Saturday, December 26, 2009

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals is kind of a 'tough love' sort of a book. It's not a lecture and it's not a rant. It's different than most books about vegetarianism. Foer wants to put the facts out there and let you make the decision. He writes this book under the assumption that once people have all of the information, they'll make the choice that's right for them. And I agree. There are people out there who will never care about animal cruelty, or will care, but still tell themselves there is nothing they can do. Those people are a lost cause and the book wasn't written for them. It was written for people who do have enough will power to make changes in their lives. This book is for people who know that the choices they make affect everyone around them.

Foer started to think about vegetarianism (and this book) when he started to think about being a father. Like so many people he had wanted to be a vegetarian for years and had struggled with it his whole life. He knew it was the right thing to do, but still couldn't manage to do it. He cared about animals, but he also cared about eating whatever tasted good to him. When he realized he was to become a father, his food choices suddenly started to matter. He was to set an example for his son. He was going to be a role model and he wanted to be a good one.

Foer tries very hard to get all angles of the argument. He gets letters from activists of all kinds, factory farmers, family farmers, a vegan who designs slaughter houses, a vegetarian who raises beef cattle. Of course these contradictions annoy me, but they also make me really think about what the goal is. Is the goal to stop animal cruelty, or stop animal slavery? Is the goal to cause less suffering, or no suffering? At the end of the day do these people feel good about the choices they have made? Do they think they are making a difference? Do they really feel happy about the lives they are leading? If they do, maybe they are doing more good than harm. Maybe they are on the best path they can be on. Of course to me, and to Foer, any harm at all is enough reason not to eat meat (most of these family farmers still brand their cattle, and all of them send their animals to slaughter houses. None of these animals ever grow to full adulthood).

My favorite part of this book was the chapter of definitions. Several pages with common animal farming terms put into plain (and sometimes hilarious) English. Even though I read heavily on the subject of food, there are so many things in this book I had never heard before, so many good points that had yet to be made. Are you aware that cattle are often fed ground up cats and dogs that are euthanized at shelters? That pigs become so distressed in their living conditions that even a tractor driving by outside (they are kept inside for their whole lives) can cause them to fall over and die of fright?

He ends the book with Thanksgiving. To have a turkey, or not to have a turkey? He talks about tradition, culture, family history, values. He talks about the origins of thanksgiving and the history of the turkey as a center piece. He points out that the turkey doesn't make Thanksgiving. It's the coming together, the family, the thankfulness. The truth is, having a dead, mutated, genetically altered, abused carcass as the center to a holiday about charity is a gross contradiction and he sees that. The turkey doesn't make his holiday table.

My only criticism of this book is this: like Micheal Pollan (who he chastises for doing just this), Foer doesn't address his own contradictions. Not once does he mention the dairy industry. Not once. He talks a bit about laying hens, but not enough to actually point out that eating chicken eggs is just as bad as eating chicken meat (if not worse because at least boiler hens are not kept in battery cages). He lets himself completely off the hook. The entire book is dedicated to the problems with factory farming, but that's where more of our dairy comes from, and almost all of our eggs. If he finds issues even with the family farms in his book (which he does), than how does he explain his consumption of dairy and eggs? I kept waiting for him to address this, but it never comes up.

So yes, I loved this book. I think it's a wonderful starting point. A well written starting point. But it is just a start. I wanted it to go further.