Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Difficult Review; A Difficult Subject

Eating Animals
Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown; 2009


I've been nibbling away at this book now for about four months, a book about a subject which has been gnawing on me for decades. I learned of the book in an interview I read with the actress Natalie Portman; she credits this book with causing her to convert to veganism. I wasn't swayed by that particularly--Natalie Portman does not look like someone who ever had difficulty saying no to a hunk of bloody prime rib--but I read the interview just when I was thinking I have had my head in the sand about this subject for a very long time.

I was born into a farm community in Northeastern Iowa and have always had a soft spot for farming--at least that '60s version of farming--as a profession and a community focus and a lifestyle. But we moved from Iowa when I was six and I grew up away from farm culture before heading off to college in the big city. And I have lived virtually all my adult life in an urban setting. Along the way my various jobs and inclinations have led to my eating virtually every meal out--for many years I simply ate in my truck en route from place to place. Now in my mid-late 40s, any connection I ever had to farming is long gone.

But I've felt for a long time that this disconnect is probably unhealthy. It's certainly not honest: almost nothing one buys at the store looks anything like the raw materials from which it came. And this is nowhere more striking than in the meat I consume. I'm not a huge carnivore (though I've done a sirloin-a-day Atkins diet a couple times and I guess I do eat rotisserie chickens with some regularity--maybe this is like TV-watching, where people consistently spend twice as much time in front of the TV as they think they do). Meat for me nowadays is more like a spice: sausage on my pizza, a thin patty on my hamburger, chicken chunks in my chicken salad, cubed flatiron steak on my daily Qdoba salad. It's atypical for me to have meat as a meal's focal point. But like many people I end up eating a fair amount of chicken, and I do love a good steak. Steak in particular reveals the disconnect, appearing to me as a package of shrink-wrapped "red protein" having no connection, either visually or in my mind, to the animal from which it came. Of course I know the source, but I avoid dwelling on it. And thus do years pass with me obliviously eating whatever meat is in the thing I'm buying at the drive-thru and intentionally not looking very closely at something I know I ought to look at quite directly.

But I'm becoming increasingly skeptical about the effects of corporate culture and profit motive in the production of our food (in so many things, really), and that is on top of this suspicion--nay, virtual certainty--for years now, that if I were forced to witness the actual process by which the cubed steak makes its way to my salad I would be deeply troubled by it. During my decades of long highway drives, whenever I pass a trucking hauling pigs or cows to the slaughterhouse I inevitably think of what is in store for these animals. And I reflexively think to myself "Hey, you don't really need to kill these creatures on my account. Faced with that choice, I can be quite happy with a bean burrito rather than a hamburger." But for just as many years I've thought this idly and gone back to not honoring--or even facing--that choice in practice.

And so I bought this book and have been taking my time with it. There are a couple reasons I didn't devour it in a sitting. Primary among these is that my interface with food is already quite screwed-up, and I worry about how I will cope with the failure to follow yet another principle to which I know I should hew. Second, and allied with this, is the difficulty of my eating while constantly on the road. I'm away from home so much of the time, literally forced (even if it wasn't my preference) to eat out, and my psychology is such that it's exceedingly difficult for me not to focus my days around mealtimes. (An acquaintance use to hurl the indictment that healthy people eat to live whereas I live to eat; but he was saying no more than the truth.) The more one strays from the mainstream, the more difficult it becomes to eat while on the road--and meat is the mainstream, the default. And so I hesitate a bit in diving into the subject, afraid of what I will feel compelled to do after investigating, and afraid of the myriad difficulties in that compulsion.

And even after reading the book, I struggle to know what to think about all of the subject matter, even if the central points seem inescapable. It is not all of a piece to me, and while some things discussed in the book are absolutely abhorrent, others seem, well, unfortunate facts of life. Death is an unfortunate fact of life, and death in the wild is cruel indeed. Our bringing death to creatures is no more inherently bad than the natural fact of death itself; indeed, we have an opportunity to bring a kinder death than nature would provide. There are arguments on every side. The author is not ambivalent about his own conclusions, but neither is the book a 250-page bludgeon applied to meat-eaters (even if that is where we end up). His struggle to determine what is right and wrong in our meat industry feels like an honest one, and the book seeks primarily to expose the realities of our world so that we may ask questions and live, whatever we choose, in an informed manner. Not incidentally, he's a brilliant writer, a virtuoso at the keyboard with a journalist's directness and a philosopher's insight.

