Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Review: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

I have to confess that I usually struggle to finish non-fiction books. I find them quite dry. And there are too many facts in them for me to remember. I end up forgetting most of them by the time I’m a quarter of the way through the book, at which point I'll stop reading it because continuing is simply too counterproductive.

But Eating Animals was different. Prior to reading it I was already a big fan of Foer's fictional works. So when I saw Eating Animals in a bookstore, I was curious to see if his non-fiction would be just as captivating. 

And it was, thanks to Foer’s skillful writing. Foer brought the facts in it to life in such interesting and digestible* ways that the book was just as enjoyable for me to read as many other fictional stories have been. 

And what’s more, I’ve been able to retain many of them, such as:

Pigs are as smart as (and sometimes even smarter than) dogs

Animal agriculture contributes more to global warming
than ALL transportation

Grains fed to animals which become meat for wealthier populations to 
eat could feed starving populations of the world (and have less of a negative
impact on the environment in the process)

In short

Eating Animals deals with the complexities behind eating, and not eating, animals. But don’t let this scare you away from reading this incredibly powerful and informative read, because its purpose is not to convince people to become vegetarian (Foer does however openly oppose factory farming in the USA). 

Instead, it explores the relationships people have with eating animals; which isn’t only related to pleasing our tastebuds, but is also about the stories, cultures and traditions that we celebrate, reject or change when we agree (or disagree) to eat particular products.

The following passage taken from Eating Animals (pp.16-17) is an example of this complex relationship humans have with food. Foer is speaking with his Grandmother, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII and spent many months fleeing the Germans:

'The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn't know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.'

"He saved your life."

"I didn't eat it."

"You didn't eat it?"

"It was pork. I wouldn't eat pork."


"What do you mean why?"

"What, because it wasn't kosher?"

"Of coarse."

"But not even to save your life?"

"If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."

This powerful passage captures the heart of what Eating Animals is about: just what can, and should, matter when it comes to food?

Foer's exploration of this multifarious topic continues in such a manner, by weaving together stories, philosophical thoughts and facts in very clever ways. It's for this reason that I found Foer's discussion particularly effective, as I didn't feel swamped with slabs of facts which can frequent other non-fiction books. 

I particularly enjoyed the following points Foer presented:

  • Why is it acceptable to eat some animals and not others?  For example, we eat pigs. Pigs are as smart as dogs. But we don’t eat dogs even though we could and there are so many put down every year. The latter of which is then processed into more food for animals, creating an inefficient cycle of production and consumption. 
  • The idea that 'food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, and identity' (p.263). This makes decisions and reactions relating to food all the more complex compared to many of our other lifestyle choices.
  • And finally this beauty: 'Our situation is an odd one. Virtually all of us agree that it matters how we treat animals and the environment, and yet few of us give much thought to our most important relationship to animals and the environment. Odder still, those who do chose to act in accordance with these uncontroversial values by refusing to eat animals...are often considered marginal or even radical.' (pp.73-74) 

Foer does not shy away from the gruesome realities that come with eating animals either. His focus is largely on factory farms in the USA, and while some may discount this if they live in another country, it was still very relevant for me. It made me to realise how little I actually know about farming practices in Australia. And how little I know about the journey animals go on from being live beings to cooked food on our plates. 

It’s a process people should be more informed about, not only from an animal welfare perspective, but also from a human welfare perspective. This latter point was particularly poignant for me because while I am quite familiar with practises concerning the former (and as such am a vegetarian), I never realised how much metaphorical crap is pumped into animals; animals who also live surrounded by literal crap. These crappy animals eventually become food for human consumption. That was particularly shocking for me. 

Thus, I found myself feeling quite angry halfway through the book. How have we become a society that’s allowed all of the corrupt practises of the food industry to continue, and flourish at that? Particularly at the expense of the welfare of others, both humans and animal? And especially when most of this is driven by money; whether it’s the meat producers who are wanting to maximise profits; or consumers who are not willing to pay more for their food, forcing some producers wanting to do the right thing to find cheaper (and generally less animal friendly and sustainable) ways of producing meat. 

All of this infuriated me so much that I just wanted pack up all of my belongings and move to a remote self-sustained community where I wouldn't have to be bothered by any of these injustices.

But I didn't. A) because I actually like my life as it is at the moment; b) because I don't think such a society is even possible; and c) that's not what Foer's intention with the book is anyway. 

Foer is simply offering a different way of thinking about food. And what's more, he invites us to act on this knowledge, rather than continue to be indifferent about it. After all, many of us are very familiar with the negative environmental, health and welfare impacts eating animals has. We simply do little with this knowledge. So Foer leaves us with the following proposition which sums up his discussion well: 

'What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?' (pp. 257-258) 

Just imagine!

In three words

Enlightening, thought-provoking awesomeness 

What I liked
  • Foer's writing - he is an incredibly talented wordsmith. 
  • The way Foer presents his information. Whether it's via diagrams drawn to scale illustrating how little room factory farmed chooks have to live in; or presenting viewpoints from different sides of animal production and consumption arguments (including a vegetarian rancher); his argument is well-grounded and honest.
  • The sense of empowerment after reading Eating Animals. Again, it's purpose is not to turn you into a tree-loving vegetarian hippy. But it offers options to those who do want to have a more positive impact on the world they live in.            

What irked me

The realisation that there is still so far to go in terms of improving animal welfare, the environment, and people's knowledge about where their food comes from. But change has to come from somewhere, so why not start now? 

You will like this if you enjoy reading
  • Books that take you on philosophical and factual journeys of discovery
  • Books that challenge and confront your understandings of the world around you
  • Books which advocate for animal rights
  • Books about food

*pun not intended

1 comment:

  1. awesome blog jules!!! so well written and insightful :)


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