After hearing about it in magazines and on websites after its release, I finally got a chance to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s nonfiction book about factory farming, Eating Animals. These are my thoughts.
Everyone who eats needs to read this book. Not everyone who eats animals–everyone who eats, period.
You will not want to read it while you’re eating, and probably not right before eating. You might not want to read it too soon after eating, either. In fact, if you ever want to eat again, you probably won’t want to read it at all. But you should.
Foer begins with a simple premise. Upon becoming a father he, like many parents, wanted to know: what am I feeding my son? He asks, what exactly is meat, and what does it mean when we, both as people and as a society, eat animals?
What follows is a frequently troubling, sometimes disgusting, and almost constantly disturbing collection of information drawn from three years of research into how meat is produced on a mass scale. Without apology, Foer shatters any last vestiges readers might have of the idyllic farm image. Gone are the rolling pastures and reassuring red barns. Gone are the chickens scratching in the yard, the pigs rolling in the mud, and the cows grazing in pasture. What Foer lays bare is a profile of corporations with only one goal: to provide people with a cheap commodity that “tastes good”, whatever the cost to the animals, the environment and, ultimately, the very people it serves.
Regardless of your current diet or where you stand on issues of environmentalism and animal welfare, there are things in this book that will shock and disturb you. Foer relays everything from conditions he witnessed himself on a late-night foray into a poultry farm, to first-hand accounts from current and former slaughterhouse workers. He offers shocking statistics regarding disease, waste, and poor conditions for every industry including the fishing industry. He talks about antibiotics and pandemics, excessive amounts of manure, bycatch, abuse, overcrowding, self-regulating practices, and more. If you didn’t know it was bad, you’ll learn how bad it is; and if you already thought it was bad, you will be assured that it is even worse.
Foer does not entirely exclude the other side. He offers views from ranchers and slaughterhouse owners, often those who try or believe they are trying to be more ethical or humane in their practices. He champions those who are making a deliberate move away from the factory farm model. He offers information for people who eat meat but don’t want to contribute to the current assembly-line production standards.
For those with stronger ethical, moral, or dietary standpoints, Foer’s position may not seem like enough. His stance may seem to lack concrete conviction. But for the middle-of-the-road, where the majority of those who read this book will most likely find themselves, it is a stance that can be identified with, a jumping-off point for a deeper understanding of what it means to eat meat in today’s society.
While Foer ultimately doesn’t make a direct argument for any particular kind of “ism” (environmentalism, vegetarianism, veganism, etc.), what he does say is clear: the things we decide to put on our plates and in our bodies matter. No individual can put an end to factory farming by choosing a veggie burger over beef, but such a choice can and does affect people other than oneself.