Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer book review
“We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film.” – Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

I knew I was in for a ride when I picked up Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I have been aware of this book for some time, but had – until now – managed to push it right to the bottom of my ‘too-hard basket’.

Isn’t it strange when massive, universal, ethical questions randomly tap you on the shoulder and demand your attention? I have gone 24 years without sincerely worrying about the meat on my plate. Then one day, out of the blue, I felt ready to explore this issue further.

If you have ever felt any curiosity or concern about how meat is produced, then this book is an excellent place to start. Yes, it does push a vegetarian agenda, but it is not preachy or confrontational in the way you might expect from a book of this title. It simply lays some facts bare and lets you decide where you stand. Ultimately, this is a book about choice.

Synopsis

Factory farming, America, the mid to late 2000s. This is the context in which Eating Animals was written.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s mission is to expose some truths about factory farming, which – at the time of publication – was in some way or another part of the production process for 99% of all meat in the United States.

It’s easy to think about factory farming as something that happens elsewhere, but New Zealand isn’t exempt. Although set within the context of the United States, the issues raised in Eating Animals have global influence, especially considering the scale and power of some of the largest meat producers.

In other words, as tempting as it might be, don’t write-off Jonathan Safran Foer’s research just because you don’t live in America.

The premise for Eating Animals is simple: write about factory farming and eating animals. The results are much more complex. Discussions about what we eat – especially about meat – tend to either induce extreme emotions or extreme apathy. You either shrug your shoulders and take another bite of your burger, or you argue passionately for one side or the other.

“I can’t count the times that upon telling someone I am vegetarian, he or she responded by pointing out an inconsistency in my lifestyle or trying to find a flaw in an argument I never made. (I have often felt that my vegetarianism matters more to such people than it does to me).”

Jonathan Safran Foer explores people’s reactions and tries to shine some light on why a conversation about eating animals is so fraught, when most humans eat some form of meat every day.

The result is a powerful, thought-provoking book that provides you with the knowledge to make better informed decisions about where you spend your consumer dollar. That said, it may also have the side-effect of making you worry about food, a lot.

My thoughts

I didn’t so much as have thoughts about Eating Animals, rather I felt a powerful response – philosophically, morally, physically and emotionally.

I will spare you the details of just how bad factory farming is, and instead tell you how this book made me feel.

Whether I continue to eat animals or I choose a path of vegetarianism, this book led me to the following conclusion: I want to lead a gentle life.

I want to be gentle in the way I approach and treat others, and the way I approach and treat myself. I want to tread lightly on this earth and leave little destruction or waste in my wake. I want to prioritise compassion over indifference and awareness over ignorance. I want to carry myself with integrity and consideration.

Currently, factory farming is the antithesis of all these things.

Three questions I keep asking myself are: does eating animals align with my values, my ideal of who I wish to be? And do the animals on my plate require my compassion, or are they integral to my health and survival, and therefore exempt? And is it possible to be truly, authentically compassionate towards animals and still eat them?

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about my interactions with animals. I thought about stroking a kitten, playing ball with a dog, looking into a cow’s eyes, or even picking up a chicken and feeling it’s warmth. Everything about my interaction with animals is gentle.

That said, I’ve never considered myself to be an ‘animal person’. I am almost a little bit afraid of them. During my childhood we had grumpy cats who were prone to scratching and biting, and I was terrified of dogs. I still cross to the other side of the street when I see a dog off a leash. Just a few weeks ago, I was afraid to pick up some baby chicks on my mum’s land.

I don’t believe this fear comes from a concern that they will actually hurt me, rather animals make me jumpy because I have no idea what they are going to do next. I regard them with caution and curiosity, and ultimately, as individuals. Until I get to know an animal better – pet or otherwise – I would rather observe them from afar.

Perhaps it is precisely because I have always kept animals at arm’s length that I haven’t worried about eating them – until now.

Listening to a news story about the use of antibiotics on factory farmed animals triggered an impulse in me to delve deeper, to learn more about how meat is produced. And a small part of me wishes I hadn’t opened this can of worms. Once you take a look under the lid, you can’t go back.

Of course I had a slight suspicion that the lives of factory farmed animals were difficult. But to have their suffering and death described to me in such detail, well, it made me question everything I believe in.

That reason alone is evidence enough that Jonathan Safran Foer has written a brilliant book.

Any piece of writing that forces you to reconsider your values, to think deeply about the world and your place in it, is – in my opinion – worth reading.

“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.”

Sometimes I curse my thirst for knowledge – wouldn’t everything be so much easier if I remained ignorant to certain realities? Wouldn’t I be happier in the short-term if I refused to make connections between the meat on my plate and an animal?

But that’s not my nature.

My mind jumps from one to conclusion to the next, but it keeps coming back to that desire to know rather than not know. I would always prefer to be told than to be kept in the dark.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge also implies change and adaption. The more we learn, the better we can respond to changing circumstances, and the better we will be able to find solutions to problems.

