jonathan safran foer's
Kearns lives in Boston. She works at Harvard University and
is a freelance writer for the online arts and literature publication,
Monthly. She earned her B.A. in Anthropology
and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Politics and Public
Policy. Ms. Kearns has been a vegetarian for 11 years and a
vegan for the past four years.
I was a small child, I would ask my mother why we ate animals.
In a home full of dogs, cats, and animal-lovers, the practice
seemed rather contradictory. My mother told me that some animals
were raised to be eaten. But as I would sit at the table and
eat my steak or chicken, I began to think about where that meal
came from and what that animal’s life had been like when
it was alive. The thought of eating a once sentient and feeling
creature saddened me. As a teenager, I began to feel guilty
in the participation of taking an animal’s life for food.
Just as I could not bear the thought of eating my dog or cat,
I could no longer bear the thought of eating an animal I had
never met. My commingled sadness and guilt led to my exploration
of vegetarianism. It’s this conundrum, as a new parent
facing his child’s unflinching questions, that author
Jonathan Safran Foer in his new book Eating Animals says
he never wants to face with his son:
I felt shame in the deaths my culture justified
by so thin a concern as the taste of canned tuna . . . or the
fact that shrimp made convenient hors d’oeuvres. I felt
shame for living in a nation of unprecedented prosperity --
a nation that spends a smaller percent of income on food than
any other civilization has in human history -- but in the name
of affordability treats animals with cruelty so extreme it would
be illegal if inflicted on a dog. And nothing inspires as much
shame as being a parent. Children confront us with our paradoxes
and hypocrisies, and we are exposed. You need to find an answer
for every why -- Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that?
-- and often there isn’t a good one. So you say, simply,
because. Or you tell a story that you know isn’t true.
And whether or not your face reddens, you blush. The shame of
parenthood -- which is a good shame -- is that we want our children
to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers.
My son not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating
animal I would be, but shamed me into reconsideration.
birth of his son leads Foer to trace his own path to vegetarianism.
He states in the beginning that this book “is not a straight
case for vegetarianism.” And it’s not – not
in the sense of going from point A to point B; it’s difficult
terrain to navigate. But Foer is a wonderfully flawed and opinionated
guide along that path. His unpredictable writing mirrors his
own winding journey of self-discovery:
This story didn’t begin as a book. I simply
wanted to know -- for myself and my family -- what meat is.
I wanted to know as concretely as possible . . . My personal
quest didn’t stay that way for long. Through my efforts
as a parent, I came face-to-face with realities that as a citizen
I couldn’t ignore, and as a writer I couldn’t keep
values the power of people’s stories. He knows that facts
cannot exist in a vacuum; they must be framed by perception:
Facts are important, but they don’t, on
their own, provide meaning -- especially when they are so bound
to linguistic choices. What does a precisely measured pain response
in chickens mean? Does it mean pain? What does pain mean? No
matter how much we learn about the physiology of the pain --
how long it persists, the symptoms it produces, and so forth
-- none of it will tell us anything definitive. But place facts
in a story, a story of compassion or domination, or maybe both
– place them in a story about the world we live in and
who we are and who we want to be -- and you can begin to speak
meaningfully about eating animals.
of the stories told about food stem from our perceptions of
farms. Farming today is vastly different than it was even 30
years ago. Corporations conduct the bulk of farming with animals
crammed into warehouses, never seeing sunshine or grass or feeling
the breeze. Farming today is synonymous with “factory
farming”: the food industry has become industrialized.
Yet corporations play on people’s nostalgic notions of
farms -- red silo, chickens pecking, rolling pastures, cows
grazing. The nightmarish reality couldn’t be further from
this image, as Foer relates:
Ninety-nine percent of all land animals eaten
or used to produce milk and eggs in the United States are factory
farmed . . . More than any set of practices, factory farming
is a mind-set: reduce production costs to the absolute minimum
and systematically ignore or ‘externalize’ such
costs as environmental degradation, human disease and animal
suffering . . . Factory farming considers nature an obstacle
to be overcome.
questions led him to spend three years researching this book,
sifting through data and interviewing those on the front lines
of farming, factory farming and activism. It’s a simultaneously
noble and daunting undertaking. My own questions eventually
led to my voyage of forgoing meat. I read books and watched
video footage of factory farming and the cruel treatment of
animals. The more I read, the more changes I wished to make.
