I came to Jonathan Safran Foer’s only tome of non-fiction to date, Eating Animals, as an omnivore, and am leaving the same way. Whilst it has made me think more about where my food comes from, it has not steered me down the road of vegetarianism – which, he states explicitly, was never his intention. Rather, Safran Foer decided, in part, to write this piece of extended journalism in order to explore whether he and his (now ex-) wife, Nicole Krauss, both vegetarians, should feed their son meat as part of his diet.
‘I see value,’ he writes, ‘in all of us sharing our personal reflections and decisions about eating animals, [and] I didn’t write this book simply to reach a personal conclusion. Farming is shaped not only by food choice, but by political ones. Choosing a personal diet is insufficient. But how far am I willing to push my own decisions and my own views about the best alternative animal agriculture?… What do I expect from others? What should we all expect of one another when it comes to the question of eating animals?’
From the very beginning, Safran Foer is incredibly reasonable, posing thoughtful questions, and never preaching about his own beliefs. He understands that a lot of people want to eat meat, but wonders if they would think again if they knew the processes which had occurred in making the animal in question food matter in the first place. I was aware of quite a few of the things which he talks about at length – for instance, the horrors of trawler fishing – but was not prepared for some of the statistics which he includes. Some of the figures are truly staggering.
Eating Animals, whatever your dietary choice, is certainly eye-opening. Some of the facts which Safran Foer includes are truly grotesque. Did you know, for example, that in 44 US states, it is perfectly legal to eat dog? Were you aware of just how many species of marine animals are injured and killed in tuna trawler nets? 145, to be exact, ranging from the (great) white shark, barracuda, and Kemps Ridley turtle, to the humpbacked whale, harbor porpoise, and four different types of dolphin. This was definitely the most shocking part of the book for me; I am horrified to think that anything else is harmed in the pursuit of food, and so regularly too.
Safran Foer’s account is far-reaching; he discusses, amongst other things, the history of animal ethics, the first slaughterhouses (or ‘industrial “processing” plants) which came into being, and the horrific conditions which exist for battery hens and the like. The book also includes a glossary entitled ‘Words/Meaning’, which I found fascinating, and a copious notes section. Throughout, he uses philosophers and other authors who have written in the field in order to discuss his points as fully as is possible. He adds contrasting views for almost every point which he makes. He has also physically been to visit a lot of the places which he writes about, helping to give his account a really human angle.
Eating Animals has not changed what I eat, but it is going some way to challenge how I eat. I have always purchased free range eggs and ensure that the meat which I buy is organic wherever possible; I will also never touch fish which has not been line caught. Safran Foer has taught me that I am a ‘selective omnivore’; I eat meat when I know where it comes from, or know that it has been responsibly and sustainably sourced. I am far more savvy in purchasing my own groceries than I am when eating out and buying takeaways, however; I am going to make a concerted effort to ask about how my meat, or fish, was produced, and whether sustainable methods were used.
Eating Animals is incredibly well written, which will surprise nobody familiar with Safran Foer’s work. Ultimately, as a piece of extended journalism, it is thoughtful and thought-provoking, meticulously researched, and never judgemental. Safran Foer is an extremely careful author, never foisting his own beliefs onto his readers, whom he understands range from strict vegans to meat-eaters. He could easily have used Eating Animals to justify a vegetarian, or even vegan, diet, but does not; in this manner, I cannot think of a better author who could have tackled such a sensitive subject. Eating Animals is an insightful and important book, which I feel that everyone should read.