If you’ve viewed the film ‘Everything is Illuminated’ the name Jonathan Safran Foer may be familiar with you. He wrote that novel (turned film) about an American man’s quest to find his identity and retrace the story of his Jewish ancestry during the Holocaust. A little more unfamiliar to you might be Foer’s first non-fiction piece called ‘Eating Animals’. A piece that combines three years of research, a variety of personal narratives and Foer’s own opinions on the increasingly popular topic- vegetarianism.
Foer dabbled in a vegetarian diet most of his adult life but never really made claim to being a steadfast participant. Once he learned that his wife was pregnant, he immediately began to evaluate his life. He cleaned out the garage, got the car fixed, had his glasses adjusted, filed papers, and examined the formerly wishy-washy commitment he had made to vegetarianism. Things began to matter- “Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters) and because the stories that are served with food matter”(11). He went on to claim his purpose for writing “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. Where does it come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does it matter? What are the economic, social, and environmental effects of eating animals?” (12).
Of course, since 99% of the meat produced in our country is from factory farms, much of Foer’s focus throughout the rest of the book was putting his years of research to use by thoroughly examining and describing the factory farm today. He narrowed his descriptions of factory farms through personal accounts from workers, his own personal eating history and opinions, as well as fact driven sections describing different concerns raised by the factory farm.
Some of the more compelling sections of Foer’s book for me, were the strong connections he made between factory farming and environmental damage. One chapter titled ‘Slices of Paradise, Pieces of Shit’ is dedicated solely to sh…ahem, crap. And by crap, I mean, crap. Bodily waste. Cow, chicken, pig, sheep manure. For every hamburger, chicken nugget, hot dog, and slab of NY strip we consume, crap is being produced and emitted into our environment. Just to satisfy your craving for chicken noodle soup or BBQ spare ribs. Of course manure is enriching for the soil, but what about 344 million pounds of it (amount produced annually by cattle farms alone)? Not only is the amount of crap produced astounding, there are also very few farms with acceptable waste systems to remove the waste (and even if there were, where would it be removed to? some river somewhere? pond? ocean?).
Another point of focus is microbes. It’s common practice on factory farms for drugs to be fed to animals at every meal. Foer’s research found that over 17 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to factory farmed animals each year, while humans receive only 3 million pounds through prescriptions and medical treatment. It’s reasonable to assume that medication is needed for animal care, but if pound after pound of antibiotics are wasted on animal flesh for reasons like abnormal breast growth in chickens to increase their value, something isn’t right.
Environmental damage is the main reason I am a vegetarian. Foer included this UN summary about the environmental effects of the meat industry “raising animals for food is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global…animal agriculture should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage and water pollution” (58).
Apart from scientific findings and research based arguments against eating factory farmed meat (and there were many more besides the two I mentioned), Foer focuses a lot of his book on animal rights, suffering, and the morality of eating meat. He gave example after gruesome example of animal mutilation and maltreatment at factory farms across the country. At the beginning of the book he even talks about his own idea of breeding dogs for meat. Whereas most of society would be appalled at the idea of grilling their cherished family friend for dinner, Foer claims confusion at the selectiveness of animals in which we deem it ok to consume. Dog meat is healthy, lean, and they could be bred and raised easily…why does a dog take priority over a chicken when thinking of its value?
Although the book was definitely biased and pumped full of emotionally charged opinions, I really appreciated Foer’s honesty and clarity when claiming his opinions to be his own, and this book to be HIS story about the meat industry- “My decisions not to eat animals is necessary for me, but it is also limited–and personal. It is a commitment made in the context of my life, not anyone else’s…to decide for oneself and one’s family is not to decide for the nation or the world (199)”. However, he clearly sees this issue important enough to raise awareness and converse constructively. He sees it not only as something individuals should correct but something that needs to be reviewed and rectified on a political level. I agree.
For some people who will read this blog and Foer’s book, it’s an obvious choice not to eat factory farmed meat. I know many families who strictly feed their families with cage-free, organic meat produced on small family farms. This meat is expensive and hard to come by, only about 1% of all meat produced in the United States comes from small family farms like these. And what about when you eat out? Or go to a neighbors house for dinner? Do you gladly ‘take a break’ from thinking about the loads of baggage and moral issues attached to factory farmed animals and indulge in a juicy burger? Do you abandon truths you’ve examined and stood by when dishing up a spoonful of the chicken and broccoli casserole when invited to your boss’ house for dinner?
Although I am a huge Michael Pollan fan, on thing Foer discusses in his book is this comment made by Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma- ‘I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian…Yet part of me pities him too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris’. Foer’s response is this “…he’s right that emotional response can lead us to an arrogant disconnect. But is the person who makes an effort to act on the dream of innocence really the one to be pitied? And who, in this case, is denying reality?” (255).
My choice to be a vegetarian is based out of my personal convictions and opinions. It is something I have cultured a deep interest and passion for. I recognize that lots of people could care less about what they eat and feel that focusing on the suffering of animals is miniscule compared to world wide issues of hunger, AIDS, and oppression. But I don’t see these issues quite as removed as the next person. I think doing as much as I can to reduce environmental waste is important, and impacts other countries. I believe American consumerism (including consuming factory farmed products) decreases the quality of life for our neighboring countries. Foer doesn’t delve into these issues deeply, but there are lots of other literature out there that does including Michael Pollan’s highly acclaimed books.
Given that it’s Martin Luther King Jr. day, I wanted to include a quote from him that describes the interest and weight I have concerning this issue.
“Our lives being to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.
Food matters to Foer. It matters to Pollan. It matters to me.
Although it hasn’t been proven, there’s been lots of speculating that Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed, a vegetarian.
(thanks for morguefile.com for the photos)