Friday, 5 March 2010

Book Review: Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer

Read: January 2010

Eating Animals in one tweet-sized chunk:
Eating Animals is about the stories we tell about the food we eat. But also the gaps between the stories we tell and the stories as they actually are.

“Stories about food are stories about us - our history and our values.”

When I sat down to write this review I did so with 16 pages of notes and ambitions to compose a review that would change the eating habits of every person who read it. Only such lofty goals, I felt, could do justice to a book that casts the debate around the meat industry in a fresh light.

But what I soon realised as I considered how to achieve this gargantuan feat, was that the brilliance of Eating Animals is the extraordinary realism Foer injects into the debate. His master-stroke is to get away from the all-or-nothing vegetarian versus carnivore debate in favour of a third way, a way that promotes a reduction in our collective consumption of meat to a level that is conducive to stable and lasting farming practices. This is not a fundamentalist case for vegetarianism, or a moralistic case against eating meat per se, but an exploration of why the choices we make about what we eat matter – to ourselves, the animals we do or don’t eat, the planet, and the lives of all those who inhabit it.

Those who have enjoyed either of Foer’s sublime novels – Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – will find the same inventiveness is at play here, alongside a familiar appreciation that what matters most is not facts and figures but the stories that surround them. He lets a factory farmer speak for himself, devotes an entire chapter to a debate between a farmer, his vegetarian wife, and a vegan PETA activist. He has an inherent understanding that there is no such thing as unequivocal truth, merely lots of different stories that collectively make up a whole.

Eating Animals is about the stories we tell about the food we eat. It is about their importance to our communal experiences of eating, our cultural ways of life. But it is also about the gaps between the stories we tell ourselves and the stories as they actually are. And it is about the stories we want to tell about ourselves in the future.

These stories begin with Foer himself. Having spent the first twenty-six years of his life disliking animals and oscillating between vegetarian and omnivore, between feeling guilty about eating animals and savouring the taste and smell of meat, the prospect of becoming a father made him reconsider the person he wanted to be. Taking his cue from Michael Pollan’s assertion in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that “eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing,” and faced with the responsibility of deciding what to feed someone more important than himself, Foer set out to understand what sort of repercussions the decision to eat meat had. But what started as a curious bit of research soon grew into a mission to expose factory farming and the culture of cheap food that drives it. He joins an animal rights activist in breaking into a factory farm under cover of darkness, and what troubles him most is not the horrific living conditions of the birds, though they are bad enough, but the secrecy, the locked doors and hi-tec surveillance.

“In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.”

Above all else Eating Animals is a bid to burst open that secrecy and end the whole barbaric practice of factory farming once and for all. Part investigative journalism, part scientific study, and told through a variety of literary mediums, it is difficult not to be convinced by the passion and conviction of his arguments and the panache with which he conveys them. Of all the arguments in the book it is the assertion that what we chose to eat matters that reverberates longest. He recounts a powerful conversation with his grandmother about how she survived the holocaust:

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“Of course.”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

One must make choices based on our own conscience, and Foer never deviates from this central assertion. However, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do everything in his power to shape our consciences. Much of Eating Animals makes uncomfortable reading. He tells of turkeys genetically modified to the point of being unable to reproduce sexually, to a state where there are virtually none left in America that could survive in the wild. “What we do to living turkeys,” he asserts, “is just about as bad as anything humans have ever done to any animal in the history of the world.”

He tells of the pigs slaughtered in stages, of cesspools filled with animal excrement, and the often-overlooked seafood industry’s mind-boggling war on the seas. He breaks down statistics into conceivable metaphors. At one point he asks the reader to imagine being served a plate of sushi that also holds all the animals that were killed for that one serving, concluding that “the plate might have to be five feet across.” Another chapter begins with its title - ‘Influence / Speechlessness’ - repeated roughly 840 times over five pages. Why? Because “on average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime – one animal for every letter on the last five pages.”

Some consider this sort of approach glib and distracting, but it is this exuberance to communicate in a variety of ways that has always made Foer’s work so engaging, and it is as powerful here as ever it has been.

