It is interesting to me that when I hear of a title like Eating Animals, I pretty much know the book is going to advocate not eating animals. After all, we don’t eat animals, we eat meat; delicious, delicious meat. And lots of it, at that. The average American will consume 21,000 entire animals during the course of his life. (Do note that this does not necessarily mean 21,000 cows; those tasty little shrimp you eat by the dozen are also whole animals, at least until you bite down) Most of us pretty much assume that the meat we buy from the grocery store began its life not as a cute little animal but as a shrink-wrapped chunk of flesh neatly packaged in a styrofoam container. We prefer our food abstract since that somehow makes it so much less offensive to our urban sensibilities.
Eating Animals is an investigation into meat and, even more, into the meat industry. Here the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, follows a long line of books and documentaries (think The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc., etc) in seeing how the cute little cow becomes the blob of flesh on the grocery store shelf or the hamburger patty sizzling on the grill.
Not surprisingly, what Foer discovers is shocking, disgusting and degrading. While there is some validity in drawing a distinction between factory farms and family farms, it’s an increasingly meaningless one for the vast majority of our meat, especially if we frequent fast food joints, comes from factory farms. The unfortunate animals who are bred and raised on such farms live in conditions that is utterly appalling. While granting that they are “mere” animals, not distant human ancestors, but life forms designed by God to serve humans, it is nevertheless hard to justify the conditions in which they spend their short lives and, as often as not, the way in which they end their lives. And yet this is the cost of cheap meat. Either we pay or they pay. North Americans want to consume vast amounts of protein and want to pay little for it; factory farms are the only viable solution to this conundrum. Capitalism pretty much dictates it.
Says Foer, “Those factory farmers calculate how close to death they can keep the animals without killing them. That’s the business model. How quickly can they be made to grow, how tightly can they be packed, how much or little can they eat, how sick can they get without dying.” As humans we are commanded by God to have dominion over the earth and all it contains, but to do so as stewards. It is tough for me to see factory farms as any kind of faithful stewardship. To produce all the cheap meat we need, we’ve torn animals from any kind of natural life and turned them into commodities no different than inert ones like coal or lumber. “For thousands of years, farmers took their cues from natural processes. Factory farming considers nature an obstacle to be overcome.” So we fiddle with genetics to create chickens that have lots of high-quality white meat, but which have spindly legs that are easily broken. We feed them food they would never consume in a natural environment and cram them full of antibiotics to ward off the diseases brought about by close confinement. At the end we don’t much care that they live a miserable existence from cradle to grave egg to frying pan. If they’re cheap and tasty we’re content not to ask questions. Somehow this doesn’t seem quite right.
What I like about Eating Animals is that it avoids the PETA-insanity all too common among vegetarians and their evil cousins vegans (seriously, I can understand not eating meat, but life without dairy is unimaginable to me). Foer goes out of his way to sympathize with omnivores and to express his own regard for the tastier of God’s creatures. And while he is now vegetarian (did I just ruin the ending for you?) he came to that decision not by ideology as much as by what he considers necessity. He reminds me a bit of Bart Ehrman who has turned from God but regrets having no one to pray to; Foer has turned from meat but regrets not eating turkey on Thanksgiving. That’s the kind of vegetarian I can identify with.
To this point my #1 takeaway from all of the reading I’ve done as part of this project is this simple lesson: worldview makes all the difference. When we ignore the Bible we can no longer begin our thinking from a consistent dominion perspective. Foer writes well, but he writes from the perspective of an evolutionist (even if a practicing Jewish one). So he does not and cannot state with confidence that God gives us permission to eat meat. The Christian’s conscience should be clear in regards to eating animals; it’s how they become food that is more troublesome to me.
And yet I don’t quite know what to do about it. As I read this book I felt guilty when reading about the conditions of the animals on their factory farms. I felt positively sick reading about the conditions in many of those slaughterhouses. And then I ate a ham and egg sandwich. It was delicious.
Verdict: Read it to spur your thinking about what you eat
Note: In many of the reviews I write I don’t bother mentioning the use of profanity. When you read a book by Ozzy Osbourne you pretty much know what you’re going to get. But I feel like I should mention that when discussing feces Foer prefers the use of a four-letter equivalent. And because there’s so much of that, um, manure in, on and around our meat, well, the word comes up quite often.