Monday, September 13, 2010

Jonathan Safran Foer: Eating Animals

When I read Novella Carpenter's "Farm City," I was annoyed and confused (did you see the awesome post about the pig shit? anon- if you're out there, you rock, and sure, you can read the book!) and also intrigued. I wasn't interested in reading Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" until I read "Farm City," because I could absolutely positively not read his famous book "Everything is Illuminated." I tried and tried and just couldn't. And that's saying something, because when I try to read a book, I usually succeed, even if I shouldn't. But "Eating Animals" is a good book, a really good book, that's making me want to read a whole lot more books. Already, today (and I just finished "Eating" this morning) I've purchased Michael Pollan's classic "Omnivore's Dilemma," which Safran Foer responds to directly with this book. And I'm considering rereading (something I never do) Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," a book that I loved, but never considered rereading. So, though Novella Carpenter annoyed me, she pushed me, and I'm glad.

First, I have to say that I keep referring to "Eating Animals" in my head and sometimes out loud as "Eating Meat." But the book is very specifically about eating *animals*- the fact that Americans eat meat as though the meat did not come from real live animals in the first place. I think it's telling that even though I'm a vegetarian, even though I have not intentionally placed any meat product in my mouth for over a decade, that the phrase "eating animals" is very linguistically difficult for me. Safran Foer is right: we have lost touch with our food. He writes
Perhaps there is no "meat." Instead, there is this animal, raised on this farm, slaughtered at this plant, sold in this way, and eaten by this person- but each distinct in a way that prevents them from being pieced together as a mosaic.

Safran Foer didn't start out intending to write a pro-vegetarian treatise, and he didn't end up writing one, either. He ends up as a vegetarian (not for the first time, but for the first time with clear reasons behind his eating choices) who supports ethical and responsible animal agriculture. He walks a line between believing in the importance of individual choices such as being a vegetarian or only eating the "right" animals (a mini-boycott, or the importance of purchasing power), and also believing in the importance of system-wide overhauls: laws with actual power over the factory farming industry, and using his influence to write a book that can hopefully shine light on what's really for dinner. It's nice to be able to see shades of gray, and it's much more convincing than some of the more prevalent arguments about eating animals, such as the animal rights folks at PeTA, and the pie-in-the-sky locavores. It also doesn't feel any more realistic, especially when confronted with the numbers that Safran Foer provides: over 99% of meat in the US comes from factory farms.

We don't just eat because we're hungry, obviously. Safran Foer drives this home, and it's what makes his book wonderful. We eat, we tell stories about eating, we nourish each other spiritually. And we don't always make choices about what we eat. We might choose what we eat in terms of what it tastes like or where to have dinner, etc, but we aren't really thinking, most of the time. If we were thinking about the animals we ate, we probably would do differently. Strangely, the discussion about ethically raising meat has become about providing a "kind death." The ethical farmers that Safran Foer finds (the very few left) are flabbergasted by this: one describes raising animals for food as a kind of deal. In exchange for the eventual death for meat, the animals should have the best lives possible while they are on the farm. This includes, but is not limited to a kind death. Unfortunately, this isn't the case in the vast majority of food animals' lives, and Safran Foer spares no details. Each detail by itself is no real surprise, but all together they're sickening. I found myself wondering something I have never done before: wondering about eliminating all meat/dairy products from my diet- i.e. becoming a vegan. (Side note: this is something that Safran Foer does not touch on at all, and I was disappointed. I'm sure the factory farming conditions for layers/dairy cattle are virtually identical, but it's relevant, nonetheless.) I was aghast at the thought, but it was That Bad.

Here's a few details that stuck in my head. The pools of shit from pig farms (the largest pork producer in the US kills 31 million pigs each year, and each pig produces 281 pounds of poop for each person. Even people like me, and I haven't eaten a pig product in close to 20 years) are, well, not just pools.
Imagine if, instead of the massive waste-treatment infrastructure that we take for granted in modern cities, every man, woman, and child in every city and town in all of California and all of Texas crapped and pissed in a huge open-air pit... all year round, in perpetuity... Children raised on the grounds of a typical hog factory farm have asthma rates exceeding 50 percent and children raised near factory farms are twice as likely to develop asthma... The impression the pig industry wishes to give is that fields can absorb the toxins in the hog feces, but we know this isn't true. Run-off creeps into waterways, and poisonous gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide evaporate into the air. When the football filed-sized cesspools are approaching overflowing [the farms] spray the liquefied manure onto filed. Or sometimes they simply spray it straight up into the air, a geyser of shit wafting fine fecal mists that create swirling gases capable of causing severe neurological damage. Communities living near these factory farms complain about problems with persistent nosebleeds, earaches, chronic diarrhea, and burning lungs.
That's right, you don't even have to eat pork to eat (pig) shit.

