Monday, February 13, 2012


My mother recommended the book Eating Animals several times over the past few months. I had been aware of the book when it was published, but I felt little desire to read it at the time. I knew that the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, was a vegetarian, and I knew the book was more concerned with factory farming than with husbandry. I assumed that nothing in the book would be news to me, that I would agree with it about factory farming, and disagree with it in a couple of other areas.

Not to brag, but these predictions were pretty dead on. But I nevertheless truly enjoyed the book. It is well written, and it is more Socratic than polemic in its approach to the morality of eating animals. An early example - Foer discusses whether we should be more accepting of eating dogs and cats. Even when he describes the atrocities of factory farming, he does so in a straightforward manner, often letting the words of slaughterhouse workers stand on their own.

Where do I disagree with the book? It does not go into great depth concerning the supposed health benefits of a vegetarian diet, and this superficial treatment in no way altered my views on what constitutes sound nutrition. I also would have enjoyed a more nuanced examination of two aspects.

The first is the ability of well managed pasture to sequester carbon, and the role this might play in offsetting the supposed environmental impact of raising ruminants. The second critique, which I believe applies to virtually every discussion of diet in relation to land use, is the failure to consider the productivity of land in the long term. What I mean by this is that, while it is certainly true that raising a year's worth of vegetarian food requires a far smaller area than raising a year's worth of animal products, this does not take into account inputs. While even perfectly managed pasture, at least here in the eastern portion of the country, will require some mineralization to stay balanced, the required inputs are miniscule compared to those needed to keep a piece of cultivated land productive.

But the book is worth reading in that it relentlessly asks questions of us that we should be asking ourselves. The food choices we make, as much as we prefer not to think about it, have profound impacts in the world. The fact that we do not see these impacts does not make them any less real, and does not make us any less culpable. Even if you, like me, think you know all about this, I would still recommend the book. If nothing else it is a visceral, rather than simply intellectual, reminder of the unsavory truth.


1 comment:

  1. Agreed--I had a really similar reaction to reading the book. Its fascinating and important, and I love the socratic form, but I disagreed with him at some points.

    I'm thinking to include excerpts from it in a syllabus for a writing class that I teach (I've been teaching Pollan and Food, inc. among other things, so it would fit in nicely), and I hope that the conversational tone and the moments of humor will be easier for students to take than some of the polemical writing on the topic! (These elements also make it a great tool for teaching effective argumentative writing.) Do you have any suggestions for accessible (preferably short) essays or texts on pasture management and/or the inputs needed to make land productive? I'm always looking for more voices and viewpoints to present to my students, and would love to know what you've been reading!

    Thanks for the post--thought provoking as always!