In a nutshell, his thesis statement is that animal farming today is a gigantic, corporate-run enterprise the details of which are unknown to almost everyone. It's an enterprise which has immense ramifications in ethics and human health and global stewardship--and our mass unawareness is by design. The primary indictment in the book, the prime mover of evil, is the factory farm. Virtually all of the meat we consume today comes from factory farms, and Foer seeks to raise the curtain and expose the nightmarish reality of these places. There may be plenty of difficulty in the corporate takeover of crop farming--in what the gnashing jaws of corporate profit motive have done to grain production--but it becomes a harrowing and shameful stain our species when that same amoral, profit-driven motive is applied to billions of sentient living creatures.

The book is full of examples and supporting data. Some of the data--that modern factory-farmed chickens and turkeys (which are pretty much 100% the chicken and turkey we consume) have been so altered that they could not survive in the wild; and that modern turkeys cannot even reproduce naturally--seem to me odd but not necessarily bad or evil. Other data, such as the fact that chickens and turkeys have been bred to grow very large very quickly so that there's a minimal time-to-freezer-shelf, seem like the beginnings of playing with fire; the unforeseen ramifications that come with these characteristics--brittle bones not able to support the animal's weight, a severely hobbled immune system--take a questionable idea into perilous territory. And yet other things, like the extreme artificiality of the farms and the universal and heavy use of steroids and antibiotics to counter the farms' inherently hazardous conditions seem bad beyond argument.

But the crux of his argument, for me, revolves not around issues of chemical use or environmental concerns or genetic modification--though one could quite justifiably take a vow of vegetarianism for any of these things, I think--but rather around the question of suffering. I feel, and I think many people feel, a reflexive squeamishness at the very raising of the issue, which says something about the problem lurking beneath our consciousness. Even though the reality is kept hidden from us, most of us have a sense of the horrors that attend the slaughter of living creatures for our kitchen tables (though I daresay the reality is much, much worse than most of us even fear it is). Keeping that suffering from us is integral to disconnecting our sense of food from the sources of that food; and that disconnect has made it possible to ratchet up meat production to a fantastic degree. It is the assembly-line--and disassembly-line--mentality of factory farming that has enabled greater and greater efficiencies (and profits, which is the whole driving force) even as the side effect of animal suffering has grown obscenely.

There are gradations of cruelty to be grappled with. There is the cruelty of animals deprived for their entire (and unnaturally short) lives of any freedoms whatsoever and the foundational, inescapable cruelty of our killing those animals in unimaginable numbers for our own ends. Nothing seems to lessen the sting and shame of this last fact--except keeping it out of sight. Then there is the wanton cruelty of the factory farms, as though we have said 'since the animal's death doesn't matter, let's ramp this up.' This is the foundation of Foer's book, a light trained on a vast, systematic oblivion to the intense suffering of billions of creatures.

But, as though the point needed further driving home, the last step of depravity is reserved for the capricious acts of deliberate, recreational cruelty witnessed in the slaughterhouses. Maybe this cruelty follows inevitably from shift work where one is paid, day after day, to snuff out thousands of lives. But these stories made my eyes well up in horror and despair. These reports--reprinted from other sources, since Foer could never get inside any of the facilities--document wanton and intentional cruelty in the slaughterhouses such as to make me ache with shame and dread down to my very bone marrow. These acts of cruelty--which to my mind are as evil and depraved as anything in humanity's history--while officially condemned by the organizations that run the facilities, are so widespread as to be a fact of life at most if not all slaughter facilities and are known to everyone in the industry (Temple Grandin's report found "deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis at 32% of the plants surveyed" even during announced visits [emphasis mine]).

