When Jonathan Safran Foer published Eating Animals last year, that was precisely the question he was seeking to answer. Well, not whether or not to eat, but whether or not to eat meat. Having flirted with vegetarianism since college, it was not until he and his wife were having a baby that he finally decided it was time to pick a side in this ongoing debate. Should he feed his child meat? This simple question, it turned out, had no simple answer and resulted in a three-year investigation into the farming industry in the United States. Eating Animals is Foer’s first foray into non-fiction and I have to say he does an excellent job.
I have been a vegetarian for over five years now, or a “weird”-etarian if you ask my father, and have read a good bit on animal rights, food production, and environmental ethics. Foer gives a very accessible overview of the food industry, from farming and slaughtering to processing and labeling, and he does so through a mixture of statistics, testimonials, and personal experiences. The result is effective without being overwhelming, and it is just as suitable for newcomers to the topic as the well-versed. I confess that as a former east coast girl living in the midwest, I had yet to take an official position on seafood, knowing very little about the fishing industry. After reading the corresponding section in Foer’s book, I knew I could not in good conscience eat crab cakes or sushi again. Sigh…
What I particularly like about Eating Animals is that it does not set out to make a case for vegetarianism and demonize the consumption of meat; it is an honest inquiry into where our food comes from. Foer maintains an open mind and speaks to some truly amazing farmers whose practices are about as humane and sanitary as it is possible to be. Unfortunately, these farmers are nearly as rare as the heritage chickens and turkeys they raise. It is factory farming that reigns supreme and in factory farming where the problems lie–that and the subsequent disconnect that has arisen between people and their view of how the meat on their plate has really come to be there. Those quaint little farms with frolicking animals and big red barns are a thing of the past in most cases.
Foer acknowledges the complexities surrounding food and eating–culturally, environmentally, economically, and ethically. He emphasizes that whether you choose to be a vegetarian or not is a personal decision, there is no right or wrong; but a decision needs to be made and changes within our food industry must be effected. He issues a plea for us to think for ourselves, ask important questions, and act humanely. I think the following excerpt sums up Foer’s position nicely:
Rationally, factory farming is so obviously wrong…I’ve yet to find a credible defense of it. But food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, and identity….I’m not suggesting our reason should not guide us in many important ways, but simply that being human, being humane, is more than an exercise of reason….
The widespread disconnect and profit-driven, corporate giants that Foer discusses within the meat industry are present in other facets of our society as well. It is evident in today’s book industry: Large publishing companies dominate at the expense of the independent press; online retailers threaten the chain stores which snuff out the independents in turn. It is an unsettling trend and one that calls for a thoughtful review of our values and priorities, wherever they may be threatened.