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.
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.
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.
“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.”