I love animals. I also love food. For most of my life, these two loves have occupied their own separate spheres in my heart. Occasionally, discord would arise: my love for animals would make me rethink my love for certain foods, and I'd resume my on-again, off-again pescatarian eating habits. But my appetite and my conscience didn't really have any serious conflicts until a couple of months ago. It was high time to get Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals off its stagnant spot on my Goodreads "currently reading" list, so I prepared myself for some somber bedtime reading and dove in.
The animal rights world has a reputation for being militant and, occasionally, outrageous. This book is not. Foer starts off as a skeptical omnivore, and his agenda is simply to sort out his own lingering qualms about eating animals. He questions customs that humankind has upheld for millennia, such as loving certain animals (dogs) while eating other, likely more intelligent ones (pigs). He also discusses how, throughout human history, our "eat with care" mentality has devolved into the horrors of factory farming. Foer's graphic descriptions of the cruelty that occurs in factory farm slaughterhouses are difficult to read. But he is genuinely interested in exploring all sides of the issue, and so he interviews a variety of individuals: a factory farmer, an independent heritage turkey farmer, a vegetarian rancher, a PETA activist, a vegan who builds "humane" slaughterhouses.
No matter what your moral philosophy is on eating animals, it's hard to argue with the environmental repercussions of our increasing demands for cheap meat. There's a reason why many environmentalists are vegan, and many vegans are environmentalists. Animal excrement from factory farming is one of the world's largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. Foer describes a series of "fish kills" (defined as "incidents where the entire fish population in a given area is killed at once") over a recent three-year period. He writes: "In these documented kills alone, thirteen million fish were literally poisoned by shit -- if set head to tail fin, these victims would stretch the length of the entire Pacific coast from Seattle to the Mexican border." Holy crap. Given that the health of our oceans is a barometer of the health of our planet, the impact of factory farming on aquatic ecosystems is alarming. Foer reflects, "Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else?"
Sometimes, breaking down how we talk about something breaks down how we think about something. Using this postmodern idea, Foer challenges one common response to going veggie: you're being overly sentimental.
Two friends are ordering lunch. One says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” and orders it. The other says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?
In the end, Foer concludes he cannot consume animals in good conscience. He advocates for a vegetarian diet, though part of him still seems to entertain the idea that animals can be raised and killed humanely on family farms. My own conclusions led me to adopt a vegan diet about two months ago. The reasoned arguments for abstaining from meat, such as those presented in Eating Animals and the documentary Cowspiracy, were at least as important in my decision as my emotional response to animal suffering. It feels good when reason and emotion are aligned. Changing my eating habits seems like a tiny act of resistance against a pervasive and powerful system, but also a choice that reaffirms my values three times a day. And in the current political climate, we can't give up on the idea that small, individual actions can add up to big changes.
My learning process is still ongoing. I'd love to know your thoughts on these issues, even if they're different from my own. Have you read Eating Animals, or any other books on food ethics? Should we eat animals?