Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer - A Response


First of all, I need to say that I haven’t actually finished the book. This not at all because of the quality of it, it’s magnificent, but purely because I’m a pretty slow reader and after reading almost solely non-fiction books since January I needed a bit of a change and switched halfway through to reading Little Women as well.

I approached Eating Animals with trepidation. I am a meat eater, a true carnivore, I like eating meat and animals products and I can’t see myself stopping in the foreseeable future. I worried when I chose to read the book that I was going to be met with a barrage of shame inducing facts and stories and that Foer, the author, would be working his hardest to ‘convert’ me to veganism and produce in me a new-born activist. Call it resistance and fear of change, call it burying your head in the sand, I didn’t want this to happen.

Ever since reading the book last year, Ell-Leigh had urged me that I must too. I have long had on my reading list Foer’s other acclaimed work Everything Is Illuminated and I knew that, if I trusted the reviews, it would be a stand out piece of writing. I decided to give it a go, borrowing her copy, and warning her (and trying to convince myself), “Remember, I’m going into this as a person who still wants to eat meat. It will not convert me.” She, as did the many others who questioned how I was going with reading the book, raised her eyebrows with a ‘we’ll see’ manner and left me to it.

The first thing that I realised, with delight, when I read the first chapter was that Foer was not necessarily trying to convert me to anything except taking the time to be educated about a very important issue. He was not having a ‘right and wrong’ type conversation in this book and it was not as wholly didactic as I imagined it would be (in fact, I’m finding Little Women contains far more outright, ‘this is what you must do’ type sermons than Eating Animals). Instead, Foer tells a story in Eating Animals, in fact he tells a couple. Mainly, he tells the story of his relationship with food and all the influences that have led him to eat in the way that he does. He also tells the story of farming and how practices have changed over the centuries. He tells the stories of animals and how they live and people and how they eat. He does, too, tell facts, but they are not biased or framed in any way, they are just plain facts. In this book Foer lets the facts do the talking, something which so many writers have difficulty doing, and because of this it is a great book.

Others may feel differently, but I do not think that Foer’s ultimate aim for this book is to turn the whole world vegan. Instead, I think that the purpose is to impart knowledge, knowledge that has been well hidden and swept under the metaphorical rug of our thinking for decades, and to urge us to realise just how incredibly, life changing-ly important this knowledge is. I have always been a knowledge seeker, and fiercely (perhaps stubbornly) independent, and I have always want only to be told the correct information, not what to do with it. Foer understands this.

Eating Animals is filled with too many facts to easily pick favourites to share with you, but these are the bits of info that I will be acting on in my own eating first.

Taken from Words/Meaning chapter:
Free Range
“The USDA doesn’t even have a definition of free-range for laying hens and instead rlies on producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims…One can reliably assume that most ‘free-range’ (or ‘cage-free’) laying hens are debeaked, drugged, and cruelly slaughtered once ‘spent.’ I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.” P. 61

Taken from Hiding/Seeking:
I Am the Kind of Person Who Finds Herself on a Stranger’s Farm in the Middle of the Night
“I’m not a radical. In almost every way, I’m a middle-of-the-road person. I don’t have any piercings. No weird haircut. I don’t do drugs. Politically, I’m liberal on some issues and conservative on others. But see, factory farming is a middle-of-the-road issue – something most reasonable people would agree on if they had access to the truth.”

From the same chapter:
I Am a Factory Farmer:
“I’ve told you the drawbacks because I’m trying to be up-front with you. But in fact, we’ve got a tremendous system. Is it perfect? No. No system is perfect. And if you find someone who tells you he has a perfect way to feed billions and billions of people, well, you should take a careful look.

And from Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit:
“In 1967, there were more than one million hog farms in the country. Today there are a tenth as many, and in the past ten years alone, the number of farms raising pigs fell by more than two thirds. (Four companies now produce 60 percent of hogs in America.)”

