If ever there was a book that could profoundly affect our lives at the most fundamental level, this one is it. I loved Jonathan Safran Foer's novels (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close); they were glorious to read and get lost in. But his new non-fiction kindles something more: it is somewhat of an awakening, and it just might tip us farther into what is being called the next great social movement of our time: eating consciously.
Eating Animals takes a bold and fresh approach to our most important relationship with the world around us -- our food. The originality of the thinking and depth of research establishes Foer as a major player in the national discussion of the ethics of eating. He is the Michael Pollan of a younger generation: grittier and more daring, more insightful and decisive. And as we would expect from Foer, the stories he tells explode off the page and into our hearts.
Foer takes us alongside him as he bungles through undercover investigations and into the hidden world of today's industrial farming. We find out that turkeys have been so genetically modified they are not capable of sexual reproduction. We learn that the chickens on American's plates have been bred to grow so large so fast that their mere genetics destines them to suffering. We learn that "free range" means next to nothing and why it's fish and chicken you want to most avoid.
The book is a case against factory farming, but we don't hear only the bad news about animal agriculture. Foer also takes us to the most humane and sustainable animal farms in the nation. We get to hear a dizzying variety of voices: factory farmers, slaughterhouse workers, animal activists, a turkey farmer who apologizes to his animals, a vegetarian cattle rancher, and a vegan helping to build a slaughterhouse.
Part of the appeal of the book is the real-life characters we meet and the new landscape of animal protection and food advocacy that Foer plugs us into. He has us meet the head of the nation's largest cooperative of family-owned pig farms, gives us a fresh perspective on the ever-controversial PETA as it approaches its 30th year and introduces us to exciting new groups like Farm Forward that are building unique coalitions with animal activists, small farmers, and sustainability advocates.
While Foer makes a strong case for vegetarianism, he gives dissenting voices a place and never forgets that the stories we tell about food are always about more than what we eat. "Stories about food are stories about us -- our history and our values."
Foer is quite fair to the "humane" animal farmers who he writes about appreciatively. In the end, he leaves us opposed to factory farming as something beneath human dignity, but stops short of an explicit case against all meat. His opposition to factory farming appears to be his central message, but I think he accomplishes something much less modest: For careful readers, the book offers an indictment of all meat. Virtually all of the "humane" producers he discusses mutilate animals without pain relief and treat them more as commodities than living beings. And as Foer himself says, "Every farm, like everything, has flaws, is subject to accidents, sometimes doesn't work as it should. Life overflows with imperfections, but some imperfections matter more than others. How imperfect must animal farming and slaughter be before they are too imperfect? Different people will draw the line in different places... But for me, for now - for my family now - my concerns about the reality of what meat is and has become are enough to make me give it up altogether."
Eating Animals is filled with powerful statistics, like the fact that 99% of all animals eaten for food in America come from factory farms or that animal agriculture is the largest contributor to global warming in the world (and one of the top two or three contributors to virtually all serious environmental problems). But it's not the facts that make this book so special, but its heart, humor, emotion, and spirit.
Foer was inspired to write the book after the birth of his first son, Sasha. "Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter. These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others." From the book's intimate start with childhood memories to its visionary ending of the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving, Eating Animals is a personal journal that not only feeds us facts, but helps us digest them.
In the end, the book is about much more than food. It is not only a book about eating animals, but about how we shape our world by what we eat. It is a book about who we are and who we could become. As one of Foer's friends wrote to him upon his son Sasha's birth, "Everything is possible again." The world is never fixed and neither are we. When we think seriously about the food we eat, we all have another chance at being more true to ourselves. We have another chance to be better.
If you can't wait to get your hands on the book, check out Foer's New York Times Magazine piece based on it.