I learned that my body did not need meat in order to be healthy.
I have been a vegan for 4 years now and I was a vegetarian for
11 years before that. A slow transformation, I eventually chose
to become vegan to align my actions with my personal beliefs:
that humans should not eat or consume animals for ease, gain
or benefit and that animals have a right to live freely, to
not suffer horribly and to not be exploited. I am aware that
not everyone will stop eating meat and choose the lifestyle
I have chosen. Eating remains intertwined in culture, customs
and traditions. While eating is a social activity, what we choose
to put in our bodies remains a very personal decision. As he
strives to answer his own questions -- about everything from
linguistics, laws and philosophy to nutrition, policies and
the environment -- Foer is driven to map the landscape of factory
farming and eating animals.
is not the first to expose the farming industry and atrocities
committed against animals. However, as best-selling author of
Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly
Close, he has a bigger audience than most people. Michael
Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser
(Fast Food Nation) have researched the food industry
in their own books as well as in the documentary Food Inc.
They do not propose eschewing meat, preferring to focus instead
on the public health and environmental problems of factory farming.
While neither of them is vegetarian, they both address animal
welfare and admittedly consume far less meat than before they
began their research. In 2009, psychoanalyst and writer Jeffrey
Moussaieff Masson released his book The Face on Your Plate
that continues to chronicle the depredations of the food industry
while advocating a vegan diet. Masson examines the issue from
anthropological, evolutionary and religious perspectives. But
Masson’s book did not receive book reviews on Huffington
Post from celebs such as Natalie Portman or Dr. Andrew
Foer stands in an enviable position to inform many people about
factory farming. To depict what factory farming feels like for
animals, Foer employs all his novelist’s arts, often asking
readers to imagine themselves into the story:
Step your mind into a crowded elevator, an elevator
so crowded you cannot turn around without bumping into (and
aggravating) your neighbor. The elevator is so crowded you are
often held aloft. This is a kind of blessing, as the slanted
floor is made of wire, which cuts into your feet. After some
time, those in the elevator will lose their ability to work
in the interest of the group. Some will become violent; others
will go mad. A few, deprived of food and hope, will become cannibalistic.
There is no respite, no relief. No elevator repairman is coming.
The doors will open once, at the end of your life, for your
journey is the only place worse.
in this evocation of identification that he succeeds so well.
His readers will never experience the horrors and brutality
of factory farming, but they can now envision the reality with
a searing clarity. Many people who eat meat remain unaware to
the atrocities committed against animals, all in the name of
profit. They still envision farms with rolling fields and green
pastures, populated with content animals. They don’t want
to know about the nightmare. Foer compares the first farm he
witnesses to more to “something out of Blade Runner than
Little House on the Prairie.”
Foer for recounting his own chaotic journey to vegetarianism.
In the spirit of ethnographers who disclose their own biases
in their anthropologic research, he provides his background,
which frames his argument. Yet I was perpetually annoyed at
his frenetic, even schizo-frenetic style of writing –
the prose lacks transition sentences, shifting from subject
to subject. Foer flits from discussing the war on fish and the
collateral damage wreaked to aquatic life one moment to a seemingly
drunken diatribe on shame, the wonder of sea horses and Kafka’s
vegetarianism. This chaotic swerving might derail the casual
reader -- it certainly blunts his points. And he’ll lose
readers when he argues that eating dog meat from unwanted shelter
dogs makes sense from an ecological perspective. Some may argue
that he employed Swift’s tactics for satire to expose
the illogical nature of eating some animals while sparing others
as companions. Yet Foer’s writing fails to convey to his
audience the clarity of his intentions. Melanie Joy, a sociologist
at UMass Boston, provides a far more compelling explanation
in her new book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and
Wear Cows. I almost put the book down at that point too,
especially after Foer provides a Filipino recipe for “Stewed
Dog, Wedding Style.” But I felt compelled to stick with
him to see where his wild ride would end.
