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Reviews Wed Nov 20 2013

Self-Interested Vegetarianism: Eating Animals Isn't Just About Animals Anymore

eatinganimals.jpgWhen I tell my friend Laura that I’m reading Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Eating Animals — an investigative examination of factory farming and the ethics of meat-eating — she recoils. “Agh, don’t tell me,” she says. “I don’t want to know!”

At his talk-back lecture for the Chicago Humanities Festival, Safran-Foer confessed that the response is pretty common, citing the countless times he’s seen book store patrons pick up his book, scan the back for its contents, and hurriedly shove it back on the shelves.

You can hardly blame them. As the woman sitting next to me put it, the book is brimming with “stuff you can’t un-know.” Considering that knowing prompted her to not only change her diet, but fly all the way from Florida to Chicago just to hear the word from the horse’s mouth, reading-reluctance is understandable. It’s a life-changer. The moment that I first cracked open Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Eating Animals, a server was setting a plate of fish tacos down in front of me. By page 197, I was munching on a vegan tofu wrap.

There’s no small amount of guilting involved in the traditional meat-is-murder argument; enough to spook any omnivore away from a whole 300-something pages of it. And sure, I could easily take this time to bombard you with descriptions of living conditions, disease, and disturbingly systematic deaths that these animals endure; but that is an old argument, growing ineffective with repetition, and there are less-trafficked points to be made. (That isn’t to say that such arguments are in any way invalid; just that a quick YouTube search will prove much more effective than any description I could write.)

You don’t have to feel anything looking into the eyes of a battered, confined, sickly pig. The fact of the matter is that whether or not you believe animals suffer, factory farming is not sustainable; it’s a hot-bed for disease, the number one cause of climate change, and participates in a whole range of human rights violations.

Vegetarianism need not be about sentimentality, or even ethics; it’s about preserving our planet while we still can.

Safran-Foer’s analysis is factual, even-handed, and all the same jaw-dropping. The statistics — which he asserts in the introduction are both the most moderate and most reliable he could find — left me constantly asking myself, “How is that not something I know?”

It’s interesting and perhaps appropriate that Jonathan Safran-Foer came to discuss his book in Chicago — one of the first cities to introduce the industrial slaughterhouse. It’s as though he came to pull a rotten tooth from the root. Back when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, detailing atrocious working conditions in the meatpacking district, the federal government sat up and took notice. Resulting factory inspections ultimately resulted in the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 — acts that laid the groundwork for the Food and Drug Administration.

Today, agribusiness is so deeply ingrained in the government that factory farms can, for the most part, act with impunity. The same department that writes the nutrition labels on packaging is also one of the leading promoters of factory farming as an American norm. And legal loopholes, Safran-Foer writes, allow for pretty much any practice that increases efficiency. One such loophole is the implementation of CFEs. “CFE: Common Farming Exemptions make legal any method of raising farmed animals so long as it is commonly practiced within the industry. In other words, farmers — corporations is the right word [Safran-Foer’s emphasis] — have the power to define cruelty.”

This power to define isn’t just limited to cruelty; factory farms have also redefined what it means for an animal to be healthy. Because factory farmed breeds are genetically modified to grow larger more quickly, they tend to be deficient in other biological arenas. This includes the inability to reproduce in some species, and in nearly all a weakened immune system. The animals we most commonly eat are also the ones most susceptible to disease and infection. According to Safran-Foer’s research, “83 percent of all chicken meat (including organic and antibiotic-free brands) is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase.” Cue me closing the book and again asking, “How is that not something I know?

To counteract these weak immune systems, farmers put antibiotics into feed on a daily basis. Those same medicines that doctors dole sparingly to humans, for fear of pathogens developing greater antibiotic resistance, are regularly pumped into animals on industrial farms. Add this to the fact that the World Health Organization predicts that our next pandemic is A) overdue, and B) most likely a combination of bird, pig and human virus, and it becomes more than a little nerve-wracking.

Farm conditions don’t exactly help to sanitize. The overcrowded quarters; the open sores many animals bear; the proximity to the carcasses of animals who have died; the common practice of water-chilling chicken meat, unwashed, without any kind of protective packaging, in a mixture known as “fecal soup” (I could not make this up); this all combines to create an environment prime for spreading disease.

