Monday, January 3, 2011

Book Review: Eating Animals

Books about industrialized factory farms make me sad, ashamed, angry. Horrified. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer made me all of those things, but it also made me laugh, entertained me, and in the end it gave me a number of reasons to hope that things will change.

The book is generating a big buzz, and I strongly recommend it. If you eat meat, love eating meat, and want to continue eating meat, I'd especially recommend it because it is stuff you particularly should know, both for yourself and the world. (If I’ve lost you already and you read no further, it all boils down to what we all are re-awakening to: support your local farmers.)

What Foer does so effectively is bridge the gap between meat eater and veg-head by showing the full impact of industrial-scale farming. He goes beyond animal welfare to our own health and the health of the planet. The effects of this scale of farming are of equal importance regardless of your dietary choices. He discusses, among other things: the origin of avian and swine flu from factory farms; how the meat is from stressed, sick, medicated animals (it is less profitable to raise healthy animals); the shockingly unsustainable levels of pollution (just one company, leading U.S. pork producer Smithfield, produces the same waste every day as does all of New York and California’s populations – and of course it isn't treated); and greenhouse gas producing emissions (animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined).

So, even if you don’t give a pig’s curly tail about animal welfare, there is much else to be concerned about.

Eating Animals is a provocative title. It plainly expresses the truth underlying what we prefer to state as “eating meat”. The animal part, the part that was once alive and could look us in the eyes, we might not think of at all, or we might take comfort in assuming the animal had a good life, a happy, comfortable life, and a swift end. That's what farms used to provide, up until very recently. They still exist, of course, but in such diminishing numbers that in the United States, according to Foer, 99% of meat eaten is now industrially farmed. (I don’t know the corresponding stat for Canada, but suspect and hope it is lower.) Increasingly we know that the image we have in our heads of an idyllic farm is a far cry from the reality that the majority of farm animals now live. As Foer puts it, "We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film."

Farms like we imagine them to be - which are ethical, sustainable, and proud of the quality of life they provide to their animals - would welcome you seeing their facilities and animals. I live in a region with a lot of small farms like this and I hope it stays that way. In contrast, the majority of meat comes from ridiculously high-volume facilities that are locked up like Fort Knox because they don't want you to see the show, and that's telling.

Until I was about twelve, I lived on our family farm, and our animals had a good life. I talked to them, scratched their heads, gave them names. And then we ate a lot of them. I hid when it was time to kill the chickens. My chickens, as I thought of them. I couldn't face it then, and I can't face it now. But at the same time - and this is important to me - I greatly respect my father for having the courage to do the dirty work of killing, motivated by love for us, to get them on our plates. He tells me now how awful he found it, how he dreaded it for days leading up to it. I realized on some level very early on that to match his integrity, for me it would have to be in the opposite way - by not eating what I couldn't face.

Even so, it took me years to go from occasional meat eater who didn't want to refuse anyone's dinner offerings, to vegetarian. Then, of course, because nothing is ever that simple, about five seconds later I realized that all the reasons I didn't want to eat meat applied just as much to non-meat animal products like eggs and dairy. These choices I make, my votes in how to live my life, feel right to me, and are an ongoing journey. I face my own inconsistencies when I eat cheese, when I feed our pets, or when I smuck a bunny into oblivion on my way to pick up a veggie pizza.

I'm not even entirely comfortable with the labels of vegetarian or vegan, because to me they are trumped by the fact that I will always remain an omnivore. More to the point, many veggies, in their passion, have done a disservice by painting it as an all-or-nothing proposition. (Case in point: Foer’s runaway bestseller is likely to create more change than any other single person is possible to accomplish, yet I’ve read reviews that blast him for not being vegan. Boot to the head!) Foer contrasts this with people’s actions towards other eco-friendly initiatives. No one is an all-or-nothing environmentalist; we just try to do our part and our best to improve. In any movement, ten people who change by half are far more impactful than one who is pure and perfect.

Meat eater and vegetarian respecting each other's choices, like my Dad and I do, is the necessary bedrock of the solution that this book offers. If all farms were like we all want them to be and used to be, then the story would end there. If you can look a pig in the eye and then enjoy it on your plate, I have nothing to say to that. But if you assume the pig had a certain kind of life in making that transaction palatable, then you are likely being horribly misled. Killing animals for food isn’t pretty, but most people accept it when it is done in a certain way. But are these factories - where suffering is offered in place of a healthy life, and so many unsustainable and damaging costs arise from the “cheap” meat they produce - acceptable?

One of the first things you find out when you stop eating meat is that many people will give you "advice". For the piles I’ve received, I feel justified in offering some back: Find out more about where your food comes from, and based on what you find, support what feels right to you. This book goes a long way to providing the motivation to do that.


