I love meat.
Growing up in a family of devout foodies, I have always eaten meat, lots of it, and always with relish. I like my steaks still mooing. (Hell, I’ll even eat cows raw, when I’m in Paris. Bring on the steak tartare.)
So I knew it was always going to be something of a gamble to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals. Safran Foer is an astonishingly gifted writer who could write about anything and make it compelling. When his son was born, he found himself wondering about the ethical implications of the various food choices that he, as a parent, had to make when deciding what to feed his child, and this set him off, as they say, on a voyage of discovery into the bloody netherworld of factory farms. And while he’s written a gripping book, it’s not a pretty read.
Foer explains, in nauseating detail, the repellant things that are done to animals in order to put food on our plates. The gruesome fact is, it’s more economically efficient to raise sick animals for slaughter than healthy ones. The creatures raised in factory farms are pumped full of chemicals from birth onwards, and have been genetically modified to grow unnaturally fast. By the time they’re big enough to kill, their bodies are so screwed up that they are incapable of reproducing naturally and many can’t even walk. That hardly matters, though, since most of them spend their entire lives in cages so small they cannot even turn around.
Now, this is nothing new. Other authors have been here before, and movies such as Food, Inc. have made these unsavory truths (excuse the pun) part of a wider conversation. In interviews Safran Foer points out that his book is not a tract in favor of vegetarianism. Rather, it’s an attack on the practices that the agricultural industry has adopted to maximize their profits at the expense of our health and the well-being of the animals they slaughter.
I was appalled by what I read, but my concerns were less to do with animal welfare and more to do with the potentially adverse health effects of my children eating, for example, chickens whose body mass has been artificially increased by soaking them in water that is infested with the fecal matter of other sick and dying poultry. Then there’s also the appalling environmental impact of factory farming (food stock emissions are a larger cause of global warming than all the vehicles and airplanes on the planet), the human rights abuses that are perpetrated upon the largely immigrant population who work in slaughterhouses, and the gross inefficiencies inherent in feeding the world’s population so much damned meat. (For every unit of protein we get from eating an animal, twenty-six units are employed to feed the animal before it’s killed.)
Safran Foer’s reaction to his investigations was to become a vegetarian. In his eyes, it was the only rational response to all that he had seen, and perhaps if I had witnessed everything that he had, I would feel the same way. But even after reading his book, I can’t make that leap. I don’t have an inherent moral problem with eating meat, as long as it’s healthy to do so and doesn’t harm the environment (the bit about how the largest hog processing plant in the country deals with its vast lakes of pig manure is eye-watering.) Still, from now on we will do everything we can to make sure that the meat we buy comes from local farmers, who don’t do all that bad stuff. Happily we have an excellent farmers’ market in Columbia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this has got me thinking about my relationship with meat, and I have it mind to do a little experiment: I’m going to try not to eat any meat for a week, just to see what happens.
Now, you might think – with some justification – that this is a facile and futile thing to do. But this isn’t about the morals of factory farming, even if that may be where the idea began. We live at a time and in a place where there are few meaningful restrictions on our diets. If I choose not to eat meat on a whim, it’s simply a question of what I select off a menu, or what my wife and I decide to cook each evening. But that’s rather the point. When everything is so very available, I’m curious to see whether I can exercise enough self-control to curb the unthinking habits of a lifetime of omnivorous grazing.
Watch this space. Daily updates guaranteed.