Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is a very popular book about, well, eating animals. It paints a vivid picture of what it means to eat animals – and it does so skillfully from a number of perspectives such as cultural, production, animal welfare, environmental and societal. It’s also a story about vegetarianism, but not necessarily a call for vegetarianism in and of itself. Call it an eye-opener. Meticulously researched with close to 300 references, it shows how factory farming has taken over the US farming.
Refreshingly, it also gives voice to what many vegetarians consider the “opposition”; farmers, even factory farmers. Almost everyone gets a say, particularly (disproportionately so, and rightly so) the few alternatives there are to factory farming in the US. While factory farming produces huge unwanted and externalized consequences, Eating Animals places the focus on suffering; how much do the animals have to suffer before we take action? Given most people have no idea how their food is produced, partly because industrial food producers continue to portray their products to come from the traditional family farms of 50-100 years ago, it’s a very valid question. It’s hard not to feel sad and even angry when you know how most animals are actually treated in today’s industrial production system.
It’s an important book. If you’ve seen The Future of Food, Our Daily Bread, Food Inc. and read some literature on the topic, Eating Animals may not bring much new information as such. That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything. For example, I found it disheartening that there is no definition of “free range” chickens in the US – which means many (most) producers are just using it fleece worried consumers while continuing to produce unethical food. Another revelation was that animal farming is done on such a vast scale that farmed animals in the US now produce 130 times the waste compared to the entire human population – and that there is little or no waste treatment for this waste.
From a global perspective, the point about free range hens is both important and misleading; Foer argues that since “free range” in the US usually means little or nothing in terms of animal welfare and is thus, understandably, against it. The key word here is the USA – it’s worth noting that while no free range standards apply in the US, this is not the case everywhere else. Here in Australia, for example, free range has standards that (to me anyway) sound quite reasonable, such as the following section on free range runs.
Section 3 â€“ Free Range Run
The maximum stocking density must be sustainable and in any case not exceed 1,000 hens per hectare.
Hens must have unrestricted access to the free-range run during the daylight hours.
The area where the hens are permitted to range shall have adequate water provisions along with shade/wind/predator protection. Range must be capable of long-term sustainability with adequate natural ground cover. If vegetation disappears under adverse seasonal conditions then alternative natural foraging must be provided until ground cover can be re-established.
In other words, YMMV somewhat depending on where you live. Nevertheless, Eating Animals is a compelling read – often chilling, sometimes reassuring (the examples how things can be done properly), very much eye-opening – and what it does do brilliantly is give a wide perspective. For one, it’s heartening to see not all vegetarians are PETA-style, vehemently opposed to eating any meat at all – rather, many are mostly opposed to suffering. It makes you feel good to read of vegan ranchers, trying their best to reduce the suffering. And if done correctly, it is possible to provide animals a good life and an easy death – better life, in fact, that they would have in nature, as well as an easier, less painful death. That is very important and exactly what I think humans owe the animals for us using them as food. But what’s also important is that the vast majority of animals we eat are not provided that – rather, untold suffering and cruelty from the beginning to the end is a rule rather than an exception.
Probably the #1 shortcoming of the book is that in the global context it is a very US-centric book. While factory farming is certainly making huge inroads in most other countries as well, it’s not quite true that 99% of the meat production everywhere in the world comes from factory farms. At least not yet. Read Eating Animals and make sure it never gets that bad elsewhere in the world – and hopefully with enough awareness, the trend can be reversed in the United States, too – as it eventually has to.
I can easily see how many people would become vegetarians after reading Eating Animals. If you think that might happen to you when you found out the “truth”, you really owe it to yourself to read it. But did Eating Animals make me want to become a vegetarian? No. What it did do, however, was to convince me further of the need to buy only products that are grown sustainably and without inflicting undue suffering to animals. The challenge is how one makes sure of this – buying local and visiting the producers themselves is one good way. If you can’t / aren’t allowed to visit your grower/farmer/rancher, take it as a warning sign that something might be amiss.