Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Eating Animals: A Book Review

I bought this book on a whim during my lunch break months ago and even though I was excited to read it at the time I somehow let it sit until now. I suppose in a way I thought I already knew what would be in it - what it would be about. I've been reading animal activism, vegan revolution, and vegetarian theory books almost non-stop recently, and this book, with its simple title and well known, vegetarian, novelist writing author just seemed predictable. Turns out, it wasn't what I had expected.

Foer begins his story by giving us a little history on himself - his childhood memories of his grandmother's peculiar relationship with food brought about by her experience with starvation during the war, his flip-flopping vegetarian college life and his strengthening commitment to vegetarianism when he and his wife got married. But even then he said, they still ate meat on occasion. At the time he thought "I assumed we'd maintain a diet of conscientious inconsistency. Why should eating be different from any of the other ethical realms of our lives? We were honest people who occasionally told lies, careful friends who sometimes acted clumsily. We were vegetarians who from time to time ate meat." This was something that resonated with me. Indeed! Why should it be different? Few or perhaps no religious people can say they have lived life to the book - to their God's highest standards. Everyone has slipped up somewhere and had to ask for forgiveness - but despite the mistake were still considered a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. Yet it seems that with things like vegetarianism - or really just anything that isn't mainstream, something you chose but didn't necessarily grown up with (westerners becoming Buddhist is another example) seems to be scrutinized without remorse. Vegetarians are taunted by meat eating friends (I remember teasing my vegetarian friends myself back in high school) and whenever one of us "falls" and rejoins the mainstream, those friends are there to say "I told you so" and pat themselves on the back for calling your bluff. Now I'm not promoting that vegetarians start eating meat once in a while, but I agree with Foer that we are human, and no part of our life can be perfect, ethical or otherwise. So that was his stance - I'm a vegetarian but when I feel like it, I might eat meat.

But all that changed when Foer and his wife had a baby. Foer writes "Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matters. These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others. Stories about food are stories about us - our history and our values... We need to explain that the parsley on the plate is for decoration, that pasta is not a "breakfast food," why we eat wings but not eyes, cows but not dogs. Stories establish narratives, and stories establish rules."

And so Foer spends the next three years researching and studying the concept of eating animals. What will he feed his son? How will he explain his food choices to him? Will he be prepared with honest information for all his son's questions? These are his concerns.

The next part of the book I found really interesting is his section entitled "A Case For Eating Dogs." Foer admits that he "spent the first twenty-six years of my life disliking animals. I thought of them as bothersome, dirty, unapproachably foreign, frighteningly unpredictable, and plain old unnecessary. I had a particular lack of enthusiasm for dogs." Doesn't sound like your typical vegetarian huh? But then he fell in love with a stray puppy on the street. He still finds her foreign, he doesn't claim that she has all the same emotions as him though he can tell that she does have emotions even if he doesn't understand them - but he starts to question the idea of food taboo. Specifically dogs being taboo to eat. He tells the reader "I wouldn't eat George, because she's mine. But why wouldn't I eat a dog I'd never met? Or more to the point, what justification might I have for sparing dogs but eating other animals?" And so he decides to develop a case for eating dogs (which is legal in 45 states). And, while obviously, this case is horrifying to us and disgusting even for non-vegetarians, it can't be denied that he makes a strong case. Dog meat is just as healthy as any other meat - there is nothing nutritionally wrong with eating dog meat. Eating dog meat is actually more a part of human history than NOT eating dog meat (the Romans, the Hawaiians, the Dakota Indians, Asian cultures, Indian culture, the Aztecs). The argument of his that I like best - it's local and environmentally conscious. Think of all the stray animals that get picked up in our cities and then euthanized in our shelters and then what? Why not eat them? They had a painless death. Little to no shipping would be involved. Nothing would be wasted. So for all the yuppies that flock to Whole Foods to get their environmentally friendly chicken dinner - why not a stray dog Foer asks. Now obviously he is not actually suggesting this but he's making a point - one that won't go unnoticed.

Next Foer goes into a whole discovery process of the words we use for our food, our relationship with animals, and that the farming industry uses for the practices they use. Alphabetically he defines words. Words like anthropocentrism, comfort food, battery cage, CAFO and so on. Some of his definitions are al little surprising - mostly because in general Foer doesn't use the tone or language of your typical vegetarian (or "animal people" if you're talking to Pollan). But occasionally he busts out with things like this:

1) The shit of a bull (see also environmentalism)
2) Misleading or false language and statements such as:

Perhaps the quintessential example of bullshit, bycatch refers to sea creatures caught by accident - except not really "by accident," since bycatch has been consciously built into contemporary fishing methods...

