Book review: Eating Animals

Over the past few years, I have educated myself on all sorts of issues related to food production, veganism, and animal rights, by virtue of reading hundreds of essays, blog posts, and editorials on these topics, as well as listening to podcasts. It appeared that every aspect of these topics had been covered numerous times by these articles, as I had read things by both vegans and non-vegans, discussing such topics as animal rights, animal welfare, nutrition, public health, workers’ rights, food efficiency, and environmentalism. After reading lots of material in bite-sized chunks, I was convinced that I would get little out of a book on these issues. After all, what could a book on eating animals possibly tell me that I hadn’t already heard numerous times?

A lot, apparently. It’s now obvious to me that one can delve much more deeply into such matters in a book than in even a large number of 2-page essays, or hour-long podcasts. Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals introduced me to far more detailed information about factory farming than I had seen before. Also included for the first time in my reading was a detailed discussion of fish production, both in aquacultures (the fish version of factory farms) and in the wild.

In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense that fish would not be covered in much depth on the Internet. Most articles written by vegans are intended to be as effective as possible in getting others to care about something, whatever it may be. If that is one’s goal, one will tend to focus on animals for which people in general have the greatest degree of empathy, especially mammals, and to a slightly less extent, birds. Fish are much less familiar to most of us, and so people tend to be less concerned with their well-being.

A book, however, is long enough that one can explore a range of aspects of food production, including those that are less frequently explored and less well-understood by the population at large. Foer uses the book as an opportunity to let us know that, by the standards of animal suffering, fish production is inherently a greater evil than that of land animals.

In part, I feel that Eating Animals is a response to Michael Pollan’s extremely popular books. Pollan, of course, claims to be opposed to factory farming while supporting so-called “humane meat.’’ Foer challenges Pollan here, saying that Pollan still eats factory-farmed meat. Foer also takes Pollan to task on his gushing about humane meat, noting that humane meat is only very, very rarely actually humane, even on those particular farms, like Polyface, on which Pollan showers his praises in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

It is tempting to throw a few quotations from Eating Animals into this review to highlight to my readers just how serious a problem factory farming is, but now that I have finished the book, doing so just doesn’t seem to make much sense. Cherry-picking a sentence here and a paragraph there would only serve to reduce the horrors of factory farming to a short amount of space, a space that cannot possibly paint anything resembling a full picture of the enormity of the problem. Furthermore, Foer is too brilliant a writer to have a few snippets picked out and placed in a foreign essay; one must read the whole book in order to get the effect of it.

Despite a few annoying inaccuracies in the book, Foer did a thorough job of his investigation. Although he is primarily a fiction writer (he is already well-known for his novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Foer has shown himself to be a talented and eager journalist, even taking on dangerous tasks for the sake of better understanding of his material. In particular, he explains the story of his entering a factory farm in the dead of night after being repeatedly ignored when asking for tours. Like any respectable journalist, Foer was willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort in order to be able to uncover important details.

I was disappointed, however, by Foer’s willingness to let meat-eaters off the hook on the grounds that eating is inherently irrational. After presenting such a strong case against at least factory farming (but really pretty much all meat eating), Foer goes on to claim that, while rationality so obviously leads one to realize that any self-respecting person must be vegetarian (and, if one is willing to be completely honest, vegan), food is irrational, and represents traditions, so perhaps one could eat meat and not be a horrible person after all. I can’t stand this approach of letting meat-eaters off so easily, especially given other potential applications of this argument. Does any responsible person pretend that keeping slaves is okay because doing so is (or was, I guess) traditional? Surely not! But when it comes to eating animals, suddenly people want to pretend that this line of reasoning is valid. It isn’t.

