19 September 2016

Jonathan Safran Foer: Eating Animals

I was hesitant to even write about this book because part of me is embarrassed about the impact a single piece of writing could have had on my life. I am very different after reading this and not because it's a preachy, non-fiction plug about how you shouldn't eat meat, but because the writing is so philosophically compelling that it makes you uncomfortable with the lifestyle you lived before reading it. Also, Natalie Portman is quoted on the back cover so you know it has to be good.

I tell a lot of people to read this book and they're always instantly annoyed with me, but whether you're a meat-eater or not it is one of the most interesting pieces of writing you'll ever read because we're all obsessed with food. Jonathan Safran Foer is likely best known for his fiction novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) which was later adapted into a movie. Foer is an author, but he's a philosopher first, and Eating Animals is simply his own quest for answers about where his food comes from.

I read this book without any preparation besides Meghan telling me how interesting it was, and I read it as a very passionate meat-eater. One of my sister's favourite stories to tell is about how I brought cured meat as a snack for a car ride once, and I was (and am still) obsessed with chicken wings. I think I inhaled the book in about three days, and I still think about it every single day.

The reason why I believe Eating Animals is so successful is because Foer is a normal, American, omnivore. As a reader, you don't feel like you're being lectured by a doctor or nutritionist, you feel like you're watching your friend or neighbour discover the industry and the realities for the first time. It's really Foer's philosophy background that makes this such a compelling read. He wants to find out why modern factory farming is so awful, but more importantly he's trying to find out why we as a population still eat meat when we know how awful the industry is... and this is where it becomes uncomfortable.

"Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn't motivating, what would be? If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn't enough, what is?"

Foer goes about answering these questions not by shoving fact after fact about how crappy the animals are treated down your throat, but by analyzing how wrapped up meat-eating is in our culture. Many of us were raised on traditions like carving a Thanksgiving turkey, and grilling steaks on the barbecue. It's hard then, culturally, to turn away from something that we have so many positive associations with simply because we know better. Except, as Foer points out, eating is really the only practice where this is true.

"Tell me something: Why is taste, the crudest of our senses, exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses? If you stop and think about it, it's crazy. Why doesn't a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to killing and eating it?"

"Do you eat chicken because you are familiar with the scientific literature on them and have decided that their suffering doesn't matter, or do you do it because it tastes good?"

I didn't eat meat again after reading this book and it's not because I didn't know any of this information about factory farms before. We've all seen an awful video here or there, or had somebody tell you something that you didn't want to hear. The reason I haven't eaten it since, I think, has more to do with my new level of discomfort about why I would eat it knowing what I do now. Perhaps I wouldn't have read it if I had known it would ruin chicken wings for me forever, but who knows.

Jonathan Safran Foer with his book Eating Animals at KQED
Foer with his book.

I've read other books, and watched other videos on vegetarianism ad veganism since Foer's, such as Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) - which is commonly referenced throughout Foer's work - but I haven't had the same uncomfortable feeling. Foer's book provides you with the necessary information without being repetitive. It is relatable, as he begins the research as a meat-eater, but very depressing. Throughout the entire book he is hopeful, as most readers likely are, that there is a way to feel good about the meat we consume, and to do it properly. Sadly, Foer finds this to be untrue, as most options are impractical and unrealistic.

"What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it's consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They've wanted cheap food. We've grown it. If they want cage-free eggs, they have to pay a lot more money for them...Do you think family farms are going to sustain a world of ten billion?"

"You can call your turkey organic and torture it daily."

It's not a long read and I'm 100% convinced every single person will find it interesting. I try not to engage in arguments with people about whether or not meat-eating is 'ok' because I know most people, including myself, don't have all the proper information. However, I firmly believe this book to be an objective and thorough source of information about the industry, especially considering Foer's position throughout and his lack of education about the topic. My entire family and literally all my friends eat meat, I don't know another vegetarian personally. If you would have asked anybody who knows me prior to me reading this who is the least likely person they know to become a vegetarian I would have bet they'd all say me. I still don't know how I'm managing... a lot of french fries drowned in buffalo wing sauce. But that's how good of a book it is.

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