A Destructive Culinary Preference

Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher: (Little, Brown and Company, 2009).
Hardcover: 352 pages
ISBN-10: 0316069906
ISBN-13: 978-0316069908

When will humans stop eating factory-farmed nonhuman animals? They won’t—unless something happens to curtail the supply of nonhuman animal meat produced by the factory farm system.

If you’re waiting for governments to pass laws or issue new rules forcing corporations to shut down their factory farms, don’t hold your breadth. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, is an active partner in perpetuating the factory farm system.

On the opposite end, nonprofits and “activists” can take credit for ever so slightly reducing the suffering of nonhuman animals at factory farms. But these groups and individuals will never succeed in completely dismantling the factory farm system.

So, what will it take to rid the planet of this scourge? In his new book, Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes that the factory farm “will come to an end because of its absurd economics someday. It is radically unsustainable. The earth will eventually shake off factory farming like a dog shakes off fleas; the only question is whether we will get shaken off along with it.”

Bingo! Yessiree! Now that’s getting straight to the point. Foer casts the whole factory farm system in a light—whether we will get shaken off along with it—that we typically don’t see in a book released by a major publishing house—in this case, Little, Brown and Company, which is owned by Hachette Book Group Inc., which is itself a subsidiary of French conglomerate Lagardère.

Foer, a newcomer to the “animal rights” debate whose previous books were a pair of novels, explains that factory farming “raises significant philosophical questions and is a $140 billion-plus a year industry that occupies nearly a third of the land on the planet, shapes ocean ecosystems, and may well determine the future of earth’s climate.”

Once again, in the above passage, Foer gets to the heart of the issue. But to be fair, I’ve cherry-picked these passages from Eating Animals to make Foer’s analysis seem more radical—compared to the status quo—than it really is. In promotional interviews, Foer has stated he wanted to reach a wider audience with Eating Animals than previous books on factory farming, which were written by authors with perhaps a more partisan perspective on the topic. Reaching this goal, Foer said, required him to be more of a storyteller, rather than a soapbox orator.

To make the book more accessible to the meat-eating public, Foer ruminates on seemingly innocuous topics—his young son, his dog George and his courageous grandmother who survived the Holocaust by, among other techniques, scavenging for food while trying to outrun the Germans.

The issue of where our food comes from became more important to Foer a couple years ago when his first child was born. As a father, he assumed the responsibility of feeding another human being.

Adopting his dog George led Foer to the realization that dogs are “remarkably unremarkable in their intellectual and experimental capacities. Pigs are every bit as intelligent and feeling.”

And throughout the book, Foer wonders whether or not he’ll continue to enjoy eating meals with his grandmother and the rest of his family if, as an on-again off-again vegetarian, he refuses to eat her signature dish—chicken with carrots.

But along with the “storytelling,” Foer spends a large part of the book offering just the facts—descriptions in gruesome detail of how humans torture chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows and fish inside the factory farm system. During his research, Foer dedicated a great deal of time speaking with the owners and employees of one particular family-owned slaughterhouse in Missouri. The owner of the slaughterhouse told Foer a story about when he was preparing to kill a cow that had been a “pet on a hobby farm,” the cow started licking his face “over and over. Maybe it was used to being a companion. Maybe it was pleading.” The licking apparently struck a chord with the slaughterhouse owner, but not enough to save the cow’s life. The slaughterhouse owner still killed the cow and had the cow skinned and cut into pieces.

Considering how some of his readers may not care about the suffering of nonhuman animals, Foer also describes how the systemic torture of these nonhuman animals in factory farms affects humans. For example, scientific studies and government records suggest that virtually all chickens become infected with E. coli and between 39% and 75% of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Also factory farms are contributing to the growth of antimicrobial-resistant pathogens because these farms consume so many antimicrobials.

