With his doughy looks and comfy sweaters, Jonathan Safran Foer hardly seems like a revolutionary. But the clear-eyed message of Eating Animals makes Michael Pollan's "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" edict seem namby-pamby. • This new book changed actor Natalie Portman from a vegetarian to a vegan activist, a shift she describes in an Oct. 27 Huffington Post essay. The book's message has made Fox News host Glenn Beck spitting mad. (On the thought of "Meatless Monday": "Americans love our steaks, we love our chops, we love our burgers, and you'll throw me in jail, my last meal will be a giant steak. Are we going to stand for that?") Ellen DeGeneres, a longtime vegetarian, invited Safran Foer on her show and gave copies of the book to her audience. • The author of two novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Safran Foer came to his first nonfiction project in the most human of ways: He had his first child. As he writes in the book's first chapter, feeding yourself is easy and uncomplicated. It's the conscious and conscientious feeding of someone in your care that causes you to take stock. What is best? What is right? • Ninety-nine percent of the meat we eat is raised on factory farms. Tyson Foods, Smithfield — to a one these farms are not open to public scrutiny. They don't want to show us how meat is produced and, by and large, we don't want to be shown. We've substituted an idyllic image of farming (guy in overalls, chickens pecking soft earth, weathervane spinning lazily) that, as Safran Foer said to DeGeneres, "creates distance between our values and our actions." • Eating Animals aims to shorten that distance. It is our refusal to know, according to Safran Foer, that makes us all complicit. As farmer and man of letters Wendell Berry said, we are all farming by proxy. It doesn't matter what the author has chosen for himself (for now, vegetarianism, not veganism), or which discovery tipped him toward this decision. Through reporting, interviews and guest essays, Eating Animals explores four basic reasons we should rethink how often, or whether, we eat animals.
On average, each American eats the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime. Whither the United States goes, so goes the rest of the world. We have led the way, wanting "to eat more meat than any other culture in history and pay historically little for it." (In the past 50 years, the cost of a new house has increased nearly 1,500 percent; the cost of chicken meat hasn't even doubled.) Add the profit imperative for big corporate farms and you have a recipe for cutting corners in terms of feed, space allotted each animal, medical attention and humane, pain-free death. In our current system, even humanely raised animals have to be killed in a dwindling number of slaughterhouses, where kill floors are self-policed and in which employees routinely report "incomplete" kills.
As Safran Foer goads near the book's end, "Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn't motivating, what would be?"
Animal agriculture is the No. 1 cause of climate change. It makes a 40 percent greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined. As PETA said in taking Al Gore to task, we can turn in the Hummer and drive that Prius, but if we're still eating Big Macs we're canceling out our own efforts.
Farmed animals in this country produce 130 times as much waste as the human population. As Safran Foer points out, there is almost no waste treatment infrastructure or oversight for them. Factory farms can spray the contents of huge poop lagoons directly into the air if they see fit. And they do.
Human health toll
The most eloquent passage on the dangers of factory farming comes from Frank Reese, one of the country's most laudable poultry farmers: "Just the other day, one of the local pediatricians was telling me he's seeing all kinds of illnesses that he never used to see. Not only juvenile diabetes, but inflammatory and autoimmune diseases that a lot of the docs don't even know what to call. And girls are going through puberty much earlier, and kids are allergic to just about everything, and asthma is out of control. Everyone knows it's our food. We're messing with the genes of these animals and then feeding them growth hormones and all kinds of drugs that we really don't know enough about. And then we're eating them."
Safran Foer has an eerie prescience about the real possibility of species-jumping pandemics. Writing before the current H1N1 outbreak, he describes scientists' conviction that, as the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine writes, a pandemic is "not only inevitable, but overdue."
What about protein? Safran Foer argues that the organizations (namely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture) charged with feeding us nutritional information have a vested interest in our consumption of meat and dairy.
The American Dietetic Association says this: "Vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates." The American Dietetic Association also says vegetarians often "meet and exceed requirements" for protein.
Devouring Eating Animals, I felt distinctly queasy about my own food choices. For me, eating is pleasure, one of life's great joys. But at what cost am I willing to indulge my own pleasures?
For now, Safran Foer's argument pushes me toward, as he says, "more honorable omnivory." Americans purportedly eat less than 1/4 of 1 percent of the known edible foods on Earth.
On average, it takes 26 calories fed to an animal to produce just 1 calorie of animal flesh. So, in a world where a billion people still remain hungry, don't I owe it to myself and others to find other pleasurable, but more ethical, things to eat?
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.