As Maya Angelou famously said: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

As we acquire more knowledge we must be prepared to reassess and realign our journey through life.

This is the sentiment I will hold close to my heart as I continue to explore my relationship to food and to animals. I will continue doing the best I can with the knowledge I have in front of me, and try to make the best possible decisions.

And throughout this process, I will endeavour to be gentle, kind and compassionate.

Bookmarked quotes

“Ironically, the utterly unselective omnivore – ‘I’m easy; I’ll eat anything’ – can appear more socially sensitive than the individual who tries to eat in a way that is good for society.”

“Meat is bound up with the story of who we are and who we want to be, from the book of Genesis to the latest farm bill. It raises significant philosophical questions and is a $140 billion-plus a year industry that occupies nearly a third of the land on the planet, shapes ocean ecosystems, and may well determine the future of the earth’s climate.”

“Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it.”

“Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That’s the question.”

“My decision not to eat animals is necessary for me, but it is also limited – and personal. It is a commitment made within the context of my life, not anyone else’s.”

Why I can’t stop worrying about food

This blog post is what happens when you listen to a news report about factory farming, feel disgusted, and then belatedly make the connection between the steak on your plate and this guy here. Do I want to eat cows? Do I need to eat cows? I wish my brain would be quiet on the issue of cows, as I really like hamburgers, but unfortunately it's not that simple.
Flickr // Creative Commons

Disclaimer: I am currently freaking out about meat and reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and my brain is exploding. Please brace yourself for an introspective rant about my eating habits and fear of supermarkets.

Like most people, I inherited many things from my mother. First and foremost, a love of food. In my family, as in many others, food is a source of joy, comfort and love. Sharing a special meal together is our way of celebrating life.

My mother has always valued family meal times above all else. She loves to prepare food for a crowd, and one course is never enough. Our deepest discussions have occurred around the dinner table, with an impressive antipasto platter spread out before us. Cheese and crackers are a family favourite, washed down with wine and always followed by something sweet.

Growing up, food was firstly a source of pleasure, secondly a source of sustenance and nutrition. My mother always prepared healthy, balanced meals, but as a child I was disinterested in vitamin counts and protein content. I ate when I was hungry and food was magical, yet simple.

This began to change as I got older and became more aware of my body. I would love to say I never once worried about my weight or my appearance, but like many teenage girls I went through all sorts of emotions in regards to my image. Food began to take on a different role – it was still joy and celebration, but it was also something more. It was sugar, or it was fat. It was healthy or it was ‘bad’.

On the whole, I shrugged any anxieties off and continued to eat as I had always eaten – a relatively healthy, balanced diet, bar one too many sweet treats and the odd craving for a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

Slowly, as the years went by, I absorbed more and more information about food and nutrition. It’s hard to avoid it, once you start reading magazines and newspapers and cooking your own meals. And as my knowledge grew, I began to discover things that made me feel uncomfortable. Factory farming, artificial flavours, ingredients I couldn’t pronounce.

But, I pushed these things to the back of my mind. I didn’t want to think about them, so I didn’t. I actively chose to ignore inconvenient truths, than to investigate them further. I still do, in many situations.

Recently, however, these inconvenient truths have been harder to ignore. The more I learn about food, the more I question what I eat and why.

What special diet is Jess on now?

My exploration of food has become a bit of a running joke in my family. Recently I caught up with my father and stepmother. They live an 8-hour drive away, so we usually have a lot of ground to cover. After the typical conversation topics – siblings, work, hobbies – my stepmother asked something along the lines of: “So Jess, what are you eating at the moment? Any special diets we need to know about?”

I grinned sheepishly and Tom helpfully interjected: “Well, this week Jess is vegetarian.” (What he really means is that I’m currently going through an existential crisis and I have belatedly realised that beef is actually cow and that cows have beating hearts and minds and I’m not sure how I feel about eating them and other previously sentient beings for dinner).

Anyway.

Not long ago my stepmother’s question may have made me feel defensive or self-conscious, but I know myself well enough now to realise it comes from a place of kindness and genuine curiosity. And of course, humour.

In the past year alone, I have been gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, sugar-free and Paleo – sometimes all at once.

I can see how my family finds this amusing. Especially as I have a tendency to get a bit carried away whenever I start a new health-kick. At the beginning of my gluten-free journey, I was convinced cutting out that pesky little protein was going to revolutionise my life and I would all of a sudden have boundless energy and vitality. I lasted six months before I decided my life was just that much brighter when it included pizza dough and Vogel’s toast.

I also get lazy and overwhelmed and lapse between caring deeply about what I eat and just wanting to enjoy food and focus on the positives.

I want to make one thing clear: I am not experimenting with what I eat to lose weight, although that would be a nice added benefit. My constant exploration of food comes from a much deeper place. For me, food is a question of philosophy and identity. Eating is a choice we make three times a day, if not more. How do my choices reflect my beliefs?  How do my choices reflect the person I want to be, or the world I want to be part of?

