Books: inside factory farming

Meat production is indeed an ugly business but Jay Rayner says the sentimental arguments in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals will never persuade him to turn vegan.

Eating Animals
Jonathan Safran Foer
Hamish Hamilton, 2010

Many millennia ago, our early ancestors finally clambered to their feet and set off in pursuit of prey. It was the increased volume of animal protein in the hominid diet brought about by that change in behaviour that fuelled the development of the brain and its growth in intellectual capacity; a process that lead inexorably to the birth, in 1977, of Jonathan Safran Foer, a smart Jewish boy from the American east coast who has now written a book about what’s wrong with the modern way in which most of the animals we eat are produced.

Which is to say, everything: the genetic manipulation of the breeding stock to produce maximum feed-to-meat conversion, regardless of the suffering it causes; the appalling circumstances in which these creatures are then raised, crammed together, the stench of their own excrement in their nostrils; the barbarity of the slaughter process, which can result in cattle literally being flayed alive.

Prior to this book, Foer was best known for quirky, self-consciously experimental novels: Everything Is Illuminated, which investigated our responses to the Holocaust that had impacted so directly upon his own family, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, set against the backdrop of 9/11. Both books played with form, and introduced typographic and diagrammatic elements, a few of which also feature here.

This book, however, is a different beast, a detailed piece of journalism, the product, as he tells us repeatedly, of three years of intense research. The problem is that while the subject may be new to him, there is actually nothing new of any substance here for an informed readership. Accounts of the appalling degradations committed by the worst of the factory-farming system in the United States are legion. There have been myriad newspaper and magazine articles, plus academic reports and mass-market books, including those by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, as the extensive if badly organised notes section at the back attests.

Still, Foer projects energetically the wide-eyed shock and disgust of the innocent, newly defiled. This is both a vice and a virtue. The author explains that he began his investigation as first-time fatherhood beckoned. He wanted to know what it was he would be feeding his child. This varnishes the book with a certain preciousness; Lord save us from the self-importance of the first-time parent, up to his nipples in the sacred duties of nurture.

And yet, for all that this comes to feel like a device, it does lend a keen urgency to his writing. Foer is at his best when he is presenting the facts of the matter: not just the gruesome manner in which poultry, pigs and cattle are raised in what has become the most grotesquely efficient food-production system the world has ever seen, creating animal protein that is cheaper than at any time in human history, but also in his detailed account of the ways in which a billion-dollar industry has influenced animal-welfare legislation in the United States. Here he marshals his material with skill and precision. Anybody who eats meat, and wants to continue doing so, should read this book for these sections alone.

The problems arise when he tries to advance a blanket argument as to why the process he describes should lead us to cease eating meat altogether, even though he claims the book is not an argument for vegetarianism. Ever the philosophy major, he starts from first principles, which is to say the regard in which we hold animals. The issue here, of course, is one of what some would call sentiment and others would call realism. Either you fully identify with animals as equals who are therefore deserving of our complete protection, or you regard them as lesser and subservient, in which case – accepting their right to be spared cruelty – it’s OK to eat them.

It will come as no shock to most readers that I fall into the latter camp, and there is nothing in this text to shift me over to the other side of the argument. Foer lurches from unsupported statement to unsupported statement, refusing to accept, for example, that certain animal behaviour is just instinct and therefore ascribing to it a higher intelligence. Curiously, he also thinks that the opinions of Franz Kafka lend weight to his thesis; personally, I find the fact that Kafka used to talk to fish at the Berlin Aquarium because he felt that, having abandoned eating them, he was now allowed to do so, is proof only that the author of The Metamorphosis was a little odd.

But the main weakness of Foer’s book is that he isn’t just appalled by factory farming. He is appalled by animal husbandry, full stop. Even the most high-end livestock farm, sodden with ethical values and systems, dismays him. My sympathy with his shock is somewhat limited. The reality is that the raising of animals for food is an ugly business, however unintensive the methods used. That’s a truth we must confront. There is no doubt that we have become too divorced from our food production system. We need to know how it works. We need to know what eating meat means.

What it doesn’t mean is that all factory farming is necessarily bad. I do not expect to convert a single vegetarian or vegan to my viewpoint when I say that there is a human imperative to eat animal protein, despite the fact that the whole of our history bears this out. We should certainly eat less of it, and we should be as humane as possible in weighing up the balance between nutritional need and animal suffering. We need to consider the environmental impacts but we also need to think, in a way Foer never does, about the impact of cheaply available animal proteins upon the mass population, rather than just the affluent middle-class portion of it.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University and an expert on the food chain, has long argued that the downsides for human health of cheaply farmed animal proteins – campylobacter in chicken, for example, which can be dealt with by proper cooking – have been far outweighed by the upsides. Before those cheap proteins became available, people died from tuberculosis as a result of being malnourished. And in those arguments I always side, unapologetically, with the humans.

Which is not to condone the worst excesses of factory farming. I do not, but polarised arguments are not the answer. Eating Animals begins with a short statement by the author explaining that, while it was written about the US market, “a British reader who cares about the issues … should not find any peace in being British”. Peace, no, but a certain reassurance that we are heading in the right direction much faster.

The appalling stall and tether pig-rearing system that Foer describes in such detail, for example, has been banned here since 1999 and will be banned across Europe by 2013. Likewise, free-range eggs now account for 40% of the market, a recent increase fuelled by the decision of McDonald’s in the United Kingdom to use only the free-range variety. The idea of a major commercial concern being a vehicle for such welcome change can disconcert those who appear to think the issues around industrial food production are a matter of black and white. They aren’t, however eloquently Jonathan Safran Foer — who, thanks to animal proteins, stands at the apex of human evolution — tries to argue otherwise.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010