In the second half of the twentieth century, factory farms expanded exponentially, all but eradicating the family-run food producers that had previously been the norm. The game changer was the discovery that there was no need for animals to be keep healthy for them to be profitable. Thus began a kind of ‘race to the bottom’ in a vast industry where almost unimaginable cruelty and even sadism has became commonplace, the price we pay to keep up with the voracious consumer demand for cheap meat.
Raising animals for food is an immensely wasteful enterprise – smaller and sick animals are ruthlessly killed, tens of thousands of birds die in transit and huge numbers of other fish and marine species (known as ‘bycatch’) die as a side effect of commercial fishing, an industry which operates with a ruthlessness that renders it a kind of underwater equivalent of factory farming.
Few areas of life are as fundamental as eating, yet the origins of what we eat are seldom explored in any depth. Even accounts of the food industry which take a stand against animal cruelty tend to shy away from descriptions of the slaughter, but here Foer recounts the deaths of animals he observes in stomach-turning detail and finds that even in family farms which treat their animals humanely it is often impossible to avoid the fact that animals die in painful and terrifying circumstances.
Our knowledge of the pain animals suffer has deepened, yet suffering on an immense scale has escalated to the point where there are now some fifty billion poultry living in miserable, illness-inducing conditions. The sheer size and resource-intensiveness of eating animals have led leading scientists to voice support for vegetarianism on purely environmental grounds, an unsurprising conclusion when one considers agriculture is the leading contributor to climate change.
Known primarily for his novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which showed a divisive penchant for linguistic trickery and modernist devices, Eating Animals also has its experimental moments. Five pages contain nothing but the repeated words ‘speechlessness/influence’, while at other times, the narrative is taken up by those the author interviewed and it is not always clear who is speaking. The latter is a particularly disorientating device, but it feels like chicanery alongside the cogent arguments advanced elsewhere.
I would have liked more discussion of the idea of incremental change, for instance some variation on the idea which Paul Macartney floated recently of meat eaters abstaining from meat one day a week, an idea which lacks the ideological absolutism of vegetarianism, but would have a major positive impact if widely adopted.
Foer has a unfortunate tendency to break off from an argument at the wrong moment, a shame because he generally displays a willingness to explore the ambiguities of eating meat and resists providing easy answers. Yet his conclusions are clear; that eating meat as we currently do is unsustainable, both ethically and environmentally. This is a flawed work, though one of some urgency.
Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald (Sydney)