Health, ethics and everything in between

My journey to better understand food probably began in earnest when I discovered I had an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. This is a big fancy word for ‘underactive thyroid’. I have had an underactive thyroid since I was 12, but it wasn’t until just last year when I went for a routine check-up that I realised what this actually meant.

My thyroid is slow and does not produce enough thyroxine (crude explanation: the hormone that governs metabolism) on its own. I therefore have to take a synthetic hormone daily. I never questioned why my thyroid was slow – I just accepted that it needed a little bit of help and TLC.

But then a doctor in London informed me that my thyroid was slow because my body was systematically attacking it. For a reason I am yet to understand, my immune system thinks my thyroid is a foreign invader, a threat that needs to be dealt with. So it tries to protect me by destroying it.

Other autoimmune conditions include Type 1 Diabetes, Crohn’s Disease, Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

This revelation shook me. Why would my body attack itself? How can I have so little control over this process? Surely there must be something I can do to improve my health and give my body a chance to recalibrate?

Hello, Dr Google. I spent hours and hours reading about Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and obsessing over ways to improve my wellbeing. I hated the thought of my body attacking my own tissues, and wanted to give it as much support as possible.

But what I uncovered through researching about autoimmune conditions is that being healthy is no longer as simple as eating more fruit and vegetables and getting plenty of sleep.

The more I researched about food and health, the more I realised how flawed the modern food industry is. What are we eating? How can we possibly nourish our bodies when food is sprayed with pesticides and meat is pumped with antibiotics? And where do ethics even come into it?

Food: fuel or fear?

I have been known to have the occasional mental breakdown in a supermarket. The sheer choice of products overwhelms me, as does the fact that each different brand is claiming to be better than the other. I become paralysed with anxiety as I read the backs of labels and try to make the best decision for my health, my wallet and the environment.

All the anxieties I have about food tend to converge into one big panicky mess when I am in a supermarket. To give you an insight into my brain at these moments, here is a list (in no particular order) of what I am thinking about when I am trying to buy food.

  • Fat content/good fats vs bad fats
  • Sugar content/dental health/waistline
  • Artificial flavours/colours/sweeteners
  • Animal welfare/factory farming/death
  • Antibiotics/additives/preservatives
  • Packaging/plastic/landfills/waste
  • Protein content
  • Carbohydrate content/bloating/weight gain
  • Chemicals/pesticides
  • Health/digestion/energy
  • Calorie count
  • Price
  • Convenience
  • Cancer/heart disease/illness
  • Freshness

And probably more. Is this what eating has become? A source of anxiety and fear? Is diet the difference between heart disease and heart health? Will eating processed sausage meat give me cancer? Is there mercury in my tuna?

It all starts with food

I care about social issues, and lately I have been unable to separate the problems of the world from the way I eat.

Okay, that might sound a little dramatic. But let me explain. Long gone are the days when food was simply fuel or sustenance. Food is now a commodity. Food is big business. Food is social, cultural, political, profitable.

And because food is something I consume more often than anything else, I feel it is important that I carefully consider the implications of what I eat not only on my own health, but on the environment and the world as a whole.

I can’t change the world, but I can change my own personal habits. I can make a conscience effort to eat, act and live in a way that aligns with my personal values.

Because I have so much choice, I feel my consumer dollar counts – where will I invest it? What will I choose to eat? And how will I choose to eat?

Will I eat purely for pleasure and enjoyment? Will I eat simply for personal nutrition? Will I let morals enter into the equation? Price, convenience, seasonality?

It would be different if I had no choice, then these concerns would go out of the window and I would eat whatever I could in order to survive.

But I’m not living within that framework, so I must take responsibility for my choices.

This might come across as virtuous and brave, but actually I am writing about it because it exhausts me and terrifies me. I don’t know what’s worse: spending so much time worrying about food, or not worrying about food at all?

Should I adopt the attitude that life is short and just try to enjoy it, even if that means eating chicken pumped with antibiotics or food sprayed with harmful chemicals? Or should I rise above my taste buds and primal desires and try to eat in a way that is healthy and ethical and not destroying life on this planet?

As always, when I am feeling uncertain and confused, I turn to books. I am halfway through reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, a book I have kept at arm’s length for years as I was warned everyone who reads it comes out the other side a vegan.

I don’t really want to be a vegan. I don’t want to be an ‘anything’. I don’t want to have to label what I eat, or follow any rules, or fit in a certain category. I don’t want to be that awkward guest at the dinner table who has weird eating habits. I don’t want to have to say no to trying local specialities when I travel. And most of all, I don’t want to be judged.

I just want to eat in a way that doesn’t harm my body, the environment or other sentient beings.

Why does this feel so difficult and daunting? Is it just me? Do you also worry about these things, or am I overthinking to the extreme?

Writing usually leads me towards some kind of solution, or at least a personal reconciliation. But all I have are questions, questions and more questions.

Does anyone have some answers?