November 9, 2009
An interview with author Jonathan Safran Foer
Author Jonathan Safran Foer is best known for his works of fiction, one of which was turned into a major film. However, he's now turning his attention to non-fiction for an examination of animal agriculture in the United States, with his new book, Eating Animals.
PS: After two very successful works of fiction, why did you decide to write this book?
JSF: Fatherhood compelled me to write Eating Animals. Like most people, I'd given some thought to what meat actually is, but until I became a father and faced the prospect of having to make food choices on someone else's behalf, there was no urgency to get to the bottom of things.
I never had it in mind to write non-fiction, and frankly I doubt I'll ever do it again. But this topic, at this moment, is something no one should ignore. (As a writer, putting words on the page is how I pay attention.) If animal agriculture isn't the most important problem in the world right now—it's the #1 cause of global warming, #1 cause of animal suffering, a decisive factor in the creation of zoonotic diseases like bird and swine flu, and so on—it is the problem with the most deafening silence surrounding it.
Even the most political people, the most thoughtful and engaged, tend not to "go there." And for good reason. Going there can be extremely uncomfortable. Food is not just what we put in our mouths to fill up; it is culture and identity. Reason plays some role in our decisions about food, but it's rarely driving the car.
We need a better way to talk about eating animals, a way that doesn't ignore, or even just shruggingly accept things like habits, cravings, family and history, but rather incorporates them into the conversation. The more they are allowed in, the more strongly we will want to follow our best instincts. And there is not a person on Earth whose best instincts would lead him or her to factory farming.
PS: What was the most surprising thing that came from your research for the book?
JSF: The real horror of factory farming is not found in the instance, but the rule. It's a shame that most people's exposure to the meat industry comes through horror videos of slaughterhouses. While such images do correspond to very real events (which are productive and necessary to document and share), they are, even at the worst farms, the exception. And unfortunately, they can conceal something that is far more horrible: the everyday, systematized cruelty and destruction.
In a way, videos of animals being tortured are a distraction that the meat industry is probably happy to have, as they suggest that the fault is with workers. The fault is not with workers, but the system itself. It is straightforwardly impossible to raise the number of animals we are currently raising for food without making their lives miserable. The misery is built into the system.
Another system could take this system's place. But a movement toward small, family farms will require people to eat much, much less meat. And that's not going to happen any time too soon. In the meantime, the most important thing is to come to terms with the dominance and destruction of factory farming, and reject it.
PS: What changes have you made in your own life based on what you've learned?
JSF: I moved toward a rejection of all animal products, whereas I had previously understood the question only in terms of meat, itself. In fact, the processes that produce eggs and dairy are at least as bad, in every way, as those that produce meat.
But the real changes have not been within my life so much as how and when I speak about these issues with others. It is unacceptable to be indifferent about genocide, or callous environmental destruction, or animal cruelty (when done anywhere that isn't a farm). Indifference toward factory farming should be equally unacceptable.
I respect that people will reach different conclusions about where the rejection of factory farming should lead—some will refrain from eating all meat, some will only buy meat from conscientious family farms—but there should be no disagreements about the importance and urgency of the problems.
PS: What recommendations do you have for people who want to help?
JSF: Very simple: Think about food, and when it feels possible, encourage others to do the same. We don't all have to share the same values. If everyone ate according to his or her own values, factory farming would disappear.