And from there he goes on to destroy American's image of fish and seafood as being somehow more humane food to eat - pescatarians take note. Like when he lists all 145 other species of sea animals that are killed (caught in nets or on lines, dragged behind the ship until they die, and are then pulled up, sorted, and dumped back into the ocean dead or dying) while fishing for tuna. While I already knew that fishing for seafood was by no way humane (in fact it made sense to me without having to read any vegetarian propoganda that sea animals may suffer the longest, worst death of all the animals we eat) I somehow was surprised to learn the sheer number of animals that are caught and then thrown back overboard while trying to fish just one species. It does make sense though. The ocean is full of life - how can commercial fishermen charged with the task of serving up our favorite cuts of sushi or our "healthy" steaks of fish possibly bait and catch just one type of fish. Of course other animals would find their way into nets - or be forced into nets such as the trawling nets used to catch shrimp - a miniscule animals that can't be caught any other financially viable way.

But lest you think he spent all his time looking up words online and adding his own witty commentary to what he could safely find from the comforts of his office - the rest of the book proves rather interesting. Throughout the rest of the book he meets with people on both sides of the meat issue and even some people who strangely don't quite fit into either. He joins a young girl who routinely breaks into factory farms on a rescue mission, he includes a letter of a factory farmers defending his lifestyle, he visits a farm where the rancher is a vegetarian, and he spends time on a heritage turkey farm where a vegan is designing plans for a slaughterhouse. Crazy right? Throughout the book he lets these story characters speak to the audience in their own words, publishing their letters to him in each chapter.

In these chapters he examines much of the same area that Michael Pollan did in The Omnivore's Dillema - though I was disappointed to see that both authors spent little to no time talking about dairy farms, the inextricably way in which it is connected to the veal industry (male offspring of diary cows ARE veal) and the way that milk and cheese products (cheese isn't even vegetarian technically) are pushed on americans by our government and their advertising support for the farms. One thing that was interesting though is that he published a letter from the turkey farmer Frank Reese in which Reese points out some interesting things about Polyface Farms - the farm that Pollan so admires and talks up in the Om's D. Reese points out that those animals on Polyface are pretty much the exact same as the animals in factory farms. The chickens on Polyface are bred to develop quicker than normal - meaning they HAVE to be slaughtered sooner than they usually would (usual being how farming was before factory farms and us messing with the DNA of the animals) before they lose the ability to walk when they get top heavy. "Everyone is saying buy fresh, buy local. It's a sham. It's all the same kind of bird, and the suffering is in their genes...So he puts them on pasture. It makes no difference. It's like putting a broken down Honda on the Autobahn and saying it's a Porsche. KFC chickens are almost always killed in thirty-nine days. They're babies. That's how rapidly they're grown. Salatin's organic free-range chicken is killed in forty-two days. 'Cause it's still the same chicken. It can't be allowed to live any longer because it's genetics are so screwed up. Stop and think about that: a bird that you simply CAN'T let live out of it's adolescence."

So what he's saying is - and what I hadn't really thought about before - is that even if we buy free-range organic chicken (which in our heads we think is good and humane and all that) put aside the fact that the animal is killed in the end and the ethical jumbled mess that comes with that, just as an animal, even being free-range and organically raised - the animals starts out its life already messed up. Already bred for meat. Oh and also...they can't sexually reproduce anymore. Not possible. We artificially inseminate our chickens. How many American's know that? Not many I'm willing to bet and how did we even get to this point where animals can't live past a certain age? Foer gets into some interesting history and reveals the humble and naive beginnings of the factory farm and the modern broiler chicken.

During Foer's break-in to a poultry farm he speaks about something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. He writes "everyone has a mental image of a farm, and to most it probably includes fields, barns, tractors, and animals, or at least one of the above. I doubt there's anyone on earth not involved in farming whose mind would conjure what I'm now looking at. And yet before me is the kind of farm that produces roughly 99 percent of the animals consumed in America." What I have been thinking lately is...where are these factory farms? Take a drive in almost any direction from where I live and you will see farm after farm of cows and goats and horses out on the pasture - big silos and barns and gorgeous old farm houses. But they only produce 1 percent of the nation's meat. So where are the factory farms and would I even know it if I saw one? So I googled Factory Farm Maryland. Turns out there are factory farms in Maryland -Perdue Chicken at least and they have a pretty bad rap. The point is the pretty little picture we have floating around in our heads when we think of a chicken just isn't true any longer. In place of the big red barn and the chickens happily pecking at the grass stand mutant chickens with their beaks and toes cut off packed into a building so tight that they can hardly move. But sadder still is that even on farms that offer the chickens a more humane and "chicken-like" life - they are still mutant chickens. It's worthwhile to consider what we have lost in gaining such efficiency in raising and slaughtering animals.