Foer points out, part of the problem with eating animals is
that laws do not exist to protect the welfare of livestock animals,
but rather the efficacy of the farming industry. Farm corporations
themselves define their own legality:
Common Farming Exemptions make legal any method
of raising farmed animals so long as it is commonly practiced
within the industry. In other words, farmers -- corporations
is the right word – have the power to define cruelty.
If the industry adopts a practice -- hacking off unwanted appendages
with no painkillers, for example, but you can let your imagination
run with this – it automatically becomes legal.
is a powerful tool; it shapes perception and identity. As Foer
states, “Language is never fully trustworthy, but when
it comes to eating animals, words are as often used to misdirect
and camouflage as they are to communicate.” Possessing
the power to “define cruelty,” allows farms to shape
animals’ reality with horrific consequences.
visited slaughterhouses and factory farms, witnessing animals’
living, and dying, conditions firsthand. Slaughterhouse workers
informed him that chickens and pigs often survive the shock
treatment intended to “render them unconscious”
before they are killed. Foer also provides gory and graphic
details found on undercover video footage documenting atrocities
committed against animals, including beating, strangling, kicking
and poking with electric prods. The factory farmers Foer talked
with insist that, while not a perfect system, these technological
improvements allow farmers to provide a “tremendous system”
to “feed billions and billions of people.”
addition to inhumane treatment, factory farmers manipulate the
genetics of poultry and pump them full of drugs. Turkeys are
so out of proportion that they can no longer fly or reproduce.
Foer likens it to “human children growing to be three
hundred pounds in ten years, while eating only granola bars
and Flintstones vitamins.” Frank Reese, an ethical poultry
farmer who doesn’t tamper with the genetics of his stock,
tells Foer: “What the industry figured out -- and this
was the real revolution -- is that you don’t need healthy
animals to make a profit. Sick animals are more profitable.”
highlights other farmers who, like Reese, employ traditional
practices on their farms. Niman Ranch, a cattle, pork and sheep
distributer comprised of 500 small farmers, is one of the last
places in the U.S. to obtain meat from family farms. Paul Willis,
a Niman Ranch pork farmer, works to maintain the pigs’
natural lives with the needs of his farm. While they still slaughter
animals, Reese and Willis believe in treating animals humanely.
Foer purports that if people eat meat, they should purchase
it from a traditional family farm. However, Bruce Friedrich,
VP of Policy and Government Affairs at PETA (People for the
Ethical Treatment of Animals) vehemently disagrees. He told
Foer, “Saying that meat eating can be ethical sounds ‘nice’
and ‘tolerant’ only because most people like to
be told that doing whatever they want to do is moral . . . In
fact, there is nothing harsh or intolerant about suggesting
we shouldn’t pay people…to inflict third-degree
burns on animals, rip out their testicles, or slit their throats.”
Niman Ranch founder and cattle rancher Bill Niman asserts that
people “remain disconnected” from the reality of
animal slaughter thanks to restaurants and supermarkets. By
not seeing the brutal truth, it enables consumers to “give
little or no thought to the animals these foods come from. This
is a problem. It has enabled agribusiness to shift livestock
and poultry farming into unhealthy, inhumane systems with little
the animal abuse issues on factory farms are enough of a reason
to give consumers pause, health concerns are another. Foer chronicles
the effects of overcrowding and waste on factory farms that
lead to influenza outbreaks, bacteria and E. coli problems:
Needless to say, jamming deformed, drugged, overstressed
birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy.
