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The Long and Winding Road

Eating Animals

By Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown, 2009

When 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 comingled 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.

The 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 to myself.

Foer 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.

Some 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.

Foer’s 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.

Foer 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, neurologist 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 Weil.

So 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.

It’s 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.”

I admire 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.

As 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.

Language 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.

Foer 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.”

Photo by Farm Sanctuary

In 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.”

Foer 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 public scrutiny.”

While 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 still infected.

While 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.

As 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.

Many 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.

I don’t bring up this point to bash vegetarians but rather to highlight how deep the lies and misinformation run from the farming industry.

Surprisingly, 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 isinglass (a byproduct of fish bladders) and bone char 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.

Despite 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 book.

Towards 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.

This 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.

The 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.”

In 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.

Another 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.

Often 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.

Our 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.

I hope 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.

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Megan Kearns lives in Boston and has been a vegan for the past 4 years.