Not Oprah’s Book Club: Eating Animals


For those who’ve been paying attention to my writing about food politics, I’ve slowly made my way through the concepts of eating locally, to volunteering on an organic farm, to self-canning and preserving.
A lot of my changing politics around food have been motivated by books I’ve read on the topic. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma got me to think about farmer’s markets and where my food comes from, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle got me thinking about gardening and now Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, Eating Animals, has gotten me revisiting vegetarianism.
Safran Foer’s book, for me, was about finally reading the things I think I knew existed but had been avoiding about factory farming and the impact of the amount of meat we eat on our environment.
To be totally honest, I didn’t love the way the book was written. I thought it was choppy at times, didn’t have a great narrative flow, and was often too postmodern for my tastes. But Safran Foer is known for his literary fiction, not activist writing, so it’s not surprising that this would be the case.
But he did present the issues at hand without sugarcoating at all, and it was enough to push me over the edge. About halfway through the book I stopped eating meat (including seafood) with the exception of what little meat I buy at my farmer’s market.
I think Safran Foer will bring these issues to a new audience, one who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book about food politics but loved his first two novels. I’m glad that books about food politics and the realities of factory farming are on the New York Times Bestseller list.
I’m not going to try and rehash the arguments he makes about why we shouldn’t eat meat, or the impact it has on the environment, because he does it much better than I could in a blog post. But I would recommend checking out the book. You can read an excerpt here.

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25 Comments

  1. Holly from the Rural MidWest
    Posted December 11, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    As am eco-feminist locavore and reformed vegetarian, who believes fat from animals raised by small, environmentally conscious farmers is extremely healthy and necessary to our diets (it’s not environmentally practical to routinely fly in salmon, and vegetable fats don’t provide enough Omega 3s), I’d be surprised if Foer said anything that would make me stop supporting the local farmers (most of whom are women) who provide me with pastured chicken and grass-fed beef we eat occasionally.
    I also don’t know what he could say to convince me that plant foods from conventional mono agriculture farms are always a better alternative.

  2. amurph11
    Posted December 11, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, this book convinced me too. My boyfriend and I had been eating meat only twice a week for environmental reasons, but this pretty much pushed me over the edge. We’re lucky enough to live very near a farmer’s co-op and a few farmer’s markets, so we now eat only meat from farms those venues which we have thoroughly researched, and even then only once a week. When we go out to dinner I order vegetarian. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the biggest is probably health. I don’t want to eat chicken that has been stewed in its own shit, thanks very much.

  3. rachel
    Posted December 11, 2009 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Thank god I read this book AFTER Thanksgiving. I read it on the plane ride home and by the time the plane landed I had decided to become a vegan (and I LOVE meat, so that says a lot). It’s unclear to me why Safran Foer ultimately becomes a vegetarian instead of a vegan. It was clear to me from his investigation that dairy is as much a product of the factory farm system as meat, and therefore equally problematic to consume.

  4. digitalkath
    Posted December 11, 2009 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    I think feminism and veganism/vegetarianism go hand-in-hand.
    In the book ” The Sexual Politics of Meat” feminist activist Carol Adams detects intimate links between the slaughter of animals and violence directed against women. INTERESTING!

  5. Aydan
    Posted December 11, 2009 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to see something like this. After I learned about factory farming, I gave up most meat; now I eat about one serving a week. I continue to purchase meat from the farmer’s market, and from one or two other sources that are working towards things like humanely-raised certifications. I think providing a financial incentive for companies to treat their animals better is likely to be more successful than giving up meat entirely, but that’s just my opinion. I also think that 95% of the (meat-eating) public in the developed world could stand to eat less of it.
    I hope this book’s exposure on the NYTimes list means a lot more people will learn about factory farming, though of course then companies will start greenwashing the concept of humanely raised like they did to organic and local. Small price, however.

