Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book
'Eating Animals', Jonathan Safran Foer's first non-fiction book, was always going to be of particular interest to me since I was already a fan of his first two novels ('Everything Is Illuminated' and 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close') and have a personal interest in the subject matter. OK, perhaps more than just an interest, since I've been a vegetarian for over a decade now. Yet vegetarianism is something I came to more for convenience (I married a vegetarian) rather than out of high-minded conviction. I was curious: Would this book bolster my convictions or leave me questioning them?
The title of the book is interestingly ambiguous - humans are, after all, "animals that eat" and also animals that eat other animals. This philosophical approach to the subject is something that characterises Safran Foer's work - this is no one-sided diatribe or rant. Instead the author leads us through an intellectual journey that he himself undertook as he prepared for approaching fatherhood - what should he be feeding his child? This journey leads him to explore the myths and rituals that revolve around our eating habits and, ultimately, to find out in person what is really involved in the mass production of meat for human consumption. It is a journey that leads him from his grandmother's post-war kitchen table to the industrial-scale factory farms where most of our food now comes from. Along the way we meet many interesting characters and hear a variety of points-of-view. In the end, though, we cannot help but have our thoughts provoked and our ideals questioned.
Making The Connection
Perhaps at the heart of the book is the truism that most people avoid thinking about the connection between the animals they see around them and the meat that is on their plate. It is this disconnect that allows people to avoid the uncomfortable moral questions that are inevitably raised by killing animals for food. And once you have a disconnect, you have a gap - and this gap is most readily filled by the type of unscrupulous operations that most of us would rather not think too much about. But think about it we must if we are to face up to the truth, however unpleasant the realisation may be.
So what is so shocking about eating animals? After all, we are natural omnivores, and humans have eaten a meat-based diet for millennia. Surely it is a natural process and, therefore, unquestionably OK? But let's consider a few issues, both moral and practical, that the book throws up…
The Bullet Points
- For most people, stopping eating animals would be the single biggest contribution they could make to reduce the sum of suffering and misery in this world.
- For most people, stopping eating meat would be the single biggest thing they could do to protect the environment and help reduce global warming.
- A mainly vegetarian based diet is more sustainable for the future of the planet.
The Moral Issues
Why is it most of us would recoil at hurting a cat or a dog, let alone eating one, yet we can casually consume the flesh of a pig, an animal that is easily as intelligent, feels pain just as readily and is as deserving of respect? Isn't this hypocritical? Why as a people do we spend billions of dollars pampering one set of animals whilst consigning the other set to short lives of absolute misery and horror? We cannot both be animal lovers and animal eaters - it is a dichotomy that cannot be reasonably resolved.
The vast majority of the meat we consume in the West is produced on factory farms. In fact the word "farm" is really a misnomer since there are no traditional farmers manning the operations - we have replaced farmers with cheap, itinerant labour forces culled from the poorest sections of society. Instead of fields we have industrial scale hangers filled with row after row of distressed animals held in cramped and unhygienic conditions. Are the battery chickens, confined to a "living" space the size of an A4 sheet of paper, where they cannot stretch their wings, deprived of natural light and so crippled and in pain they can hardly stand, really something we want to endorse for the price of cheap chicken? These birds are so disease-ridden they have to be pumped full of antibiotics so they can even survive the few weeks to slaughter. Yet each year billions of animals are treated like this. Is it moral?
It is no exaggeration to say the vast majority of animals we eat for food spend their lives in misery, pain and distress. Intensive farming is really nothing more than a euphemism for collective torture, so horrific are the circumstances of their short lives in captivity. The animals that do survive are then killed in often cruel and disturbing circumstances and their remains are then "processed" and packaged for us to eat. And by eating them, we are condoning this process, even if we are not willing to make the conscious connection. But think about it - if there is one single thing you can do in your life to reduce the sum of suffering in the world it is to stop buying factory-farmed "products". Is the suffering and ultimate death of a living creature really worth the fleeting pleasure of consumption?
Most people, perhaps understandably, would rather not think too much about the relation between the food on their plate and the life, suffering and death of a sentient being. But can we really absolve ourselves of all responsibility by hiding behind a thin veneer of feigned ignorance?
The Environmental Issues
But eating animals not only contributes to suffering, but it is also one of the most significant contributors to environmental damage there is. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent - 18 percent - than the entire transport sector (cars, aeroplanes) as well as being a major source of land and water degradation. But it's not only global warming that a meat-based diet contributes toward. According to the FAO,
"The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth's increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution, eutrophication and the degeneration of coral reefs."
On top of that meat farming is inefficient when it comes to feeding people. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "a meat-based diet requires more energy, land, and water resources than a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet". And the Water Education Foundation notes that it takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef in California. According to the think tank Chatham House,
"The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined".
On top of this, livestock in the U.S. alone produce 2.7 trillion pounds of manure each year. (That's about ten times more waste than was produced by all the American people). But unlike human waste this effluent is not treated, it is just thrown back onto the land where it ends up in rivers and streams where it has a huge negative environmental impact.
And it's not just meat but also fish production that is unsustainable. According to the World Wildlife Fund,
"Nearly half of the world's recorded fish catch is unused, wasted or not accounted for, according to estimates in a new scientific paper co-authored by WWF, the global conservation organization."
Greenpeace note that,
"Recent estimates show that for every four pounds of fish caught worldwide, fishermen throw away more than a pound (bycatch) of other marine animals."
In shrimp trawls the ratio is fatally worse: for every pound of shrimp, four or more pounds of unwanted creatures die. A staggering 100 million sharks and rays are caught and discarded each year. An estimated 300,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) also die as "bycatch" each year, because they are unable to escape when caught in nets.
"Eating Animals" is truly food-for-thought. It explores complex issues in an original way and manages to entertain as much as it does shock. Interesting characters and points-of-view permeate the book, such as the vegetarian wife of a cattle rancher or the turkey farmer trying desperately to swim against the tide of industrial poultry production.
Ultimately, though, it is a book that is impossible to read without seriously considering our personal relationship to our food and its wider impact on the environment. If I was to level a criticism against it, it is that the reference material is very heavily weighted toward a US audience (the UK edition has a short preface, but otherwise the material is the same). However, it still makes for fascinating reading and manages to be both touching and horrifying in equal measure.