My Q and A With Jonathan Safran Foer

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jonathan Safran Foer's new book Eating Animals is a thorough, nuanced analysis of the ethical and environmental quandaries posed by America's appetite for animal products. He is intent on fostering more mindful eating, whether we choose to forgo animal-based foods entirely or opt to simply reduce their consumption. Foer graciously ruminated on my meat-y questions when I spoke with him by phone last week.

KT: Is the term "conscientious carnivore" an oxymoron?

JSF: No, and I think that points to something important, which is that these words "carnivore" and "vegetarian" do a real disservice to the conversation, because they imply an on/off switch rather than a spectrum. We no longer ask someone "Are you an environmentalist?" It's just a weird question. When it's framed as an all-or-nothing, people who don't feel like they can do everything sometimes think they should do nothing.

KT: Did you have any real expectation that Tyson -- the world's largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, as you note in your book -- would agree to give you a tour of any of its farms?

JSF: To be honest, I did, because I know that they have "show farms." All these companies have show farms. I thought I would at least get a response -- you know, "Unfortunately, we won't be able to show you the farms because of biosecurity, but we'd be happy to give you these brochures."

The thing that really surprised me was the total lack of a response. I didn't get anywhere with anybody.

KT: And now, of course, after the fact, the industrial livestock industry's accusing you of not doing your homework, which is really funny, because when they had the opportunity to throw open the doors--

JSF: --Yeah, so let's do it! Let's do the homework now, it's not too late! Seriously, I would be so happy to revise my book if they showed me something else. But they're not going to show me anything.

KT: You've said that when it comes to animal abuse, chickens suffer the most of all and recommend that if people are only going to make one change, they should consider giving up factory farmed eggs. But when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, beef production is the greatest offender and poultry is said to be the more sustainable choice. How can folks prioritize when the most ethical choice is not the most ecological choice?

JSF: Well, people care about different things differently. When I said give up one thing (on the Ellen Degeneres show) it was in the context of animal welfare.

But in the context of the environment, I would say give up fish. Did you see the New York Times editorial about making tuna an endangered species? We've gotten to a truly insane place with the ocean. We talk about greenhouse gas emissions, we're talking about a real process, I mean it's terrible, but fishery scientists are saying we're gonna have zero wild fish in fifty years, it's a catastrophe.

But, despite my having said that, I don't think it's the most useful thing to say "cut this out" or "cut that out." What if, instead of cutting out one food group, people just said at every meal, what am I doing here? Can I do a little better? Not have it be an absolute, not have it be a religion or a law, but just a series of choices that we try to make as well as we can.

KT: Glenn Beck and PETA's Ingrid Newkirk recently ganged up on Al Gore, calling him a hypocrite for not adopting a vegetarian diet. If you happened to find yourself seated next to the former vice president at some gala or forum, what would you have to say to him on this topic?

JSF: He's a very smart guy, and I'm sure he's thought of this stuff before. He knows quite a bit more about the environment than Ingrid Newkirk or Glenn Beck. He has a role in the world, an enormously important role. If he were to declare his vegetarianism tomorrow, it's conceivable that he would not be able to do his role in the same way. These are the realities of the world. It shouldn't be, but it is considered a fringe position.

Would he do a great thing for animal welfare? Yes. Would he make a lot more people vegetarians? Yes. But the fact is, the majority of the world still finds it to be a fringe thing. And I want my Al Gore being the champion of environmentalism. I think that that has to include a conversation about meat, and it does; he is bringing that into his conversation. Do I wish he would do it a little bit more strongly? Yes, I guess I do.

But you know, Ingrid Newkirk isn't out there campaigning for -- does PETA have solar panels on their roof? I'm not sure. My point is not that she's a hypocrite, or he's a hypocrite. I mean, she's right, it is the number one cause of global warming, and if he's going to talk about global warming, he has to talk about it.

But we also have to remember that we're living in the real world, in which, again, people have different roles and the public has certain predispositions to different kinds of arguments, and I guess I would offer him a little more flexibility than they might. Glenn Beck is just being disingenuous, he's not being serious.

KT: You write in your book of the many recent legislative successes in various states on behalf of farm animals, the phasing out of gestation crates, battery cages and so forth. What do you make of the passage in Ohio on November 3rd of Issue 2, the agribiz-driven measure which seems to preempt such legislation having a chance in that state?

JSF: These ballot initiatives (like Prop 2 in California) always pass by the largest margins of anything on the ballot, people just agree on this stuff, they really do. This is not a democrat or republican or liberal or conservative or urban or rural thing. These are just very fundamental American values, and they're fundamental farming values.

And so the industry can continue to try to find ways to confuse us or to block the lines of sight but we're catching up to them. We definitely are -- 18% of college students now describe themselves as vegetarians.

KT: The industrial meat industry is attempting to dismiss your critique of their operating methods in the same way that they have attacked Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and all the others who have written exposes of factory farming. You presumably expected some backlash; has it been better or worse than you anticipated?

JSF: Infinitely better. The book's now been reviewed, I don't know, a hundred times or whatever it is, and there are enough people who think I'm an asshole, there are enough people who think the style is annoying. There has not been a single argument in defense of factory farming, or against the premise of the book. Not even a whiff of it. The worst reviews I get are people who say "It's too bad that this incredibly important argument was framed like this," you know? That's as bad as it's gotten.

KT: Your book is making a real splash; it seems like you have this huge potential to really influence a lot of people who haven't previously given this a whole lot of thought.

JSF: I hope so. I know it's not easy to approach; I know the title of the book doesn't make it any easier. But I also know that if the conversation is had correctly, it's a conversation that Americans are not only willing to have, they want to have it.

Like when I did Ellen, just look at her audience -- her audience is not Berkeley granola-eaters. It's people on a fixed income, it's a lot of mothers, a lot of people who come there from the middle of America. And people care.

The first talk about this book that I did was in Dowagiac, Michigan. I spoke to an audience that was comprised largely of farmers, actually -- it was the warmest reception I've gotten. These are just not liberal issues, they are not elitist issues. They're biblical issues, like dominion. You know, what does it mean to have power over things less powerful? What does it mean to be stewards of the earth? The most conservative understandings of those ideas are precisely what would lead one away from factory farming.

KT: Would you be willing to share your Thanksgiving menu with us?

JSF: Um...I would if I knew it! You can probably guess what it won't include. But I don't yet know what it's going to be, in fact. There's some pressure on me to figure it out (laughs.)

KT: You might have that figured out by the time you go on Martha Stewart, though, I'm guessing?

JSF: Oh, maybe I'll even prepare something with her, although that's unlikely. Wouldn't that be funny?