Book Review

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

In America alone, 281 pounds of pig shit is produced for every one person per year. I don’t know if that’s a lot as I don’t know what a pound is.

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You remember Jonathan Safran Foer, right? He was that shit-hot young novelist who pumped out two phenomenal books about a decade ago, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

They’re both great. I’m sure you’ve read them.

Since those two novels (2002 and 2005), though, Safran Foer has been a little quiet. He published a non-fiction book, Eating Animals, way back in 2009, then Tree of Codes with Visual Editions (I am yet to read, but am keen now I’ve read Street of Crocodiles, from which it draws) in 2010, but for several years now he’s been putting off his third novel, which is finally out in September.

Jonathan Safran Foer is someone I’ve been waiting years to read more of, and unable to wait the final few months until his new book is released, I went back in time and picked up a copy of Eating Animals. I did not get the book I expected.

It’s fashionable, isn’t it, and it has been for a while, for writers who’re broadly considered cool (or at least have strong brand traction) to publish collections of essays. These often start off as pieces published in magazines and newspapers and journals and blogs that then get expanded into something more literary at a later date. The obvious ones – i.e. the people who are good at it – are David Foster Wallace and Geoff Dyer, but this was a publishing pattern for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence and loads of other examples I haven’t held in my physical two hands. I thought Eating Animals was going to be one of those.

I knew that Safran Foer was/is a fervent vegetarian but hadn’t always been, and I also knew that his literary interests in America and American issues might make the topics he chose to write about a little too “yeehaw” for my tastes. However, as I’ve recently been getting well into non-fiction, I thought I’d give Eating Animals a try. The book, not the act. As someone who can’t really see the moral difference between eating a pork sausage and eating the spleen of a woman who worked as a prostitute*, I knew there’d be at least one topic in the book that I would have some relation to. Turns out, though, that this isn’t a collection of essays, but a single long form piece on a single topic. This isn’t a book trading off literary celebrity, but is instead a deeply researched and deeply felt text exploring a serious issue with all the force due to it. This is a text all about Eating Animals, and the whole filthy, dirty, cruel and inhumane practices of the factory farm model. Lots of this book is, frankly, disgusting.

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Let’s get the confessions out of the way.

I have been a vegetarian for exactly 10 years in a month and two days. In that time I have knowingly eaten meat on a handful of occasions, but have almost certainly eaten it in ignorance on many more, because vegetarianism isn’t easy.

I ate a small amount of fish in Morocco in 2013 because I was in the middle of nowhere and it was the only food available. Very quickly the guilt and shame cleared my hunger so I did not eat the portion.

I ate a slice of sheep brain in Istanbul in 2015 because I was curious and because it was sheep brain and I wanted to see it, and if I was ordering and paying for it, I thought I should try a bite. It was foul.

In 2014 I ate a duck breast out of extreme social awkwardness in Paris, and this is the one I have remorse for.

And, finally,way back in the years I was “researching” falling into a suicidal, self-medicating, depression, I cooked and ate some pork sausages one Sunday morning because I felt like all sense of who and what I was had been lost and that the continuation of my vegetarianism was a false gesture pretending the “I” I was living as had anything to do with the “I” I’d always been. I hated myself and wanted to do another act to be disgusted and remorseful about.

Eating meat is significant for me, hence the ease with which I can roll off these discretions. Regrets, I’ve had a few.

On none of these occasions was a pleasure gained from the food that was greater than the lift of guilt-free consumption I’m used to. I am engaged enough with myself to not eat meat because I know it’s the right choice for me. The big risk, the horrible risk, the dangerous risk, is that reading Eating Animals may well have made me the kind of vegetarian who thinks vegetarianism is the right choice for everyone.**

Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

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Reading the book in Santiago de Compostela, where I finished my recent pilgrimage.

Jonathan Safran Foer became a father, and prompted by this he began an investigation into modern farming. With his son’s nutrition as a central concern and a personal history of in-and-out, faddy vegetarianism behind both him and his then wife, Safran Foer was in the perfect place to investigate and then respond to his findings. His research took him three years and involved travel all over the country (Born in the U.S.A.) to farms and slaughterhouses and offices; it involved interviews with executives, activists, politicians, labourers, farmers, academics and scientists; and it involved a huge amount of reading, the bibliographic notes are almost a quarter of the length of the main text.

