Wednesday, November 25, 2009
EATING LIKE ANIMALS
Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" has received a massive amount of publicity. Here's my review of it, done for the San Francisco Chronicle. If I'd known it was going to be such a media sensation, I suspect I might have been a bit harder on it.
Jonathan Safran Foer
Reviewed by Geoff Nicholson
In World War Two Jonathan Safran Foer’s Jewish grandmother crossed Europe, barefoot and starving, one step ahead of the Nazis. A Russian farmer took pity on her and offered her a piece of pork. She wouldn’t eat it even to save her life, her reasoning being, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
With stories like this told around the dinner table, it’s hardly surprising that Foer has some deep and complex feelings about the role of food in culture and family. Once a wishy-washy vegetarian, now a fully committed one, he dates the origins of this book, and his concern with the morality of eating meat, to the birth of his son. He spent three years immersed in “animal agriculture,” visiting farms, talking to activisits, farmers, scientists, and in one case a vegan builder of slaughterhouses, all the time asking “what are the economic, social and environmental effects of eating animals?”
Much of the book describes and condemns factory farms, which Foer tells us produce all but one per cent of American meat. It won’t come as news that terrible things happen in these places, but Foer reports that things are worse than most of us ever imagined.
For example he describes how slaughtered chickens, some of them diseased, “leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces.” are dropped together into a massive tank of refrigerated water. The liquid in these tanks is known as “fecal soup.” Once in the tank, the chickens soak up the liquid, getting heavier and therefore adding to their value (or at least price). Many of us have balked at paying extra for chickens plumped up with water: the fact is we’re paying extra for fecal soup.
I wish this were the worst, most revolting fact that Foer receals. It isn’t, by many means. Much of the book is a catalogue of the horrors factory farmed animals endure, and also of the casual sadism of many who work in the industry. On grounds of basic decency this would be objectionable enough, but the process harms humans as well as animals. Factory farms create pollution, are partly responsible for global warming, and play a huge role in the spread of mutant pathogens, as well as multiple diseases including swine flu. This, Foer suggests, is a very high price to pay for cheap meat.
In his novels Foer is a witty and ironic writer, and Eating Animals contains a few nice literary touches. He describes modern fishing methods that scoop up vast quantities of unwanted fish, which are then discarded. He writes, “Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.”
Before long however, the sheer horror of his subject makes wit and irony unsustainable. There are extensive passages in this book that some people are not going to be able to stomach.
Set against factory farming are “ethical farmers” such as Nicolette and Bill Niman (once but no longer owners of Niman Ranch) and Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry. These are certainly the “good guys” when it comes to raising meat, and many of us see this as a way forward. But for Foer it isn’t enough.
His book is ultimately a work of moral philosophy. Having made us long for humane farming methods, he then concludes that ethically there’s no such thing. Even the most humane farmers still castrate, brand or remove the tails of animals. All farmers are ultimately involved in killing. If I understand Foer correctly, he believes all that is immoral, and considers vegetarianism the only ethical option. Since we don’t have to kill animals to survive, then we simply shouldn’t.
Clearly the majority of us aren’t going to agree with him on this, and he doesn’t expect us to. However, the fact that he makes me wonder whether I’m being, at best, a hypocrite every time I eat a piece of beef, suggests he’s completely successful in at least one his ambitions. He writes, “We need a way that brings meat to the center of public discussion in the same way it is often at the center of our plates.” After reading this book, it’s hard to disagree.
Incidentally a brace of cornish game hens from Good Shepherd Poultry will cost you $94, but that does include postage.