Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is an exploration of factory farming, as practiced in America today, and a tale of the author’s decision to choose – not just for himself, but for his young son as well – a vegetarian diet.
You may recall that I think about this stuff a lot. While at times more radical than Michael Pollan in his criticism of supposedly humane animal farming methods (“Polyface Farm… is horrible. It’s a joke”), Foer reaches similar conclusions, namely that — with possible, but in Foer’s eyes impractical, exceptions — meat is not to be eaten. This is for two reasons:
- The suffering of factory-farmed animals, which is extreme and avoidable, if we only choose to avoid it;
- The environmental degradation caused by factory farming.
Both points were argued by philosopher Peter Singer as far back as 1975, although, curiously, the only Singer that Foer quotes (while quoting other philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida and Emanuela Cenami Spada) is Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer (who similarly argued that animal rights are “the purest form of social-justice advocacy, because animals are the most downtrodden of all the downtrodden […] Humans are unique, just not in ways that make animal pain irrelevant.”) Peter Singer, incidentally, took a very clear philosophical position on a not-unrelated question that Foer only hints at: “And eating animals is one of those topics, like abortion, where it is impossible to definitely know some of the most important details (When is a fetus a person, as opposed to a potential person? What is animal experience really like?) and that cuts right to one’s deepest discomforts, often provoking defensiveness or aggression.”
Both of what I call the Singer-Pollan motives, in the intervening years, have grown worse (fish farming, by the way, runs into just as many animal welfare and environmental issues as the land-based animal variety). Animal breeds have been further selected for traits that result in vicious side effects (walk? what factory-farmed animal needs the ability to walk?), and environmental and human health issues resulting from factory farming are increasingly well documented.
It is to this last point that Foer adds, it seems, more data than has been widely discussed in the past: studies by the UN and the Pew Commission show that, globally, farmed animals contribute more to climate change than the entire transport sector (cars, trains, planes and ships combined). Animal agriculture is responsible for 37 percent of anthropogenic methane and 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide: both gases are key contributors to global warming and offer many times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
As for human health, the impact is not just on the communities who live near factory farms (and breathe, let’s say it, powdered animal shit every day), but could be global and take a heavy toll. Antibiotics are increasingly ineffective, as we know, because farmed animals are fed antibiotics nontherapeutically: in the United States, 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock (and this latter figure is underreported by 40 percent, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists). Also, while this past season’s flu was eventually much milder than anticipated, pandemic experts agree that another influenza pandemic on the possible scale of the 1918 Spanish flu is “not only inevitable, but overdue”, and that growing demand for animal protein (and therefore the increasing scale of factory farming) is a primary factor in the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Globally, the problem isn’t just that the Chinese and the Indians will want to build roads and drive cars like we do in the West: it’s that they will want to eat chicken like we do in the West.
Finally, even the meat gourmet’s alibi – the existence of luxury farms, where biodiversity is promoted and animals are grown humanely and slaughtered mercifully (it is notable that finding suitable slaughter facilities is a challenge even for the most committed humane farmers) – seems under threat: witness the departure of pioneer farmer Bill Niman from Niman Ranch in August 2007 after disagreements over animal protocols. It seems that market forces conspire towards the lowest common denominator, and premium brands are not strong enough to survive if they want to do things differently. Yet, at the high end of the market, I am incredulous that the market cannot find a solution, and I don’t want to believe that the market space for these solutions is not destined to increase. You’re telling me that you can buy a $9,000 handbag, a CHF10,000 evening with a call girl, or a $1,000 bottle of wine, but you can’t go to a premium meat store and buy a humanely farmed and humanely slaughtered €55 chicken? That sounds so wrong.
In the meantime, I sit on the fence with growing discomfort. I tell myself: I am eating meat in Argentina, in Switzerland, not in America. It may make some difference, but ultimately not a fundamental difference. And I eat meat in Italy, too, where I know nothing about the production of meat, but I suspect that factory farming isn’t all that different from what it is in America, as documented by Pollan, Foer and others. And I suspect we’ll talk about this again.