Date finished: April 20th 2017
You need to eat to live. In the West we’ve really taken that fact to heart, leading to ever-rising levels of obesity, heart disease and related conditions. Much of this comes from our relationship to food: the highest meat consumption levels in human history, countries at the pinnacle of wealth, and a systemic, pseudo-religious reverence for food in all its forms have led us into an age where food occupies a ridiculously elevated position. Given the problems created by our modern diets, should we reconsider our relationship with food?
Meat is a good place to start. Eating Animals considers the meat we eat and where it comes from, employing a compelling mixture of journalism, research, anecdote and passion. Driven to explore the food industry by ethical concerns regarding how to raise his first son, Jonathan Safran Foer charts the process of how an animal in a cage becomes an animal on a plate, and investigates the oversights and abuses of the industry as well as the alternatives to it.
Eating Animals is a consciousness-raiser. We know that there are moral and ethical problems surrounding our relationship to meat. Though many still raise animals for consumption be it just for the eggs, milk or cheese, or for the physical flesh of the animal concerned, few of us nowadays are comfortable with the idea of eating an animal that we’ve connected to, one that has a name, that we’ve seen alive before it appears on our plate. There’s a disconnect between our relationship to animals and our relationship to meat that we willfully ignore.
Eating Animals isn’t guaranteed to change that, but it employs a lot of thought-provoking methods to help us reconsider. For example, the idea of “bycatch”, a convenient euphemism for all the animals caught and killed whilst fishing for a particular species. In the average shrimp trawling operation, 80 – 90% of the animals caught are thrown back into the sea, many dead or dying, and in fishing for tuna, 145 species are often caught and killed too. Safran Foer dedicates the best part of a page to naming just a few of these, including several varieties of whale, porpoise and seabird, and four species of albatross.
The chapter on how agribusiness has disastrously increased the likelihood of pandemic diseases is fascinating and terrifying – a consideration not many of us take into account. Then there’s the environmental cost of the meat industry – the sheer amount of waste and manure produced by billions of animals; the lack of oversight and regulation thanks to the bottomless pockets of lobbyists; and then, of course, there is the flagrant abuse that occurs in factory farms: from the workers physically attacking the animals in frustration, driven almost as mad as the animals themselves by a horrific working environment, to the squalid, cramped conditions that animals, pumped full of drugs and in constant pain, live out their short lives.
Indeed, the real villain in Eating Animals is big business (a villain we can all get behind). The meat industry has been turned sour by the neoliberal mentality of conglomerates, who seek only to profit in any way they can. This is why animals suffer deformities, disease and cramped conditions; why our meat contains up to 40% “fecal water”, something I probably needn’t describe further; why 1 in 4 factory-farmed chickens can’t walk under the weight of its own genetically-altered body. Factory farming, which represents about 99% of all meat production, is a horror story and a freak show, something Safran Foer doesn’t shy away from. And it’s important to remember the meat industry cares as much about consumers as it does about animals; that is to say, it would slaughter you too for a quick buck.
A book on meat consumption risks turning into a vegetarian polemic. Safran Foer understands that the discussion needs to be more open, and so he explores both the humanity and inhumanity in the meat industry, such as the “ideal slaughterhouse” or the old-fashioned farmers who truly look after the animals and respect them. These stand in stark contrast to the brutal factory farms where abuse and inhumane treatment is systemic. Safran Foer understands that stunts like throwing blood at meat-eaters and calling anyone who eats meat a murderer is a strategy, but not one that wins you a huge amount of converts. You have to take baby steps: show people the abuse, the negative impact; point to the alternatives, even ones that involve continued meat consumption; and preach the many virtues of a less meat-heavy, more balanced diet. If you can get people to that point, you can then look at going further. Food consumption isn’t black and white, and Safran Foer demonstrates this well, giving due consideration to all sides, knowing that not everyone will be compelled towards instant vegetarianism, that some would prefer to eat meat ethically. That understanding of the need for compromise is at the heart of the book’s strength.
Eating Animals is a compelling investigation into agribusiness, carnivorousness, and the varying impacts of the industry. It’s perhaps not the most objective work, and occasionally Safran Foer, as a fiction author, moves into a more creative, pretentious style, but, for the most part, this is an incredibly valuable, thought-provoking and compelling work that asks as many important questions as it gives much-needed answers.
Food Inc. (2008)