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Jonathan Safran Foer on 'Eating Animals'

Author Jonathan Safran Foer.
Author Jonathan Safran Foer. (By C. Scuolalibrai/giuseppe Aliprandi)

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Jonathan Safran Foer
Author and vegetarian
Thursday, November 19, 2009; 1:00 PM

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will be online Thursday, Nov. 19 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his new book Eating Animals.

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Eating Animals is an exploration of what we eat and why, and how what we eat affects our lives and the environment. Inspired by his impending fatherhood and the responsibility of making dietary choices for his child, Foer set out to discover what exactly meat is, how it gets to our tables, and how we define what's acceptable to consume and what isn't.

A transcript follows.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestseller Everything Is Illuminated, named Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the winner of numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize. Foer was one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year" and Esquire's "Best and Brightest."

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Jonathan Safran Foer: Hello all. I'm so happy to be "here" with you for the next hour. Can't wait to get started on what I hope is a vibrant, honest conversation. Please feel free to ask anything that's on your mind, and I'll do my best to get right to the point.

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Washington, DC: Jonathan,

Big fan of your work, though as a meat-eater I am a bit nervous to read this book! I have mostly cut red meat out of my diet, but still eat a lot of chicken, fish, and a steak every once in a while. I have tried to go vegan and found that although I like the food, I am not a good enough cook, nor do I have enough time for it. Given my reality, what are some things I can do to reduce my carbon footprint and ensure that I am not perpetuating inhumane practices at large farming operations? Are local co-ops the way to go? Thanks.

Jonathan Safran Foer: It's a mistake to think about these issues in a black-and-white way. The words "vegetarian" and "vegan" have done a disservice to the conversation, because they imply that one either is or isn't, where the reality is that most everyone falls somewhere between the extremes. We shouldn't be intimidated by someone else's idea of perfection if it will prevent us from taking steps we actively want to take. Rather than trying to go vegan tomorrow, why not cut out one serving of meat a week. (If all Americans did that, it would be the equivalent of taking 5,000,000 cars off the road!) See how it feels? If it feels good---and I bet it will---do more.

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Avon, Conn.: If one makes an ethical argument not to eat meat because it's killing a living thing, where do you draw the line? Cows? Fish? Chicken eggs? Plants?

Jonathan Safran Foer: That's not really my argument. My argument is that we should not make living things spend their entire lives in cramped enclosures, without exposure to the sun, while being fed grossly unnatural diets. I don't get into the philosophical argument of whether or not it's "right" to eat animals, because I don't think it's the important question. The important question---whose answer almost everyone agrees on, when exposed to the realities---is, "Is it right to eat animals given the ways we are actually raising and killing them?"

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Demographers point out that half of all people alive in the last 2,000 years are alive right now. We are consuming food at extreme historic rates. What does this mean to the animal world that we are consuming as well as to the future of the animal kingdom?

Jonathan Safran Foer: We now raise 50 billion (that's a "b" not an "m") animals in factory farms every year. If China and India take up our eating habits---and the world population doesn't increase at all---we will have to raise twice as many animals. There simply isn't enough land on earth to humanely and sustainably farm the amount of meat we "want" to eat. Americans now eat 150 times as much chicken as we did 80 years ago. Hard to call that radical a change a "consumer preference." One thing that every environmentalist, animal activist, nutritionist and small or family farmer agrees on is that we need to eat less meat.

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Washington, DC: I'm about halfway through your book, so maybe this becomes clearer at the end, but are you opposed to eating animals on principle or because of the way they are currently raised and slaughtered in the factory farming system?

By the way, my 13-year-old daughter picked up your book from my night table and she is very engrossed by it -- no small feat since she is a very reluctant reader. Thank you!

