60 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.
I have to admit I have mixed feelings about Jonathon Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I have been a vegetarian for a long time, and I have just this month decided to try going vegan, at least for a time. I’ve also been sensitive to animal issues my whole life. When I was 9, I wrote to tuna companies asking them to quit catching tuna because they were catching dolphins too. That same year, I quit eating cows because they were my friends. I am exactly the kind of person Foer is talking to in this book.
The book itself is well done and balanced and thought provoking. Foer may have changed my mind about a few things despite the fact that I was basically already getting there on my own.
I’m uncomfortable with the message of the book because I don’t want to be a crusader. I don’t think it’s any of my business what other people choose to eat, and taking up the cause of veganism as animal rights activism would definitely cast me in the role of judge. That said, even Foer doesn’t argue against eating meat entirely. What his book argues against is factory farming of animals. The crime is not killing the animals for food. It is keeping them in horrific circumstances during their lives.
My idea when I was 9 was that if I could eat an animal that was a stranger this wouldn’t be as bad as eating an animal that was a friend. Foer actually argues for the opposite. He presents cases where people grow animals for food and give them comfortable lives in the meantime. These people the book is okay with. They are even praised.
So if you could afford your own little farm where you had a pond or two full of fish, a few cattle, some chickens and pigs and goats, and you treated the animals well, took care of their health needs and gave them plenty of room to be comfortable and happy, that would be okay by Foer. If you harvested what your family needed from your little farm and maybe hunted some to supplement, maybe even sold some of your animals locally to help pay for your whole operation, that would not be the same thing as consuming factory farmed animals.
This is the way things were done only a couple of generations back, and in his own way Foer is taking up the cause of Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry in claiming that the hyper-commercialization of food sources has been bad for everyone.
I agree with that much. It’s the disconnection between people and their food sources that has led to the mass production of foods that are neither good for us nor ethically produced. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Mass production has meant disconnection.
Chicken nuggets, for example, are probably one of the most unhealthy foods produced on this planet, yet they are fed by the millions to children by people who would never deliberately give their children something bad for them. People have no concept of how their food is made or where the ingredients come from. They certainly have no concept of how the animals sacrificed for the food were treated.
This is where he hooks me in. I haven’t eaten chicken since the early 90s, but I have been eating eggs. I’ve been eating them without thinking about how they were produced. I would check the package to make sure they came from Mississippi. Chickens are a big industry here, and I considered it to be a good thing to support a local industry. But this is still industrialized farming of animals, and if I stop to think about the chickens all crowded into the huge chicken houses with no room to move around, it’s a little harder to eat the egg. When I think about the chickens fed hormones and antibiotics because that’s the only way large populations of animals can be sustained in cramped conditions, it gets even harder.
I really started thinking about this after reading Alice Walker’s The Chicken Chronicles. She kept chickens for eggs, but they were her pets. They had personalities. They were aware of their own circumstances. They were capable of expressing joy and fear and pain and affection. She made me see the chickens as sentient beings deserving of the same chance at a happy life that we would want to give to a cat or a dog.
I don’t see how a chicken could possibly be happy living in a large commercial chicken house crowded with hundreds of other birds. These houses are not designed for the comfort of the chicken. I am convinced that keeping chickens in these conditions is unethical. This is something that just shouldn’t happen. If we found puppies in the conditions that chickens are routinely kept in, there would be an outcry, and there would fines and legal charges brought against the people who had done it. Yet chickens that are just as capable of understanding their own pain are kept in these conditions, and at the end of the day, everyone goes to the grocery store and buys the meat.
This is wrong, and I am horrified by the thought of it.
At the same time, however, I still don’t want to be a crusader. The people who run large chicken houses are trying to make a living in one of the few ways available to them. The people who buy the meat are trying to feed their families in the best way they know how and can afford. No one is in it because they are trying to be cruel to animals. They are all just getting by in life, and the big chicken houses that are no good place for a chicken do feed a lot of people.
Chickens are a big industry here, and Mississippi can’t afford to lose any of its jobs.
It would be pretty to imagine that we could all get our food from small farms that we have personal connections to. It would be nice to think that if we are going to eat an egg, we would keep the chicken ourselves and know that it has been treated with kindness.
All of the things that are being called for in this movement for a stronger connection between the eater and the food source are things my grandparents did. They had a few animals that were used to feed the family. They gathered eggs from chickens that roamed the barnyard. They fished and hunted for food. They grew their own crops. They knew exactly where everything they ate came from and how it was processed before it reached their mouths.
They called this being poor.
Today you would have to be rich to live like that. No one would voluntarily endure the kind of poverty where a drought meant you didn’t eat if they could instead work at a factory job and buy their food in cans and boxes and over-processed nuggets.
Thus, while I believe in the cause of closer connections to food sources and a healthier and more ethical treatment of food sources, I also believe in practicalities and in leaving people be with the choices they make in a simple effort to get by with the life they were given.
Living on foods that are not factory produced is neither cheap nor easy.
I agree with much of what Foer says, and I am doing much of what he says, but when it comes to taking an activist stance on food, I cannot forget this. I am taking the more difficult path, and I just can’t ask others to follow along.
Read this book if you are interested in food issues and/or animal welfare issues. It is a well-written and thoughtful book. It is one that will stay in your head. It may even put you off your eggs. Be prepared for that.