Monday, February 7, 2011

Eating Animals book review

This is the book I've always wanted to write – almost. Jonathan Safran Foer takes a stance on the issue of eating animals – as in he doesn't for moral and ethical reasons – but the book isn't a straight argument for his point of view. He digresses from his line by allowing all kinds of people to speak without condemning their opinions. He shows that the issue of eating animals is not a yes or no question – there is a whole spectrum of shades of gray. I wasn't convinced by his personal argument for vegetarianism, but he did not set out to conquer and convince with this book. He set out to evaluate the topic and present points of view, one of which was his own.

Foer's book travels from the abstract philosophy surrounding the issue of eating animals to the shameful, dirty details of factory farming, and in between co-authors portraits of people related to the industry. He even includes anecdotes from his own life, demonstrating his former vegetarian-when-I-feel-like-it approach to eating animals, portraying his holocaust survivor grandmother's complex relationship with food, and his own moral struggle as he ponders what to feed his newborn.

Personally, this book has played a great role in how I look at meat. First off, I feel more shame – the burden of knowing. This is precisely why so many people turn a blind eye. Once you know – you have a moral obligation to do something. Growing up attending Hebrew school I was always taught during holocaust education that indifference is wrong – because you knew, could have done something, but didn't (speaking about those who refused to help the Jews). While this example is extreme it can be applied to so many lesser examples in life – from the schoolyard bully to eating animals. Time and time again the theme of people not knowing or wanting to know where their food comes from pops up in this book. And with good reason. Out of sight out of mind is essentially the most common response I receive from family and friends when I broach the subject of where that burrito came from. However, it is interesting how people seem to be consciously avoiding information – knowing that it exists but choosing not to know. Foer asks, if the current state of our farming system with it's suffering, health consequences, and environmental consequences isn't enough to change our ways – what is? And he asks, poaching from Hillel of the Jewish tradition,if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?” (243).

Now indeed. For better or worse I will never look at the meat on my plate in the same way. I will always wonder if it's free range, organic, or if that even makes a difference. Those are the few words that make us feel justified in our meal. Of course there is a “difference,” but thank you book for shattering my high hopes for these certification systems. The Last Poultry Farmer (as described in the book) explains what happens outside his utopian farm: “KFC chickens are almost always killed in thirty-nine days. They're babies. That's how rapidly they're grown. Salatin's organic free-range chicken is killed in forty-two days. Cause it's the same chicken. It can't be allowed to live any longer because it's genetics are so screwed up. Stop and think about that: a bird that you simply can't let live out of it's adolescence” (113). What deception that our organic bird is actually genetically modified. How disheartening. I am almost tempted to give up on meat altogether by this mirage of options. But, alas, I like meat. And Nicolette Niman (formerly of Niman Ranch farms), rancher and vegetarian, believes that eating meat isn't wrong, in fact it's natural. She, as some of the other portraits in this book did, reminded me that outside of animal agriculture, in the wild, animals don't die from natural causes. They are eaten or they starve to death; they suffer (though up to that point they have free reign over their lives). Then, she wrote something that I will remember forever: “When animal husbandry is done as it should be, humans can provide animals a better life than they could hope for in the wild and almost certainly a better death. That's quite significant” (207). I feel myself most aligned with Nicolette in this book, even though I am not a vegetarian. Raising animals for consumption allows us to give them a better life, but only if done properly, as Niman Ranch once did (and perhaps still – as 1% of farms in the US do). Ironic.

Reading this book I expected the topic to be complicated. It was. It's affected the way I look at meat and my eating behavior. I am an increasingly selective omnivore who sometimes betrays her better sense for a carne asada taco with who knows what meat. I guess I am guilty. But – I am choosing to eat less meat than usual, often opting for a vegetarian option, and I will pay that premium to support the best of animal agriculture. Anyone who is passionate about food can't help but be affected by this book. It's definitely a good read, life changing for some chickens and pigs – and perhaps yourself too. 

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