Jonathan Safran Foer: I'm so happy to hear that your daughter is reading it. Young people engage with this issue in a very powerful way. 18% of college students now describe themselves as vegetarian. There are more vegetarians than Catholics at American universities, and more than any major except for business. So this is not a fringe choice, but a very mainstream one. And it appeals to such mainstream values. It isn't liberal or conservative, rural or urban to care about animal cruelty. And it isn't Democrat or Republican, East Coast, West Coast or Middle America to care about the quality of the air we breathe and water we drink. No one needs new values to know that factory farming is wrong.

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Romeo, Colo.: Jonathan - can you please discuss your view on whether religious beliefs have led to a human-centric attitude of entitlement toward animals? Thank you - Jennifer

Jonathan Safran Foer: I would say not at all. In fact, religious people, in my experience, tend to have a powerful connection to the notions of dominion and stewardship. Evangelicals are now at the forefront of the environmental movement, and there are good reasons to think they will also be at the forefront of animal welfare. Everyone should read Matthew Scully's wonderful book DOMINION to get a sense of the Christian response to the problem of factory farming.

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Olney, Md.: I don't believe in harming animals needlessly, and I hate the thought of puppy mills, dogfighting, etc. However, I love meat. I love burgers, and pepperoni pizza, and Thanksgiving turkey, and steak quesadillas. I don't like beans or any kind of legumes, for that matter. I do like pasta, but, when I order salads, I most often eat off all the toppings and leave the lion's share of the lettuce. I'd have a hard time being a vegetarian, and I could never be a vegan (love eggs and cheese and milk too much). I do wish there would be more humane treatment of farm animals, but I can't give up my meat.

Jonathan Safran Foer: I appreciate where you're coming from. Could you remove meat from one meal a week? That's a place to start. Maybe two meals a week? And what about trying to buy your meat from a green/farmer's market, rather than the supermarket (where it's all but certainly factory farmed)? It will cost more, but it will also taste better. And while it's impossible to know just how humanely the animals were raised, you can be sure that it's a world of difference from factory farming.

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Harrisburg. Pa.: Many animals are bred to be much larger than they were a few decades ago. Is it possible to pass along the chemicals that make animals grow larger so that we consume them? Does this pose any health risks?

Jonathan Safran Foer: The truth is we don't know for sure. We've made science experiments of ourselves and our children. We do know that cows fed growth hormones are more likely to have twins, and that humans who drink milk (from cows given growth hormones) are more likely to have twins. (American women who drink milk are three times as likely to have twins as American women who don't.) These are only correlations. They don't necessarily prove anything. But it's quite scary now to know, isn't it, just what the effects of eating this drug-laden meat is?

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Boston: I've been a veggie for 15 years. While there is now a better selection of non-meat products in grocery stores, it's still rare to see more than one veggie option on most restaurant menus. (Often, the option is boring pasta primavera.) Why don't chefs have more imagination? Or is it simply that they can charge more for meat?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Restaurants serve what people ask for, so every time you're in a restaurant, ask the waiter if there are other vegetarian options than what's on the menu. Enough people ask and the waiter takes the question to the chef. Chefs don't want to push food down people's throats; they want to make people happy and full. It's the same with farming. Farmers grow what they're asked to grow. So we need to constantly find ways---with our money, with our questions---to ask for different things.

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DC Veggie: What do I say to the idiotic line, "But they taste good" ???

Jonathan Safran Foer: Sex feels good, but we don't go around having sex with anyone that attracts our attention. We say no to lots of things that would please us. I would like to punch people every now and then, but I don't. I would like to have something for free rather than pay for it. I would like to skip to the front of the line... I don't mean to brush aside the taste of meat, which is a powerful attraction. But its power is not without limit.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Mr. Foer,

First off, thanks for adding your voice to the rising chorus of those concerned about the food we eat.

If this is a battle between the average person and Agribusiness, is there any possibility the current increase in food awareness can win? I feel like we are all such small voices in this wilderness.

