Book | Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Reviewed by Ben DeVries of Not One Sparrow

Flourish Magazine, Spring 2010

What would make Jonathan Safran Foer, a talented and successful young novelist (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), decide to spend three years researching and writing a work of nonfiction, about food and animal advocacy no less?

While Foer says he had taken the ethics of his diet seriously before, with varying degrees of consistency, it was the birth of his son that vaulted him into the entirely new echelon of responsibility and possibility that spawned Eating Animals: “Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter.”

Those stories almost always involve animals in our society, and not just the faceless ten-digit-billions that annually supply the U.S., but individual animals: each one with its own past, present and fast-approaching future. Each animal meant for consumption has its own individual story, but one which is rarely, if ever, recognized or heard. It would just as rarely fail to shock and disgust us if it were heard.

Foer’s occasional use of crass language and sometimes relativistic personal morality surface early in Eating Animals, which may disappoint the creation care community a bit, along with the lack of significant biblical references to the dignity and inherent value of all God’s creatures, and the husbandry standards He expects as a result. Still, the strength of Foer’s book lies in his personal approach to a subject, a matter of conscience, even, that most of us would rather not personalize:

“Silently the animal catches our glance. The animal looks at us, and whether we look away (from the animal, our plate, our concern, ourselves) or not, we are exposed. Whether we change our lives or do nothing, we have responded.”

This approach lends credibility and accountability to his relentless, but accessible, exposé of modern “factory farming” practices, through which 60-99.9% of our farmed land animals are funneled (depending on whether they are cows for beef or dairy, pigs, turkeys, or chickens for eggs or meat). He even includes modern aquaculture farms and our crusade against wild fish populations (along with discarded tons of “bycatch”—creatures unintentionally caught and killed during the harvesting of other species) in his assessment. Foer unflinchingly depicts the neglect and suffering unavoidably caused by processes that have been institutionalized, with USDA complicity (perhaps better expressed as “see no evil, hear no evil”), solely for the purpose of generating the most amount of protein in the fastest amount of time, with the least amount of resources and human oversight (otherwise known as care).

Recorded moments of individual neglect and blatant abuse prompt the most visceral cringe, but Foer’s sweeping (and carefully documented) inventory of the staggering scale of industrial animal farming and its externalized costs is also jaw-dropping: “The power brokers of factory farming know that their business model depends on consumers not being able to see (or hear about) what they do.”

Here are just a few of the realities we’re not meant to digest with our animal products:

  • We are globally factory farming 450 billion land-based animals alone each year, and livestock in general account for almost one third of the earth’s land use.
  • Animal agriculture across the board contributes to 40% more greenhouse gasses than all human transportation put together, and some factory farms can generate more toxin-laden waste than entire cities.
  • Upwards of 24 million pounds of non-therapeutic antibiotics are being fed to U.S. farm animals annually in an attempt to counteract their grossly unnatural genetics and environments, and industrial animal farming is almost certainly contributing to new strains of zoonotic diseases (transferable between animals and humans) and possible pandemics.
  • And back to the animals themselves, the unlucky ones at least, the industry accounts for hundreds of thousands of “downers” each year (too sick to be consumed at slaughter), and allows for millions of “euthanizations” (often crudely carried out) and other built-in “losses” (due to illness, genetics, or basic lack of attention) in its profit planning.

Now a committed vegetarian himself, Foer makes a strong case for abstaining from meat altogether, but he doesn’t leave us with an all-or-nothing decision. He spends good portions of the book describing and, in some cases genuinely admiring, the work of the few animal farmers remaining who are diligently trying to maintain and restore more humane husbandry practices. But one nonnegotiable is clear:

“For some, the decision to eschew factory-farmed products will be easy. … To those for whom it sounds like a hard decision (I would have counted myself in this group), the ultimate question is whether it is worth the inconvenience. We know, at least, that this decision will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history. What we don’t know, though, may be just as important. How would making such a decision change us?

(Some short videos of Jonathan Safran Foer on Eating Animals are available via The Ellen Degeneres Show: parts one, two and three. Please visit Not One Sparrow’s blog to find out much more about animal farming and eating more humanely from a Christian worldview.)

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Book | Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer | The Just Life
April 27, 2010 at 2:00 pm

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Ben DeVries April 26, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Kendra and Flourish, thank you very much for suggesting and sharing this review of an important book and an important subject for creation care. I really appreciated the opportunity – Ben

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