Beyond deformities, eye damage, blindness, bacterial infections
of bones, slipped vertebra, paralysis, internal bleeding, anemia,
slipped tendons, twisted lower legs and necks, respiratory diseases,
and weakened immune systems are frequent and long-standing problems
on factory farms. Scientific studies and government records
suggest that virtually all (upwards of 95 percent of) chicken
become infected with E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination)
and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are
the overcrowding in factory farming cause public health crises,
environmental pollution is another resultant catastrophe. Factory
farming contributes to climate change and to pollution due to
all of the fecal waste being “poorly managed” and
running into bodies of water. Farmers create cesspools or “lagoons”
of waste, and when these overflow, as they frequently do, they
spread the toxic contents on the land or up into the air, otherwise
known as a “shit cloud,” and all, as Foer relates,
with no thought to the future:
Imagine if, instead of the massive waste-treatment
infrastructure that we take for granted in modern cities, every
man, woman, and child in every city and town in all of California
and all of Texas crapped and pissed in a huge open-air pit for
a day. Now imagine that they don’t do this for just a
day, but all year-round, in perpetuity.
we become more environmentally aware of the effects of carbon
emissions on climate change, we cannot ignore that factory farming
remains one of the largest culprits.
conscientious eaters refuse to eat veal due to the confinement
of calves whom are unable to move in their pens for exertion
makes their muscles and therefore the meat tougher. Yet piglets
suffer the same restrictive fate. They are wrenched from their
mothers and stacked in tiny crates, fed on a diet of “dried
blood plasma” to fatten them up. If you think that you
might want to give up beef, pork and chicken but that eating
seafood is more humane, think again: factory farming has invaded
fishing as well. In fisheries, fish suffer the same problems
of pollution, overcrowding and even cannibalism due to their
confinement. Fish often have their gills sliced before being
tossed into a tank of water, where they bleed to death. Vegetarians
erroneously assume that by not eating meat, they are not contributing
to the cruelty of factory farming. Many are ethical and conscientious
consumers purchasing organic dairy and eggs from “free-range”
or “cage-free” chickens. However, Foer discredits
this pervasive myth:
Very often, the eggs of factory-farmed chickens
– chickens packed against one another in vast barren barns
-- are labeled free-range . . . One can reliably assume that
most “free-range” (or cage-free) laying hens are
debeaked, drugged, force molted, and cruelly slaughtered once
‘spent.’ I could keep a flock of hens under my sink
and call them free-range.
bring up this point to bash vegetarians but rather to highlight
how deep the lies and misinformation run from the farming industry.
Foer does not advocate or even discuss in depth a vegan diet.
He also fails to discuss animal ingredients in seemingly innocuous
products, such as gelatin (derived from horse and pig hooves)
in desserts, and bone char in sugar and singlass (a byproduct
of fish bladders) as filters in wine. Foer wants to make vegetarianism
palatable for the population. However, he chooses PETA, a necessary
yet polarizing entity in the animal rights fight, as the only
animal rights organization to profile in his book. He could
have also spoken with representatives of the Humane Society,
the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals), or Gene Baur, founder of Farm Sanctuary, a non-profit
that cares for and rescues farm animals.
some notable omissions, Foer excels at giving a venue for many
disparate views and voices in the food industry to share their
perspectives: vegan activists, factory farmers and traditional
farmers. He lets them share their thoughts in their own words.
After all of his research and interviews, Foer believes that
we should move away from factory farming and support traditional
farmers like Frank Reese, Bill Niman, and Paul Willis. It is
admirable that he attempts to show the whole landscape. Yet
I kept yearning for Foer to deliver a more holistic and cohesive
the end of Eating Animals, Foer compares the boycotting
of meat through vegetarianism to other boycotts in social movements,
such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the Boston Tea Party.
Many will argue that these social movements are not in the same
vein because animal suffering does not equate to human suffering.
