By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown. 341 pp. $25.99
It's tempting to dismiss Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" as the product of a cocky, self-involved writer who woke up one day and discovered factory farming. Haven't Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser et al. been here before? More than 20 years after "60 Minutes" visited a chicken-processing plant, do we need another dive into the "fecal soup" that Diane Sawyer described?
Perhaps not. But Foer's particular brand of modernist prose, as made famous in his novels "Everything Is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," does serve to bring another round of scrutiny -- and a new demographic of reader -- to the kinds of farms that, as he puts it, "treat living animals like dead ones."
The catalyst for Foer's three years of research into what became his first nonfiction book was the impending birth of his son. When presented with the challenge of deciding the diet of his offspring, he wanted answers about meat: "Where does it come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter?" Foer casts himself as a philosopher-scientist-author-activist who is sensitive to the moral imperative of humans and to "the health of the largest ecosystems on our planet" and who sees industrial farming as a central problem.
From the outset, Foer's perspective seems as one-sided as PETA's; readers have little doubt that he has not only decided on vegetarianism, but wants to proselytize about it. That can make the book a tough read for someone like me, and I'm probably Foer's target audience: an animal lover who also happens to find carnivory deeply satisfying, perhaps even on a primal level. Reading it on my couch while eating pork tacos as my 90-pound Doberman rested his head in my lap, I wanted to drop the book when I got to Foer's Swiftian argument that what I really should've been eating was my dog. His point is to set up dogs as no more intelligent -- and therefore no more deserving of affection and protection -- than livestock. "Can the familiarity of the animals we have come to know as companions be a guide to us as we think about the animals we eat?" he writes.
"Eating Animals" suffers from Foer's sometimes-sanctimonious attitude and the same over-the-top writing that has always divided his readers into love-him or hate-him camps. In a chapter about food-borne illness and the connections between industrial farming and swine flu, he opines: "When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own." (I'd be surprised if "Tortured Flesh" weren't an early contender for the book's title.)
Foer devotes much energy to environmental impacts, dropping such statistics into the mix as the fact that animal agriculture makes a 40 percent greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined. In true modernist style, he also makes use of graphic devices between chapters, printing, for instance, a 67-square-inch rectangle to represent the actual size of the typical cage for egg-laying hens -- and about the same amount of space that most of those who are raised "cage-free" (but still pressed on all sides by thousands of other birds) get, too.
After he sneaks onto an industrial turkey farm with an animal activist known only as "C," Foer allows her to contribute a first-person essay. While she makes some extreme statements, such as "Why doesn't a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to killing and eating it?," she also has plenty of more reasonable arguments, such as "When we walk around thinking we have a greater right to eat an animal than the animal has a right to live without suffering, it's corrupting." Foer follows C's essay with one by a retired factory farmer, who writes, "High-yield farming has allowed everyone to eat." By allowing these and other voices into the debate, apparently unfiltered, Foer eases up on the diatribe and manages to facilitate something of a conversation.
Ultimately, Foer insists that his is not a call to vegetarianism as much as a call to acknowledge that meat matters. After he has described in brutal detail some of the horrors of industrial slaughterhouses, his visits to heroic farmers such as Frank Reese and Bill Niman demonstrate that the choice doesn't have to be between eating meat and not. So-called compassionate carnivores can choose to seek out meat from family farms that would sooner set their barns on fire than let an animal suffer, although Foer points out that such farms produce less than 1 percent of the animal meat in the country. None of this is simple. Even some of the book's good guys, such as Niman, allow branding, castration and removal of cattle's horn buds with hot irons. Moreover, as Foer was finishing his research, Niman was forced out of the company he founded, saying new owners were more concerned about profits than animal welfare; he publicly proclaimed that he would no longer eat Niman Ranch meat.
Nicolette Hahn Niman, Bill's wife and author of her own 2009 book about livestock farming, "Righteous Porkchop," wrote a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times that didn't directly refer to Foer but seemed tailor-made to answer him. In it, she took issue with "overly simplistic" assertions that meat production is inordinately responsible for global warming and said that small farms that pasture-graze their animals actually minimize greenhouse gases. In a follow-up on the Atlantic Food Channel, she asserted that the best way to make a difference is to support farms that humanely raise animals for food. What she doesn't say in either piece is that she abandoned the consumption, if not the raising, of meat many years ago. Like Foer, she is a vegetarian.
Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Post.