I wrote a couple weeks ago about a clear-cut case of animal abuse that had caused Internet denizens the world over to grab their torches and pitchforks. No one likes cruelty for its own sake. Things get a little more complicated, though, when you’re talking about raising and slaughtering animals for food. We human beings are omnivores and animal husbandry has been part of our basic sustence for millenia, and frequently the opponents of the way we raise our food are hysterical and/or antagonistic, as if shocking us out of our habits is the only way to wake anyone up to the issues. Then, today, I heard a very reasonable voice in the person of Jonathan Safran Foer.
Foer’s third book, Eating Animals, is a nonfiction work “exposing” the problems with factory farming. I employ the quotation marks because, while I have not read the book yet, it doesn’t sound like any of what he is addressing is actually news — it’s no secret that the eventual effects of growth hormone use in commercial meat are unproven, or that 99% of the meat consumed in this country is grown on massive farms where the animals are kept in windowless rooms for most or all of their lives, or that CAFOs (combined animal feed operations) are one of the single most diabolical contributions to greenhouse gasses and water table pollution that humans have going.
Foer is not the first to cover this territory. “Death on a Factory Farm” is a terrific HBO documentary I saw last year wherein an animal rights activist went undercover and used a belt-buckle camera to film horrific cruelty toward food animals. Amazon is choked with books about factory farming and its effects of our environment. Hell, even Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a story about the various political interests and strata of society in early 20th century America, but all anyone ever talks about is the horrors through which Jurgis perserveres in the slaughterhouses of Chicago’s stockyards.
So, Alison and I heard Foer speak today at the National Book Festival on the Mall. I whispered to her that people came to hear about his fiction but he was clearly pushing his book; that said, he addressed questions related to factory farming in a measured and lucid tone. He professed himself a vegetarian, but conceded that it took him 20 years to reach that point because “meat smells good, and looks good.” He made the case against factory farming clearly and concisely, and effectively to my mind because he wasn’t looking to bring people to tears, but stacking the consequences of the practice – health, cruelty and the environment. He also noted that the things we know as children are gone by the time we are adults, that the world is no longer black and white when you begin to rationalize the things necessary to live.
The question-and-answer period was especially interesting. The inevitable jackass got up and asked him a question, then filmed the entire response – undoubtedly so they could post their “Interview with Jonathan Safran Foer” on their blog/site (Alison pointed that out). Others blathered on about how they were vegans and appreciated his efforts so much. But someone asked what he recommended, and it wasn’t that we stop raising and eating meat – he said take one day a week to cut meat out of our diet. If everyone in this country would refrain from meat one extra meal a week, it would be the equivalent of taking five million cars off the roads. This is reasonable. He pointed out that asking people to give up meat was extreme, but when people refused to cut down from 21 to 20 meals a week, he starts thinking, “that is a little pathological.” He also advocated finding better ways to raise the animals — free range would be a good start. Buying local, natural meat is another good idea. I’ve been looking for a meat coop akin to the farming collectives, and it’s difficult to find.
The other question that made me think was the woman (they were all women except the jackass filming for his blog) who asked what the response has been from the meat industry. There has been none, and Foer is a little disappointed in that fact. He professes to think it is because every news report is that the effects of factory farming are actually worse than anyone thought, so there is no effective defense to be mounted. Personally, I think it’s because he’s right when he says that the problem isn’t pork chops in the grocery story, but fast-food hamburgers and chicken nuggets. The kernel of the problem is that factory farming enables even poorer people to eat meat frequently, and that isn’t going to change. Just as with recycling and zero population growth and drug issues, the people who are in a position to understand the problems are not the ones with the problems. The meat industry doesn’t answer its challengers because in its arrogance and complacency, it knows that revelation isn’t going to change anything. That’s up to us to act locally, and there aren’t enough of us that give a shit.