I eat animals. A lot of them. I eat a lot of plant foods too, but I rarely eat a meal that does not contain meat, seafood, or eggs. And I eat animals on purpose – both for health reasons and ethical reasons. It’s part of my identity. It often seems that paleo is the anti-vegan. Not only do these two groups have opposite attitudes on eating animals (vegan: use no parts of the animal vs. paleo: use all parts of the animal), their tribal identities have polarized. So it may seem a little odd that I've been reading two vegan books: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide by Brendan Brazier.
These two books address complementary concerns of veganism: Eating Animals focuses on ethical and environmental issues, while Thrive focuses on health and athletic performance. I could have chosen from a number of vegan books on these subjects. These are decent picks. Thrive is one of the most popular vegan diet books, written by a high performance vegan triathlete who owns a successful vegan food line. Eating Animals was written by a high-profile and gifted author who spent three years researching factory farming and interviewing some of the leading figures in ethical animal husbandry. Both books are commercial successes.
I will start with my review of Eating Animals, and will post my review of Thrive next.
Eating Animals is about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that define us. Foer gives the same title to both the first and last chapters: “Storytelling”. He knows that food choices are strongly driven by our sense of identity. And as a young man, he dabbled in vegetarianism precisely to gain a sense of identity:
"In high school I became a vegetarian more times than I can now remember, most often as an effort to claim some identity in a world of people whose identities seemed to come effortlessly. I wanted a slogan to distinguish my mom’s Volvo’s bumper, a bake sale cause to fill the self-conscious half hour of school break, an occasion to get closer to the breasts of activist women. (And I continued to think it was wrong to hurt animals.) Which isn’t to say that I refrained from eating meat. Only that I refrained in public. Privately, the pendulum swung." (7)
Foer downplays his youthful motivations, and writes that the birth of his son caused him to take issues of eating animals more seriously. His newborn adds a moral heft that his high school insecurities lack. He finishes “Storytelling” (the first one) with a moving story of his grandmother, a Jewish refugee in World War II. Fleeing Nazis, a Russian farmer offered her shelter and food. The food was pork, and though starving, she declined because she was kosher. Foer asks his grandmother why:
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” (17)
Similarly, Foer ends the book with his grandmother’s poignant declaration: “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” Between these bookends about storytelling and identity, Eating Animals is Foer’s quest to figure out what matters, and to tell a compelling story about it.
In the body of the work, Foer explores many of the familiar ethical arguments for not eating animals (Why not eat dogs? Many cultures do!). Moving beyond well-worn philosophical arguments of animal rights advocates, Foer vividly describes commercial fishing and factory farming, describes environmental consequences of the factory farm system, and considers the conundrum (to him) of ethical animal husbandry and ethical meat-eaters.
In closing, Foer considers the tradition of the Thanksgiving Turkey, our celebratory symbol of survival and harvest and food and being American. Foer challenges us to re-imagine our Thanksgiving tradition without the turkey. A tradition is, he suggests, a story we tell to ourselves about who we are, about our identity, about what matters. And ultimately, is that not what Thanksgiving is all about -- giving thanks for what matters?
Where we agree: factory farming
Foer is not the first to describe the abuses of the factory farm system, but he is a particularly vivid writer. It’s hard to read about factory farming and not conclude that we need to do better. “Do better” understates the case. The ethic of the hunter-gatherer, the ethic of the herder-farmer are lost in the mechanized, impersonal, and de-sensitizing factory. The world’s fishing methods are devastatingly effective (our wild fisheries are increasingly depleted) and wasteful (there’s a lot of by-catch that is thrown out).
Factory farming methods also have unintended health consequences, such as breeding super-bugs resistant to antibiotics. Filthy conditions, unnatural diets, stressed and sick animals, and the over-use of antibiotics create a paradise for pathogens. For example, e. coli thrives in the stomachs of cattle eating a grain-based diet, not in cattle eating grass, as nature intended. These conditions also increase the likelihood that pathogens will mutate in animals and jump to humans – the vector of disease taken by the most devastating influenza outbreaks. Of course, pathogens jumping species is likely to happen anytime humans are in close proximity to animals – it’s been happening since the beginning of animal domestication and husbandry 10,000+ years ago. But these factory farm conditions increase the odds of it happening, and the resulting death toll.
