Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Review: Eating Animals

I admit it.  I'm a vegan wannabe.  I have flirted with the idea of being vegetarian or vegan for years.  Now that I can't eat dairy because of my bizarre unidentified digestive disorder, I've been thinking about it even more.  Do you know a mom who is always reading labels at the grocery store, who thinks high fructose corn syrup is evil, tries to buy organic, and is constantly making her kids try new vegetables like kale and collard greens?  If you don't, now you do because that mom is me.

Books about food are always sneaking on to my reading list.  I've read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Omnivore's Dilemma.  But no book about food has challenged my decision making and lifestyle regarding food quite as much as Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals.  Foer is a self confessed on again-off again vegetarian.  Motivated by the birth of his son, he decides once and for all to decide whether or not he wants to continue to eat meat.  Foer begins to investigate the realities of factory farming (without the assistance of the corporations responsible for it, despite repeatedly asking for interviews and tours).  I was completely dumbfounded by the results of his investigation (which were corroborated by two fact checkers and an attorney).

In short, what I consider to be the major findings of his research are:
  1. Less than 1% of the animals killed for meat in America come from family farms.  The other 99% come from farms where animals are kept in crowded conditions where many become ill and are treated inhumanely.  Even at the point of their death, many times it is done improperly.  Chickens are sent to the scalding tanks still alive or cows and pigs are skinned and dismembered while still conscious.  And these are just a small number of the atrocities he cited.  
  2. We can thank factory farming for more humans getting sick.  Because of the poor conditions in which the animals are kept, they are fed more and more antibiotics and other drugs in order to keep them in salable condition.  Because of this overuse, medications are becoming ineffective for humans and more strains of illnesses like H1N1 are developing and crossing over from animals to humans.
  3. Farmed animals contribute more to climate change than transportation.  A University of Chicago study found that animal agriculture is responsible for 37% of anthropogenic methane, which offers 23 times the global warming potential of CO2  as well as 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, which provides 296 times the global warming potential of CO2.  The bottom line is omnivores contribute 7 times the greenhouse gases than vegans.
What I like about this book is that he does attempt to be even handed.  This is not a man who is a gung ho paint slinging PETA member (although he does interview a PETA member in the book).  He also interviewed family farmers who are concerned about the happiness of their animals lives prior to their slaughter.  

In one particularly compelling passage, Foer quotes a factory farm worker describing the time he beat a pig for sport prior to killing it.  Foer went on to say:

Just how common do such savageries have to be for a decent person to be unable to overlook them?  If you knew that one in one thousand food animals suffered actions like those described above, would you continue to eat animals?  One in one hundred?  One in ten? (Eating Animals, p. 255)

Does meat taste so good that I will turn my head and pretend I haven't read this information?  Is ignorance really bliss?  Currently, we eat vegetarian dinners 2-3 times a week.  Is it okay with me to eat factory farmed meat on the other days of the week?  Because quite frankly, we can't afford to eat grass fed, free range animals.  It costs that much more to eat "ethical meat".  But is there ethical meat?  Foer made case for that being a harder way to live than vegetarianism.  Imagine being invited to a friend's house for dinner and they ask if you have any dietary restrictions.  Would it be easier for you to say culturally "I'm a vegetarian (or vegan)" or "I eat meat, but I will only eat meat that is grass fed and slaughtered at a family farm"?  Maybe we can be ovo-vegetarians if we can buy some eggs from one of our friends that raises chickens for fun?  After reading about factory farmed eggs (even cage free doesn't mean a thing), I don't think I can eat those either.

So what's a girl to do?  Baby steps...I talked to the Cobbler and he said he would be on board with trying to be vegan if I can make it taste good.  But can I make it taste good?  Only time will tell...and I have to try.

However much we obfuscate or ignore it, we know that the factory farm is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word.  And we know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power.  Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless---it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another.  Consistency is not required, but engagement with the problem is. (Eating Animals, p. 267)

For more information go to the author's website, and click on the links at the bottom left.


Gretchen said...

Interesting! I've read Omnivore's Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but I'm always a little scared of being talked into vegetarianism, so that's as far as I go ;) I've wondered what Foer has to say about grassfed/humanely raised/pastured/etc. meat, though. We do buy almost exclusively free range meat for at home (and we have chickens for eggs!); it's a huge part of our grocery budget, but I save a lot in other areas to have the money to spend on it.

I've been enjoying your book reviews, btw!

The Reader said...

On the point of making vegan taste good --- fresh veggies, olive oil (good stuff), and various seasonings.

It'd be giving up milk and cheese that would kill me, but since you are already dairy free, Go for it!

You can do it!

Emily said...

I've flirted with the idea of going vegetarian for years, but my family (especially dh) is adamantly NOT on board. I do manage around 2-3 meatless meals a week though. This is very thought provoking though, I'll have to look for that book at my library.

herdingcats said...

I have read Michael Pollen's In Defense of Food and Food Rules and watched Food Inc. and quite a few other books on the topic.
It really is too expensive to eat humanely raised meats and eggs, so we are still eating the factory farmed ones. I wish that we had better, more affordable options. I have experimented with vegan cooking and eating, but it is also expensive and no one in our family except for my husband really likes beans.
I tried reading Eating Animals several months ago, but I was reading several other books at the time and could not get into it. Perhaps I will try it again.