On Eating Animals

Most of you probably know Jonathan Safran Foer as the author behind Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He’s also husband to fellow writer Nicole Krauss, who herself is author of The History of Love and Man Walks Into a Room, also a great piece of thought-provoking and meaningful fiction. This is an undeniably talented literary couple.

I was intrigued when I first heard of Foer’s latest literary effort entitled Eating Animals. I was curious as to the sort of style or approach Foer would take on such a topic as vegetarianism, food culture, and factory farming. Though the book was bound to be good, would it just be a repeat of the information we’re fed by the Michael Pollans of the world (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of those types) or would Foer bring to light a whole new arena? Though I wouldn’t say he completely unveiled a world previously unvisited in food non-fiction, Eating Animals has definitely forged a new place amongst the increasingly-popular sect of food culture literature.

Foer sets out to learn more about the meat we eat as he prepares for the birth of his first son. This book is a meditation on what food, and meat in particular, has meant to him at various points throughout his life, but also a more logical and oftentimes disturbingly realistic look at where this food comes from – and how we need to reshape some of those meanings as individuals and as an eating culture.

As my friend Sarah, who also highly recommends this book, pointed out, Foer’s account of the way in which farmers raise the animals we eat is highly readable and a bit more narrative in form than the accounts of some of his counterparts. While the content itself is quite disparaging if not downright disturbing, Foer offers us a look at some of the factory farming practices that are both cruel and detrimental to our health. He creates compelling arguments as to why we should abstain from eating meat, at least the meat which is produced by the most widespread and common practices, that play on everything from empathy for animals to logic regarding our future, the environment, and our health.

This book isn’t necessarily a plea to turn to vegetarianism. Though Foer is a vegetarian and poses plenty of reasonable arguments for choosing to do so, his main purpose is to further understand the implications of eating animals and how to lessen, if not eliminate, those which are detrimental to people, humans, and the world at large. Though he may not encourage you to completely rule out all meat products, Foer will at least give you cause for pause in purchasing and consuming your proteins.

Just a few of the alarming bits of information and poignant truths revealed in reading Eating Animals:

  • Industrial agriculture has transformed conceptions of farm animals as machines rather than living beings. And in so doing, we’ve kept meat, eggs, and dairy costs relatively low, while other significant costs of living, such as housing and transportation, are escalating at rates far beyond those of food. I understand the necessity of low cost meals, but I also think we need to give consideration to why animal proteins are currently cheaper than ever before (taking inflation into account) – because the methods used to produce these food items are driven by profit margins, with no regard for consumer health, the environment, or the most basic fundamentals of humane behavior.
  • “Americans choose to eat less than .25% of the known edible food on the planet.” Though this statistic is not directly related to our meat consumption, as a food-lover it makes me quite sad. Think of all the deliciously exotic and delightfully unknown food possibilities out there that we eschew in favor of mass-produced, antibiotic-injected proteins.
  • “Deciding what to eat (and what to toss overboard) is the founding act of production and consumption that shapes all others. Choosing leaf or flesh, factory farm or family farm, does in itself change the world, but teaching ourselves, our children, our local communities, and our nation to choose conscience over ease can. One of the greatest opportunities to live our values – or betray them – lies in the food we put on our plates. And we will live or betray our values not only as individuals, but as nations.”
  • “Not making a decision – eating ‘like everyone else’ – is to make the easiest decision, a decision that is increasingly problematic.”
  • “Responding to the factory farm calls for a capacity to care that dwells beyond information, and beyond the opposites of desire and reason, fact and myth, and even human and animal.”
  • “Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless – it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another. Consistency is not required, but engagement with the problem is.” This point really stuck with me. I’m often overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that I want to fix with the world (hunger, labor issues, poverty, homelessness, the environment, the food system, etc. etc.) and have difficulty deciding which battles to fight first. Foer gives me reason to believe that I don’t need to decide, that they’re all intertwined and that every action we take, whether publicly picketing or privately eating, can take on the ramifications of positive activism. In constantly making thoughtful and careful choices aligned with our beliefs, we can affect change in a wide range of seemingly disparate areas.

I could go on and on about this stuff and how I think consumerism is at the bottom of so much of what is wrong with this world. But I’ll leave it at this: if you care about animal rights, worker’s rights, healthy eating, organics, the environment, global warming, hunger, poverty, consumerism, capitalism, infectious disease, vegetarianism, veganism, the health and well-being of future generations, the health and well-being of yourself and your loved ones – pick up this book. You don’t need to be radical or even a devoted activist to make an impact, it can begin by simply educating yourself, making informed choices, and passing on those seemingly small decisions and meanings to others. And then, hopefully, along the way a certain frame of consciousness will take hold, both collectively and among individuals, to make a call for obvious, necessary, and humane change.