Where we disagree: stories are not solutions
Foer’s answer to factory farming is simple: stop eating animals. Perhaps a little too simple. Simplicity makes for a good story, and Foer is nothing if not emphatic about the value he places on the stories we tell ourselves. But there are a few moral plot twists that Foer left out:
- Foer never examines the implications of a vegetarian food system. What does it look like? Wheat, soy beans, and corn (all vegetarian staples), are being grown in vast industrial monocultures using fossil fuel fertilizers. These methods still have an enormous cost in animal life from giant threshers, pesticides, fertilizers, and destruction of habitat. A vegetarian world is no ethical or environmental paradise. Even if people stopped eating animals (though the global trend is to eat more animals, not fewer), you’d have a one-time reduction in the size of these monocultures. But you’re still left with industrial farming. Books like Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie and The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Kieth cast doubt on the pessimistic statistics that eco-vegans have been throwing around, nay-saying sustainable alternatives. So how do you actually create a more sustainable alternative? Foer not only fails to give a convincing answer – he doesn’t even ask the question. A good bet: it involves animals.
- Foer is dismissive of people who are trying to create a viable alternative to industrial farming. These are people like Mario Fantasma of Paradise Locker Meats, ethical ranchers like Bill and Nicolette Niman of Niman Ranch, and ethical foodies like Michael Pollan. Foer gives space to a PETA activist (he also gives space to ranchers) who views ethical meat-eaters as a threat:
“Saying that meat eating can be ethical sounds “nice” and “tolerant” only because most people like to be told that doing whatever they want to do is moral. It’s very popular, of course, when a vegetarian like Nicolette [Niman] gives meat eaters cover to forget the real moral challenge that meat presents.” (214)
By the end, you want to ask Foer if he thinks that someone like Michael Pollan has, on net, improved the food system and our country’s discourse on food. Because you’re not really sure. Michael Pollan! (Pollan is referenced on pages 55, 99, 113, 214, 227-228, 255).
- Foer thinks small numbers of vegetarians can make a difference, but small numbers of ethical meat-eaters can’t. On the one hand, he hammers ethical meat-eaters because right now ethical meat accounts for such an insubstantial portion of meat that gets eaten:
“We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options available to most of us. There isn’t enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of State Island and not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City, let along the country. Ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality. Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare.” (256-257)
In the same chapter, only five short pages later, he lauds the influence of solitary vegetarians:
“I realize that I’m coming dangerously close to suggesting that quaint notion that every person can make a difference…As anyone who has been a vegetarian for a number of years might tell you, the influence that this simple dietary choice has on what others around you eat can be surprising.” (261)
How does he pull off this switcheroo? He argues that ethical meat-eaters never exclusively eat ethically-sourced meat, and thus they still send money to factory farms. This argument reveals a lack of understanding of entrepreneurship. Ask any sustainable farmer which makes more of a difference to their success: your abstaining from sending money to gigantic agri-businesses (who are already rolling in dough and who make money off of vegetarians too), or your buying their products (even if you don't devote your entire meat budget to them). It's a no-brainer. Talk to any entrepreneur about the importance of getting those first dollars, breaking even, and getting to cash flow positive. It is more impactful by far to contribute some of your meat-eating budget to places that are doing it right than it is abstain from places that are doing it wrong. $100M lost to factory farms by vegetarians may be a tiny percentage loss to Tyson; can you imagine what percentage gain $100M would mean to the grass-fed beef industry? Ethical meat is not a promissory note, it is a wise investment.
And remember: the reality is that many animal rights advocates don't want any eating of animals, even if "ethically" done.
- Foer never addresses hunting. A strong ethical case can be made for deer hunting. If deer over-populate, then some deer will starve. And the deer that tend to die will be the youngest deer, which do not have the strength, height, or knowledge to identify food sources. So if you were to outlaw hunting, then you would reduce the number of deer who had a relatively quick death and increase the number of Bambi's who slowly starved to death out in the woods, out where nobody will ever see.
- Foer never examines other ways we use animals besides eating them. If Foer is as serious as he claims, why does he stop at food? What about leather, medical testing, or glue? My guess is that sticking to food makes for a simpler story. Food, after all, is more closely tied to things like identity – and disgust. I have to assume that Foer made a tactical decision to focus on food, leaving un-addressed some of the most complicated philosophical arguments around animal welfare and rights.
