech) about our wildly different treatment of dogs and farm animals; and then (screech) he's talking about fish. He sets off to break into a factory farm with someone named "C" but we're on to other topics before we're told what they saw. Other voices pop into the book in the form of letters.  They are from "C", farmers, activists--people with lots of different points of view.

All of this zigzagging imparts various messages-- There's so much to say.  This subject is overwhelming. There are lots of ways to look at these things.  The truth is complicated.

Which would be all very well, except that the shifts sometimes take a toll.  I really did want to know what Foer saw in that factory farm, but he cut away to something else.  At one point early in the book he says that animals euthanized at shelters are rendered and sold as pet food.  Really?  It wouldn't hurt to follow up with another paragraph of explanation and an endnote.  And what about the statistic that "roughly 450 billion land animals are factory farmed every year"?  Why not explain where the figure comes from?  (My own research suggests 25-50 billion land animals are raised and killed every year, in all types of farming combined.)

The book gets to be much more linear, and more fleshed out, by the second half.  A chapter called "Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit" is so powerful and informative it ought to be required reading in US schools.  This is what's going on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, and everyone needs to know about it.

But what should be done?  Foer zigs and zags even in the second half.  The reporting about the worst possible farms and slaughterhouses alternates with reporting about the best possible farms and slaughterhouses.  The latter are so rare, representing perhaps just a couple of percents of the total, that one might wonder "why bother?"

He bothers, I gather, because best-case farms raise the hardest ethical question:  is it inherently wrong to raise animals for food, or is there just a problem (and a huge one) with modern industrial strength farming?  Foer likes the traditional farmers he meets.  He thinks they're well-intentioned and that they genuinely care about what he cares about.  Nevertheless, he's troubled by what he sees when he visits "humane" farms and a small-scale slow-speed abatoir.  There's still castrating, branding, killing...though it's also true that the animals spend most of their lives milling around in spacious pastures under wide blue skies.  What to think?

What he's sure about is factory farming.  "I simply don't want anything to do with the factory farm, and refraining from meat is the only realistic way for me to do that."   My sentiments exactly.  Foer points out that being a "selective carnivore" is a recipe for being an omnivore.  Most of the time factory farmed meat is all that's available, and asking a host where they shopped is much harder than just declaring that you're a vegetarian.  If you really want to keep your distance from factory farming, the best way to do it is to stop eating meat.

But would it be wrong to consume "humane" meat?  Is it wrong that farmers are trying to go back to the traditional farming methods that were ubiquitous 50 years ago?  Foer uses the same word that Peter Singer does in Animal Liberation--he can "respect" people who are trying to run ethical animal farms.  A turkey farmer by the name of Frank is his paragon of the ethical animal farmer.  But is it really, entirely, totally OK?  Bottom line: I think Foer is uncertain. Here's what he says:
I have placed my wager on a vegetarian diet and I have enough respect for people like Frank, who have bet on a more humane animal agriculture, to support their kind of farming.  This is not in the end a complicated position. Nor is it a veiled argument for vegetarianism.  It is an argument for vegetarianism, but it's also an argument for another, wiser animal agriculture and more honorable omnivory.
It may be wrong to raise animals for food, but we're going to be doing it for the foreseeable future, so let's support doing it in the best way possible.  I think that's about what he's saying--and I couldn't agree more.

But what can we do to stop the worse case practices?  The clear message to the reader is "stop eating meat."  But if that message is only going to be heeded by a tiny minority (at most 3% of Americans are vegetarians), then it can't possibly be the whole answer.  We don't need more obsessing about our personal dietary dilemmas, but legislation that prohibits what factory farms are doing to animals and the environment.  We need serious inspections and audits of slaughterhouses. 

As much as I'm looking forward to trying out my new vegan cookbook (see previous post), reading this book made me want to spend more time figuring out which animal rights organizations are most effectively lobbying for change.  I hope a lot of people will read Foer's book--regardless of an excessive zigzag or two or three--and that they'll do the same thing.  Yes, we should boycott the bastards and stop eating meat...but more importantly, we need more state referenda like California Prop. 2 and more systemic change.


s. wallerstein said...

I don't know what proposition 2 is, but I agree with you that it's more productive to rally a critical mass of people against factory farming than convincing them to skip pills with animal gel or to burn their leather belts. Among other reasons, it's always easier to get people to target a clearcut evil, in this case, factory-farming, than to change their life-styles. I've noticed that the climate change people have switched from the "change your light bulbs" and "trade your car in for a bicycle" approach to a "demand that the Chinese stop burning coal" approach, which seems wise to me.

Mike Almeida said...


Thanks for the lead on Foer's book, and for the post. One point is perhaps worth emphasizing. We could go a long way toward reducing the numbers of factory farmed animals if we had more quasi-vegetarians around. I've had lots of students point out that they "can't" (in some respectable sense of the word) become vegetarians. They face not only psychological and familial obstacles, but long-standing cultural obstacles, etc. The alternative, in their view, is a hypocritical quasi-vegetarianism. I've tried hard to talk them down from the misleading and stultifying hypocracy charge, but the concept of hypocracy is complex enough to resist distinction from innocuous cousins. I've urged them to take whatever steps they can--eating vegetarian once a week, for intance--to advance a very good cause. It would be much easier to get large numbers of quasi-vegetarians than to get even good numbers of vegetarians, and the impact could be extremely good.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your review. I have heard both good and bad about this book, and from your entry it sounds like a bit of both. However, I appreciate that Foer can respect those who raise animals in a humane, sustainable manner, since this is exactly the way I feel about vegetarians. I have respect for people who make a choice based on their own philosophies about animals and then stick to that, but also recognize that it is important to support farmers raising animals in a humane manner so that those of us who are omnivores have a choice available to us when we pick out our steak at the grocery store. Humane Farm Animal Care runs the Certified Humane program which labels products that come from humanely raised animals. This is a really easy way to support farmers who raise animals the right way and to "vote with your pocketbook" and exercise your power as a consumer to support them.

Jean Kazez said...

Mike, I completely agree. I think there are lots and lots of reasons why it's very hard to completely switch over from an omnivorous diet, and partial switches are all to the good. People are way too worried about being hypocrites. I try to make it clear to students that I'm not a saintly vegetarian, and in fact was once just a no-veal-etarian. People should just start somewhere. You could even just make a deal with someone else to jointly become a whole vegan--by each giving up animal products half the time. From a very pure point of view this is insane, but I think if you focus on the good of animals it's a great idea.

Anonymous, I agree. I think the problems of factory farming are so vast and horrendous that you simply have to support kinder alternatives, even if they are far from perfect. I'm not going to buy "humane meat" for various reasons, but I do respect the person who makes that choice in the sense that I can at least relate to the way they think about the issues.

Anonymous said...

Amazing as always