Following the global smash success of his novels Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), Jonathan Safran Foer could have done literally anything he wanted for his third book. And while it’s safe to say he has defied many an expectation with Eating Animals, a sober investigation of factory farming in America, the book is hardly a naive vanity project. The 32-year-old spent three full years immersed in the red tape (figuratively) and fields of shit (literally) surrounding the U.S. meat and dairy industries, and came back with uniformly grim results: “Ninety-nine percent of all land animals eaten or used to produce milk and eggs in the United States are factory farmed.”
If that last term doesn’t strike a note of horror for you, here’s some context. Factory farms are where agriculture meets the cold, blunt logic of the assembly line. Here animals are raised by the tens of thousands in the most cramped and inhospitable quarters, where they’re pumped full of antibiotics, frequently driven insane or to cannibalism, and then hauled away and slaughtered by imprecise machinery at a scant 39 days old.
As Foer writes, “Factory farming’s success depends on consumers’ nostalgic images of food production”—say, sunshine, or soil, or an actual farmer—“because these images correspond to something we respect and trust.” In reality, however, none of these things are present.
Eating Animals is loaded with statistics to support its outrage, but Foer works best when he’s writing in the first person. His is a personal story with global implications. He isn’t making a straight-ahead case for vegetarianism (though he is one), and he devotes much of the book to visits to the few family-run farms that conduct business in a humane and sustainable way.
It’s a fascinating book, and it may well change the way you eat and think about meat.
Last week Foer spoke to me from his home in Brooklyn.
MH: You started thinking about the meat and dairy industries in detail when your wife was pregnant with your first child in 2005, and you were about to move from feeding yourself to feeding someone else. Do you remember the very first step you took once you realized this was a topic you wanted to investigate?
JSF: I don’t remember in which order I actually carried these out, but the first two things I did were go to a nutritionist, because if I found out [vegetarianism] wasn’t healthy for my kid, I just wasn’t going to do it, basically. Nothing is more important to me than my son’s health. As it turns out, any nutritionist who doesn’t have some sort of involvement with the meat industry now will tell you it’s at least as healthy, and almost all of them will tell you that it’s healthier, to at least seriously reduce meat consumption. Most will say just get rid of it altogether.
And then I believe my second stop was to Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York. Basically, I just wanted to see what animals were. I never really spent time around animals. And before knowing if farming practices sat well with me, I had to get some sense of who these animals were—what they are.
MH: The conversation about vegetarianism and factory farms has been going for several years now. What did you feel you had to add to the conversation?
JSF: I don’t think it’s a very vibrant conversation, actually. There has been a lot written about food, and some of it glances on the subject of meat, but I had not read a book that really went after meat as the bull’s-eye of the target in a conversational way. There are an awful lot of people who can read a work of philosophy about eating animals—a lot of very good, very thoughtful people—who aren’t persuaded to change. Because food has to do with more than just reason and statistics.
MH: One of the things the book handles well is the practical side of things—what a person can realistically do with all this information. I suppose it’s easy to poke holes, as some of your critics have, when you’re not trying to make the same kind of logically airtight arguments that a work of philosophy would have to.
JSF: Well, I still think of it as logically airtight. [Laughs.] It’s just that there’s clearly more to this conversation than that. There is no logical argument in favour of factory farming, or at least I haven’t heard it—and I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about this stuff. At every reading I’ve done, and I’ve read in front of all kinds of audiences now, I say, “Listen, what I would love right now is for someone to stand up and make an argument for factory farming.” It’s yet to happen, because there isn’t one to be made.
MH: You write that whenever someone found out you were writing a book about the meat industry, they assumed it would be pro-vegetarian, and how that illustrates a strange fact: we assume that any sustained investigation into factory farming is going to make the meat industry look bad. Why do we put up with an industry that we all, deep down, already know is evil?
JSF: Lots of different reasons. In part it’s because we know the gist of the evil but not the details of the evil, and the devil really is in the details here. Most people know that factory farming is bad, but they don’t know that more than 99% of animals are raised on factory farms—that it’s everything. They don’t know how systematized the environmental destruction is, how systematized the cruelty is. That it’s not an exception, it’s not a bad apple, it’s not a sadistic worker, it’s not malfunctioning machinery. It’s the plan. It’s how it was designed.
But also, food is more than what we know to be right and wrong. It’s our culture and our identity. You know, chicken soup when you’re sick, and your grandmother’s food, your parents’ food. It really matters. When people have tried to keep it out of the conversation, they’ve always failed.
MH: The key dilemma is, I think, summed up in the pun in the book’s title—that on the one hand we are eating animals, as in consuming them, but on the other we are ourselves animals, and as such are slaves to our stomachs. We have to eat something.
JSF: The whole problem is, you could say, simultaneously being and not being animals. In what ways does not being a farmed animal get us off the hook, and in what ways does it put us on the hook? [Pause.] That’s not the most fortunate choice of language, “on the hook.” Conjures bad images. That’s the tricky thing about writing a book about meat: everything becomes a pun accidentally, and usually a sexual pun.
MH: The book is packed with statistics. Which do you think are the most shocking, even to people who are vaguely aware of the cruelties at play?