  6. justkate
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Good for you, Miriam! I applaud your compassionate decision.
    Within the last few years, it’s become very difficult to fain ignorance on the life condition of animals raised and slaughtered for food in this country–and these recent global outbreaks only magnify the issue. Additionally, several difference sources (including the UN) have recently come to the same conclusion: farm animal production is the world’s biggest pollutant, spewing more greenhouse gasses than transportation. And finally, in a sheer game of numbers, it is senseless to raise food to feed to food animals when that grain could easily feed millions of starving people. Not to mention the water that is used in the factory farming process, which subsequently pollutes the water table and drinking water (here’s a good resource, if interested: http://www.factoryfarmmap.org/).
    But back to the treatment of these animal… feminism and animal rights, I think, go hand in hand. I’ll use the dairy industry as my basis. Imagine never seeing the light of day or walking on soft ground. Imagine being constantly forced into pregnancy, only to see your children ripped from you at birth. If you give birth to a girl, she’ll lead the same miserable life as you. If male, he’ll be tethered to a crate, unable to turn around, then consumed for his tender flesh. (Yes, you cannot have the veal industry without the dairy industry.) Milk constantly squeezed from your body, you suffer calcium deficiency because it is leaving your body faster than you can replace it. You get mastitis, a bacterial infection in your udders. You are dead by three. Your spent and wasted body is sold for food, but only after it’s ground up and dyed red to mask its flaws.
    If the above happened to a human, we’d call it rape, slavery, child slavery and child abuse. But if you do all of the above to animal, we call it cheese, milk, ice cream. We use the body and fluids of sentient being to make food we don’t even need. No other mammal consumes milk past infancy but humans. To wit, no other mammal consumes the milk of ANOTHER mammal but us. We subject living creatures to untenable conditions and horrific physical and emotional abuse (don’t tell me a mother cow doesn’t cry for her child–she most certainly does) because it’s hot and ice cream tastes good on hot days. Because I’m XYZ and this is the food of my culture. Because what else am I going to put on my cereal. It’s decadent and it’s disgusting.
    I do not think I am more important or entitled than another animal, nor that my desire for certain foods justifies the suffering of others and the undermining of a clean and diverse environment. That simple concept is what brought me to vegetarianism nine years ago, but it was feminism and common sense that brought me to veganism this year.
    Again, congratulations, Miriam. I look forward to reading more about your thoughts and actions.

  7. earwicga
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    “About halfway through the book I stopped eating meat (including seafood)”
    The vegetarian me says YAY!!
    “with the exception of what little meat I buy at my farmer’s market.”
    The vegetarian and sentient me says WTF!! So you don’t eat meat and you do. That makes no sense Miriam.

  8. mgregory
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    “I think Safran Foer will bring these issues to a new audience, one who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book about food politics but loved his first two novels.”
    i do love johnathan’s novels and will check this out because of that. it might just change my life! thanks for the post.

  9. mags
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    JSF spoke at my college this fall! I haven’t had a spare minute to actually read the book yet, but from his presentation, it seems like his philosophy about the ethics of meat lines up (mostly) with the reasons why I became a vegetarian.
    However (and this is a big however), I do take issue with his argument that it’s okay to eat meat as long as it’s ethically farmed and slaughtered because, when it comes down to it, it’s a class issue. He gave a statistic that only about 5% of the world’s population could be omnivores if meat were raised at these standards. Supply and demand means that only people of certain means could afford to eat meat, leaving people with less dispensable cash without the option of choosing whether or not to eat meat. I don’t feel comfortable with a food production system that essentially forces low-income people to become completely vegetarian, and I feel even more uncomfortable with the concept because there are STILL so many areas considered “food deserts”.
    When I brought it up to him in a question, he didn’t really engage. Kind of disappointing. Psyched to read the book, though.

