On Friday, NPR named Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment (St. Martin's Press) as one of its "Books We Like," and compared the work to that of two Great American Muckrakers.
"Kirby combines the narrative urgency of Sinclair's novel with the investigative reporting of Schlosser's book," wrote NPR reviewer Michael Schaub. "Animal Factory is nonfiction, but reads like a thriller."
I am, of course, humbled by the honor, and uncertain of my own deservedness. But I am also grateful on behalf of anyone who was ever negatively impacted by living near to -- or eating the products of -- one of the massive animal factories that now dot much of the American rural landscape.
If my book has anywhere near the impact that The Jungle and Fast Food Nation had on raising awareness among the American public about the long, strange trip that much of our food takes before landing on our highly subsidized dinner plates, I will be truly gratified.
Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is ignorant. And the more we ignore the high hidden costs that lurk behind those beckoningly low supermarket price-tags, the more we will remain in the dark about the potential for animal factory farming to one day come back and bite us all in our collective, blissful behinds.
The mass entrapment of thousands of animals into a single confinement -- denying those living creatures access to open outside air, sunlight, pasture, exercise, natural food, natural socialization and yes, even sex -- violates the laws of nature. It can stress animals out, tax their immune system and make them sick. Sometimes, those illnesses have the potential to make people sick as well (See: bovine spongiform encephalopathy/mad cow disease, MRSA, swine flu, E-coli, salmonella, etc).
Schaub writes how concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs for short, "have allowed meat producers to manufacture meat more quickly, and in greater quantities, than ever before. These large-scale operations have managed, to some degree, to make meat more affordable for many consumers."
He is correct, of course. But he adds, "Kirby wonders whether the cost to the environment -- and the health of people who live near the farms -- is worth it."
And that is certainly true, too. Schaub then ends with this:
Kirby's focus in Animal Factory is purely how the farms are changing, perhaps irrevocably, the environments and the long-term health of the people who live near them. There's no political pleading or ideological agitprop in this book; it's remarkably fair-minded, both sober and sobering. Like Sinclair's and Schlosser's work, it has the potential to change the collective American mind about contemporary food issues. It deserves a wide audience, despite -- or because of -- the fact that it might be the most frightening book of the year.
It's entirely possible that Animal Factory could come and go, like so many investigative works of non-fiction, before it has a chance to change much of anything. But several people who read my book have told me it is already changing the way they shop and eat. Now they are opting, when possible, for sustainably raised meat, eggs and dairy.
And any change, even in small bites, is better than no change at all.