In the meantime, humans in close contact with livestock are at a great risk of infection, and the towns that surround factory farms have a higher rate of asthma, headaches and eyes that sting from mists of fecal matter wafting over from the factory — all factors that drastically lower property values in areas where factory farms set up shop.

These are just the physical health risks; the act of working on a factory farm, Safran-Foer found, can take a mental toll of similar proportions. Reading some of the acts of violence workers had to commit against animals on a daily basis — including, for example, the common practice of “thumping,” wherein runt piglets are picked up by their hind legs, “swung and then bashed headfirst onto the concrete floor” — I could think only of the kind of cognitive dissonance one would have to employ to make such a job feel normal. Many former employees quoted in the book agree, saying that they went so far as torturing animals unnecessarily: extinguishing cigarettes on them, throwing them into manure pits to drown, and sticking electric prods into pigs’ eyes, vaginas and anuses. One former worker says of the experience, “The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in the stick pit for any period of time, you develop an attitude that lets you kill things but doesn’t let you care.”

On top of breeding super-viruses, polluting civilian areas, and prompting mental strain reminiscent of the Stanford Experiment, factory farms play a significant role in our environment’s decay. Animal agriculture is a leading cause of global warming. Industrial farming takes up one third of all global land surface, and continues to thin populations of endangered species. And at the rate that humans are consuming animal products, the industry only promises to grow. Never, in the history of this planet, has one species set itself so staunchly at war against the ecosystem. And while the ever-increasing efforts to dominate and control the planet’s resources have been working thus far, it isn’t sustainable. To borrow a metaphor from Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, we’ve built a faulty plane and pedaled it off a cliff; it’s technically mid-air, and we’re technically flying, but we can all see the ground approaching fast.

Knowing the kind of atrocities the factory farming industry commits, my decision to refrain from animal products isn’t a lifestyle choice. It’s a boycott.

~*~

Three days after I finished the book, a good friend invited about 30 friends and strangers over for dinner. His Italian grandmother came into the city for the first time in 30 years to teach us how to make pasta. We formed our little volcanoes of flour, cracked in our eggs, mixed in healthy portions of ricotta cheese, all the while being scolded that our pasta was too hard, or too soft, or, if we were really in trouble, just a shake of the head and a disapproving “Bapapapapa!”

It was wonderful.

When the time came to load my plate, I piled on salad, brussel sprouts, and home-made, cheese-covered pasta.

Externally, it seems like a lapse of will power; a boycott turned flaccid by its lack of totality. Safran-Foer himself asks what the effectiveness would be of the Montgomery Bus Boycott if protesters chose to ride the bus only some of the time; or a strike if strikers crossed the picket line once it became inconvenient? These are fair arguments; but I did not eat the pasta because it would be inconvenient not to, or because it would seem odd to my peers. Rather, I ate it because I was confident that in so doing I continued to eat deliberately.

According to Safran-Foer’s research, “Americans eat 150 times as many chickens as we did only 80 years ago.” This begs the question, which came first: the chicken or the demand? Do we consume more because technology makes it possible? Or is factory farming a result of increased consumption?

Many factory farmers cite these data, arguing that they are “feeding the hungry”; that no amount of humane farms in America could ever meet the demand for meat in this country alone. This is true, but it does not necessarily equate “feeding the hungry.” For one, the “756 million tons of grain and corn per year” that go towards sustaining livestock populations could be “much more than enough to adequately feed the 1.4 billion humans who are living in dire poverty,” according to PETA advocate Bruce Friedrich, in a letter he wrote for Eating Animals.

Rather, our inability to meet meat demands with traditional farms sends a clear message about the way in which we consume. America devours so much meat at such an ever-increasing rate because the act of creating food has become invisible; eating rendered a pacifier. Where once creating and consuming food was a time for table fellowship and building community — literally breaking bread — it is now a culture of consumption at minimum fiscal expense and maximum efficiency. (Fiscal expense. When you factor in the deforestation, decreased biodiversity, increased risk of global disease, and significant contribution to global warming, the cost of supporting factory farms is actually very high.) I will not eat factory farmed meat, and I don’t see myself eating animal products again any time soon; but I ate the pasta to celebrate a moment in which food could still have meaning.