“The same conditions that lead 76 million Americans to become ill from their food annually and that promote antimicrobial resistance also contribute to the risk of a pandemic,” Foer writes. “The global implications of the growth of the factory farm, especially given the problems of food-borne illness, antimicrobial resistance, and potential pandemics, are genuinely terrifying.”

Despite his strong reporting of conditions inside slaughterhouses and factory farms, Foer comes across as not fully comprehending the magnitude of the atrocities about which he is writing.

More than halfway through the book, Foer writes: “Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That’s the question.”

Questioning whether such suffering is “the most important thing in the world” and then answering “obviously not” clearly indicates Foer has fashioned his book for the uninitiated. He seems not to want his uninitiated readers to view him as equating the ongoing systemic torture of billions of nonhuman animals with … something else. Since he never explains what he thinks might be more important, let’s speculate. Does he believe stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is more important than shutting down factory farms? Does he believe preventing a future underwear bomber from boarding an airplane is more important than shutting down factory farms?

Yes, obviously, humans are committing other terrible atrocities on par or almost on par with factory farms. But I certainly wouldn’t consider putting the ambitions of Iran or future underwear bombers on that list. They’re minor blips compared to what’s happening on factory farms. I would love to learn what Foer believes is more important and why he so easily dismisses the suffering of billions of nonhuman animals and says their suffering doesn’t qualify as the “the most important thing in the world.”

One could easily argue that the suffering of billions of nonhuman animals at the hands of humans is “the most important thing in the world.” In fact, Foer himself comes close to making such an admission, contradicting his earlier statement, when he writes near the end of the book: “Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? … If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is?”

Mark Hand is the editor of Press Action, an online publication of news analysis and commentary. Read other articles by Mark, or visit Mark's website.

19 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. lichen said on January 8th, 2010 at 6:13pm #

    Yes, the harmful, cruel, environmentally destructive animal murder and exploitation, using up great tracts of the rainforest, inhaling huge amounts of food that would be more nutritious for humans, thereby driving starvation, resource loss, and catastrophic global warming is certainly one of the biggest problems in the world. That many humans will refuse to alter their right wing, anti-earth, yes-to-murder lifestyles may be a cornerstone of the death knell swinging towards our species.

  2. kalidas said on January 8th, 2010 at 7:16pm #

    A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.
    –Leo Tolstoy

    As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.
    Leo Tolstoy

    Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
    –Albert Einstein

    If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies, or capitalists for the same reasons.
    –C. S. Lewis

    For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.

    There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties… The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness, and misery.
    –Charles Darwin

    At the moment our human world is based on the suffering and destruction of millions of non-humans. To perceive this and to do something to change it in personal and public ways is to undergo a change of perception akin to a religious conversion. Nothing can ever be seen in quite the same way again because once you have admitted the terror and pain of other species you will, unless you resist conversion, be always aware of the endless permutations of suffering that support our society.”
    -Arthur Conan Doyle

    And on and on and on.
    Who are these men?
    We ought to be ashamed.

  3. Maxwell Black36 said on January 9th, 2010 at 12:33am #

    Aloha Mister Hand! I would like to add this classic:
    This is the first time I’ve used this new format…someone already snagged my fake name!



  4. Sheila Velazquez said on January 9th, 2010 at 6:28am #


    Foer says he is not a strict vegetarian. I assume it is factory-farmed meat he opposes. What are his thoughts on humane small-scale production.

  5. Mark Hand said on January 9th, 2010 at 8:47pm #

    Hi Sheila,

    I don’t think Foer is vegan – I think he eats dairy. In his book, he writes somewhat favorably about smaller-scale farmers, including Bill Niman (who Foer describes as “one of the most important ranchers in the world”) and Frank Reese (who Foer describes as “the only farmer I met who doesn’t do anything on this ranch that is plainly cruel”). Both men raise cows on their land for meat.

    Hey Maxwell,

    Thanks for the link to the Spectacular Times pamphlet. I’m glad to see someone was able to scan the pages of that wonderful pamphlet and bring it into the digital age so we can see that people were making the exact same arguments 30 years ago.