  10. Cori
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    If you haven’t already, you might be interested in checking out Sandor Katz’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved’. It’s a great look at food culture in general, with an emphasis on alternative foodways. It’s moderately academic and super readable, and comes at the topic from a somewhat more radical perspective than most of the writers I’ve read on the topic. (Sandor is an HIV+ fermented-food activist and educator who lives in a queer coop-farm community in rural Tennessee. The book includes instructions on how to tell if roadkill is fresh enough to eat. He’s one of my folk heroes.)
    Cheers,
    Cori

  11. clementine
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    what’s wrong with the omegas in flaxseed, hempseeds, walnuts, algae, seaweed, rapeseeds, chiaseeds, and soybeans? Even my margarine and frozen waffles or fortified with omega 3, 6, and 9 now.

  12. Holly from the Rural MidWest
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    If a family in, say, rural Africa has the grass to raise goats for occasional food, what’s so bad about that? Especially if it’s a woman who owns the goats, because we know women will spend less money on alcohol and more on feeding family and education.
    And if it’s okay for rural folks in poor areas in the world, why shouldn’t I support Kristy, who’s starting her own new business raising heritage pigs in rural Illinois? We’ll eat it a few times a month–we would not rely on it.
    As a locavore what are my eating options? Tofu and wild salmon are out. I’m supposed to live on wheat and corn? Those are problematic as well.

  13. kungfulola
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I think this means that Miriam has few qualms about consuming meat in order to sustain life, but is more concerned with the environmental impact of the meat farming industry, and the treatment of animals on factory farms.
    I feel the same way: I don’t have a moral problem with eating meat. In order for life to be sustained, life must be consumed. A head of kale or a beetroot die in order to fill my pot just as well as a chicken or a lamb. But I would prefer for those beings to live lives of dignity and die mercifully, so I give my money to farms which provide both for their chattel.

  14. uberhausfrau
    Posted December 13, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    i dont know how they did it, but someone convinced carol adams to come to my dinky-ass college. it was awesome.

  15. justkate
    Posted December 13, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Nice, Cori! I just put your book rec on my wish list. Thanks!

  16. Laura
    Posted December 13, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    The ‘localvore’ as an ID (and any id predicated on what you can afford to buy totally skeeves me out) ignores some realities: what are the ‘livestock’ animals being fed? Is that land being farmed with indigenous plants?
    I manage to eat plants locally (at least more in the summer, and in the winter relying more on frozen goods) and eat vegan without using that straw man of ‘tofu everything’ (because lentils in a bag and beans and a can have been a staple in my diet since growing up too poor to afford a ton of meat)
    There are serious issues with a veg*n diet/lifestyle and its intersection with class, food deserts, and moralizing, but I don’t think the argument for ‘localvorism’ is any different in that respect.

  17. FLT
    Posted December 14, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Our closest relatives, chimps, eat some meat. Humans have eaten meat not for the last hundred years, but for many thousands.
    Something must die for me to live, be it animal or vegetable. And having lived vegetarian, I believe with good reason that my body does much better with some meat.
    Having said that, I agree that factory farming benefits no one, and for environmental and health reasons eat meat infrequently.
    What I don’t understand is how, when feminism is suposed to be about informed choices, people can get so insultingly superior about their choice to eat no meat. Live your own life.

  18. km stitchery
    Posted December 14, 2009 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    All I’m saying is PATRICE JONES. She is an amazing radical queer vegan feminist. And I went to a talk she gave linking women and dairy cows (exploitation of milk). It was fascinating.

  19. Lisa
    Posted December 15, 2009 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    This is exactly how I feel! I became a vegan and a feminist around the same time. There’s a part of the movie Earthlings (a documentary on animal use that deserves to be seen by EVERYONE) that really made the connection for me.

  20. earthling
    Posted December 15, 2009 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    THIS. Absolutely agree 100%.