- Foer devotes little space to questions of health. He's clear that health is not his primary concern:
“I don’t think individual health is necessarily a reason to become vegetarian, but certainly if it were unhealthy to stop eating animals, that might be a reason not to be vegetarian. It would most certainly be a reason to feed my son animals.” (145)
Now Foer is a smart guy -- he's certainly heard people question the healthiness of a vegan diet, much less a vegan diet for newborns. This is going to sound harsh, and it is harsh, but I couldn't help but feel that Foer's motivation for the book -- the birth of his son -- was bit of a literary device to add moral weight to his manifesto. Here's why: whatever you believe about the health of a vegan diet, a book about eating animals in relation to the actual interests of a newborn would have spent more than 5 of 267 pages on the direct physical consequences of eating a vegan diet (143-148). Foer cites a position paper from the Amercian Dietetic Assocation:
“Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, and adolescence, and for athletes.” (144)
Of course, you have to wonder why a vegetarian diet needs to be “well-planned”. And particularly at times when the body is used most intensively (pregnancy, children, athletes). But health is not Foer's focus.
The message matters -- and the messenger matters too
- [X] Matters. Other reviewers have pointed out that Foer over-uses the phrase “X matters”. You encounter a lot of these passages, assertions that something matters, and that saying it makes it so.
"Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter." (11)
“Food matters and animals matter and eating animals matters even more.” (264).
This would be a minor annoyance if it didn't feel emblematic of the book as a whole: Jonathan Safran Foer making assertions that will be self-evident to other people who are like Jonathan Safran Foer. I really don't want to say anything in this review that could be construed as ad hominem, but I feel like I have to address Foer's emphasis on identity and ask...
- Who is Jonathan Safran Foer? Well, for one, he grew up with no contact with animals or love of them:
"I spent the first twenty-six years of my life disliking animals. I thought of them as bothersome, dirty, unapproachably foreign, frighteningly unpredictable, and plain old unnecessary.” (21)
And this guy is going to teach us about animals? But wait, there's more...
"And then one day I became a person who loved dogs. I became a dog person." (21)
Oh, please. He saw a puppy while walking with his wife in Brooklyn, and took it home. And that's supposed to make you Temple Grandin
? Again, it feels like Foer is using his dog as literary device simply to say, "Look, I'm an animal person, really!" Then, from his long and deep understanding of animals, pets, and animal nature, Foer launches into a lecture on our moral hypocrisy when we don't eat our dogs. He even includes a Filipino recipe: "Stewed Dog, Wedding Style". Well, Mr. Foer, careful what you wish for -- we're already eating my little pony
. Look, you don't need to try to prove that you're an "animal person" to criticize factory farming -- that just takes eyes that see.
This next part I don't know how to say any other way: Foer comes off as an arrogant and pretentious. This review
pretty much nails it:
Midway through the book, Foer visits Paradise Locker Meats, a rural Missouri slaughterhouse known for its "cleanliness, butchering expertise and sensitivity to animal welfare issues." The affable owner, Mario, offers a tour of the plant, which Foer inspects with barely suppressed disgust, noting the guts and organs, the "gloop." "It’s not just because I’m a city boy that I find this repulsive," Foer writes, though that is debatable. A skilled rural tradesman, Mario comes across as a man unaccustomed to being interviewed and answers highly pointed questions with meandering, unguarded stories that Foer subsequently picks apart with prosecutorial zeal. He is dissatisfied with Mario's offhand explanation of one animal’s agitated behavior ("That's just a pig thing") and his vague replies to burning questions such as "Do you like pigs?" He finds Mario's account of his gory work "nice, troubling, nonsensical." My thoughts about Foer's presentation of this visit: priggish, condescending, naive.
Unfortunately, Foer reinforces just about every urban-vegan-coastal-elite stereotype.
Stories versus reality
Eating Animals is a book about the stories we tell ourselves. The stories that give us our identity -- and in some very real sense, the stories that give us our humanity. Foer's core message -- that factory farming is often deeply inhumane -- is one that needs to be heard. Foer is the wrong messenger. His story, his identity is polarizing. He knows there is something wrong, but is already so distant from nature -- animal nature, human nature, mother nature -- that he cannot provide a positive vision for what a healthy and humane world actually looks like.
That task will fall to others.