On the other hand, Foer comes to very sensible personal conclusions on meat-eating. He doesn’t completely want to condemn the (very rare) family farms that do exist, but he rightly points out that even these are not perfect; they are just more controlled in their imperfections. How much imperfection, Foer asks, must a farm have before we condemn it? We avoid all such difficult questions by simply not eating animals at all. Furthermore, being a vegetarian is orders of magnitude more socially acceptable than being a selective omnivore, at least if one is to be honest. Who wants to explain to one’s hosts exactly which brands of meats are acceptable and which aren’t? How much easier is it to say, very simply, “I don’t eat animals’’?

One aspect of this book that confused me a bit was the distribution of space devoted to various methods of animal agriculture. Foer points out that at least 99% of meat produced in the US is factory farmed, and thus to talk about eating animals in the US is to talk about factory farming. Why, then, is so much space devoted to other methods of farming, methods that few people ever encounter? Perhaps it doesn’t quite make sense to say that if 99% of meat comes from factory farming, then 99% of the book should be devoted to factory farming, but does it make much sense to devote 40% or so of the book to the exceptional 1%? It’s nice to tell those stories a bit, but I found the emphasis on family farms to be too much.

Ultimately, this book is one of the most honest and thorough books on animal agriculture available. For anyone who wants to consider emself well-informed on the subject of food production, this book is absolutely essential reading. With the publication of this book, we are beyond the stage at which people can in good conscience claim ignorance of the realities of animal agriculture: anyone who doesn’t know this stuff now is actively trying to avoid it.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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2 Responses to Book review: Eating Animals

  1. teratoma says:

    > rationality so obviously leads one to realize that any self-respecting person must be vegetarian (and, if one is willing to be completely honest, vegan)
    i don’t think that is rational at all (serious). what are the axioms that lead you/jsf to this conclusion??

  2. bitspike says:

    Hello! Just came here after hearing that you wrote a review on the book. Thought I’d come by and read it. Then I decided to comment on a few points you made, because I thought about them a lot after reading the book, too.
    “I found the emphasis on family farms to be too much.”
    I don’t recall exactly where, but I’m pretty sure he explained his reasons for this. Foer doesn’t feel factory farms are in any way acceptable, and believes the average person given a few details on the practices involved within them would agree. So he asks ‘What is (apparently) better? – I should see if that method of farming is acceptable.’ He then shows how awful even ‘happy’ farms are and the necessary hypocrisy involved in the claims of ‘loving’ the animals and sending them off to slaughter (turkeys) or branding them (cows).
    He shows that even these ideal situations are unjustifiable. He doesn’t have to go into great detail about factory farms (I feel he did, though) to get the point across that no rational person can claim that they are ethical.
    “I can’t stand this approach of letting meat-eaters off so easily.”
    This was perhaps the most complicated part of his overall argument. His thesis (the way I read it) is this:
    I personally don’t believe eating animals, in our current world situation, is justifiable, and therefore it is reasonable and responsible for me to abstain. However, I realise that the general population (he kinda takes a US centric approach here, so I’m not sure how much he’s including ‘less developed’ worlds) will not agree that it is necessary to abstain. But if they at least realise the inherent wrongs of factory farming and boycott those practices, the conditions of all beings within the world would improve.
    Do get this point across, and to prevent offending omnivores who would listen to his argument thus making them defensive, he needs to recognise that his understanding that boycotting animal products as the ideal will not be shared by all and accept the strong welfarist approach to the issues. Because of this, he does give meat eaters a few concessions, and I don’t think the book would have been quite as successful otherwise.
    However! By making it accessible to meat eaters in this way, he is able to get the message across to them about the awful conditions inherent even in ‘happy’ farms, and explain his personal position that meat is always cruel. By making concessions, he is increasing the chances of ‘converting’ more to his way of thinking. It’s a small sacrifice for a potentially better result.
    Well, that’s the way I took the whole ‘meat might be alright in some situations’ thing, but I really don’t know his intention so I could be way off. (And maybe I’m just projecting my own justifications onto the author because I like his work and want to assume the best of him.) =)
    Sorry this reply was sooooo long!

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