Another topic Foer covers in the book - one that was a welcome surprise to me - is the link between animals on factory farms and the epidemics and possible future pandemics such as swine flu and bird flu that have been moving through the population. In 1918 the Spanish flu ripped through the world sickening an estimated one quarter (50million to 100 million dead) of the world's population. If you want to flip your shit - flip to the part of the book where Foer tells us about the World Health Organizations prediction for our future as far as Influenza is concerned. "Recent history has averaged a pandemic every twenty-seven and a half years, and it's now been over forty years since the last one." Perhaps you are thinking - well that's because we are so advanced now and stuff.... " The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has said simply, 'We know another pandemic is inevitable...It is coming.'" Very end of the world sounding and for someone who just watched 2012 (yeah I know it came out a while ago but whatev) and is currently reading books about Colony Collapse Disorder and the coming demise of our agricultural system - this is all coming as a bit of an overload, scary movie, better travel the world and see the sights before we all die, shock to me.

Much of the rest of the book is split between visiting slaughterhouses and visiting what Foer believes to be good examples of farms and the raising of animals for slaughter.At some point I became aware while reading this book that Foer is not doing what I thought he would be doing. He's not making a case for cutting animal products out of our lives. Foer tells us in the beginning of his book that "a straight forward case for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it's not what I've written here." But even after reading that, I still expected it to be a case for vegetarianism. Well...he actually comes to a conclusion that I had been mulling around in my head since reading the Omnivore's Dillema. A conclusion that put things in the right words and with the right tone so that no one would feel slighted or judged (I'm looking at you Pollan). His conclusion is actually much the same as Pollan's conclusion.

There are good farms out there. It's not realistic to believe that all the world will one day be vegan or vegetarian. It's not logical to hold firmly to a viewpoint that the only thing we should fight for as animal lovers is the abolition of eating animals. There will always be meat eaters. In the end of the book Foer talks about his son's first Thanksgiving in which he will participate and eat with the family. It will be a vegetarian Thanksgiving. After 3 years of research and writing Foer decides to remain firm in his vegetarianism and to pass that on to his son - but he also expresses a huge amount of respect and admiration for the "characters" in his story who showed him that having a title such as vegetarian, rancher, vegan, slaughterhouse designer, doesn't firmly plant you into one camp or another.

The day before I finished this book Pang sent me a message offering me a photography job that she wasn't sure she would be able to take. An old high school friend of her's was opening a butchering shop for deer and wanted her to photograph scenes of butchering and meat. Pang offered the job to me. I struggled with the decision. One would think that given my lifestyle choice it would have been an easy decision but it wasn't for several reasons. One consideration was just that there aren't that many jobs around. Turning down a job almost seemed reckless. But a more bothersome idea floating around in my head was that in a way - I wanted to help this project. After reading about Frank Reese's farm and reading Ben Goldsmith's reasoning behind being a vegan who is helping Reese build a slaughterhouse - I started to feel that just being a vegan or vegetarian isn't enough. As Nicolette of Niman Ranch said " I used to think that being a vegetarian exempted me from spending time trying to change how farm animals are treated. I felt that by abstaining from meat eating, I was doing my part. That seems silly to me now. The meat industry affects everybody in the sense that we are, all of us, living in a society in which food production is based on factory farming. Being a vegetarian does not relieve me from a responsibility for how our nation raises animals - especially at a time when total meat consumption is increasing both nationally and globally." This quote came back to me when I got the text from Pang about the job. In a way - it's a great thing that this person is opening a independently owned butchering shop. The fact that they are opening it either means they see a need in their community for such an establishment or that they are simply passionate about the lifestyle that they have chosen. In either case it is a step away from the direction of factory farming - and that's a good thing. In the end I did turn the job down. I felt that the shoot would be too gruesome for me to complete and still remain composed and professional.

I guess what I got out of this book is that - yes - an animal free lifestyle is for me. It feels right and I can't see myself turning back now - not with all I know and not with the way my compassion for animals has grown since becoming vegetarian. But in the very back of the book - in the Reading Group Guide - Foer talks a little about the difference between animal rights and animal welfare - and I, like him, am not sure exactly where I stand. I think I stand in the middle somewhere.

Anyone else who read the book (or not) want to comment?

The next book I will talk about (I don't know when my blog became a book review site and not a recipe and foodie blog but there you have it) will be:

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