  6. Sheila Velazquez said on January 10th, 2010 at 5:20am #

    There are many farmers who treat animals they raise for meat humanely. I think Foer’s reference to Reese as being the only farmer he met who isn’t cruel indicates that he just hasn’t talked to enough people. If he lived within the small farming community, he would know better. Many farmers treat their animals as well and spend more time with them than some people do with their pets.

  7. Mike said on January 10th, 2010 at 11:08am #

    “Many farmers treat their animals as well and spend more time with them than some people do with their pets.”
    Most vegans would also add, “Then they kill and eat them.” This seems to be the main vegan argument concerning animal welfare on the farm. It is not humane to subject animals to cruelty in order to provision ourselves with food.

    I have not read Foer’s book, but I suspect he does an excellent job of condemning factory farming. Whether he discusses the destructive nature of annual monocropping I’m not sure. My wife and I are emerging farmers and I have worked on a number of farms during my lifetime. What seems to get lost in these arguments is an understanding of what it takes to grow food. Agriculture is inherently destructive, and even the handful of “veganic” farmers are still very much reliant on an oil economy that is totally destructive. Oil and agriculture have both served to plunder animal habitat in order to service the needs of a growing human population. Frankly, the animal kingdom would have been better off if humans never domesticated food crops and remained as hunter-gatherers.

    There is a lot to learn from proponents of “veganic” farming, and my wife and I certainly fix nitrogen by way of green manures, but as far as I’m concerned, animal husbandry (at least in our circumstance) is vitally important to our farm ecology. Animals eat grass (thereby improving the pasture), and we take the shit and compost it with other organic matter. Green manures and cover crops are turned under, compost is spread, and enormous amounts of vegetables are produced. Herds must be controlled by killing from time to time.

    What I’ve said should not be taken as support for factory farming. Our family rejects factory farming in all of its manifestations.

  8. Mike said on January 10th, 2010 at 11:13am #

    Oh, and Mark: Nice review!

  9. Sheila Velazquez said on January 10th, 2010 at 12:22pm #


    We follow the same practices you describe and agree with your final statement. As you stated, animals do have a place, even if you don’t use them for food, although I do in moderation. They can also be used in place oil-consuming machinery.

  10. bozh said on January 10th, 2010 at 12:31pm #

    I am trying to eat less meat; There r days i go w.o. eating it. I have been urging my wife to buy less meat, but to no avail. So, secretely i feed crows with it.

  11. lichen said on January 10th, 2010 at 3:31pm #

    Veganic agroforestry practices are not destructive and do not require the exploitation, murder, and disgusting, disease-causing globally warming waste of imprisoned farm animals. It is also ridiculously false to pretend that most “grasslands” wasn’t once an ecologically diverse forest where many plant and animal species lived, but had themselves and their habitat destroyed for the cows, and so that humans could eat their cancerous organs; both the grass and cow are invasive, destructive species. We do not need them, and no, wild herds do not need to be “managed” by humans.

  12. Mike said on January 10th, 2010 at 10:20pm #

    Were the buffalo invasive?
    Were the people who hunted the buffalo sustainably for thousands of years guilty of “exploitation, murder, and disgusting, disease-causing global warming…”???
    Perhaps you can provide Dissident Voice readers with a more detailed plan of action concerning “Veganic agroforstry practices”. Specifically, how would you manage say a quarter section of land veganically without relying on an oil economy that downright plunders the environment and by extension animal habitat?
    Just curious.
    For the record, I’m a permaculture enthusiast and a big proponent of Forest Gardening. To the extent that the prairies were once an “ecologically diverse forest”, any human beings who might have lived there would have undoubtedly hunted and gathered to sustain themselves.

  13. Max Shields said on January 11th, 2010 at 8:17am #

    There are two issues emerging here – one is the argument against global factory food systems; and the other is killing animals for food.

