Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’
Jonathan Safran Foer is a talented novelist with a gift for writing amusingly about serious issues. In Everything Is Illuminated (2003), he created a Ukrainian narrator, Alex, who describes in hilarious detail his work assisting an American Jew – named Jonathan Safran Foer – in finding the woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. So, when Foer publishes a non-fiction work on the subject that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has provocatively termed “the holocaust on your plate”, we can expect something different from the usual discussion about the ethics of eating animals.
The opening section of Foer’s new book meets those expectations. No character in Eating Animals (Hamish Hamilton, 342pp; $32.95) is as funny as Alex, but Foer’s flatulent, compulsively masturbating dog, George – with her bloodhound’s nose for a menstruating woman – briefly comes close. The most memorable human in the book is the author’s grandmother, known in the family as “The Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived”, and not meant ironically either (Americans don’t do irony), although she always cooked the same dish: chicken and carrots. The grandmother provides a link to Foer’s first novel, for she spent the war on the run from the Nazis, eating whatever she could find to survive – or, not quite whatever. Near the end of the war, when she was hungry and didn’t know if she could make it one more day, a Russian farmer recognised her condition and offered her a piece of meat. It was pork, not kosher. She didn’t eat it. Foer presses her: “But, not even to save your life?” She replies, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
Foer doesn’t share his grandmother’s religious beliefs, but he does take from her the idea that what we eat matters. At high school and university, he drifted in and out of vegetarianism, sometimes because he didn’t like the idea of hurting animals, sometimes just to be different, sometimes to meet women (which makes Foer one of the surprisingly small number of men who have noticed the obvious opportunities in the predominantly female animal-rights movement) and at one time because he was majoring in philosophy and wanted his life to conform to reason. Then he graduated, the demands of reason apparently became less pressing and he resumed eating meat. It turned out that the woman who was to become his wife had a similar history of ambivalence towards eating meat and, in the same week that they got engaged, they decided to become vegetarian. Still, this was not very consistent: “We were vegetarians who from time to time ate meat.” It was only when Foer was to become a father that he decided to resolve the question of diet one way or the other. A friend said to him, “Everything is possible again.” Foer felt he needed to decide “what story to tell” his child. To do that, he set out on the adventure that became this book.
After an opening that focuses on storytelling, the book settles down to a more familiar non-fiction style. Foer wrote to major producers of chicken, beef and pork, asking to speak to company representatives about animal welfare and environmental issues, and to visit some of their farms. He got no responses but he didn’t give up. In the middle of the night, in the company of “C”, an animal activist, he goes into a turkey shed to see what factory farming is like. He is distressed by the numbers of obviously sick and dead birds they find. We learn that the first time C went into a factory farm, she assumed it must be an exceptionally bad one, so she tried another, but found it just as bad. Still, she couldn’t believe that what she was seeing was representative of an entire industry so she went to yet another, and another. They were all the same. I know the feeling: I’ve been inside factory farms, too, and the appalling conditions in which billions of animals live are hard to believe until you’ve seen them. So I don’t think it is hyperbole when Foer describes KFC, the purchaser of nearly 1 billion chickens per year, as “arguably the company that has increased the sum total of suffering in the world more than any other in history”. He tells us that at a slaughterhouse supplying chickens to KFC – which had been recognised as a Supplier of the Year – workers were witnessed tearing the heads off live birds, spray-painting their faces and violently stomping on them, not once, but dozens of times. Similar acts of wanton cruelty have been documented repeatedly at many factory farms and slaughterhouses. The people who perform the unhealthy, unpleasant and poorly paid work involved in this stage of the supply chain are often frustrated and angry with their labour conditions and their lives. The hapless animals are the only beings below them on whom they can vent their rage.
Factory-farmed animals are routinely fed antibiotics to keep them alive and growing. According to industry figures, the quantity of antibiotics fed to farm animals in the US is six times that used by humans – and some think this is an underestimate. The indisputable result of this practice is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and other medical and scientific bodies have called for a ban on the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on farm animals. Agribusiness has resisted, proving itself to have the most political muscle. A lessening of the effectiveness of many of our best antibiotics is one price we pay for factory farming but, according to scientists who study the factors that lead to the emergence of zoonotic diseases (diseases that spread \from animals to humans), that price could soon be multiplied a thousand-fold. The densely crowded sheds that house tens of thousands of animals provide ideal conditions for the development of new viruses. The H1N1 flu virus, it now appears, really did originate in pigs – specifically, in pig factories in North Carolina. From there it spread across the Americas, then around the world and has now killed more than 6000 people. Far more lethal viruses may emerge at any time from factory farms.