But Foer advocates that how we treat animals matters for our
health, our environment and our morality:
I realize that I’m coming dangerously close
to suggesting that quaint notion that every person can make
a difference. The reality is more complicated. As a ‘solitary
eater,’ your decisions will, in and of themselves, do
nothing to alter the industry. That said, unless you obtain
your food in secret and eat in the closet, you don’t eat
alone. We eat as sons and daughters, as families, as communities,
as generations, as nations, and increasingly as a globe.
is at the crux of Foer’s argument here -- refusing to
eat meat or at the very least factory farmed meat speaks volumes
about our compassion, individually and collectively. Our behavior
and attitudes towards the disenfranchised proclaim who we are
and what we value as a society. Yet a shortcoming is Foer’s
lack of information on the inner dimension of his subjects.
While he certainly provides plenty of information on their cruel
treatment and living conditions, he puts the humans at the center
of the stories.
question of eating animals hits chords that resonate deeply
with our sense of self -- our memories, desires, and values.
Those resonances are potentially controversial, potentially
threatening, potentially inspiring, but always filled with meaning
…The question of eating animals is ultimately driven by
our intuitions about what it means to reach an ideal we have
named, perhaps incorrectly, 'being human.'
his eloquent book When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives
of Animals, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson discusses how animals
experience and exhibit the full scope of emotions ranging from
anger to altruism. He argues that just because animals cannot
verbalize their emotions (although some animals do have forms
of language) does not mean they do not experience them acutely.
massive oversight is Foer’s failure to mention Peter Singer.
A professor of bioethics at Princeton, Singer has been a staunch
vegan and animal advocate for decades, writing the searing exposé
Animal Liberation. In one of his latest books, The
Ethics of What We Eat, Singer and co-author Jim Mason provide
much of the same information as Foer does, although not in as
painstaking detail regarding slaughter. They show us the food
industry from factory farms, to organic food, to free-trade.
Like Foer, Singer and Mason incorporate stories of individual
people in order to showcase the different eating and consumption
lifestyles in America. They provide the data in as non-biased
a manner as possible. Despite the inevitable conclusion towards
veganism in which they lead, they do not push their agenda.
Conversely, Foer’s book is a fiery, scathing damnation
of the factory farming industry. But Singer and Mason have been
entrenched in the battle long enough to know that people will
not listen if you take an aggressive approach. I’m concerned
that Foer may alienate his meat-eating audience with his incendiary
stance. As Singer and Mason explain, animal advocates do not
want equal treatment, which would imply voting and education.
But rather “equal consideration” when it comes to
like-minded interests such as pain.
people feel overwhelmed when presented with social dilemmas;
they don’t know what to do and think they lack the power
to make a difference. Particularly in the case of eating and
the food industry, the more people learn about the horrors animals
face, the less empowered they feel to affect change. Yet just
as the documentary Food Inc. demonstrates, Foer realizes
the power we as consumers wield. He argues that what we choose
to spend our money on sends a message to corporations:
In terms of our effect on the “animal world”
-- whether it’s the suffering of animals or issues of
biodiversity and the interdependence of species that evolution
spent millions of years bringing into this livable balance --
nothing comes close to having the impact of our dietary choices
. . . It’s an empowering idea. The entire goliath of the
food industry is ultimately driven and determined by the choices
we make as the waiter gets impatient for our order or in the
practicalities and whimsies of what we load into our shopping
carts or farmers’ market bags.
eating and food choices do matter; they impact and influence
those around us. Over and over, Foer repeats this mantra. We
as consumers exert enormous influence over food and farming
through our purchases, an important tenet to remember. I wish
Foer had taken the next step for his audience and provided sections
in his book for further reading or suggested websites.
that through discourse, vegans and meat eaters can begin to
bridge the food divide. Foer’s book succeeds at adding
to the much-needed discourse of food and ethics, preaching the
sentiment of compassion to his readers. With all of the press
it has received, vegetarianism, factory farming and animal welfare
are receiving the media attention they deserve. As I’ve
said, I know not everyone will give up eating meat. But people
should know where their food originates in order to make informed
choices. While flawed, if Eating Animals spurs readers
to further educate themselves about the food industry, then
Foer has succeeded at changing our eating behavior -- hopefully
to a more conscientious and compassionate way of living.
Safran Foer is also the author of the novel Everything Is
Drowning in Plastic
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Over Olive Oil
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