It cannot be argued that Safran Foer doesn’t know what he’s writing about, and it cannot be argued that he doesn’t move towards all of his conclusions organically and based on a measured – and consistent – response to all the evidence he encounters. Eating meat is not inherently wrong***, Safran Foer writes, which is an opinion shared by a lot of the “less radical” pro-animal welfare activists that he encounters. However, he believes that right now, while factory farming is so prevalent, any purchase of meat creates a market demand for meat which results in more lower quality, lower end, meat production. And that kind of meat production has a moral cost that is too high to condone.

I don’t want to overload you with facts or gory details, but Safran Foer does, so here’s a taster:

  • As you know, animal farming is the biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and thus global warming, but that’s abstract and we can ignore that.
  • In America alone, 281 pounds of pig shit is produced for every one person per year. I don’t know if that’s a lot as I don’t know what a pound is.
  • When cows are processed in a slaughterhouse, they are knocked unconscious with a bolt gun (like in No Country for Old Men, only it’s not enough to kill a cow) and immediately after that they have their head skinned and their legs hacked off at the shin. It is common for cows to remain conscious, and the reason why they want them unconscious rather than dead at this stage is so the heart still pumps to get the blood out more quickly once it’s hung up to drain.
  • This, the consciousness thing, is even more of a problem in pig and chicken factories, in fact industrially farmed cows get the best deal.
  • Chickens often have their heads pulled off by hand.
  • Newborn chicks often get their beaks cut off with a hot knife, no anaesthetic, to keep them more docile.
  • Commercially bred turkeys can no longer breed naturally, they cannot mate.
  • Neither can chickens.
  • Most chickens are killed when about 40 days old.
  • Birds kept in factory conditions are pumped full of antibiotics to stop them from dying before term, but the germs keep mutating and getting stronger, and some of these diseases humans are susceptible to too, meaning that industrial farming is making our medicine invalid.
  • Pigs are definitely as clever as dogs, and if they are stressed at death their meat is of a lower quality.
  • At the end of chicken production lines all carcasses are soaked in water, meaning that a) cross-contamination occurs and b) water is absorbed as extra weight that the consumer is, obviously, charged for.
  • Animals that die early on in the process, and many do, are either discarded as waste for landfill OR are sent to processing plants where they become the main ingredients in food for farm animals.

And then we’ve got all the stuff about trawling for shrimp, and tuna fishing, and statistics about the number of unwanted, caught, fishes that are thrown back dead into the water that would make your eyes burn.

Safran Foer goes into Moby Dick levels of detail about carcass processing, and he also looks into the reality of direct, non-process-justified animal abuse that goes on, something the industry acknowledges as a problem, but hasn’t fixed. I.e. beating animals to death with pipes, electrocuting pigs in the anus or vagina just for a laff, or cutting out an eye to emphasise status differences.

Yeah, it’s horrible.

Yeah, it’s horrendous.

Factory farming is aggressive and knowingly cruel, and I agree with Safran Foer that most people, when they consider it, find it repulsive. Most people, though, then forget all about it and go eat a burger.

For me, it was the particular memory of a video showing 20 pigs being sliced in half by automated circular saws that stuck with me until I finally grew up enough to change my diet.

Each one, steel spikes through the end of its limbs like a porcine christ, spun up to the vertical then split thru, another one taking its place immediately.

It terrified me because it was real. It terrified me because it was what I feared went on and knew I had to forget if I wanted sausages. And when I was a child I thought wanting sausages was important.

It’s not, of course it’s not.

Then again, I found it easy to uncouple from an omnivorous diet because I came from a non-affluent background and didn’t have a very developed food culture growing up. I have never, for example, eaten a steak. And I don’t think I’ve had venison. Certainly there are things that meat eaters rave about that I’ve never experienced, so I do sometimes wonder if vegetarianism is easier for me due to having had a childhood diet over-reliant on cheap, factory-farmed meat.

