Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
I read it: April 2012
Foer’s book is the most helpful food book I’ve read because the author tries to be as explicit as possible of what he thinks the actual implications of his research are. Although the book is packed with facts and testimonials (from all angles you could imagine—even vegetarian ranchers), the book’s power lies in its focus on storytelling and the insistence that food has meaning, and always will.
The title is both more and less than what you think it might be. Foer does not argue that eating animals is inherently wrong, although I was hoping for more philosophical abstraction on that topic. He focuses almost exclusively on the American factory farm, since that method of meat production accounts for what functionally comes to about 100% of all meat consumed. From almost any perspective, the practice is horrific and dangerous. Foer claims, “Factory farming… does not cause all the world’s problems, but it is remarkable just how many of them intersect there,” including global warming, workers’ safety, public health, sustainability, and, of course, animal welfare. So even though Foer is talking about factory farming specifically and how this is a terrible thing to support, his storytelling becomes a direct persuasion to adopt vegetarianism on the whole, and how important he thinks it is to advocate for it. This, I think, is one of the strengths of the book: Foer is very clear about how his personal research influenced him and he has no qualms about becoming an advocate, even though he did not necessarily know this would happen at the start (he both praises and criticizes Michael Pollan because of how Pollan reacted to his own findings while writing a similar book).
For myself, Foer has illuminated some of the lazier aspects of my half-assed eating habits (dairy cows are almost always treated worse than meat cows; the further an animal gets from mammal the worse it is treated, so eating fish is not a valid way to reduce animal suffering). The book is intense by necessity due to the subject matter, and very personal, but also breezes by because it is so creatively crafted. While those who have read Pollan or Schlosser might think they have heard it all before (and they could certainly skip over many gory pages if they have a grasp of what goes on behind closed factory farm doors), Foer uniquely challenges and probes many eating philosophies. He sums, “However much we obfuscate or ignore it, we know that the factory farm is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word.” By the book’s end, it is so hard to disagree that one would have to perform the most strenuous mental tricks to convince oneself that eating meat in America is something that can go unexamined. Meat-eaters should not be turned off, because the book does not rely on unsupportable holier-than-thou tirades, but rather on very direct and simple questions, such as: how much shit and blood on our hands, fields, rivers, and in our bodies would be enough to make you want to second-guess your food choices? Even as a mostly vegetarian eater, I have already second-guessed mine.