Jonathan Safran Foer: We are winning, because we are everyone. NO ONE who doesn't have a vested interest in it likes factory farming. Free roaming and cage free eggs are the fastest growing sector in the food industry not because they taste better or because they're better for us, but because people think it's wrong to cram animals into cages for their entire lives. And not just people taking bong hits on their porches in Berkeley. These are fundamentally American values. If anything, they're conservative. These are the values that have guided farming for literally thousands of years. And they've been completely upended in the last fifty. The more exposure people have to the realities of factory farming, the more we will see people rejecting it. It's already happening.

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Richmond, Va.: You mention religious people as having forward thinking attitudes towards the idea of dominion and stewardship over animals, but those two terms actually strike me as contradictory. Dominion implies a certain kind of right, while stewardship implies a responsibility. I'm not sure if the idea of dominion is really a productive one when trying to consider the welfare of animals - do you? If so, in what way?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I mean Dominion in the sense that Matthew Scully uses it: having mercy for those that are under our power. To say that animals are under our power is not a judgment but a statement of fact. The decisions we make about how to occupy the earth will determine their lives. There are merciful ways of exercising this power, thoughtless ways, and downright cruel ones. Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) encourage mercy.

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London, UK: Why do you think so many people drag out the evolution excuse when it comes to eating meat? i.e. that humans evolved to eat meat; therefore it is healthier for us to do so.

What's a good rebuttal to this, other than pointing out the many healthy vegetarians and vegans?

Jonathan Safran Foer: The rebuttal is: so what? We evolved to do all kinds of things that we don't do, because the most important piece of human evolution was the brain. We are not lions. We have the ability to develop values and act on them. I can't think of anything more evolved than saying no to something for ethical reasons.

As for health, this is a dead-end argument. The American Dietetic Association has said that a veg diet is at least as healthy as a omnivorous one for every stage of life, from newborn to lactating mother to old age. Vegetarians tend to have a MORE OPTIMAL protein intake than meat eaters. As Michael Pollan writes in IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, there is an overabundance of nutritional information out there, and it can get quite confusing. But one fact that no one can get around is that vegetarians live longer. If that isn't evolutionarily good for us, hard to imagine what we're talking about.

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New types of meat?: First off, I'm not a vegetarian, but I -do- abstain from all meat meals all the time, and I loathe factory farming. My question is will we be able to "grow" meat? I've heard there are labs working on just that very thing. It would solve a lot of issues--is this a realistic possibility in our future?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I love hearing from someone like this. You're not worried about labeling your diet, you're worried about what's actually going on in the world. It's a wonderful model.

As for growing meat in labs, I really don't know. I do find funny the "yuck" reaction that many people have to this notion. They should see what's happening on farms and in slaughterhouses if they want real yuck.

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La Plata, Md.: "NO ONE who doesn't have a vested interest in it likes factory farming."

Ah, but almost EVERYONE has a vested interest in Factory Farming. It produces nutritious, affordable food. The boutique-produced products are out of reach for almost all of the world's population.

No one wants to really think about factory farming, or about working in a slaughterhouse, but almost everybody wants the results of both and will never give them up. Nothing wrong with a personal choice to avoid this process, but it is immoral to try to force the human race to do so.

Jonathan Safran Foer: No, factory farming does not produce nutritious, affordable food. It is the leading cause of foodbourne illness (according to the CDC), is making our antibiotics less effective (according to the WHO), and is a decisive factor in the generation of avian and swine flus. And it is not affordable. All of the costs have been externalized. Who ultimately pays for it being the #1 cause of global warming? Who pays for it being the top 2 or 3 causes (as was recently reported by the UN) of every significant environmental problem in the world, locally and globally? Who pays for heart disease, stroke, cancer and obesity (to which meat intake has been linked)?

There's nothing immoral about campaigning to end an immoral system. It would be immoral to sit on one's hands and let it spread across the world, as it is now doing.

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Mt. Rainier, Md.: I want to care about the health and well-being of cows and chickens and pigs. Really, I do. But I don't. How can you convince me to eat less meat if I could not care less if 10,000,000,000 chickens or cows are tortured?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I couldn't. You are on the periphery of society---96% of Americans think animals should have legal protection. But you have every right to be.

