Thursday, November 05, 2009

Elizabeth Kolbert - Should You Eat Meat?

Interesting article from The New Yorker. It's essentially a review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals, which is a novel of the postmodern variety. Foer appears to be anti-meat for the most part, on moral grounds not ecological, but he concedes that humane meat eating is possible later in the book, at least according to the review.

Flesh of Your Flesh

Should you eat meat?

by Elizabeth Kolbert November 9, 2009

This year, Americans will consume some thirty-five million cows, a hundred and fifteen million pigs, and nine billion birds.

This year, Americans will consume some thirty-five million cows, a hundred and fifteen million pigs, and nine billion birds.

Americans love animals. Forty-six million families in the United States own at least one dog, and thirty-eight million keep cats. Thirteen million maintain freshwater aquariums in which swim a total of more than a hundred and seventy million fish. Collectively, these creatures cost Americans some forty billion dollars annually. (Seventeen billion goes to food and another twelve billion to veterinary bills.) Despite the recession, pet-related expenditures this year are expected to increase five per cent over 2008, in part owing to outlays on luxury items like avian manicures and canine bath spritz. “We have so many customers who say they’d eat macaroni and cheese before they’d cut back on their dogs,” a Colorado pet-store owner recently told the Denver Post. In a survey released this past August, more than half of all dog, cat, and bird owners reported having bought presents for their animals during the previous twelve months, often for no special occasion, just out of love. (Fish enthusiasts may bring home fewer gifts, but they spend more on each one, with the average fish gift coming to thirty-seven dollars.) A majority of owners report that one of the reasons they enjoy keeping pets is that they consider them part of the family.

Americans also love to eat animals. This year, they will cook roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they will consume roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork, or the bodies of more than a hundred and fifteen million pigs, and thirty-eight billion pounds of poultry, some nine billion birds. Most of these creatures have been raised under conditions that are, as Americans know—or, at least, by this point have no excuse not to know—barbaric. Broiler chickens, also known, depending on size, as fryers or roasters, typically spend their lives in windowless sheds, packed in with upward of thirty thousand other birds and generations of accumulated waste. The ammonia fumes thrown off by their rotting excrement lead to breast blisters, leg sores, and respiratory disease. Bred to produce the maximum amount of meat in the minimum amount of time, fryers often become so top-heavy that they can’t support their own weight. At slaughtering time, they are shackled by their feet, hung from a conveyor belt, and dipped into an electrified bath known as “the stunner.”

For pigs, conditions are little better. Shortly after birth, piglets have their tails chopped off; this discourages the bored and frustrated animals from gnawing one another’s rumps. Male piglets also have their testicles removed, a procedure performed without anesthetic. Before being butchered, hogs are typically incapacitated with a tonglike instrument designed to induce cardiac arrest. Sometimes their muscles contract so violently that they end up not just dead but with a broken back.

How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious.

This inconsistency is the subject of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” (Little, Brown; $25.99). Unlike Foer’s two previous books, “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” his latest is nonfiction. The task it sets itself is less to make sense of our behavior than to show how, when our stomachs are involved, it is often senseless. “Food choices are determined by many factors, but reason (even consciousness) is not generally high on the list,” Foer writes.

Foer was just nine years old when the problem of being an “eating animal” first presented itself. One evening, his parents left him and his older brother with a babysitter and a platter of chicken. The babysitter declined to join the boys for dinner.

“You know that chicken is chicken, right?” she pointed out. Foer’s older brother sniggered. Where had their parents found this moron? But Foer was shaken. That chicken was a chicken! Why had he never thought of this before? He put down his fork. Within a few years, however, he went back to eating chickens and other animals. During high school and college, he converted to vegetarianism several more times, partly to salve his conscience and partly, as he puts it, “to get closer to the breasts” of female activists. Later, he became engaged to a woman (the novelist Nicole Krauss) with a similar history of relapse. They resolved to do better, and immediately violated that resolve by serving meat at their wedding and eating it on their honeymoon. Finally, when he was about to become a father, Foer felt compelled to think about the issue more deeply, and, at the same time, to write about it. “We decided to have a child, and that was a different story that would necessitate a different story,” he says.

