Monday, April 5, 2010

Eating Animals



If this book had been written by Morgan Spurlock, I would have assumed it was ghostwritten but, more importantly, I wouldn't have picked it up in the first place. If it had Eric Schlosser's name on the cover, I might have opted to read it and would have been disappointed in the quality of research.

The only reason I read this book, however, is that it was written by Jonathan Safran Foer. His first venture into non-fiction after two amazing fictional works, the book is distinctly his. From the cover font to the multiple narrators to the use of fonts to invoke certain imagery, the book looks exactly like his novels.

I admire Foer for maintaining his style and to use his literary success to push his beliefs. Like Bono using the concert stage as his pulpit for preaching his causes or Clooney et al who use their celebrity to increase awareness of problems important to them, Foer is trying to invoke change through his audience.

In Foer's case, the change is to move people to a life of vegetarianism. Foer takes a different tact than most, though, by focusing on the horrific institution of the factory farm. There's no preaching of health benefits. Instead, this book is about how the animals we eat are largely genetically-altered, filthy creatures that bear no resemblance to what was eaten a century ago. It is also about the cruel and brutal practices that these corporation run farms use to transform these animals into the plentiful foodstuffs that we purchase and consume from grocery stores and restaurants. Without quite coming out and saying it directly, Foer seems to make the case that being an omnivore is immoral.

Maybe he has a point. Heaven knows corporations have a huge influence on this country and what we do. We allow this influence without much thought and in some cases, with a sense of helplessness. Fluctuating cable bills, an error in a banking statement, sweatshop conditions for workers, and on and on and on. We all have our issues with the faceless institutions that drive our economy. By allowing corporations to continue their shady practices, we are giving them our tacit consent to continue operating as they do.

Foer tries to argue that we can take a stand against factory-farms and the abuses of the animals and the environment that result from their practices by becoming vegetarian. It's a nice thought and probably a worthwhile cause. But I don't know that it differs from so many other nice thoughts and causes.

The biggest problem I see, at least from my own standpoint, is one Foer has in a sentence four pages from the end of the book. "the factory farm requires us to suppress conscience in favor of craving". Yes, it does, and we are good at suppressing. It's not news that the "farms" that provide us with meat are bastions of filth and disease. It's not hard to assume that animals are not cared for well at these places and that there are instances, possibly frequent, of sadistic treatment of these animals. We are also well aware that fast food is not good for us, we should not drink and drive, that smoking is hazardous to our health, we should not engage in drug use or unprotected sex, that SUV's waste fuel, etc. We are well aware that we engage in practices that are not in our best interests and we do it because we crave. Foer is asking us to forgo these cravings in the interests of anonymous animals. It's noble but I think futile. We've seen it with environmental causes as well. Give up our oil to protect endangered species? Who cares about the birds in Alaska? Preserve open space when a perfectly good community of identical 4000 square foot homes can fill it? Pshaw.

Of the list of things I mentioned above, I feel like two have been restricted in my lifetime. I think when gas prices rose and the economy worsened, that SUV owners felt the impact on their pocketbooks and changed their behaviors. With smoking, the government stepped in (I've always wondered what happened with the tobacco lobbyists and how they failed to prevent this) and imposed severe restrictions on the companies that created cigarettes. I think one or the other needs to happen for factory farms to vanish. Either something needs to happen to cause the price of meat to rise to the point where we need alternatives or government restrictions on how animals are cared for and processed need to occur. I don't see either happening.

As a matter of fact, I was about a quarter of the way through the book and I was telling Gaga, who is 15, about it. He listened to me and responded "I feel sorry for the factory farms". He went on to say that he felt like they produce a lot of food for a lot of people and have to do so quickly and economically. That is an issue. Foer talks about the inefficiency of factory farms in terms of the amount of calories of grains needed to create a lesser amount of calories of meat. But I don't know that a diet composed largely of grains would be suitable for humans. And if everyone went vegetarian, where would we get the food. Living in the Northeast all my life and being vegetarian for many, many years, it really sucked from November until March. Your options are frozen, canned, shipped long distances and spoiling, or insipid greenhouse grown crap. Is that a better diet than the freakish meat we're eating? I don't know. Trying to determine what is the "proper" way to eat nutrition-wise is a challenge unto itself.

This is a really long review because this is an important issue to me. I have fought with weight issues all my life. After gorging myself yesterday at Easter my three year old niece said that I "look like I have a baby in my tummy". I ate vegetarian for a long time because I felt better when I did. I ate meat again when I realized I had shifted to more grain than veggies. I ate more meat when I became interested in increased muscle strength and felt I needed meat protein for muscle growth. I don't know what or how much I should eat to adequately fuel my body and provide it with the nutrition I need. Beyond that, I'm a sucker to my cravings. My diet is a Gordian knot that will hopefully not come undone by my heart attack in five years.

Let me return to the book and not the issue before I wrap up. I mentioned the research in the opening paragraph. The book is footnoted well but Foer makes leaps and does calculations that don't always make sense. For example:

"The Freedom of Information Act request indicates that three million birds were scalded alive in 1993, when only seven billion birds were slaughtered. Adjusting for the fact that today nine billion birds are slaughtered, we can assume that at least 3.85 million birds are scalded alive today".

Uh, no we can't. That's like saying there were 50,000,000 black and white televisions in 1993 in a country with 250,000,000 people. Adjusting for the fact that today there are 309,000,000 people, we can assume that there are at least 60,000,000 black and white televisions today. Or replace televisions with computers for the other direction. In 1993, less than a quarter of U.S. households had a computer. Now, the majority have. You can't extrapolate over seventeen years and make the assumption that conditions have been constant. Maybe bird scaldings have been reduced. Maybe they've worsened. We can't predict based on a single number from 1993.

That leads to my biggest problem with the book. It's high on sensationalism. Foer repeats the same numbers multiple times. He describes awful conditions. He uses selected instances and selective interviews and extrapolates to generalizations. He tries to use interviews and documents from within the industry as damnation of the industry. It doesn't do to have a vegetarian criticize the meat industry but what about someone who works in the meat industry who is a vegetarian?!?!? Oooh. How do they cope with that? Why would someone who slaughters animals be a vegetarian? The conundrum! Likewise, taking data from industry publications to exemplify a problem and not noting that the data comes from an article specifically about that problem which the industry is aware of and trying to resolve and which is the reason for the article in the first place just seems misguided and even wrong.

Also, there's some selective non-citation going on. Foer repeatedly cites a farmer by the name of Frank Reese who he says exemplifies how animal farming should be done. Reese is the only USDA-approved "Heritage Turkey" farmer meaning that Reese is the only person who has turkeys from pre-Frankenstein genetic modification days. His treatment of the animals is very humane. If we're going to eat meat, Reese provides meat in a sustainable, moral way. Does Foer mention the name of Reese's farm? Does he give a website or address? No and no. My guess is that is because it takes away from the vegetarian message.

Despite my criticisms, I am giving it a one-star review. Foer makes you think. From the time I started reading the book, I didn't eat meat without thinking about it and relating what I had read to it. Still ate it but I was thinking about it. His writing is excellent as always. And I admire him for writing this. I expect that the malice he has received based on his early successes probably helped enable him to write this. "People hate me anyway, why not write something provocative that is important to me"? That's speculation as to the reason but he was willing to take a stance on a divisive issue and use his talents and fame to promote that stance and successfully did so, even with flaws.

1 comment:

JJ said...

God Bless America