There is no way that any compassionate and responsible person could read this book and not want to begin taking steps to end his or her contributions to factory farming.
Jonathan Safron Foer is not an animal rights activist and that’s not what this book is about. At the same time, it is not another Omnivore’s Dilemma, either. Eating Animals is a much more honest analysis of factory farming and it is also far more honest about the solutions. (In fact, it’s fair to say that this book makes Pollan look rather ridiculous with his boar hunting and elitist Slow Food movement.) Eating Animals is a powerful indictment against factory farming. And it shows that solutions are fewer and more complicated than what Pollan and others would have us believe.
Foer is a gifted writer and story teller. His multigenerational family and his Jewish culture both figure prominently in his perspective on the issues about which he writes. This gives his book extraordinary appeal. It is highly readable and entertaining. It’s pretty wonderful that, while he is writing about a most serious and heartbreaking subject, he’s not afraid to tell a few stories that make us smile (like those about his grandmother.) And he’s funny, too (as in his account of breaking into a farm in the middle of the night: “I am accompanied tonight by an animal activist, “C.” It wasn’t until I picked her up that I realized I’d been picturing someone who inspired confidence. C is short and wispy. She wears aviator glasses, flip-flops, and a retainer.”)
While Foer chooses vegetarianism, he also speaks to our moral obligation to the 27 million animals who are slaughtered every day in the United States while a mere 1 percent of the population chooses ethical veganism. That those animals suffer horribly in life and at the time of death is absolutely undeniable. And anything that can be done to lessen their suffering matters. But while he supports the idea of more humane types of farming, Foer is very clear about the fact that “humanely-produced” animal food isn’t a readily available solution. “We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options available to most of us,” he says. “Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian meals.”
And while Foer is moved and impressed by the few (very, very few) farmers who are trying to give animals a decent life, he remains resolutely vegetarian. There is the whole issue of raising animals just to kill them, of course. From his perspective, though the more important concern is that totally humane treatment of animals on even the very best farms is not guaranteed and, in fact, not at all likely. The farmers admit it, too, particularly in regard to slaughter. In the end, so-called humanely-produced animal foods are seen as choices that are at least much better than factory farmed foods for those who will refuse to go vegetarian. It’s a compromise, though, and Foer never pretends otherwise.
One of the most wonderful aspects of this book is that he doesn’t shy away from including the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy in his own circle of compassion. He makes an emphatic case against eating fish. There are environmental reasons for this (trawling for shrimp is described as “the marine equivalent of clear-cutting rain forest”) as well as the fact that fish are social and sentient creatures. They “build complex nests, form monogamous relationships, hunt cooperatively with other species, and use tools.” And the ways in which they are killed—both on fish farms and in the wild—are horrific. “No fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did.”
It’s disappointing that he isn’t vegan, especially when he has suggested that giving up eggs is the most important dietary change a person can make from an ethical standpoint. He describes himself (not in the book, but in recent interviews) as somewhere between vegetarian and vegan, not consuming dairy and eggs in visible forms, but still occasionally eating them as ingredients in foods. It seems unlikely that Foer has reached the end of his own ethical dietary journey, though. And since he is writing for a very mainstream audience, it is actually kind of good that he can say that, yes, he is struggling with these changes, too. And he does a great job of balancing different perspectives about what it means to eat ethically, including non-vegetarian perspectives. Even when I didn’t agree with those he interviewed, I felt it was important to hear what they had to say.
Although the very facts about factory farming will challenge anyone’s conscience, Foer doesn’t preach and he hardly even suggests. But while he insists in the book that it is just about his journey and decisions, he has admitted in interviews that, of course, there is an agenda here. He wants his readers to look at their own choices and what they mean.
“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? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?”