Foer ends up telling several stories, though all have the same horrific ending. One is about shit. Animals, he explains, produce a lot of it. Crowded into “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, they can produce entire cities’ worth. (The pigs processed by a single company, Smithfield Foods, generate as much excrement as all of the human residents of the states of California and Texas combined.) Unlike cities, though, CAFOs have no waste-treatment systems. The shit simply gets dumped in holding ponds. Imagine, Foer writes, if “every man, woman, and child in every city and town in all of California and all of Texas crapped and pissed in a huge open-air pit for a day. Now imagine that they don’t do this for just a day, but all year round, in perpetuity.” Not surprisingly, the shit in the ponds tends to migrate to nearby streams and rivers, causing algae blooms that kill fish and leave behind aquatic “dead zones.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some thirty-five thousand miles of American waterways have been contaminated by animal excrement.

Another of Foer’s stories is about microbes. In the U.S., Foer reports, people are prescribed about three million pounds of antibiotics a year. Livestock are fed nearly twenty-eight million pounds, according to the drug industry. By pumping cows and chickens full of antibiotics, farmers have been instrumental in producing new, resistant strains of germs—so-called superbugs. As soon as the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a class of drugs known as fluoroquinolones in chickens, for instance, the percentage of bacteria resistant to fluoroquinolones shot up. Officials at many health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control, have called for an end to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on farms, but, of course, the practice continues.

A third story is about suffering. Intuitively, we all know that animals feel pain. (This, presumably, is why we spend so much money on vet bills.) “No reader of this book would tolerate someone swinging a pickax at a dog’s face,” Foer observes. And yet, he notes, we routinely eat fish that have been killed in this way, as well as chickens who have been dragged through the stunner and pigs who have been electrocuted and cows who have had bolts shot into their heads. (In many cases, the cows are not quite killed by the bolts, and so remain conscious as they are skinned and dismembered.)

Foer relates how, one night, he sneaked onto a California turkey farm with an animal-rights activist he calls C. Most of the buildings were locked, but the two managed to slip into a shed that housed tens of thousands of turkey chicks. At first, the conditions seemed not so bad. Some of the chicks were sleeping. Others were struggling to get closer to the heat lamps that substitute for their mothers. Then Foer started noticing how many of the chicks were dead. They were covered with sores, or matted with blood, or withered like dry leaves. C spotted one chick splayed out on the floor, trembling. Its eyes were crusted over and its head was shaking back and forth. C slit its throat.

“If you stop and think about it, it’s crazy,” she later told Foer. “How would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually arresting? How riveting would the sound of a tortured animal need to be to make you want to hear it that badly? Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.”

One day while in Berlin, Franz Kafka went to visit the city’s famous aquarium. According to his friend and biographer Max Brod, Kafka, gazing into the illuminated tanks, addressed the fish directly. “Now at last I can look at you in peace,” he told them. “I don’t eat you anymore.”

Kafka, who became what Brod calls a strenger Vegetarianer—a strict vegetarian—is one of the heroes of “Eating Animals.” So is the philosopher Jacques Derrida, and a vegan theology professor named Aaron Gross, who is working on plans for a model slaughterhouse. “This is not paradoxical or ironic,” Gross says of his slaughterhouse work.

Foer’s villains include Smithfield, Tyson Foods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and—rather more surprisingly—Michael Pollan. There is perhaps no more influential critic of the factory farm than Pollan, and Foer acknowledges that he “has written as thoughtfully about food as anyone.” But when Pollan looks at animals he doesn’t feel worried or guilty or embarrassed. He feels, well, hungry.

“I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater,” Pollan observes toward the end of his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” shortly after describing the thrill of shooting a pig. “Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.”

Read the whole review.


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