What will I do now that I know all of this about my food and farming? Well, that’s a good question. Firstly, I’m going to finish the book, because it’s beautifully written and a simply amazing resource. I’m also going to stand by what I said when I began reading the book; I won’t be stopping consuming animal products. There are reasons, definitely selfish ones, for this, such as the inconvenience it would cause to myself and my household and the fact that I really enjoy how I eat. What I aim to do is continue educating myself about farming and food, and find a way to eat animal products cruelty and guilt free. I will not promise that this will be an overnight or radical change, because I know that that is a promise I cannot keep. It will be difficult, some think impossible, and those are the people who do eat vegan or vegetarian and I applaud them for it. I will endeavour to continue my quest for knowledge and encourage other people to do the same, because this is an incredibly important issue. Its importance is probably the biggest lesson I learnt when reading the book.

I encourage you to read Eating Animals, because, as we are always telling people and being told, knowledge is power. Empower yourself and take responsibility for your choices.

When I read this book for the first time last year, it was at a rather stressful point in my life. I was tired and exhausted after a three months trekking around a foreign country, two months of which I spent helping disabled kids from 6am to 12pm while eating a diet which was made almost entirely of eggs, sugary breads, vegetables which had been boiled to within an inch of their lives and a variety of processed meats, and not in that order. I was two days away from seeing my family again, and left in Santa Monica with no one that I knew, and just couldn’t wait to be hopping on the bus that would be taking me to the plane home so I didn’t have to entertain my sad, emotional self and my empty wallet in a foreign country any longer.

I had seen Jonathan Safran Foer speak on Ellen, and it had sparked a sequence of thoughts in me that had always been underlying my understanding of myself. I think I’d always seen myself as a caring, kind person, and to an extent I suppose I’d always seen myself as the type of person who would be a vegetarian, I just hadn’t gotten around to the whole, not eating meat part yet.

So after two months of digestive worries, 7 more kilos around the middle and an iron deficiency while I was at camp, I was looking to change. When I went to the bookstore to find something for the plane, Eating Animals was one of the first books I grabbed.

As I had read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close earlier in the year and adored it, but only read the first chapter of Everything Is Illuminated before feeling it hurt my brain too much with all the word play (this was during camp, when I was overworked, lacking in iron and was about to suffer from a huge sinus infection of DOOOOM, so, understandably, clever books were a bit beyond me. Instead I read the first book of the True Blood series…) I can’t say that I was super well acquainted with Foer’s work, but as I started Eating Animals I realised I had nothing to worry about.

The essence of Eating Animals is this: we eat what we do because of the stories we tell. The first chapter tells the story of Foer’s grandmother:

(Foer begins speaking at 1:41, and begins reading the first chapter of his book at 7:25 until about 13:10, but keep watching if you want to.)

This book is friendly and embraces you into Foer's family and thoughts with open arms. It's easy to read, and not in an “I’m writing an informative non-fiction book so I’d better make it entertaining” way that so many non-fiction authors I’ve read lately lean towards. This book is all heart and facts and history, without pulling any emotional blackmail. It informs the reader of some truly awful truths, but without judging or being harsh, in fact, it's manner is quite the opposite; the reader's ignorance and discomfort were once the author's too, and it is eased through a wise and articulate voice. 

In essence it is a collection of stories - many of them are the frighteningly horrible stories that are mostly swept under the carpet and replaced with tales of sunny farms with happy animals and bearded farmers and their chubby, cheerful wives - but there are also stories of vegetarian cattle farmers, happy turkeys at an almost entirely cruelty free non-GM turkey farm (and the hundreds of people having to order them a years in advance for thanksgiving dinners), the story of our suffering planet, all wrapped up in Foer’s own journey of understanding.

Through educating himself and in turn taking others on this learning journey readers are left with the question of what their own story will be. As he writes on page 252,

"We can't plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?"

What will your story be? When you come into this knowledge, do you make a change? It doesn't need to be a big one, perhaps start Meatless Monday (I can give you loads of great recipes!) or cut down on how many eggs you eat, and make sure the ones you do buy are from hens that were kept in good living conditions without being constantly fed hormones, antibiotics and other unnatural nasties. Find locally raised and killed, cruelty-free meat that was similarly well looked after. You don't need to stop eating it entirely (although it may do you a whole lot of good health wise... but that's another story for another blog) as I did after reading this book, but cut down how much you do eat, and choose what you do eat more consciously and know that you've changed your food story for the better.

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