Two weeks ago, I wished for a longer commute to work. I had started listening to the unabridged audio edition of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals and frequently sat in the parking lot unable to leave in the middle of a captivating tale.
By last week, however, as I neared the end of the book, I could not wait for it to be over. I couldn’t wait until I no longer had to think about the grisly details of meat production in America.
The thing is, Foer is such a good writer that every word held my attention and stayed with me, and I’ve not been able to shake a feeling of grave concern ever since.
I’m no activist. I’ve not even been able to tell my family or best friend to stop eating factory-farmed meat, and yet I’m convinced it’s one of the most important things every American could do right now — for the economy, for the environment, and for our collective health (Foer links recent epidemics to factory farming), as well as for our own individual well-being.
The book is beguiling. It begins with spellbinding, heartwarming tales, about Foer’s dog, his first son, and his grandmother. Foer writes about George, a girl dog, and how one glance at her changed him from a person who did not like dogs — not one bit — to a person who loves dogs, especially this one, a lot.
George stands as an example of both animal intelligence and animal mystery. During one chapter about the economic and ecological logic of eating dogs for meat and why it is taboo in American culture, Foer interrupts his writing to say that right then, as he drafted that chapter, George appeared in the doorway and stared at him for a long time, then left. He wonders at her dog-sense and what she knows, doesn’t know, and how she perceives the world. She offers glimmers of humor throughout the first part of the book.
In describing his transformation from average guy to Soon-To-Be-Dad, Foer lists the random things he does in order to prepare: changing light bulbs around the house, getting a physical exam, filing papers, even having his glasses adjusted. He’s an exuberant dad-to-be, and he starts to wonder how he should feed his child. That question leads him on a three-year study of meat in America and is the reason for the book.
Most powerful to me, however, was one story about Foer’s grandmother, whom he and his siblings called “The Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived” — even though she made just one dish: chicken with carrots. His grandmother was a Jew who survived World War II and the Holocaust by fleeing Europe alone, barefoot for some of the journey, starving and sick the whole way.
One day, a farmer sees her, and in a moment of generosity and great personal risk, he offers her some meat. The grandmother tells Foer that she didn’t take the meat. Why not? Foer asks, shocked. She’s starving, trying to live on rotten potatoes she hides at the bottom of her pant legs. The meat offered was pork. Observant Jews don’t eat pork, and even in that moment of life or death, she declined the meat. She tells Foer that if she eats the pork, she has nothing left to stand for, and without that, what’s the point of living?
I wondered when I heard the story if I’d have the same fortitude, the same discipline and dedication. I decided that I would not, that I would eat the pork in order to make it another day and do better in the future.
After hearing the rest of the book, however, after learning more of the realities of meat production in America (with the same systems rapidly spreading to China and India), I believe that I would have such fortitude. Even if starving and sick and living on rotten potatoes, I would not accept an offer of factory-farmed meat.
The thing is, I don’t eat factory-farmed meat. I don’t eat any meat, for that matter. I’ve been nearly vegan for a few years now. However, the facts about factory farms and industrialized slaughterhouses and their rampant destruction of the environment, rural communities, and Americans’ health, as well as the abuse of animals and human workers, made me realize that not eating meat or dairy is not enough. It doesn’t protect me from the maladies caused by this system of meat production at all. If I lived near a concentrated animal feed operation, I, too, would have headaches, asthma, and nosebleeds, and I’d risk breathing in air filled with fecal material from overfull manure lagoons, sprayed into the air to dissipate.
I used to think that if factory farms and industrialized slaughterhouses were shut down overnight, the world, or at least America, would not have enough to eat. I told myself that these methods must be necessary, at least for now. But Foer proves this is not true.
In fact, the system is incredibly inefficient and wasteful. Large percentages of animals (chickens, pigs, cows) get sick just before slaughter — downers, they’re called — and go to waste. The wastefulness starts early. Something like 30 percent of turkey chicks die before they even make it to the factory farm designed to grow them as fast and fat as possible.
The obvious had escaped me, too. Out of the dazzlingly variety of chickens in the world, America produces two kinds, one for eggs and one for meat. That didn’t sound horrible to me at first, but then I’d not thought to question what happens to the 50 percent of the “laying chickens” that are male. Obviously, they produce no eggs, but they’re not used for meat either. They’re killed, or often simply dumped into bins to eventually get crushed or suffocate.
Even if I could disassociate myself from the fact of animal suffering, which is reason enough in my mind to raise animals better, this factory system is simply wasteful. It views animals and human workers as part of the machine, and speed and profit are all that matter.
How something can be so wasteful and yet so profitable is hard for me to understand.
For example, shrimp are one of the worst creatures to eat because of the wasteful, destructive way they are caught. Foer writes that 80 to 90 percent of a shrimp haul is “bycatch” — dead or dying sea animals caught along with the shrimp, animals such as dolphins, sea turtles, gulls, seahorses, whales . . . some 145 other species!
The method might be more efficient in that more shrimp are collected faster, but the waste and destruction are outrageous. How can anyone, person or corporation, justify that much waste, that much death, even if it yields more of the one desired item?
I worry that I’m being nostalgic, unrealistic, or afraid of progress, but I long for the “old days” when animals were raised in smaller numbers by families and small collectives, when cows ate grass outside, pigs rooted around and made nests for their young, and chickens pecked and squawked most anywhere they pleased.
But I know I’m not alone. I am teaching a humanities class about food right now, and although they did not read this book, my students have started to question food production and have done their own reading, research, and questioning. They don’t want factory-farmed meat either.
Some of them feel helpless, like this is what is provided, so this is what we have to eat. Others realize that every dollar spent is a vote, and they do not want to vote for this kind of food.
So what does the “average” consumer do? Foer says that trying to eat fewer factory-farmed animals is not enough. We have to stop completely if we want to save rural America, the environment, and our own health.
But do most of us have the time, money, and energy to find alternative meat? When farmers’ markets are open, most, if not all, include meat options from local folks who know their animals and raise them naturally. It’s even possible to buy local meat raised by neighbors or not-so-distant neighbors who care for their animals, let them live and eat naturally, and maybe even love their animals — all things factory farming and industrialized slaughter do not allow.
At worst, changing to locally, naturally, and yes, even lovingly raised meat means not eating fast food, not ordering meat at restaurants unless you know it’s from a safe source, finding room in your freezer to store meat, and cooking and eating meat at home.
Truthfully, none of this sounds particularly difficult, much of it is pleasurable, and all of it is better for our bodies, minds, and wallets. I am starting to feel hopeful that we consumers can change the way meat is produced in America, that we can set a good example, that maybe progress means returning to the old, tried, and true.
I know I’ve made this book sound like the last thing you want to read, but it’s important. With the exception of Americans who are working hard only to barely to scrape by, we consumers have a deep and unfulfilled obligation. Our grocery stores, refrigerators, restaurants, and dinner tables offer us most any food we want, most any time, in as much abundance as we desire. What we eat shapes the world, not just our own country.
It’s important that we make choices that are in our best individual interests in terms of health, wellness, budget, and taste, but it’s our obligation to think about how our choices affect our neighbors — near and distant.
Trista Cornelius teaches writing and literature at Clackamas Community College in Oregon. When she’s not reading and writing about food, she’s busy eating it, growing it, and cooking it.
Related book: Eating Animals
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