But Foer's case does not hinge on the (hopefully) aberrant cruelty of the sadistic few.
Some workers clearly are sadistic in the literal sense of that term. But I never met such a person. The several dozen workers I met were good people, smart and honest people doing their best in an impossible situation. The responsibility lies with the mentality of the meat industry that treats both animals and "human capital" like machines. One worker put it this way:

"The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in the stick pit for any period of time, you develop an attitude that lets you kill things but doesn't let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that's walking around down in the blood pit with you and think, God, that really isn't a bad-looking animal. You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them--beat them to death with a pipe... When I worked upstairs taking hogs' guts out, I could cop an attitude that I was working on a production line, helping to feed people. But down in the stick pit I wasn't feeding people. I was killing things."

I struggle to know what to do with this. The traditional farm that exists in our minds eye (an image perpetuated by advertising campaigns) makes the harsh realities of the strong eating the weak--literally--seem more tolerable: what's wrong with a pig or cow or chicken leading an idyllic life on the farm before a painless (and only slightly premature) death for the good of the family and community? But these farms do not exist anymore. A factory farm shares not one pixel with this image. Our modern practices seem to me to have become like a nuclear meltdown of immorality--evincing not just a disregard for our fellow living creatures, but a malicious contempt toward them. Factory farming is a process that begets disease wherever one looks, both medical disease (which flourishes in the dense conditions of the factory farm without aggressive use of chemicals and preemptive medicines) and disease of the intellect born of a systematic disengagement of our ethical faculties on this subject.

Toward the end of the book the author lays the difficulty of the issues before us in condensed fashion with three essays by others. Cattle ranchers Bill and Nicolette Niman, whose ranch outside San Francisco is held up by Foer as the right way to do most everything factory farming has got wrong, each produce an essay, and between them is one from Bruce Friedrich of PETA. Nicolette Niman--an attorney by training--begins with a very persuasive piece about our ethical obligations to animals, and about how one can right the wrongs of the factory farms. It's a resonant argument and I nodded 'yes' to everything. Her essay is then gently but thoroughly rebutted by PETA's Bruce Friedrich, who is at least equally-persuasive with the argument that however indefensible factory farming is, an even stronger case can be made for avoiding these evils and so many others by simply not using animals as a food source. Wait; I had to nod 'yes' to this as well. The last word in this exchange is given to Bill Niman, who argues that eating animals is an absolute fact of nature, and that the evils cited by Friedrich are all circumstantial and avoidable. It was hard for me to find anything to disagree with here.

Thus do I embrace two opposing positions. But in reality, both positions represent a huge step toward the humane treatment of animals, which after all is what is wanted. And after staking out the philosophically-pure, pie-in-the-sky ideals, Foer steers the discussion toward more middle-of-the-road paths that have a much greater possibility--that is, any possibility at all--of being implemented. It's well and good to talk about vegetarianism or even veganism, but the idea that humanity will stop eating meat is simply fantastic; it's never going to happen. Not in our lifetimes. The more burning question is really whether anything can be done to stop the spread of the factory farms, whether there is any possibility of reversing the runaway trends of the multi-billion-dollar meat industry.

I don't know what the answer to all this is. Foer himself will go no further than to say these conclusions are what make sense to me. But there's a lot to be done and thought about in the vast open space between where we are now any of the possible conclusions that might begin to reverse this societal slide. I don't know that I have the fortitude or the circumstance to make wholesale changes and to attempt to bring others along with me. But it seems this is a door which, once opened, cannot be closed again.

Having finished Eating Animals, I have immediately jumped into Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I'll finish up with a quote from his introduction.
What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections. To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal's pain but in our pleasure too. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.


Dzesika said...

Thank you for this. Sounds like a must-read (difficult, disturbing or no!)

dbackdad said...

Sounds like a book I should check out. If you found this interesting, check out any of Michael Pollan's books (I just read In Defense of Food) and go watch Food, Inc.. Just don't eat first. :-)

wunelle said...

Yeah, that's the business with that final quote there: I'm off and running with "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Sounds like he's much on the same page as J.S. Foer.