At the aforementioned pasta dinner, another guest brought up the problematic lack of middle-of-the-road terminology. The vegetarian-or-not defining terms categorize an activity into an identity. If one buys meat exclusively from humane farms (I encourage you to not rely on meat packaging labels for that information), what should they call themselves? If one only eats fish one caught, or chickens who had friends and hobbies, how do they politely tell a dinner party host their eating restrictions without sounding like the absolute worst?

The solution, I think, is to ditch the labels and change the act: assume a universal title of “conscious eater.” We all need to know our food — where it came from, how it got here, at what cost — and in that knowledge make deliberate choices about what we eat.

No, knowing is not fun. Sometimes you just want to ignore all the disease and genetic modification and pollution and eat your damn hot dog. But, considering the detriment factory farming already causes with impunity, awareness is essential.

While Safran-Foer is now a vegetarian, and while his book does not hem and haw in the belief that the factory farming system is absolutely unethical, he is very much a moderate in his expectations: “I don’t want half of Americans to be vegetarian in ten years, that’s not realistic,” he said in his talk-back. “What I want is for, in ten years, half the meals in America to be vegetarian.”

A FEW SOMETHINGS I DID NOT KNOW:

“Many scientists predict the collapse of all fished species in less than fifty years.”

“All male layers — half of all layer chickens born in the United States, more than 250 million chicks a year — are destroyed.”

“Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.”

“Excrement has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in twenty-two states (for reference, the circumference of the earth is roughly 25,000 miles).”

“Scientists at Columbia and Princeton Universities have actually been able to trace six of the eight genetic segments of the (currently) most feared virus in the world directly to US factory farms”

“In the typical cage for egg-laying hens, each bird has 67 square inches of space… Nearly all cage-free birds have approximately the same amount of space.”

“Water-chilling causes a dead bird to soak up water (the same water known as ‘fecal soup’). One study has shown that simply placing the chicken carcasses in sealed plastic bags during the chilling stage would eliminate cross-contamination. But that would also eliminate an opportunity for the industry to turn wastewater into tens of millions of dollars’ worth of additional weight in poultry products…(the exact percentage [of liquid absorption] is indicated in small print on the packaging — have a look next time).”

“Two generations ago, virtually all farms were family farms.”

 

Angela / November 21, 2013 9:18 AM

Wonderful, insightful review. My experience reading the book was almost exactly as you describe, and I stopped eating animal products for the same reasons. A person can be completely selfish and self-centered, and vegetarianism is still the right choice because of health and safety issues. Add in the reality of the environmental impact, and it's just not rational to continue to support the factory farm system.

Azrael / November 27, 2013 4:21 PM

Let me preface: I agree 100% with the idea that we should boycott the farm giants who abuse, mistreat, and poison their livestock for profit. However, the assumption that these egregious offenses occur only within the industrialized meat industry is misguided at best.
Being a vegetarian does not suddenly make you a paragon of animal and human rights; the large crop companies that grow your produce are not dispensers of moral superiority. Monsanto, on average, probably ruins just as many, if not more, lives both human and animal when it comes to their production of produce. The Amazon, “lungs of the planet”, is being cut down to make space for the precious soybean crops that the mainstream vegetarian/vegan crowd consumes ad nauseam in an effort to feel like they’re helping the planet.
The environmental crimes that the meat industry propagates are practiced by the same crop giants bringing you your pesticide laden vegetables that dump toxins and byproducts back into the soil, into the water, into the livestock people are eating. The greenhouse gasses, toxic byproducts, and adverse health issues related to livestock farms are the fault of the greed of man, not the animals crammed in pens built for maximum profit. That grain/corn being fed to livestock? You’re right, that product could be used to feed millions of people (even though grains and corn are horrible for the human system). You may ask, “Then what would we feed our livestock?”. Why not grass? Domestic livestock were eating native flora for thousands of years before we decided to fatten them up on grains and corn. I guarantee you that if animals were free range and ate grass or whatever their natural diet consists of the quality of life for everyone involved would increase exponentially.
There needs to be a shift in the paradigm around the food we eat. We don’t need to physically evolve beyond eating meat, we need to mentally evolve beyond the dichotomy of meat eaters versus plant eaters and move to the health conscious versus the evil corporations poisoning us to line their pockets. Boycotting meat won’t solve anything, boycotting shit products that slowly kill us over the course of our lives just might.

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