Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November's Book: Eating Animals

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Journalism (2009 - 267 pp.)

Eating Animals is part life story, part investigative piece, part history. Jonathan Safran Foer alternates between his family's story, his experience in the world of farming, an attempt to understand the complex cultural relationships between human and domesticated food animals, and the spectre of factory farming that hangs over the whole thing. Although he has stopped eating meat, he is fine with those who do, and provides numerous examples of small, independent farmers throughout the book. His contrasts between factory farms and more classical farms dominate much of the book.

Foer's argument is compelling because it merges these themes. Juxtaposing the images of a prized Thanksgiving turkey and a beakless bird incapable of standing up or reproducing makes the reader as uncomfortable as Foer wants. His use of statistics to back his claims, such as the hordes of bycatch caught by shrimp trawlers or the average age of slaughtered chickens, makes the issues far more vivid than individual anecdotes would without them. The vast scale of factory farming, and of the environmental damage it and large-scale fishing cause, makes the reader pause at much of the world's culinary engine. The history of factory farming, from its accidental discovery in 1923, through the Chicken of Tomorrow of 1946, through every advance toward the present day, is also an informative read.

Of the book's many personal stories, two jump out at me. They could not be more different. The first is at the beginning of the book, when Foer describes his grandmother's cooking. Her chicken and carrots dish sounds quite good, although it is the end of the first chapter that signals something more ominous than a series of charming family memories. During World War II, Foer's grandmother, who was Jewish, was starving. A Russian farmer offered her pork, which was all he had. She refused on religious grounds. Her justification for not eating pork to save her own life: "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save." (17) This passage underscores how deep-seated the principles are when we discuss food, that a statistical study of agribusiness would not have been enough.

The other is when Foer visits Frank Reese's farm. Reese is introduced through an impassioned letter that explains how he runs his farm and why he would never be a factory farmer. (110-115) I have never encountered anyone so knowledgeable about turkeys or so dedicated to their lives. He openly acknowledges his heritage turkeys' higher price tags, but explains his clientele in terms that demonstrate the connection between rational economic analysis and product differentiation:

Most of the folks who buy my turkeys are not rich by any means; they're struggling on fixed incomes. But they're willing to pay more for the sake of what they believe in. They're willing to pay the real price. (113)

Foer is open about the representation in this debate: "In all of my reading and conversations, though, I've never been able to find a credible defense of it". (263) The only pro-factory farming passage is a two-page letter from a factory farmer, (94-96) which makes some interesting points about the level of demand for meat, rising population levels, and the impossibility of small farms' abilities to meet everyone's needs. He also mentions the inability of factory farmers to communicate about their work given the distortions represented by other groups. (96-97) It would be interesting to see a more large-scale work in favour of factory farming, an Eating Animals of the industry, to have a proper counterpoint to Safran's eloquently presented views.

The book's argumentation has two main weaknesses. One is its Roger and Me-esque claim to complete transparency, as is evident in the chapter "Hiding and Seeking". While shadowing someone feeding factory-farmed animals, Foer notices there are locked doors. This disturbs him greatly, to the point that he says:

Another why: Why would a farmer lock the doors of his turkey farm? ... In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. (86-87)

Why would anyone lock the door of any business, or any building, for that matter? Office buildings often close their doors after a certain hour, often as early as 6PM. Even ones with lobbies containing relatively few items other than a telephone and some furniture often do so. Foer's detailed description of the intricate lighting systems used on factory farms (88-89) suggests that a reason to lock the sheds would be to avoid anyone breaking in and then accidentally disturbing the lighting. This is similar to liquor stores' justified fears of patrons accidentally breaking bottles. There is no proof of any of this; until we have a definitive answer, there is no proof of anything. Of all the accusations Foer and many others make against factory farms, the presence of locked doors on a business's premises seems the least of them. If this is a metaphor for the secrecy of factory farming, it is an ineffective one.

He then goes to vilify the agribusinesses, such as Tyson Foods, for not responding to his letters. (87) Many companies refuse to respond to such benign writers as unsuccessful job applicants. Someone who goes so far as to say "Rationally, factory farming is so obviously wrong, in so many ways" (263), may not precisely portray an agribusiness in the most flattering light. While the reader has no reason to suspect Foer of publishing anything dishonestly, Tyson Foods has no way of knowing someone writing to it, unsolicited and not from an established news network, lacks such intentions.

The other is its intense moral rhetoric against an opponent that should, according to the book's standards, be an easy win. Foer spends pages upon pages of graphic description of factory farming atrocities. This level of description may or may not be necessary. When your opponent is as indefensible as Foer sees his, though, why use seemingly little-related anecdotes, such as the one about Abraham Lincoln, (267) or use fallacious appeals to authority and emotion at various points throughout the book? Foer is a gifted writer who is very good at making factory farming look bad. He can simply write his book, state the evidence, and let then the reader draw the conclusions rather than go on a rant about them.

Minor qualm: I prefer actually being able to see pinpoint citations, whether in footnote or endnote form, than having to simply trust the author whenever I do not feel like digging through the Notes section at the back of the book. This is easily corrected, though.

Ease of Eating Reading: 8
Educational Content: 7

Aside: If it is ever scientifically determined that plants feel pain, is corn and wheat farming suddenly mass murder in conditions even more tightly packed than factory farming? I honestly don't know.

NOTE: How fitting this entry came out today, the same as Taco Bell's new pledge to go cage-free for all its eggs by 2016. Congratulations,* Taco Bell!

*Foer argues "cage-free" may sometimes be a misnomer. We'll have to see what Taco Bell's suppliers do to ensure the cage-free-ness of their eggs before passing judgment.

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