Eating Animals: Debunking our Pastoral Myth

Jonathan Safran Foer speaks with the reasoning of a vegetarian, the skepticism of an investigative journalist and the concern of a parent in Eating Animals. This persuasive narrative forces us to ask why we have ignored the issues associated with factory-farmed meat and fish for so long. We’ve done so, Foer argues, by telling ourselves a fable about our relation to the animals we eat.

Our story about meat is a longstanding one with the quality of a dream. We like to imagine animals and humans living side-by-side on rural pastureland. In exchange for a life free of suffering, animals “consent” to being eaten. Foer spells out this “myth of animal consent” to expose our “ambivalence about the violence and death dealing inherent in eating animals.” Probing our psychological relationship with food, he makes an argument for vegetarianism but ultimately proposes a more humane system for raising and killing animals.

As a novelist, Foer’s main concern is for his materials, namely words. So to tell this story, he deconstructs the language of food, devoting an entire chapter to redefining words used to describe factory farming. “Suffering” is not as much about the science of pain as it is about our ability to feel what the object of that pain is experiencing. “Cruelty” is a conscious apathy toward “unnecessary suffering” and it depends on our “ability to choose against it, or to choose to ignore it.” “Cage-free” literally means that birds are not in cages but actually says nothing about their living conditions. “KFC” no longer stands for fried chicken but more often for animal cruelty (“workers were documented tearing heads off live birds, spitting tobacco into their eyes, spray-painting their faces, and violently stomping on them”). He titles one section “Our New Sadism” wherein we hear revolting testaments to human barbarism. So when Foer quotes a factory farmer (“You simply can’t feed billions of people free-range eggs”), we hear instead Foer’s definition of “free-range”: “Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch—and the door is closed all but occasionally.”

Foer then sets out to engage with others about eating meat. His hypothetical debates with Michael Pollan on eating animals lead Foer towards a critique of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in which he states that the book ultimately is a “disavowal of the real horror we inflict.” When he takes an illegal trip to a poultry farm with the animal activist named “C,” we relive Foer’s disturbing experience and read C’s testimony. There are voices from a factory farm, a small scale poultry farm and a small pig farm. There is a vegetarian cattle rancher who believes in her decision not to eat meat but is aware that “the meat industry affects everybody … all of us, living in a society in which food production is based on factory farming.” There is the voice of Foer’s own grandmother, a World War II survivor whose relationship with food means everything from “terror” to “gratitude.” There are voices of the voiceless chickens, fish, pigs and cows whose short lives are documented step-by-step in chapters on raising and processing within factory farms and industrial fisheries. What began as one person’s desire to know what meat is — “where does it come from? how is it produced?” — becomes our universal problem.

But perhaps the most striking and sobering question asked in Eating Animals is, “What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?” What do we do on the day when we discover that most of our meat is tainted? Don’t these facts force us to ask what it means to be human?

Foer’s argument stops short of considering this question only in his consideration of food production and the environment. He does offer a two-page definition for environmentalism as “concern for the preservation and restoration of natural resources and the ecological systems that sustain human life.” He does not, however, press the reader to consider the false stories we tell ourselves about our responsibility for global warming. We are given an elementary lesson on food production and greenhouse gas emissions. We learn about dead zones and the toxicity of manure lagoons. But he glides over pivotal questions about the meat industry that takes into account the importance of a healthy earth.

Still, Foer has a specific agenda: reinvent the system with the help of “modern technology and traditional husbandry” and restore the growth of husbandry-based ranching. It is helpful that Foer, a strict vegetarian, recognizes that Americans like to eat meat and they probably always will. Therefore, admitting that “ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality” places his agenda at an appropriate distance from our current food mentality. If we want change, then we must subscribe to a story filled with different facts than the ones we accept unthinkingly. “The secrecy that has enabled the factory farm is breaking down:” 76 million Americans get sick each year from the food they eat. Less than 2% of the American population works in agriculture. Long-line fishing kills 4.5 million sea animals a year—and this is just the number of dead animals thrown back into the sea as by-catch. Numbers help tell the story of a world that should be valued more than our cravings.

5 thoughts on “Eating Animals: Debunking our Pastoral Myth

  1. “Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.
    And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”

    Milan Kundera (b.1929)

  2. Nice write-up, Stacey… but one thing bugs me about this book. Foer doesn’t offer a SOLUTION for the average eater. He makes us feel guilty, horrified, and pretty much powerless.

    If he had included specific actions readers could take, this book would be more worthwhile.

  3. Thank you Stacey Slate for your thoughtful, balanced review of Foer’s compelling new book. I just may print it and give it, along with his book to friends and family this holiday season (but I will wait until after Thanksgiving; I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings). Michiko Kakutani’s over-the-top angry review in today’s Times was clearly neither balanced nor thoughtful. She ends with statistics about horrific loss of human life around the world,in a thumbing-her-nose-at-a-shallow-Foer manner (because terrible things happen to humans, we can’t think about the sorry plight of animals?). The more I read of her review the more I kept thinking, “What is she so angry about??
    I have been both moved and disturbed by Foer’s book, and indeed plan to give copies as gifts this year, to people I love, because I care about them, not so much the pigs and chickens of the world. My concern about meat eating after reading this book is selfishly based on health considerations, not so much the compelling evidence Foer presents about our shockingly inhuman treatment of animals. Foer simply points out that we are all in denial about what we put into our mouths, and I don’t really see how he faulted for coming to this conclusion. He’s right. How else could I possibly relish the short ribs that fall off the bone and drip with rich, complex flavors, right after I watch a documentary about the horrors of the meat industry? Or dig into the delectable lamb burgers I rhapsodize about that are made in a restaurant I usually can’t wait to go back to? You can see that giving up meat will never be easy for me, but instead of sticking my head in the sand, or ranting and raving about Foer’s book, I’ve decided that denial is no longer the best course of action. I have asked my daughter, who eats mostly on campus, and thus away from home, not to eat ground beef,(not because of Foer’s book, but an article I read in the Times about the gamble we take every time we swallow a mouthful of the stuff) in spite of the fact that I’ve always made both a mean meatloaf and a wonderful stuffed cabbage, a la my mother and grandmother. Give these up? Forever? How can I possibly live my life without these pleasures? Foer has prodded me to think about why we marginalize vegetarians and why we turn our backs on the fact that our food is filled with things that would make any clear headed person wince.
    Foer is the messenger, and should neither be shot or yelled at (well, maybe just a little) for lifting the curtain that stands between us and the truth about the food industry that is supposed to nourish us and our families. This is a book that should be read and taken very seriously, especially by those who view themselves as well-informed, thoughtful members of society. Thinking can’t possibly hurt as much as ingesting the scary things that are fed to, and come out of the food that daily makes it’s way to our tables. Foer did his job. Now it is time for me to do mine, and decide whether to pay attention or sweep his words under my meat stained tablecloth.

  4. Shelly,

    I don’t think Eating Animals is a kind of book where advice or solutions should be given. It’s not an Oprha show…It’s for all communities and indiviudals to search and find ways of empowering themselves when it comes to responsible and ethical eating habits. Can I ask you what What you mean with “average eater” . I am unemployed and not wealthy and I consider myself pretty average yet I heavily lean vegetarian…

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