Not all the book is made up of tales of animal abuse, though. Far from it. Much time is devoted to the environmental degradation that results from factory farming. “Just as nothing we do has the direct potential to cause nearly as much animal suffering as eating meat, no daily choice that we make has a greater impact on the environment.” He explains how factory farming is implicated in the spread of global pandemic illnesses such as bird flu, how it produces terrifying quantities of waste which has no sewerage system through which to be disposed, and how meat is injected with so many hormones that it is strengthening the resistance of viruses to antibiotics and thereby damaging our health. His argument is that cheap meat is a false economy as factory farms do not pay for the mess they create, that they pass on all the associated costs of environmental clean-up and health-care to taxpayers without taking responsibility for either their actions or the consequences.

It would be difficult not to reach the conclusion, as he does, that industrial factory farming is a horrendous blight on our world that cannot even begin to be excused by the cheap meat it produces. While it is important to recognise that Eating Animals deals almost exclusively with the American industry and that the situation there is more extreme than in the EU, the picture he draws is reflected to a lesser or greater degree in every meat industry in the western world. It would be a travesty if the focus on the American system were taken to give readers reason to adopt the sort of arrogant superiority that so often underpins our reactions toward America. After all, the UK has some of the cheapest food prices in the world and those savings have to come from somewhere.

The problem Foer quickly encounters is that we consume too much meat - about 150 times more chicken than we did eighty years ago. And that sort of production is only possible through factory farming.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options available to most of us. There isn’t enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island and not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City, let alone the country. Ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality. Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare.”

Foer spends an inordinate amount of time searching for an ‘ethical farm,’ a farm whose meat he would be happy to feed his children. Though he finds better farms whose work is based on traditional animal husbandry and organic rearing, he still witnesses what he considers barbaric and unnecessary practices such as branding and concludes that there is no such thing as humane farming methods. This is the closest he comes to stating openly that he believes eating animals to be wrong. Yet still, he doesn’t say ‘don’t eat meat’ but rather, ‘eat less meat’. He separates his personal decision to become a committed vegetarianism from a universal demand that others follow. Because of this many hard-line vegans have criticised Eating Animals for its refusal to explicitly support universal vegetarianism. He is wise enough to know that an absolutist argument of this kind would be counter-productive. So he couches his argument in storytelling, in a journey of discovery. He pitches this book not at a distant utopian future of universal vegetarianism but a first-step incremental reduction in meat consumption for all

Eating Animals is a rallying call to unite in opposition to the factory farming method of meat production. Yet it is typical of the book that Foer doesn’t sugar-coat this message in moral absolutism, but rather a return to stories.

“To give up the taste of sushi or roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory creates a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting – even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember animals and my concern for their wellbeing, I may need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.”

As a reviewer I am guilty of describing books as ‘must read’ far more often than is strictly true. Indeed, it is arguable whether any fiction is ever must-read. However, if there is ever a book that warrants the moniker then it is Eating Animals or another book on the ethical and practical questions raised by the food we eat. Aside sleep and death, there is nothing that can be said to unite the entire global population as eating does. What we eat, and the impact it has on the lives we live and the world around us, is a fundamental question of our existence.

Eating Animals ends with its author hosting a meat-free Thanksgiving for family and the acceptance that they will need to develop new stories for this new diet. But, he contends, that is a small price to pay for not living with the shame of supporting such a profoundly abhorrent meat production system. During the course of his journey he repeatedly returns to an emblematic story about Franz Kafka staring into a fish tank and, on seeing his own reflection mingling with the animals he once ate, saying “Now at least I can look at you in peace.”

Life is about recognising the person you are and the person you want to be. It is about making decisions based on knowledge rather than routine. Without ever being overly preachy, Eating Animals asks us all to stare into a fish tank, to see ourselves reflected, and to decide what stories we wish to tell in the future.

9 out of 10

Eating Animals is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, March 2010. ISBN: 9780241143933. 352pp

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I promised I wouldn’t write a review that told people to be vegetarian. So I’m putting it in the comments instead! My personal opinion is that taking another animal’s life is unnecessary and unpalatable and that what is wonderful about humans is that we can make decisions about what we choose to do based on the sort of person we would like to be and world we would like to live in. I think this is an opinion JSF would sign up to as well.