Safran Foer didn’t have that experience. His father was a foodie and an experimental cook at home, and Safran Foer pursued food as an interest when an adult. It is something he has engaged with as a meat eater and as its opposite. His long-term vegetarianism is not a decision he has taken lightly. This text displays a firm decision-making process, we watch as SF becomes convinced of his ideas, and every time he learns or sees something horrific, he balances it out with a discussion about ethical farming, and gives voice to lots of the viewpoints in the arguments thru first person monologues. The PETA opinion is expectedly extreme, but there are also lots of activists who work with non-factory farmers to promote methods of animal husbandry that still recognise the living essence of the beasts.

Animals are not machines, which is how they are treated in factory farming, and SF names and praises practitioners and companies that are moving towards more humane and more “artisanal” meat production. One hopes that in the seven years since this book was published that smaller scale farming has continued to expand, but as appetites for meat in rapidly growing countries increases, a dip in America and Europe is nothing compared to China and India’s gains…

And that is Safran Foer’s key point, people eat too much meat. Every person who eats less, ideally none, is an assault upon the people who invest in and live off cruel industrial farming practice. The demand for cheap meat is high, and this is what needs to change because it is, in the very long term, unsustainable. The greenhouse gases and the shit, the psychological cost that comes from people violently slaughtering animals on a daily basis (another factlet is that the average industrial slaughterhouse has an annual staff turnover rate of over 100 per cent, which means ON AVERAGE, not one person can stand to work there for a whole 12 months). The meat is low quality, in taste tests it always does badly compared to animals that are treated better, and when the whole justification is food it should matter whether or not it’s even good food.

Industrialised farming is about big business and big money, and as such will continue for as long as it’s massively profitable. So, argues JSF, let’s make it as unprofitable as quickly as possible, let’s drive down demand for meat and let’s make people aware of the production line of their dindins.

Alas, meat is so socially normalised and people are so used to repressing a consciousness of its source that the ask being made is huge. And coming from within the liberal elite, in a book only the liberal elite are ever going to read, Eating Animals isn’t going to convert anyone to vegetarianism who doesn’t want to be converted. If anything, SF makes quite a strong case for, as he calls it, “selective omnivorism”, as in when people eat meat but only from ethical sources. This is valueless, though, he states VERY aggressively, if it is not kept up constantly. Every slip, every purchase of factory farmed meat or eggs, every single time money goes towards the factory farmers, they are legitimised. And SF believes, I think rightly, than one is far more likely to slip up and eat a “cheeky” crap burger if one is used to eating “good” ones, than if one is used to eating chickpea patties.

I thought the book was great, engaging and informative and with a strong moral centre. However, I’m a long term vegetarian with a weird, detached, interest in meat, so I’m about as much a dream demographic as this publication could have. I don’t know if it would change minds, because I was already on the same side, and able to peer through covered eyes at something I know I’m not a part of.

Then again, I’m not a vegan, so I could always be more ethical – I don’t make sure any food I buy with eggs or cheese in promise high levels of animal welfare at source…

It’s difficult to do, to change your diet, but it’s important that these horrendous practices are kept in the light so that people can make informed choices about their food. And if some people genuinely don’t care about the environmental damage, the physical violence, the severe health risk of mutating bird flu viruses, then that’s fair enough, but Hope in the future should be equivalently shrunk.

I’d recommend Eating Animals, but I’d recommend giving up meat, which I know most people don’t want to do.

Open your eyes. Open this book.

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* I’m almost, but not quite, exaggerating for effect. The tell is my use of the phrase “woman who worked as a prostitute”. The more reactionary and provocative I’m being in one direction, the more likely I am to check my levels of offence elsewhere. That’s the closest I get to balance.

** Other things I think are the right choice for everyone: read more books, get the drinking under control, cut down the coke, watch Game of Thrones (it’s great, you’ll enjoy it), keep it up with the exercise and make an effort at work because it could be very rewarding for you. Actually, that’s quite specific advice I gave to a friend recently, but most of it applies universally. (Aside: Is the cocaine trade ethically worse than the meat trade? THAT’S a Vice article waiting to be written. If any of you pitch that before I do I’ll be livid.)

*** This would be a central question in the article proposed in the previous footnote. I should be putting notes about this into an email, not here.

1 comment on “Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

  1. Pingback: Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl – The Triumph of the Now

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