    I think humans are wired to be omnivores (meat and plant). So, I’m less impressed with the argument that says we can and should avoide meat (I’m assuming fish and seafood in general). Still I understand the argument of slaughter and slaughterhouses and how there is no perfect way to raise animals for food.

    Animal husbandry evolved long after humans hunted animals for food. I do think there are ways to prepare animals for food which would be considered “humane”.

    However, I think it is even more important to end global factory based farming of all kinds. It is the way we “produce” food that needs to be completely transformed. Our intake of scientifically created “food stuff” is the first “battleline”. It’s literally killing us. Next, we can argue the case for what we eat – why are animal forms of life more important than plant? But this gets us no where and the problem grows out of control and ends very badly – so first things first.

  14. ajnasreddin said on January 13th, 2010 at 2:09pm #

    “When will humans stop eating factory-farmed nonhuman animals? They won’t—unless something happens to curtail the supply of nonhuman animal meat produced by the factory farm system.”

    Sorry – I got lost here. Is there factory-farmed “human” animal meat?

    Solent Green IS people! – Comiung soon to a store near you!

  15. lichen said on January 13th, 2010 at 3:59pm #

    Mike, apparently you are a strong proponent of forest gardening but you have no idea at all how to do it with compost, nitrogen fixing, and conserving the soil? I won’t give you a lesson here. And apparently you think that the vast forests that once existed in many parts of North, South America, Europe, and Africa were actually prarie land where a giant international monoculture of grass existed where buffalo ate it. You are also ignorant of vegetarian and vegan strains in societies; like Max, you further side with right wing scum practices of disgusting, murderous, brutal, exploitative past societies in human history; how disgusting.

    There is plenty data to suggest we are actually closer to herbi- or frugi-vores, but that is really a dumb argument; people have chosen not to eat animal products for generations, and “we” are certianly not wired to do otherwise. The implied bestiality in “animal husbandry” is highly notable; but there is no ethical murder, especially not one that gives you cancer.

  16. Mike said on January 15th, 2010 at 6:03pm #

    Could you please provide references for the vegan and vegetarian peoples who once lived in North, Central, or South America? I’m really curious. I think you operate in fantasy land.
    It’s really nice to hear you call age-old hunter gatherer societies the world over “right wing scum practices.” For someone so righteous, it really would be interesting to hear how you provide yourself with a vegan diet without harming animals. So how do you do it??? How do you grow or gather your food?

  17. lichen said on January 15th, 2010 at 7:16pm #

    Yes, age-old societies did practice right wing scum social traditions; it is only now that we are able to move away from them, and find true health as well as ways of treating each other that are truly kind and respectful. Of course, those who participate in the constant murder and abuse of animals will attempt to render abstract the simple philosophy of not eating animal products, but it is an empty argument. And, again, child-beating life-hating christians will try to claim there was some ‘great time’ in the past, but they are wrong and pathetic.

  18. lichen said on January 15th, 2010 at 7:20pm #

    And yes, vegetarian and veganism not only have ancient past-times in India, there are now centuries of aware people all over the world who have chosen to stop killing animals; there are vegetarian and vegan groups now in all places; they are people who dare to go against the child-beating, life-hating, violent, disgusting, cruel, unequal traditions of old, and choose new avenues instead.

  19. Mike said on January 15th, 2010 at 8:27pm #

    Hi Lichen,
    Take a deep breath or two and answer my questions:
    -Provide the names of the pre-industrial groups of people who lived in North America, Central America, or South America who survived on vegan diets? References would be helpful here.
    -How do you grow or gather your food? Or, like I asked earlier, how would you steward an area (say a quarter section or smaller) without ‘animal exploitation’ or petroleum? I have a lot of experience with making compost and fixing nitrogen with green manures, so feel free to elaborate a bit.
    Enough ranting, simply answer the questions.