Eating Animals (thoughts)
Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t motivating, what would be? If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?
We have let the factor farm replace farming for the same reasons our cultures have relegated minorities to being second-class members of society and kept women under the power of men. We treat animals as we do because we want to and can.
This is not going to be a standard book review. I think Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is incredible well-written, and it’s obvious to anyone who reads it that it’s incredibly well-researched (there are almost one hundred pages *after* the writing ends devoted to notes and sources). But some books are more important than that. Eating Animals discusses one of the seminal issues of our time, and anyone who buys meat, dairy, or eggs in the US needs to read it so that they know precisely what their money supports. Also, I’d like to point out that Foer didn’t begin researching this book as a vegetarian out to support his position. He began researching this book in order to decide whether or not to be a vegetarian, and as he says in the book that he really likes the taste of meat, I don’t think anyone would accuse him of a hidden agenda.
As Foer says:
We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?
Before I read this book, I knew that factory farming was evil. But I had no idea just how unregulated the industry was, and I had no idea how horrific the ‘standard’ treatment of these animals was.
For example, did you know that factory farms can treat animals any way they’d like as long as the industry adopts it as ‘standard practice’? Rather than the government regulating this industry then, the big businesses decide what’s legal or illegal themselves. (Is anyone else getting a flashback to Upton Sinclair right about now?) As Foer explains:
If the industry adopts a practice-hacking off unwanted appendages with no painkillers, for example, but you can let your imagination run with this-it automatically becomes legal.
Did you know that independent studies from a variety of institutes have all determined that factory farming contributes more to climate change than anything else? Once again, going back to Foer:
The most current data even quantifies the role of diet: omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do. …Most simply put, someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.
Do you know that up to 11% of the weight of USDA-approved chicken that you buy in any grocery store can come from ‘liquid absorption’? And do you know that that liquid is also referred to as a ‘fecal soup’? Foer quotes Tom Devine, from the Government Accountability Project:
the water in these tanks has been aptly named ‘fecal soup’ for all the filth and bacteria floating around. By immersing clean, healthy birds in the same tank with dirty ones, you’re practically assuring cross-contamination.
Or that the chicken industry put pressure on the USDA so that fecal contamination that occurs when machines rip open a chicken’s intestines sloppily, rather than being a cause for condemnation, is now considered a mere ‘cosmetic blemish’?
Did you know that factory farms have ‘bred’ animals so messed up that they don’t have any immune system, which means that instead they’re fed 17.8 million pounds of antibiotics each year (probably more)? And did you know that these are the same antibiotics humans use, and that therefore factory farming is directly contributing to drug-resistant pathogens the world over?
For example, in 1995, when the Food and Drug Administration approved fluroquinolones-such as Cipro-for use in chickens against the protest of the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of bacteria resistant to this powerful new class of antiobiotics rose from almost zero to 18 percent by 2002. A broader study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed an eightfold increase in antimicrobial resistance from 1992 to 1997, and, using molecular subtyping, linked this increase to the use of antimicrobials in farmed chickens.
Did you know that wild fish are caught using methods that are destroying our oceans?
One study found that roughly 4.5 million sea animals are killed as bycatch in longline fishing every year, including roughly 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 60,000 sea turtles, 75,000 albatross, and 20,000 dolphins and whales.
Even longlines, though, don’t produce the immense bycatch associated with trawling. The most common type of modern shrimp trawler sweeps an area roughly twenty-five to thirty meters wide. The trawl is pulled along the ocean bottom at 4.5 to 6.5 kmh for several hours, sweeping shrimp (and everything else) into the far end of a funnel-shaped net. Trawling, almost always for shrimp, is the marine equivalent of clear-cutting rain forest. Whatever they target, trawlers sweep up fish, sharks, rays, crabs, squid, scallops-typically about a hundred different fish and other species. Virtually all die.
And I haven’t even shared with you the conditions these animals have to deal with yet, have I? I haven’t told you the details of their lives, body parts sliced off with no attempt at painkilling, crammed in with so many others in buildings whose fumes and toxins are so extreme a person could die in ten minutes if the power got shut off. I haven’t told you about the slaughter houses, and what happens there. Because you already know that all of this is messed up (I originally had a much stronger word here, but decided to keep things PG). You know that animals destined for meat live in torture and die that way. You know that if you want to continue eating meat, you should avoid reading about or watching anything that details factory farming, because it is so bottomlessly evil. Which is why I’m sharing with you all of the *other* problems, ones that you might not have been aware of.
And why am I telling you all this? Simple. It’s because the only way to stop factory farming is for us, all of us, to take a stand against it. There’s no neutrality in this issue; either you buy this meat, which looks cheap in the grocery store but which carries with it innumerable environmental, health, and ethical costs, and thus support the factory farming industry, or you don’t. And it sucks that such a vast majority of meat available in the US today comes from factory farming, so much so that in order to not support it, you’re looking at pretty much a vegetarian diet, at least for now, until things change. As Foer says:
We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options available to most of us. There isn’t enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island and not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City, let alone the country. Ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality. Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare.
A good number of people seem to be tempted to continue supporting factory farms while also buying meat outside that system when it is available. That’s nice. But if it is as far as our moral imaginations can stretch, then it’s hard to be optimistic about the future. Any plan that involves funneling money to the factory farm won’t end factory farming. How effective would the Montgomery bus boycott have been if the protesters had used the bus when it became inconvenient not to?
Here’s what I find most ironic, and unintentionally hilarious about this whole situation. This post of mine is nothing but facts. Almost all of the Foer quotes I shared are the results of studies done by independent observers. But just by sharing these facts, I’m seen as taking a radical stance. That’s how much power the meat, dairy, and egg industries have in our society.
I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 16, almost a third of my life, except for when I studied abroad in Russia (I was staying with host families, and at the time I felt cultural issues took precedence) and for two months when I thought I was joining the Peace Corps and was preparing my body for meat again (the day I found out I hadn’t gotten my medical clearance, I stopped eating meat; until then, I was eating meat that my dad had hunted). I decided to give veganism a go last year, and I was quite happy as a vegan for six months, until I found out that I am gluten intolerant. That fact was so overwhelming, and made it seem like I could eat so little, that I began eating eggs/dairy products for one of my meals each day. But no more; as of yesterday, I’m eating vegan once again, and I fully intend to stay that way.
Why? It’s certainly not for taste reasons. I love steak, I love sushi, I love ice cream and cheese and omelettes. But I don’t love any of that enough to be willing to support an industry that is not only being so cruel to animals that you might not believe me if I told you everything I know, but one that is also destroying my planet and my public health. If there were a cruelty-free option to eat eggs and dairy, I’d jump on it. But until we all boycott factory farming, until we demand change from these businesses in the only language that they speak (money), those options won’t appear. And so, for the sake of everything that I hold dear, in order to be true to my values, I’m sacrificing. And I’m speaking out.
I can’t make anyone else join me in my boycott (although, if my post makes you want to change your diet, feel free to ask me any questions you might have). But I can give you all the facts. What you choose to do with this knowledge is up to you. But you have to acknowledge that it *is* a choice. I’ll leave you with one last quote from Foer, in which he talks about the intellectual analyses of the meat industry currently going on:
There is one other rule to this game: never, absolutely never, emphasise that virtually all of the time one’s choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals.