Last week’s Last Week Tonight (at the time when I wrote this review, though it will be last last week’s Last Week by the time you read this) had a segment on chicken farming, and specifically the impact that corporate-controlled factory farming has on farmers and their quality of life. I thought that was an interesting take on it. As I watched this segment, I already had Eating Animals sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read. I was very interested to see what Jonathan Safran Foer had to say on the subject.
Foer spends a great deal of time on the subject of factory farming. I’m sorry to say that his optimism in 2009 is misplaced when, six years later, John Oliver can deliver a rant that echoes many of Foer’s concerns and points the finger at the same corporations—Tyson’s, Perdue’s, Pilgrim’s Progress—that Foer does. It sounds like we have not made much headway in a struggle for a more ethical, sustainable method of eating animals.
Factory farming forms such an intense backbone to Foer’s analysis because he is keen on exploring whether there are viable alternatives. That is, he wants to know if there is a way to “ethically” eat meat. Is there a way to bring animals up from birth to farm to table such that they do not suffer, or at least don’t suffer any more than is necessary? In this respect, Eating Animals is not your typical pro-vegetarian polemic in which Foer argues vehemently that Eating Meat Is Bad. His ostensible motivation behind this inquiry is the birth of his first child—he wants to understand more about how we eat, why we eat meat, how we produce meat, to understand whether he can justify feeding his kid meat. I think that’s as good a reason as any to examine one’s attitudes towards eating meat.
Foer himself comes down firmly in the vegetarian camp (and self-identifies as a vegan, it seems). Towards the end, he lays out what he feels are the compelling reasons for this stance—but he acknowledges that other people might feel differently. Most importantly, he remarks that just because he feels he should raise his child in a certain way doesn’t mean that all parents must raise their child in the same way in order to be good parents. This is a laudably tolerant attitude in a time where it seems that we are ever less tolerant of people doing things a different way from us. I mean, we have to label our kids as “free range” now? What does that even mean? Foer certainly doesn’t know when it comes to animals!
When Foer does stray too far towards a moral and ethical discussion, the book weakens. He never really examines the moral and ethical claims critically or with much enthusiasm. There are plenty of books about vegetarianism that do this with varying degrees of philosophical complexity, and I am actually glad that Eating Animals largely steers clear of this. Rather, Foer delivers a more rounded, cultural examination of what it means to eat meat.
There is more to eating meat than our omnivorous appetites. We eat meat because it’s cultural. Different cultures have different menus, different rituals around food preparation, and different rituals around meals. Foer eloquently elucidates examples of the ways in which eating meat has shaped society. He points out that “ethical meat-eating” can be very difficult, for if one refuses to eat meat that was factory farmed, it can be confusing and/or rude—paradoxically, being vegetarian is actually more socially acceptable right now.
And so our cultural obsession for meat brings us back to factory farming. It’s not all of the book, but it’s most of it, and it is largely the most interesting part. Foer’s explanation of some of the methods used by the industry is not an attempt at an exposé (others have done that) or even an outright condemnation (not that he’s happy about it). Rather, he wants to make that connection between our demand for meat and what has changed in how we produce it. Ultimately, factory farming is kind of our fault.
But now how do we stop it? Foer chronicles some of the attempts to blunt the edge of factory farming, either by organizations or individuals or elected representatives. The corporations who make a profit from this business don’t meekly bow their heads: they buy politicians and votes, or just ignore the regulations—which aren’t really enforced—if it suits them. The result is damaging, to everyone, from the farmers who live below the poverty line to the children harmed by the toxic byproducts to the genetics of the animals we raise in these environs.
So if Foer’s conclusion, with its “well, I’m a vegetarian because reasons, but I guess I understand why you aren’t” seems ambiguous or wishy-washy in its declarations, it’s because he is every bit as confused and feeling powerless as we are. He does a great job communicating why he, and pretty much every other average person in the developed world, has a hard time understanding what is going on in the meat industry, as in so many other industries. Such is the pernicious nature of capitalism that puts the lie to the dream of a free market where regulation is unnecessary: capitalism disempowers and disenfranchises all of us.
I nearly didn’t read this. I put it on my to-read shelf in 2009, just after it came out, and only now got around to borrowing it from the library. Yet I was doubtful. “This won’t persuade me to stop eating meat,” I thought, “so why read it?” Then I slapped myself, saying, “Shut up, Ben! You never don’t read a book just because you think you’ll disagree with it—you have to keep an open mind!” So I girded my loins and waded in, somewhat skeptical about the entire process. I’m glad I told myself off and read this.
Eating Animals is not, I must say, your typical non-fiction book. There is a slightly Couplandesque feel to its design and execution. The chapters have bold, even brusque title pages that try to illustrate a point in a kind of creative explosion of typography. And Foer is doing more than writing non-fiction here; he is telling a story, sometimes in his own words, and sometimes in others’. This is a creative book, as much as it is a book of non-fiction, and that makes it refreshing.
Far from your typical pro-vegetarian fare, Eating Animals is what the title implies. (And, can we just pause for a moment to celebrate the fact this book has no lengthy subtitle? What a miracle!) Foer does more than talk about the morality of eating meat: he explores how and why we eat meat, and how we might possibly do it better. Along the way he takes any number of interesting tangents, always returning and spiralling in towards that central question: why eat meat? If his answers are circumstantial or circuitous, it’s only because this is such a complicated issue, one where the answers are difficult to reach, even after so much research and inquiry. But the book certainly made me think. I’m always up for that.