Monday, June 21, 2010
Eating Animals starts out with assurance that it will not be a manifesto for vegetarianism, and Foer does his best to present a measured, scholarly, informed, and compassionate report on the way we get our meat - which is 99% obtained through factory farms, slaughterhouses, and industrial fishing. It ends as exactly what he said it wouldn't be: a manifesto for vegetarianism.
You can tell he didn't want to end up there - his research and reporting are fair and somewhat detached, even as he's explaining how factory farms keep animals sick and cramped, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and then inhumanely slaughter them - too often cutting them apart while still accidentally alive; pollute the planet with poo and industrial fertilizer; serve as hotbeds of virulent diseases (bird flu, swine flu, etc); run small family farms out of business through heavy-handed Mafia-like tactics, and generally assault our consciences. Fishing doesn't escape either - the current industrial fishing system often will throw back 90% of what it catches, after killing or mangling the creatures, and we're so efficient at using 75 mile long nets and sonar to catch fish that there's very little left to reproduce. He goes from this extreme (and likely accurate) view of the current agri- and aqua-business system to farmers trying to do things better. Michael Pollan's admiration for Polyface Farm doesn't escape the criticism that Polyface Farm uses a factory slaughterhouse and Joel Salatin's turkeys are the same genetically mangled birds that the factory farms use, that cannot naturally reproduce and die young because they can't walk after a certain age due to the size of their breasts, like sacrificial Barbies. He even finds a vegan who designs human slaughterhouses (mobile so as to keep the animals from stressing out during transportation), but of course the big slaughterhouse businesses put him out of business.
Foer's reaction to this bleak but accurate view of the way we get our meat is, for him, to stop eating meat. The whole reason he began looking into the food system is because after his son was born, he wanted the answer to the question "what should we feed him?" and further, "what should we feed ourselves?" He believes that the only morally, environmentally, and economically viable answer is to eat only vegetables and not kill animals. He doesn't say you're a bad person if you eat animals, just not informed enough, and he tries to inform you. That's the only conclusion he could draw.
But I don't think it's this black and white. Foer probably made a few thousand people stop eating meat. This has admirable environmental, ethical, biological, and economical ramifications. However, what if he'd made several million people dramatically reduce their meat consumption, so that it wasn't the culinary center of every meal? What if those millions then did their best to seek out meat that was organic, pasture-fed, family farm raised, and humanely slaughtered? Wouldn't this have a larger effect on the industry and actually cause less meat to be eaten than a few thousand newly-minted vegetarians?
Once we start to draw boxes around what we eat - no mammals or birds due to inhumane slaughtering, no fish due to overfishing, no non-organic veggies due to pesticides and Roundup, no non-heirloom vegetables due to the chokehold Monsanto has over plants' DNA (even soy), no dairy because of the treatment of dairy cows, no sugar because some diet says it's bad for you - what is left to eat? I have no problem with the rationale against those types of foods, but I have a problem with the uncompromising nature of drawing those boxes. You reach more people through moderation than through tee-totaling. And I think that's the conclusion I've reached after reading this and some Michael Pollan. Moderation is the best avenue down which to make the choices we wish to make. At least for me.