  21. earthling
    Posted December 15, 2009 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    “What I don’t understand is how, when feminism is suposed to be about informed choices, people can get so insultingly superior about their choice to eat no meat. Live your own life.”
    Is feminism about the choice to cause suffering to another living, feeling being?
    I don’t believe so.
    Your comment is overwhelmingly speciesist. You clearly feel that as a human you have an automatic right to consume the flesh of other animals. Just because humans have the capacity to raise and kill animals for meat, doesn’t mean it is morally acceptable to do so when there are other equally nutritious foods available (and there is nothing you can get from meat that you can’t get from a vegan diet). Being able to say ‘I want this animal’s flesh, therefore I’ll have it’ is the human privilege. It is no different to a man saying ‘I want this woman, therefore I’ll have her’.
    Nonhuman animals can feel pain and value their lives. Therefore they ought to have moral consideration. They are not our property. Saying that we humans should be able to choose what happens to them is wrong and is incompatible with feminist thought.

  22. earthling
    Posted December 15, 2009 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    I’m vegan. I haven’t read JSF’s book yet but am a fan of his anyway, so I’ll probably seek it out soon.
    Very interesting to read some of the comments.
    This idea about local free range meat being ethically acceptable makes me laugh… do you think the pig, cow, chicken etc feels any better about being killed because they’ve been allowed to run around a bit? These animals are killed when they’ve only lived a tiny fraction of their natural life span. They have no choice in the matter and please don’t try to tell me that their death doesn’t cause them any suffering.
    These animals can feel pain and fear. There is no excuse to submit them to it, none at all. Moreover can you honestly say that a pig (for example) doesn’t value its own life and given the choice, would prefer to live than die? It can be seen in the way that animals attempt to escape from perceived attack that they fear death, they want to live.
    To the person who said “something has to die to fill my pot”… I find it bizarre that you equate a beetroot to a lamb. There is no evidence at all that plants feel pain or are capable of valuing their lives. They have no nervous systems or brains, unlike animals. There is plenty of evidence to show that lambs feel pain, distress, fear etc. Animals do *not* have to die to provide us with food, because a vegan diet can easily provide all the nutrients necessary for health, it just takes a *tiny* bit of adjustment and effort.
    A vegan diet is about minimising the suffering of feeling beings wherever possible. If I were starving and the only thing I could eat was meat, then self-preservation would override everything (I might even eat another human being in this situation). Until such a situation arises however I have no excuse to cause suffering and death to other beings. Furthermore, talking about starvation, hunger in developing countries could be at least partly alleviated by using grain normally fed to animals to feed humans.
    Animal rights and women’s rights go hand in hand, and it is continually interesting to me that many feminists don’t see this. The justification for causing another being pain or killing it for pleasure (eating meat *IS* simply pleasure when there are other foods available) seems simply to be that it is not a member of the species homo sapiens. Just as the justification for subjugating and marginalising certain human beings seems simply to be that they do not have a Y chromosome or a penis.
    Both are arbitrary distinctions. If a being feels pain and wants to live, don’t cause it pain or kill it. Doesn’t matter what species it is. The idea of ‘we’re humans and so we’re in charge’ sounds an awful lot like some men’s excuse for patriarchy to me.

  23. KBZ
    Posted December 15, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I am a feminist. I unapologetically eat meat once or twice a day.
    The notion that men and women are, and should be, fully equal — legally, politically, economically, and socially — is not incongruent with the belief that humans and other animal species are not equal. Call that “speciesist” if you will — but I seriously doubt you’re promoting “equal work, equal pay”, voting rights, or social equality for other species — so your accusation is somewhat hypocrical (because NO ONE believes in political, economic, social or legal equality among the species).
    Feminism is not the promotion of universal interspecies equality — it is the promotion of the intraspecies equality of (human) men and women.
    In addition, the fact that humans eat the flesh of animals does not necessarily promote inequality among the species. Would you say that lions and antelope are unequal? Are lions immoral for chasing and eating antelope (usually starting in while the antelope is still alive)? Are chimpanzees, tigers, bears, piranhas, sharks, orcas, dolphins, crocodiles, vultures, hyenas, falcons, and snakes ALL “speciesist” for eating the flesh of other animals?
    Carnivorism is not immoral — it is a fact of nature. That there are varying levels on the food chain is not immoral — it is a fact of evolution. If no human ever again ate meat — there would still be animals the world-over consumed daily for nourishment (by other animals). If those animals aren’t “speciesist”, neither am I.
    kbz

