An interview with author Jonathan Safran Foer about factory farms, vegetarianism, and Eating Animals.
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Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, I took a deep breath and called my mother and sister in successive order to tell them that I would not be eating turkey for the holiday. “Or any other meat for that matter,” I declared. “Ever.” I had just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, and it cinched my decision to go veggie.
My sister’s first reaction was to say that she could not cheat her 3-year old son out of the tradition of having a roast beast on the table. My mother, playing Switzerland, announced that everyone was entitled to their own opinion. I think my announcement surprised them. My subsequent conversations with family, friends, and co-workers certainly surprised me. With so much cultural attention paid over the past several years to slow food and eating locally, I could not get over how little most people knew (myself included) about the factory farm system in the United States.
Choosing not to eat meat is a surprisingly impactful decision. Before reading Foer’s book—his first nonfiction work since writing the novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—I’d been a self-proclaimed “part-time vegetarian,” mostly because of stomach issues. I was unaware of the facts that factory-farmed meat is the leading cause of global warming in the world and that these places are incubators for some of the planet’s most potent and potentially disastrous diseases, such as the H1N1 virus. I did not realize that small family farms, the self-sustaining kind with chickens and goats and pigs and tractors‚ are nearly extinct. I certainly did not consider how horribly the animals are treated.
For me, and many people like me, I believed those concerns were reserved for the fringes of society. I was wrong, and the facts prove it. There is no greater mainstream issue than what we eat and where our food comes from. Right now, our current system is an environmental, biological, and ethical disaster. I recently asked Foer what, if anything, we can do about it.
SAM MARTIN:Not everyone is going to pick up a book called Eating Animals. What’s the best way to let people know about the damaging effects of factory farms without scaring them off?
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: It’s difficult. We’re so used to thinking of this as a divisive, accusatory, fight-inspiring conversation. And it’s a shame. Because I really do think that, if we had full access to what’s going on in factory farms, everyone would agree—and by agree, I don't mean that we all become vegetarians—that factory farming is a broken system that doesn't reflect our values. Who would want a farm system that is the leading cause of global warming? Or one of the two or three most damaging things to the environment? And who would want to treat animals in this way?
So the problem has been that it’s all been framed as this divisive, black-and-white issue. You’re either a vegetarian or you’re not. You either care or don’t. And that can put people who care in an exasperating place. I hope this book will allow us to think about food in the way we think about the environment. We can do things better than we’ve done them in the past.
SM:After reading about how entrenched, widespread, and damaging U.S. factory farming is—to the health of humans, animals, and the planet—changing the system seems like an insurmountable goal. Is it?
JSF: No. First of all, there are a number of things to remember. One is, it’s new. It’s only 50 years old. People have been farming in a different way for the past 10,000 years. The fact that it rose this quickly almost holds the promise that it can be dismantled just as quickly. Consumers have so much power in this situation. It’s rare that consumers have this much power. Farmers grow and produce what people ask for. As we ask for different things, they will farm different things. Finally, the demographics are compelling and promising in terms of who cares and who doesn’t. Eighteen percent of university students are now vegetarian. When that 18 percent starts to become the next generation of writers and doctors and farmers and other professionals, the conversation will feel very different than it might feel now.
SM:Eating locally farmed meat seems to be attracting a growing number of people. Is this a good alternative to eating factory farmed animals, or is it still a questionable practice?
JSF: I think there are two questions: “Is it good?” and “Is it perfect?” Local farming isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than what’s available in the mainstream. And it’s better in every single way—for humans, animals, the environment, global warming, and so on. Is it the answer? It’s part of the answer. Personally, I don’t get terribly excited about [locally farmed meat]. And I don’t eat it. I don’t believe it can be scaled. So to endorse it would be for personal reasons only. But most Americans fundamentally agree on the goals, which is to have farms that are better for human health. Some people have this belief that people are never going to move away from meat so they say, “Let’s have a decent farm system.” Other people say, “Let’s stop eating meat because we’re never going to have a good farming system.” I’m more in the second category. I think there are things we ought to agree on. We have to stop giving antibiotics to farm animals. We have to stop fishing the way we’re fishing. It won’t last. And I think we can all agree we shouldn’t keep pregnant pigs in cages so small they can’t turn around in them. That’s wrong. You don’t have to like pigs at all to know that. There comes a point when we have to decide what’s right and wrong.
SM:Even using the most humane animal slaughtering practices, farmers are still, in the end, killing. Can you explain why we ought to consider animal welfare in this debate?
JSF: I think we can’t help but consider it. If you saw someone kicking a dog, you might not intervene, but can you say you would be indifferent to it? Caring is a human instinct, and it goes against our nature not to care. I don’t love animals. I don’t think they should be treated as humans. There are irrational places that one can take one’s concern for animals, and I won’t go there. But it defies our human instincts to treat them as if they had no feeling‚ or as if that feeling had no effect. Killing animals is, in a way, the least bad thing that we do to them. If you ask the American public if it’s okay to kill animals for food, most would say yes. But if you ask them if it’s okay to remove appendages from an animal while it’s still alive or keep a pregnant pig in a cage that it can’t turn around in—are there really people who think that’s okay?
SM:One recurring subject in Eating Animals is the notion that people are nostalgic for food traditions (the Thanksgiving turkey is the most obvious example). This seems to be a big reason why many people are reluctant to give these foods up, even to the detriment of their health and the health of the planet. Why is it that virtually everything about storybook farms and the production of traditional foods has changed, yet the sentiment attached in consuming these foods has remained, even when people are educated about the horrors of modern animal agriculture? Why is there a disconnect?
JSF: I don’t think it’s a disconnect. Let’s give people the benefit of the doubt. They’re making a rational decision. They’re saying, “I know the process is not good, but I don’t care.” I would say, “Fine. Keep your barbecue on the Fourth of July, your Christmas ham, and your Thanksgiving turkey. But get rid of the meat that you don’t care about—the fast-food hamburger or the Chinese restaurant chicken." Nine-tenths of meat consumed is meat we don’t care about. What happens is that people take the exceptions to get them off the hook for the everyday. That’s where these conversations get skewed. When people talk about these exceptional uses of food, that’s right. They are exceptions. Let’s talk about the normal.
SM:You write a lot about traditions surrounding food in your own family. Since simultaneously becoming a father and a vegetarian, are there any new or modified food traditions you have started?
JSF: The only tradition we’ve started, I would say, is having a conversation around food. We hadn’t been doing that. We hadn’t been thinking about it. The fact that food now has a story served with it is different and good. It enhances the cultural value of food. All the good things we would miss [by not eating meat], we more than make up for with stories about why and what we don’t eat.
SM:For someone just being introduced to the factory-farm system in the United States, it can be hard to feel any hope that things will change. What are you excited about, and where do you find hope? What keeps you going?
JSF: I just read a recent poll that 70 percent of Americans are willing to spend more money for more ethically produced food. This isn’t San Francisco or New York; it’s the whole country. That’s an amazing number. People care about this stuff. Even if you don’t care, you have to care, because you have these annoying instincts. I think as our lines of sight are opened up, more people will think, “Hey, this is something we really want to know about.” And behavior changes will follow. And the 18 percent [in college right now] are tastemakers. As they get older, we will see vegetarianism in a new light.
Photography by Gianluca Gentilini