Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Recommendation: Eating Animals, by Jill Richardson

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Book Recommendation: Eating Animals

by: Jill Richardson

Mon Jun 21, 2010 at 13:00:49 PM PDT

When I finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, I felt sick to my stomach. And that's the way one should feel about any accurate account of the way most meat is produced in this country. That said, I don't want to lead would-be readers of this book to say "I don't want to know" and then avoid reading such a complete and nauseating account of where most meat comes from. If you eat meat -especially if you eat meat you didn't raise and slaughter yourself - it is your responsibility to read this book.More below.
Jill Richardson :: Book Recommendation: Eating Animals
Eating Animals is unique among foodie literature. It crosses the line between two types of books. First, there are of course all of the exposes of modern industrial food production and the better alternatives. That includes books like The Omnivore's DilemmaFast Food Nation, and even my own book. Second, there are books out there - and I admit I haven't read many - asking the philosophical question whether humans should eat animals, or just plain arguing that we shouldn't (or that we should). This book is an important convergence of the two.It's important, first of all, because it distinguishes between factory farming and more ethical, humane ways of producing animal products. And thank goodness for that. I get upset when I see meat painted with a broad brush because, although most meat comes from horrific factory farm conditions, anti-meat activists diminish their own credibility by forgetting to mention (and thus pissing off) the ethical farmers out there. This book doesn't do that. In fact, it goes in depth describing the farming practices of Niman Ranch and a pastured poultry farmer. It even covers the lack of small, independent slaughterhouses and how that limits ethical farmers' ability to bring more humane meat to the market.
Second, this book is important because it tackles - in depth - a topic that foodie literature often skips. And that is animal cruelty. This is a subject I included in my own book because I wanted to be "complete" in my review of the problems and solutions in the food system. Surely, no book that glosses over the vast amount of often perfectly legal cruelty to farm animals in this country is complete. But I stopped short. I was afraid readers would be so turned off by the accounts of animal cruelty that they would miss less controversial arguments in my book (like calling for safe food and healthy school lunch). But Eating Animals doesn't do that. It lays it all out there, until the reader is literally ready to vomit.
Most people, I think, have an idea - a rough idea - of what goes on to the animals they find on their plates. And just like I don't need to know exactly what horrific acts occurred in Nazi concentration camps to know they were awful (and that I'd probably be quite unsettled if I got the details), people know just enough about meat production to say "Don't tell me. I don't want to know." If they knew, they wouldn't be able to continue eating factory farmed meat with an almost-clear conscience. And that's just not good enough. We need to know. All of us need to know, and then we need to decide whether or not we can take part in that system. (And, unless you're a sadist or a sociopath, I think you know the answer to that.)
Jonathan Safran Foer does all of this in a very unique way. One section of the book is entirely set up as a glossary of definitions, in alphabetical order. He's simply brilliant to be able to use this section to tell a clear story and to still manage to stick to alphabetical order. He also includes the first person accounts of an animal rights activist who breaks into factory farms at night, a vegan who designs slaughterhouses, a vegetarian rancher, a non-vegetarian rancher, a factory farmer, an ethical poultry farmer, and someone from PETA. If there's one thing you must give him credit for, it's being fair.
Another area where he deserves credit is for going beyond labels, slogans, and black and white ideas about eating meat or not eating meat. Because the book is written as his own quest to decide whether or not to eat meat (and to feed it to his family), it is not preachy. He's not telling you, the reader, what to think or do. But he also recognizes that, while factory farming and large scale slaughterhouses are nightmarish, cruel, and immoral, there's a gray area of ethical meat. Some people - who he fully respects - eat it, and others - who he also respects - do not. Is one right and the other wrong? Not necessarily.
The last thing I'd like to give Eating Animals credit for is its brilliant coverage of seafood - both aquaculture and wild caught fish. When I say I'm a vegetarian, people often ask if I eat fish, as if it is some sort of middle ground. It is not. In fact, the way fish is produced is in so many ways far worse than meat is produced. I can easily get ethical meat from a number of sources. It's far more difficult to get ethical fish. It's fairly easy to get fish that is labeled in some way to make you think it is ethical, but is it? In most cases, no. When a slaughterhouse kills a cow, they don't accidentally kill 10 lbs of other species (including endangered species) for ever 1 lb of beef. But fishermen do. All the time.
Here are a few quotes from the book I'd like to share.

The question, for me, is this: Given that eating animals is in absolutely no way necessary for my family - unlike some in the world, we have easy access to a wide variety of other foods - should we eat animals? I answer this question as someone who has loved eating animals. A vegetarian diet can be rich and fully enjoyable, but I couldn't honestly argue, as many vegetarians try to, that it is as rich as a diet that includes meat. (Those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure.) I love sushi, I love fried chicken, I love a good steak. But there is a limit to my love.Since I encountered the realities of factory farming, refusing to eat conventional meat has not been a hard decision. And it's become hard to imagine who, besides those who profit from it, would defend factory farming.
But things get complicated with a farm like Paul Willis's pig farm or Frank Reese's poultry ranch. I admire what they do, and given the alternatives it's hard not to think of them as heroes. They care about the animals they raise and treat them as well as they know how. And if we consumers can limit our desire for pork and poultry to the capacity of the land (a big if), there are no knockdown ecological arguments against their kind of farming. - p. 196
And the second quote, from Nicolette Hahn Niman:

And the world doesn't, by the way, need to produce nearly as many animals as it's currently producing. Factory farming wasn't born or advanced out of a need to produce more food - to "feed the hungry" - but to produce it in a way that is profitable for agribusiness companies. Factory farming is all about money. That is the reason the factory farm system is failing and won't work over the long term: it's created a food industry whose primary concern isn't feeding people. Does anyone really doubt that the corporations that control the vast majority of animal agriculture in America are in it for the profit? In most industries, that's a perfectly good driving force. But when the commodities are animals, the factories are the earth itself, and the products are physically consumed, the stakes are not the same, and the thinking can't be the same...Factory farming is the last system you'd create if you cared about sustainably feeding people over the long term.
The irony is that while factory farms don't benefit the public, they rely on us not only to support them, but to pay for their mistakes. - p. 209

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