Jonathan Safran Foer is fascinated by trauma. His first novel, the critically acclaimed “Everything is Illuminated,” chronicled his young facsimile’s eastern European journey to unpack the lives of his Holocaust-survivor relatives. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” his second, was a deeply-felt emotional mosaic about the resonance between the 9/11 attacks and the Dresden firebombings. Foer’s first work of nonfiction, “Eating Animals,” has a different sort of trauma in mind: the suffering inflicted on livestock by the American meat industry.
Despite these adjustments, however, Foer’s formidable intellect remains preoccupied with the nature of violence and how a thinking person should go about dealing with it in the world. A recent father, Foer undertook the research for “Eating Animals”—an examination of the various aspects of animal agriculture—in order to come to an informed decision about whether or not to feed meat to his newborn son. What follows is a harsh portrayal of the modern factory-farming industry and an unflinching investigation of the implications that it has both for human morality and life in America.
Foer devotes most of this book to providing a detailed condemnation of industrial animal agriculture—or factory farming—which provides more than 99% of the meat consumed in America today and which has exactly nothing to do with the pastoral image most people associate with the word “farm.”
“Since I encountered the realities of factory farming, refusing to eat conventional meat has not been a hard decision,” Foer writes. “And it’s become hard to imagine who, besides those who profit from it, would defend factory farming.” In a way, this is an evasion; Foer blames the most egregious ethical problems on how meat is raised, but is reluctant to conclusively delineate whether it is wrong to eat animals raised more comfortably.
Although many people are vaguely aware that factory-farmed animals are kept in small, crowded enclosures and are subject to painful slaughter procedures, Foer exposes the suffering of these animals throughout their entire lives, focusing largely on the degree to which the animals’ natural behaviors are disrupted. Industrial pigs, chickens and seafood (and, to a lesser extent, cattle) are prevented from engaging in any of their instinctive behaviors; chickens are kept in tiny cages and often kill and cannibalize each other for lack of social hierarchy. Pigs and fish undergo similar experiences. “I simply cannot feel whole when so knowingly, so deliberately, forgetting [animal suffering],” Foer writes.
Foer’s choice to engage this treatment in relief with human morality provides a context that may give pause to those who choose to consume factory-farmed products. “Eating Animals” is the most readable and thorough work on the subject of meat-eating since Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which deals extensively with the question of eating meat and concludes that it is best to limit meat intake but not eliminate it entirely, based mainly on health and sustainability reasons.
Perhaps it’s counterproductive to belabor animal suffering in the way that Foer does; those who eat meat often argue that it is irrelevant to apply the same morality we do to human suffering. Foer makes an excellent argument that for himself and much of his audience meat is nutritionally unnecessary and ecologically harmful, but using a moral argument to evince a change in people’s daily lives may be ineffective. Foer’s facts are visceral and damning for those who sympathize, but they may not be enough.
Nonbelievers may find Foer’s arguments about factory-farming’s human impact more convincing. He enumerates issues of water pollution, abuse of the work force, cutthroat competition with local businesses and near-intolerably low health standards. Foer could have written a book just about these aspects of industrial farming, and it may well have provided a more compelling rationale for choosing vegetarianism. But it would have been less affecting. However, like his novels, “Eating Animals” often uses graphics, such as a small box the size of an industrial chicken cage, to illustrate a point. This is almost always trite and unnecessary, and undermines his credibility as a serious thinker about an important issue.
Even if some find Foer’s style to be cloying and contrived, he is, for better or for worse, one of the more important and accessible chroniclers of violence and morality in contemporary literature. “Eating Animals” is the first high-profile work to directly address the question of the meat industry’s ethical, ecological and economical sustainability in America.
What lends “Eating Animals” its power, though, is neither its scope nor its journalistic merit. Rather, the importance of “Eating Animals” lies in the depth and nuance of Foer’s argument and in the portrait he sketches of animal agriculture as it stands today. Foer is occasionally shrill in his denunciation of factory farms, but his examination of animal welfare representatives—a vegan activist, several “ethical farmers” and a small slaughterhouse owner—is both more in-depth and more critically engaged, if for no other reason than he had the opportunity to actually talk to them.
Even if Foer’s conception of himself as a concerned citizen rather than a journalist is silly and pedantic, it is a necessary one in the context that he provides. The decision to eat meat is central, though perhaps more banal, in a way that other moral dilemmas are not. As Foer notes, culture is expressed in eating practices, and to change what we eat is to fundamentally change our identity. But change can also mean progress, and although diehard carnivores looking for reasons not to give up meat will find holes in Foer’s argument, it is more compelling and accessible than most arguments for vegetarianism. Even those who choose not to change their eating habits will come away from the book thinking more critically about their food, something that both vegetarians and omnivores should strive to do.