In describing the environmental problems of factory farming, Foer waxes eloquent about shit. Farmed animals in the US produce 130 times as much “waste” as the human population, and a single factory farm can produce more shit than an entire city. Handling so much shit properly is costly, and the consequences of mishandling are many: when laid onto fields too thickly to be absorbed, it runs off into rivers, polluting, killing fish and making people sick.
When it comes to climate change, however, Foer actually underestimates the adverse environmental impact of meat production. He quotes a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report showing that the livestock sector is responsible for about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is 40% more than the entire transport sector, including planes. Bad as this may seem, over the next 20 years, livestock will be responsible for a much larger contribution to global warming than that. The Food and Agriculture Organization calculation is based on an assessment of methane as 23 times as potent in warming the planet as carbon dioxide. That ratio applies to the global warming potential of methane over the next century. But methane breaks down more quickly than carbon dioxide, so if we take a shorter timeframe – like 20 years – methane is 72 times as potent as carbon dioxide. This shorter timeframe is the relevant one to use, because if we fail to slow global warming within the next 20 years, we are likely to pass a point of no return, beyond which we will have virtually no environmental control.
In a recent issue of World Watch, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimate that livestock and their by-products are responsible for 51% of annual, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Australia’s livestock emissions will do more to warm the planet over the next 20 years than all our coal-fired power stations. Foer concludes his discussion of livestock and climate change by saying “someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.” But, as far as climate change is concerned, the emphasis on factory-farmed animal products is a mistake. While raising animals on pasture is much more animal-welfare friendly than confining them indoors, ruminants (cattle and sheep) produce more methane when they eat grass than when they are fed grain, because it takes more digesting to break down the cellulose in grass.
Foer does give a factory farmer the opportunity to defend what he does, but the defence essentially says that people want cheap meat and factory farming gives them what they want. That may be, but this argument ignores the costs that all of those involved, from producer to consumer, are imposing on others. The case against factory farming has been reiterated many times now, since Ruth Harrison’s 1964 Animal Machines. Yet, as long as this stinking, polluting, implacably cruel, dangerously unhealthy and utterly wasteful system of converting large quantities of grain and soy beans into small quantities of animal products continues to dominate meat and egg production, we can’t have too many books on the subject.
When Foer contacted organic farmers who raise their animals in accordance with higher animal welfare standards, he got a more positive response. He visits a pig farm and a cattle ranch, both places where the animals are able to go outdoors and behave in ways that satisfy their instincts. These producers meet standards set by the Animal Welfare Institute, which are among the strictest in the US. But Foer still finds some of the procedures permitted by these standards objectionable, such as castration without anaesthetic and hot-iron branding. And, of course, at the end of the road is always the slaughterhouse.
The only slaughterhouse Foer is able to visit is a small independent one that takes much more individual care of each animal than the larger commercial operations. Even so, Foer is troubled by the transformation of a living pig into a carcass. He can see that some people might find it acceptable to eat meat from farms that give animals decent lives but, in the end, it is not for him.
Foer doesn’t spare the fish-eaters either. He describes the crowded, stressful lives lived by farmed fish; the devastation done to the ocean and its creatures by fishing fleets that devastate fish stocks; and the waste of sea life caused by shrimp trawlers that throw back – dead – 80% to 90% of the sea animals they catch, because this ‘bycatch’ is of insufficient commercial value to bother keeping. Moreover, he reminds us, there is no humane slaughter of fish: “You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did.”
In the end, Foer’s reflections on George provide the book’s most powerful argument against eating animals. What justification do I have, he asks himself, for eating other animals, but not eating dogs? Yes, dogs are intelligent, feeling beings, but so are pigs, cows and chickens. Properly cooked, dog meat is as healthy and nutritious as any other meat. It is also said to be delicious. In fact, since many people now advocate eating locally produced food and stray dogs are killed in their thousands in most big cities every year, dogs are the ideal local meat. Foer helpfully provides a Filipino recipe for “Stewed Dog, Wedding Style” that begins, “First, kill a medium-sized dog, then burn off the fur over a hot fire.” His tongue-in-cheek suggestion helps us see what we are really doing when we eat pigs, cows and chickens.