  24. Mucon7
    Posted December 16, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    I’ll make a comment that’s basically been covered already, but what the hell. First, to be honest, I probably won’t read the book, but nice post Miriam.
    Anyway, I’m newly vegetarian. I’m not vegan currently, but I may get there eventually. I’m not going to try to equate feminism with vegetarianism or veganism because I think they are separate issues and I am speciesist – at some level I do value humans over other animals, and I can understand the moral separation people have between humans and other animals. So, I don’t think being feminist and eating meat is necessarily a contradiction. With that, I don’t believe that means that there’s no moral dimension to killing a non-human animal at all, or that killing an animal is equal to killing a plant (or that if a lion does it then it’s not immoral for humans to do it, c’mon KBZ and whoever “liked” that comment…I hope you didn’t like it for the logic).
    Aside from the environmental impact of factory farming, etc. (which can be avoided while still eating meat, and hence isn’t a sufficient argument), my logic is similar to earthling’s, and is based on necessity vs. suffering – when the suffering outweighs the necessity then it’s immoral. Morality is rarely based on simply a certain behavior, but rather the combination of the behavior and the situation. For example, even killing a human isn’t inherently immoral – if it’s necessary for you to kill another human to keep them from killing you then I don’t believe it’s immoral to do so, but if there are alternatives then killing another human is immoral.
    So a lot of it kind of comes down to what Uncle Ben said: “Buy my rice” – or more relevant (and corny): “With great power comes great responsibility.”
    People have all of the power – you can eat beef, pork, poultry, etc. very easily, and every one of those cows, pigs, and chickens had to die for you to eat it. So I think that power comes with a responsibility for those deaths. If you have an alternative, then I think killing an animal is immoral. In areas with a variety of vegetables, etc. available at an affordable price (which would probably be true for the majority of people who have access to this website), it’s immoral to kill or eat animals (and of course, killing an animal that you don’t even intend to eat and poses no threat to you is immoral). If you don’t have access to alternatives to meat, then I don’t think it’s immoral to kill or eat animals, as it’s probably necessary for your survival.
    Meat isn’t necessary for a healthy diet, some nutrients are just easily available in that meat package. I have access to other sources of protein, etc., and eating meat causes pain, suffering and death. So I can’t justify eating it. I like the taste of meat, but “it’s tasty” just doesn’t work for me.
    So I don’t ask for people to consider animals over humans or equal to humans, but simply to consider the suffering and death that eating meat entails. Can you justify it?

  25. A male
    Posted December 17, 2009 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    The man who calls himself Maddox, at his website The Best Page in the Universe does a convincing job of presenting himself (to people who choose to visit and read his site) as an obnoxious asshole. However, there are times he makes some relevant and serious arguments. Regarding being vegetarian in the name of reducing animal suffering, he has this to say:
    http://www.thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=grill
    Basically, his argument is unless you plant and raise your own crops (avoiding field operations which kill hundreds of millions of animals per year), and furthermore without killing insects which feed on those crops, one cannot say they are doing what they can to reduce animal deaths and suffering. It is simply a game of where you are willing to draw the line at justifying your own convenient lifestyle. You cannot claim based on the simple fact you do not eat meat that you are not causing the suffering and deaths of hundreds of millions of animals. And knowing this, you cannot now claim ignorance as a defense.
    In fact, one of his sources claims eating pastured beef would kill hundreds of millions FEWER animals than a vegan lifestyle based on field crops.
    http://web.archive.org/web/20041107084521/http://eesc.orst.edu/agcomwebfile/news/food/vegan.html

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