JSF: It’s very hard to say—there’s so many different kinds of shocking. Ninety-nine percent of animals come from factory farms. It’s the number-one cause of global warming. It’s responsible for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than everything else put together. That’s startling. Learning that turkeys can’t reproduce sexually anymore.
Honestly, I never learned anything good. Most things in life are a mixed bag; this is not. As information comes in about the effects on the environment, about the effects on animals, about animal intelligence, about the effects on human health, we never learn that it’s better than we thought. We always learn that it’s worse than we thought. Always. I spent three years learning, and it continually got worse than I thought.
MH: A lot of what I like about Eating Animals is how it tries to negotiate between the extremes of all meat or no meat. In fact it’s full of people who exist in this middle space: the vegan who designs slaughterhouses, or the vegetarian who manages the Niman Farms chain. You call your own position—a vegetarian who advocates for humane farming—“not in the end a complicated position.”
JSF: Yeah. I mean, I’m not going to eat meat. I think the world would be better if people didn’t. But people are going to, so in the meantime what do we do? I went to farms that are radically better than factory farms. I wish that’s what our government was working to create more of.
MH: As far as that quote goes, though, I have to ask: at the risk of playing directly into your hand, how is that not a complicated position? If animal suffering is objective and inevitable, even on these better farms, why should anyone choose to contribute to this system?
JSF: I don’t think anyone should, actually. But people are going to. If the real goal is to create a better food supply, in every single respect, then in the world in which we now live, one really has to strongly advocate these small farms. You can continue to think that they’re wrong for you—maybe even in some more objective sense wrong. But there’s a massive, massive system to dismantle. It’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to do so.
Advocates at PETA would say we’re never going to have such a meat system. It’s just impossible. Small farmers would say the world is never going to go completely vegetarian. So do you want to just pretend that it will? And in the meantime endure the farming system we have? Or do you want to try to reform the farming system we have, and encourage people to eat less meat?
By the way, all of these small farmers agree that we need to eat less meat. You won’t find a reasonable person who denies that anymore. So that’s my position. I know some people seem to find it more complicated than I do, but for me it’s very straightforward.
MH: Eating Animals necessarily focuses on the American meat industry. In the course of your research, did you find examples of any other countries with a better handle on things?
JSF: Everyone has a better handle than America. America is the worst right now, but only by a little bit. I’m going to England in about a month—in America 99% of chickens are raised on factory farms, and in Britain it’s 95%. In America about 83% of pigs, and over there it’s about 68%. So by no great stretch is it good.
MH: Did you come across anything about the Canadian system?
JSF: I didn’t, actually. I really don’t know very much. It would be quite easy to find out, though. I’m virtually positive it’s the same for poultry and hogs, and I bet you for cattle it’s better. You typically use your land more wisely, and you have more land to use.
MH: I’d like to press you a little on a few more points. More than once you draw parallels between animal and human suffering: there’s a war metaphor, some slavery imagery, and even a reference to genocide. If that’s the case—if there is a continuum there—why write about animals at all? Why not take on those issues that directly affect humans on a large scale, instead of this indirect one?
JSF: Well, it’s not that indirect if it’s the number-one cause of global warming, and if it’s one of the top two or three causes of, as the UN says, every single environmental problem in the world, locally and globally. Obviously I’m not writing it strictly from the perspective of “This is what’s good for humans,” although I hope it’s also obvious that that’s a large component of the book. Caring is not a zero-sum game. It’s not like one cares about this at the expense of caring about other things. People who care about one thing tend to care about other things.
But I think when that argument is made, it’s not really an argument. When people talk about, “Should we really care about this when there are starving children?” there’s something disingenuous about it, and it tends not to come from people who are devoting their lives to feeding starving children. It’s often an argument presented out of convenience.
Do I think that animals deserve our attention more than people do? No. Obviously not. Do I think that there are some very, very good books out there about problems of genocide, or about Africa? There are. There really are not books about meat. One doesn’t need to think it’s the most important problem in the world to think that it’s a problem that really needs to be addressed.
MH: Elsewhere you say that you’re not convinced that letting people kill their own meat is justification for eating it. You call it “very silly.” But isn’t the biggest problem in the current market precisely that disconnect between cause and effect?
JSF: Yes, but that’s sort of like saying if we had to murder people ourselves, we wouldn’t do it. That’s true, but it doesn’t imply that we should. I think the best thing to do is not to go kill an animal, but go to a factory farm. See 30,000 of them in a shed. Spend as much time there as you can. That, to me, makes a lot of sense. The problem is it’s far easier to go find an animal to kill than to find a factory farm to take a tour of.
MH: The detail you talk about in the book is the locked doors on these massive sheds—the utter privacy that factory farms require to protect themselves.
JSF: Yeah. It’s an entire industry that asks for our money, asks us to ingest their products into our bodies, give them to our families, and will not let you see how they’re made. It’s crazy. Who wouldn’t get pissed off about that?
Little, Brown and Company, 352 pp., $31.99, hardcover
(interview originally appeared in SEE Magazine, December 17, 2009)