Buttons said...

Sara I love the way you explain both sides so eloquently. I will have to read this book. I am like your Father in many ways. I respect the way people choose to live there lives. Thank you for opening all our eyes.

Sara said...

Thank you, Buttons. I found it hard to write. I would love to know what you think of the book.

Buttons said...

I think the hardest things for one to write, have the most impact. I will look for the book. I will let you know.

Sue said...

Sounds like a book I'd like to read thanks for doing a mini review of it. It's quite a topic right up there with religion and policitcs for the most part. It's hard enough explaining to people why I feed my dogs raw let alone why one is a vegetarian or vegan.

Sara said...

Hey Sue,
Yeah, food can really get people riled up.
re raw pet food...the only answer you need: wolf! :)

Derrick said...

Great review. I know you've thought about this post for a while, but you said it very well.

Boy does that sound familiar Sue!

JD said...

I will look it up. It reminds me a bit of the issues described in the movie "Food Inc.", although the movie wasn't just about animals but rather about the whole food industry. There are some appalling things happening in the "veggie" side as well, with genetically-engineered crops and large companies basically strong-arming farmers into using their seeds. As you said, we need to be aware of where the food comes from.

Sara said...

Re crop agriculture, that's for sure, JD. Scary stuff indeed. Lots of good info out there on the crazy stuff that is going on with our food. Monsanto sucks.

lonerunman said...

Nice review, Sara, I haven't heard of this book but will try and check it out. Coincidentally, my wife and I just re-watched "The Future of Food" last night, which touches on some of the same topics.
The industrialisation of food production, and meat in particular, is the main reason we switched to a mainly-veggie diet supplemented occasionally with organic/naturally-raised meats. There is just so much that is bad about where food comes from these days, but more and more people are slowly becoming aware of that and it is great to see local food, farmers markets, CSA's, etc becoming so popular.

p.s. agreed on Monsanto :-)

Sara said...

Thanks Bruce. Sounds great the approach you and your wife have taken.

Derrick, you are the only one I havent replied to. (We talk all the time, I'm not ignoring him!)

Sank said...

Hey Sara, If I ever actually finish Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (great book, but tiny print on 1100 pages is killing me), I am putting this on my "To Read" list. I am a meat-eater, who loves it, but like to think I am open to new ideas or at least hear the other side.
Thanks so much for the post. I'll let you know what I think.

Sara said...

Thank you, Sank. I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

KarenM said...

Thanks for waving the pigs curly tail, Sara! I am behind you as always on my personal little journey in this world! You are helping me move from occasional meat eater to an renewed commitment to my garden and a spokesperson (although I cannot compete with Julianne here) for the animals!
I take it back, will get her(us) the book!

Sara said...

Thanks, Karen. :) We're lucky to have a lot of good, healthy choices where we live.

Sara said...

It really means a lot to me how supportive everyone has been, those who commented or emailed me. I didn't reach all of the same conclusions as the author, and I'm sure you won't either as it's a very personal thing and we all end up in different places based on a zillion variables. Everyone's pov is valid.

Writing this review was hard, but so useful to me in helping me solidify how I felt, and has therefore given me a lot of peace. There have been times in the last several years where I almost wished I could 'un-know what I know', to find that peace, but that kind isn't possible and this kind is far better.

I want to also point out that while I only mentioned my Dad, the rest of my family helped him and they go under the same category. (Myself, I plucked one feather, once.) My Mom is also the best gardener in the world and I am so lucky to have had that experience growing up as well. This whole paragraph is for my Mom, so she knows how awesome I think she is. :)

p.s. Buttons, what you said about the hardest things having the most impact floored me. Thank you for pointing that out....What a great piece of wisdom to start the year with, and it is exactly what I needed to hear (in a lot of ways).

Buttons said...

Sara I love your comment. I think for your young age you are filled with a lot of old age wisdom. Your Mom and Dad are very proud of you I am positive of that.

Aliza Lapierre said...

Thanks for this post. I use to be a huge eat meat eater and then by accident became a vegetarian. I am now a vegan because I could personally no longer overlook the food industries down fall. I also could no longer play naive to what was on my plate. My husband and I raised chickens with the hope that I could become a part of the process and be more comfortable with the idea of eating an actual animal and eggs. I immediately named all the "girls" and they became a part of the family and they are still running around the yard.

I will be sticking to veggies, but do believe that everyone is entitled to their own views. My husband is a meat eater and that is his choice. We are all different, but I too encourage people to open their eyes to reality.

Sara said...

Thanks, Aliza. That's pretty interesting about the chickens. I just found your blog yesterday and was happy to see you had one. Looking forward to reading it more.