Eating animals

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer, Hamish Hamilton, 2009, 314 pp, ISBN 978024114393
Review by S P Carruthers

People eat meat; lots of it. In the last 50 years, global average per capita meat consumption has more than doubled and is still increasing, though with huge regional differences.  For some, meat (and milk) is the only option. Ruminant livestock are adept at converting indigestible vegetation (mostly grass) into human food, making it possible for people to live off land that would struggle to yield a serious crop of wheat, maize, or soya beans.

But people also like eating meat. It is nutritious (high-quality protein), tastes good (to most people), and is a sign of prosperity (which is why per capita meat consumption in the USA is around twenty-six times as much as it is in the Democratic Republic of Congo). And meat is now cheaper (relatively) than it has ever been, at least in the world’s richer countries.

Meeting demand and lowering prices have been achieved by producing much of the world’s meat not from animals grazing outside (on food people cannot eat), but from livestock fed with grains and pulses (which could feed people) in ‘factory farms’. Since the 1950s and 60s, the methodologies of industry (‘technologies of war’ as this book describes them) have revolutionised livestock farming. According to Safran Foer, globally, roughly 50 billion animals (mostly poultry and pigs) are now factory farmed every year. These animals are his central concern.

Unlike traditional pastoralism, factory farming takes place behind closed doors, locked doors, doors, as Safran Foer contends, of shame. He prises open these doors to reveal a grim picture of suffering and sadism; some admittedly, due to ‘bad apples’, but much just part of the system. This, he says, demands a response. Once we know, and, as he argues, most of us do, we cannot simply do nothing.

Jonathan Safran Foer is Jewish, a philosophy graduate, a New Yorker, a novelist, and a recent father, all of which have shaped what began as an account of a personal journey and ended as a powerful polemic. I am a Christian, an agricultural scientist, and have been associated with farming and the land for much of my adult life. But we share an eschewal of the products of factory farming. For 25 years, I have not eaten pigs or intensively-reared poultry (other than the odd occasion out of ignorance or politeness). And, like Safran Foer, I came to my conclusions through a combination of observation and intuition, research and reflection (in my case informed by the Bible and Christian theology).

Safran Foer, however, goes further, concluding that (often intense) animal suffering, environmental destruction, serious risks to public health, “systematic violations” of the human rights of workers, and a culture of violence are inherent in the whole animal production system, including slaughter and industrial fishing. And, although he has very evident respect for those farmers who are trying to do things differently (and whose stories are told in some detail), his journey ends with the decision (a personal one, he stresses) to opt for a vegetarian diet (though not vegan, suggesting that there still remains for him the issue of the slaughter associated with dairy products and leather shoes).

Of course, all this is not new. The information and arguments Safran Foer presents have been well rehearsed for decades. But he brings fresh packaging (though not all of it works) and fresh perspectives, and he makes a good story of them (though hardly bedtime reading). Some might criticise the paucity of philosophical arguments, or his apparently uncritical use of a pretty mixed bag of sources, from peer reviewed scientific journals to advocacy groups’ websites, or his over-reliance on sentiment and emotion.

However, this is more of a heart than a head book (although it does present many substantial facts and objective arguments), and the legitimacy it gives to intuition and commonsense reasoning is important. The latter is perhaps best illustrated by one his witnesses, recalling his grandfather: “my grandfather raised pigs…if one got sick, he made sure that individual got extra care and attention. He didn’t pull out the calculator and figure out whether it would be profitable to let the animal languish. The thought would have been unchristian to him, cowardly, indecent”.

Safran Foer is most compelling when he is talking about family. As a Jew, he understands, perhaps better than others, that food is as much about relationships and cultural continuity as it is about nourishment. As he recognises, vegetarianism or “selective omnivory” threaten not nutrition, but “table fellowship”, so have to matter enough (which, he argues, they do). An important member of his family is his dog, George (a bitch). Safran Foer is a city boy, with no previous dog experience, and George helped him discover that animals are more like us than we care to admit, and that once we get to know them, we treat them so.

Especially significant is the author’s grandmother.  On the run from the Germans in WW2, she nearly starved to death. On one occasion, a Russian farmer gave her a piece of meat, but she did not eat it. It was pork (not kosher). “Not even to save your life”, asks Safran Foer. Her reply, “if nothing matters, there’s nothing to save”, is an underlying theme of the book.

So where do Safran Foer’s conclusions leave us in the UK? ‘Eating Animals’ is after all written from a US perspective. Differences in scale and regulation mean that things in the UK are not quite so bad, as the preface to the UK edition notes. But it is just a matter of degree. The essentials are similar and the challenge to decide what matters, what needs to be saved, is the same.

And what should Christians do? For many, if not most, Christians, what we eat is still a matter of preference rather than principle, and most churches continue to serve, at functions and fellowship meals, whatever meat the supermarket offers. Yet, if the issue is fundamental to being human (as Safran Foer argues) and being Christian (as I would argue), then it cannot surely be relegated to a matter of lifestyle choice?

The book closes with the Thanksgiving turkey, equivalent in the UK to the bird on the Christmas table. These celebrations encapsulate many stories – family stories, cultural traditions, national histories, and the story of God, who “so loved the world”. Perhaps, it is time to include the turkey’s own story in that story telling?

Originally published in Third Way magazine.

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