Perhaps the environmental arguments mean something to you? Perhaps you like breathing good air, drinking good water? Perhaps you don't want E. Coli or campylobactor. Perhaps you like your antibiotics to work when you're ill? Perhaps not.

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Richmond, Va.: As an avid hunter, I'm wondering what your take is on eating wild game. As I'm sure you know, wild game is high in protein and low in fat and has none of the ethical issues that come with factory-farmed meat. It tastes pretty good, too. Do you address hunting and game in your book?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I don't get into hunting in my book. There clearly are some ethical issues, though, as I understand it. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it very often the case that you don't kill an animal quickly? That is, it takes multiple shots (or arrows) and sometimes quite a long time? And unlike factory farming, where slaughter is a reprieve, with hunting, you're killing something that is in all likelihood having a reasonably "good" life? And killing it not because you need to eat the meat---even if you do eat it---but because you want to kill something? I guess I don't find the desire to kill something for the sake of killing it all that compelling. Of course you're right that those animals do get to live their lives unconstrained and in nature. But if we agree that that is a good thing---and if we're not talking about a population of animals that needs to be culled---why not just let them keep living?

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Washington, DC: We consume animals raised and slaughtered in places which we are forbidden to visit or to observe. Unbelievable. What can we do to pressure the government to allow or require these places to open themselves up to the public?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Talk about it, write about it (to your representatives, to your newspaper), and most importantly, stop buying the products of anyone who won't let you see how their products are made.

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San Francisco: Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel responded to your book by saying that he is unsure whether animals feel pain. You described his retort as "respectful." Do you truly believe that it is respectful of animals to ignore their obvious capacity for pain?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I can say that in my three years of research, I didn't meet a farmer, slaughterer, or vet that even questioned whether or not animals feel pain. And to me, the appropriate response to being unsure is to be generous---to assume they do.

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Herndon, Va.: I read your book, enjoyed it, and it truly gave me a new perspective on the food I eat. I've already cut back on the meat that I eat, but have not gone 100%. If you had to eat meat, which meats would be more preferable and least preferable?

Jonathan Safran Foer: It all depends on what you care about. Beef is clearly best for animal welfare, as almost all of them still spend some time on pasture---and, of course, they are big. (It takes about 220 chickens to produce the meat of one cow.) Egg laying hens almost certainly have it worst in terms of welfare, although pregnant pigs come in a close second. In terms of the environment thought, beef and fish are probably what you'd want to stay away from. So that's your choice...

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Fairfax, Va.: A rabbit has its eyes on the sides of its head so that it has wider peripheral vision to locate and keep track of predators who would catch and eat him.

The coyote has its eyes located on the front of his head so that he can stay focused on the rabbit he is chasing which will be his next meal.

If you look at yourself in the mirror you will notice that if you are a normal human that your eyes are in the front of your head. This means that we human beings were conceived in the eyes of out Creator to be predators.

My ancestors did not spend millennia fighting their way to the top of the food chain so that I could eat a tofu turkey on Thanksgiving. Sorry bucko, WRONG ANSWER!

Jonathan Safran Foer: Do you think your ancestors spend millennia fighting their way to the top of the food chain so you could eat an animal that cannot reproduce sexually? An animal that cannot survive outside? An animal that must be fed a steady diet of antibiotics and other antimicrobials? Because that's what you're buying, bucko. I'm not asking you to buy a tofu turkey. Frankly, sounds unappealing to me. And I'm not trying to pry your meat from your clammy hands. Just trying to share with you that the turkey you are actually getting is nothing like the turkey you're most likely imagining.

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Jonathan Safran Foer: Time's up, I'm afraid. But as a final note, I just want to say one last time that this is not vegetarians against meat-eaters. It's people who care against people who don't. And I know many, many meat-eaters who care tremendously about how animals are treated, and what happens to the environment. We need to make sure we don't get distracted by our differences when what we share is so much more important.

Thanks...

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