When Jonathan Safran Foer told people he was writing a book about eating animals, "Almost always … they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism."
"It’s a telling assumption," says Foer. "One that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case."
It’s clear that the subject of if — or how — to eat meat stirs up some pretty intense feelings. After reading Eating Animals not everybody will be as motivated as Natalie Portman to choose veganism — but many will think more about what and how they eat.
Australians have a deepening fascination with food. If the 1990s were the era of the supermodel, the noughties will surely be remembered for the dominance of the master chef — on and offscreen. Once there were restaurant critics, now there are "food writers". Consumers have a growing fondness for all things home-style or hand-made. Farmers’ markets (and even supermarkets) are stuffed with "artisanal" breads, milks and cheeses. Dietary intolerances and sensitivities wreak havoc on dinner party plans. Peanuts are proscribed. It’s little wonder we can think about anything other than our next meal.
Of course, it is not all cravats and croquembouche.
Politicians and parents worry about kids getting too fat, and sometimes, too thin. Entire suburbs are raised on vitamin-enriched wonderbread while inner-city hipsters wonder about the carbon footprint of their fair-trade, single-origin soy latte. In December, the notion of "food miles" was debunked by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Apparently, food miles — or more particularly, the carbon emissions associated with the transport of fresh produce — are not a reliable indicator of environmental impact of producing and supplying food.
So, while in the 21st century it may be easy enough to recall the five basic food groups, it’s considerably more difficult to make informed decisions about what is good to eat in a more philosophic sense.
Consequently, there has been a boom in books about what might be called "food consciousness". Food consciousness doesn’t just mean thinking about food; it involves thinking about the history behind the food on your plate: Organic? Fairtrade? Macrobiotic? Biodynamic?
More specifically, food consciousness means thinking about the conscious beings that also happen to be food and, in light of this, one’s conscience when it comes to making choices about what to eat. There are a number of books that have been influential in this debate, most notably Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved tackles similar subjects but from the perspective of global economics and geopolitics.
Each has a different take on the issues at stake, but the central principle remains the same: the model which has allowed food (animal and vegetable) production to operate according to the principles of the factory line has created a horrific system of exploitation. Foer’s Eating Animals is the latest contribution to this discussion, blending straight-talking "stats and facts" with a personal history of eating as a cultural practice.
His is not, he acknowledges, a "straightforward case for vegetarianism". Foer works from an assumption that it might be possible to eat meat with ethical impunity but finds even the most reputable "heritage style" farmers fall short when it comes to animal ethics. Better known as a fiction writer, Foer is also incapable of making a straightforward case for anything. Self-aware subtleties and rhetorical questions abound.
His case is stronger when he contextualises the complications of eating meat with stories from his own life. His dog George provides an opportunity to question why it is that some people eat pigs, but not horses. Why wings, but not ears? Why is it called "animal cruelty" when a human hits a dog with a pickaxe, but it’s called "gaffing" when it’s done to a tuna. And why, of all things, would such a practice have its own genre of chicks-in-bikinis videos?
Impending fatherhood drives the inconstant vegetarian Foer to search for answers to these kinds of questions; to establish a system of beliefs by which his new family can be guided. Family is, after all, the place from which we take our first lessons about what to eat and when. It is also the place from which we learn our first history lessons. Our milestones are most often measured with meals. Foer relates the stories learned from his grandmother, a woman who developed her own homespun nutritional wisdom influenced in equal parts by her early life in Europe and the abundance of her adopted homeland, the United States.
"She taught us that animals that are bigger than you are very good for you, animals that are smaller than you are good for you, fish (which aren’t animals) are fine for you, then tuna (which aren’t fish), then vegetables, fruits, cakes, cookies and sodas. No foods are bad for you. Fats are healthy — all fats, always, in any quantity. Sugars are very healthy. The fatter a child is, the healthier it is — especially if it’s a boy. Lunch is not one meal, but three, to be eaten at 11.00, 12.30, and 3.00. You are always starving."
These domestic philosophies deserve their own book. Almost all of us, animal lovers and meat lovers alike, are drawn to the idea of the home-cooked meal as providing much more than nutritional sustenance. Foer’s point is that the problem with eating animals doesn’t have much to do with which types of animal we eat, or indeed, which parts. The problem with eating animals is everything that transpires before the meal arrives on the table.
Foer’s book could easily be retitled "Hurting Animals" since its pages are filled with often gruesome accounts of what happens before animals become drumsticks, rib-eyes or rashers. Whether fish, flesh or fowl, all are guaranteed to be involved in an unholy trinity of suffering, sickness and shit.
Foer describes the baseless cruelty witnessed at a slaughterhouse (recognised as a Supplier of the Year) supplying chickens to KFC in the United States. Workers trample the animals to death, or spray paint on them for amusement. Others are observed tearing the heads from live birds. Other instances of suffering are more systematic: animals are subjected to "stunners", "bolts", electrocution, live flayings, dismemberment and open wounds. By no means is this treatment limited to the factory farm. As Foer rightly points out, "You can torture your meat all day long and still call it organic."
Almost all animals bred for consumption have been created to produce the maximum amount of meat in the minimum time. Not only does this make them genetic monstrosities, it also makes them unwell from birth to death. Each year in the United States, livestock are fed over nine times the quantity of antibiotics doctors prescribe to humans. International health organisations acknowledge the practice directly contributes to the creation of resistant germs, or superbugs.
Unsurprisingly, tales of sickness link in rather neatly with those about shit: animals over-fed with vitamin-enriched swill leave behind huge, unmanageable quantities of manure. Excrement is not only part and parcel of the killing and butchery of animals, it also contaminates the environments where humans and factory farms are forced into close proximity.
While Foer’s book grapples with the problem of environmental sustainability in the farming of animals for food, his motivation is a search for sustainability of the philosophical sort. In the end, he never provides a definitive response to the problems that come with eating animals. Unlike philosopher Peter Singer whose book Animal Liberation compares the subjugation of animals to slavery, Foer declines to make a strident call. He concludes that vegetarianism is probably the best option, but he doesn’t venture into the thorny territory that comes with this broad designation. Vegetarians are a catholic bunch: lacto, ovo, pescatarian, etc. Many vegetarian eating habits may still involve animal suffering — free-range eggs may be widely available but hand-milked cows are harder to come by.
Is veganism the answer?
Ultimately, after all the arguments about grain-fed, free range and local food which can be employed to soothe the conscience, Foer returns to the much larger questions of desire, gratification and sacrifice. "Two friends are ordering lunch," he writes. "One says, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger’, and orders it. The other says, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger’, but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else."
Foer never explicitly connects his own family’s history of suffering and sacrifice with this resolve to look beyond the desires of "any given moment" to larger guiding principles but it’s apparent that the hypothetic burger eaters are playing out a scene reminiscent of the book’s most memorable story: Foer’s grandmother, on the run from the Nazis and close to starvation, is offered a piece of meat by a Russian farmer. She refuses. It is pork; not kosher. Foer is astonished. "But not even to save your life?" She replies, "If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save."
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