I was also stunned by Safran Foer's description of the fishing industry. Even wild fish are part of the factory farm game, and factory farmed fish are no better off. Fish were the last animals I crossed off of my eating list, and I think others are in this boat (think "Berkeley Vegetarian"). Safran Foer describes modern fishing in terms of war (maybe genocide is more appropriate, given the numbers- he says that for every 10 large predator fish that was in the ocean 50-100 years ago, there's one left), war in the "spirit of domination." This is how fish are caught: captains of the boats sit in rooms full of electronics, they use GPS devises and "FADs" (fish-attracting devices) to figure out when to rope in ginormous amounts of fish. When they don't get enough on the first try, they go back and try again. In just a few minutes, one vessel can haul in 50 tons of sea animals. And in a most sickening blow, most of it is "by catch." When shrimping, 80-90% of a "haul" is thrown over, either dead or almost dead, since it's not shrimp:
shrimp account for only 2% of global seafood by weight, but shrimp trawling accounts for 33% of global bycatch. We tend not to think about this because we tend not to know about it. What if there were labeling on our food letting us know how many animals were killed to bring our desired animal to our plate? So, with trawled shrimp from Indonesia, for example, the label might read: 26 POUNDS OF OTHER SEA ANIMALS WERE KILLED AND TOSSED BACK INTO THE OCEAN FOR EVERY 1 POUND OF THIS SHRIMP.
I'm not feeling good about leaving fish for last in my meat-eating days. Safran Foer's next paragraph of 145 species that are also regularly caught during tuna fishing is extremely depressing: "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."

I am not trying to ruin any one's dinner. Or lunch or life. "Eating Animals" was a strange vacation read. It was a fast book, but a disturbing book- I alternated between wanting to read it cover to cover, and not being able to stomach (eek) more than a few pages at a time. Safran Foer rightly points out that we learn from a young age that being cruel is wrong. And yet what we do when we eat is many times the product of extreme cruelty. Does not compute. If nothing else, reading the book is a wakeup call, a forced kick in the ass, a spraying of shit all over unacceptable indifference.


Jennie said...

I've been reading and loving your blog for several months now, but I am generally an awkward first time commenter and like to put it off as long as possible.

I'll lay this out there first; I'm a vegan. I would prefer it if no one ever affiliated me with PETA though.

I became a vegan about five years ago, after having been a vegetarian for over a decade. I was a strong resister for a long time, although I can't exactly remember why. If I wasn't yet a vegan, I think this is a book that would have flipped the trigger switch for me.

I think you've hit on something that people don't always talk about when a discussion of factory farming comes up, and that's the human cost of CFOs. I recently had a chance to experience some huge (10,000+ animals) pig farms in the southeast, and the devastation they cause to local human population was, well, devastating. The whole town we visited stank. It hurt my throat and my eyes. The people who hadn't yet left couldn't, and they were stuck there, inhaling toxic fumes for the rest of their lives. It was bad, and sad, and you rarely hear about it.

themacinator said...

Hey Jennie- Thanks so much for coming by :) I love your blog- going to go check it out a little more, now.

First, I should apologize for any snarky vegan comments in my post. I think PeTA has done the animal welfare and the animal rights communities a huge disservice in their stridency- those of us "in the know" or maybe "in the care" is better, have been turned off by them to such an extent that many people have turned anything they're related to into an "eye roll." This is wrong, and I should know better. One of the things that I try to do, though, is analyze my many many many faults :) So, if I eyerolled at vegan, I totally apologize, as I know that vegan does not equal PeTA, as much as PeTA works on branding everything they touch.

Second, you're totally right- I became a vegetarian for the human factor, and Safran Foer's book is a lot about the human factor- I think maybe partially because it's what worked for him. We aren't JUST eating to survive, we're eating because we can, because it's cultural, because it's pleasant. And, what we eat, how we eat, affects everything else we do. And inflicting pain is also what makes us human.

I didn't touch on the pain part of the animals, and I think, lying in bed last night and now reading your comment, that I need to write part two. Thanks again!

Jennie said...

No offense taken :) I do remember being a vegetarian and avoiding conversations and thoughts about veganism specifically because I was so annoyed and offended by PETA, so I've been there. I've come to terms with a lot of what PETA does and why they do it, but I doubt they'll ever give me a reason to become a real supporter. Anyway, vegans, like Pit Bull owners, have to grow a thick skin so I'm no longer easily offended.

I do wonder if Safran Foer's point in never really mentioning veganism was to purposefully not turn off the reader. Other books are similar in content ("Ethics of What We Eat" for example, minus the extent of the cultural aspect) but advocate more heavily for veganism by name. They have certainly not made the splash this book has.

And yay, part 2. Something to look forward to.