It is a rare human act that is utterly reprehensible. Some glimmer of grace, some hope for redemption shines through nearly all of our efforts.
And then, Jonathan Safran Foer reminds us in his new book, Eating Animals there is factory farming of living creatures.
Perhaps you have seen the film Food, Inc. Maybe you have read the works of Michael Pollan. You may have heard of confined veal calves pumped full of antibiotics and collapsing in their own excrement; or seen the video of bushels of baby chicks, alive and cheeping, dumped into a grinder. Almost certainly, you have heard something about the terrible ways that we now treat farm animals in America, and you didn't like what you heard.
But if you still eat meat from factories -- and, Foer reports, 99 percent of meat eaten in the U.S. is raised and/or processed in factory operations -- you have not, by definition, absorbed the reality of factory farms. If you truly understood the nightmarish brutality of what happens inside these windowless animal jails and abattoirs that dot the American ruralscape, you simply would not eat this meat. Foer makes it clear that factory farming is the exceptional human activity that debases and destroys everything it touches: land, people, communities, and most of all, the innocents at the nexus, animals.
If you protest that factory farming's saving grace is that it is produces abundant, cheap meat, consider that American meat is almost certainly too abundant and too cheap. In 2003, the average American ate 273 pounds of meat. Okinawans eat less than half as much and are the world's longest-lived people, healthier by virtually every measure. Eating more plant protein directly -- rather than inefficiently converting it via animal feed into meat -- would free up millions of acres of American farmland, boosting the healthfulness of the American diet while lowering its cost.
So to grasp factory farming fully is to reject it unconditionally. Why don't we all grasp it fully?
Corporations that own factory farms have taken pains to keep their operations secret, hidden behind marketing imagery of chickens in nests and cattle in grassy pastures, but that's no surprise. The larger concern is that, as investigative journalism gives way to bloggers rendering second and third-hand opinions, almost no one is making the effort to uncover the story of the decade in accurate, carefully sourced depth and detail. To do so requires breaking into locked barns at 3 a.m., tracking down and interviewing reluctant workers, and -- no small point -- grappling with one's own self-loathing for ever having participated in such a system as a mindless eater.
Such reportorial effort (Foer's footnotes cover 62 pages) and fearlessness is becoming scarce, yet more crucial than ever. In the Internet age, as our attention is diced into ever-tinier blog posts, blurbs, bleats and tweets, some have speculated that books are obsolete. Millions are satisfied with non sequitur eruptions. What good are works that span 300 pages? One answer is that adopting a truly life-changing idea -- like radically changing one's eating habits -- takes time and persuading. The chicks-in-the-grinder video, horrific though it is, lasts under four minutes. Any atrocity can be brain-dumped if the exposure is short.
Eating Animals carefully, deliberately, takes you through every relevant dimension of factory farming: the cruelty, the environmental destruction, the dehumanization of workers (sadism inflicted on animals for the workers' amusement is extraordinarily common in these factories). One sees it from the inside, the outside, the moral high ground, the dithering consumer level, through Foer's family stories, from slaughterhouse workers, animal behaviorists, even from defenders of the system.
One sees that it is ugly from every viewpoint, that it stinks no matter which way the wind blows. Finally, the reality sticks in the brain.
The reader is left with a moral dilemma: should I stop eating factory meat and seek out responsibly-raised beef, poultry and pork (exemplars of such farming are the stars of Foer's book), or should I simply stop eating meat altogether? Foer leaves his investigation as a committed vegetarian, but makes it clear that he sees merit in responsible farmers, and in consumers who track down and consume their products.
For my part, I continue to eat wild-caught Alaskan salmon and other fish at least twice a week, and find myself comfortable there. Others will find other places to rest on the continuum from vegan to meat-intensive "low-carb" enthusiast. Foer's aim is not to make your choice, but to inform it. He has done us all a great service, and we, and the animals, owe him our thanks.