Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Report: Eating Animals

   I just finished listening to Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer on audiobook (I checked out the audiobook version for a recent trip to Portland). In summary, would I recommend the book? Yes, absolutely. I think everyone should know the information contained in this book. Do I agree with Mr. Foer? No, not entirely. Despite the author's very many attempts to bully the reader into sharing his conclusions I do not.

   I agree with most of what the book has to say. The factory farming that takes place in the U.S. is horrific, wholly unsustainable, and needs to stop. The fact that we have a food system whose economic concerns are primary and whose ecological concerns are nonexistent is not just unhealthy, it's insane. I agree that meat is not a required part of a healthy diet and Americans tend to eat too much of it. So, why did I not come to the same conclusions as Jonathan Safran Foer?

   Let me first talk some about the book itself. I am interested to look through a copy of the book to see if the way it is presented on paper makes more sense. My experience listening to the audiobook was similar to watching Pulp Fiction the first time; I spent much of the book wondering where we were, where we were going, and trying to connect the dots. The book seems to bounce around a lot, at times trying to make a point, at other times seeming to try to present a variety of ideas and opinions so as to let the reader decide for themselves, and at times preaching from so high atop a vegan soapbox it is difficult to hear the message.

   The book includes this excerpt from rancher Bill Niman, but never adequately addresses it:

   "But what about the argument that we humans should choose not to eat meat, regardless of natural norms, because meat is inherently wasteful of resources? This claim is also flawed. Those figures assume that livestock is raised in intensive confinement facilities and fed grains and soy from fertilized crop fields. Such data is inapplicable to grazing animals kept entirely on pasture, like grass-fed cattle, goats, sheep, and deer.
   "The leading scientist investigating energy usage in food production has long been David Pimentel of Cornell University. Pimentel is not an advocate of vegetarianism. He even notes that 'all available evidence suggests that humans are omnivores.' He frequently writes of livestock's important role in world food production. For example, in his seminal work Food, Energy, and Society, he notes that livestock plays 'an important role… in providing food for humans.' He goes on to elaborate as follows: 'First, the livestock effectively convert forage growing in the marginal habitat into food suitable for humans. Second, the herds serve as stored food resources. Third, the cattle can be traded for… grain during years of inadequate rainfall and poor crop yields.'
   "Moreover, asserting that animal farming is inherently bad for the environment fails to comprehend national and world food production from a holistic perspective. Plowing and planting land for crops is inherently environmentally damaging. In fact, many ecosystems have evolved with grazing animals as integral components over tens of thousands of years. Grazing animals are the most ecologically sound way to maintain the integrity of those prairies and grasslands.
   "As Wendell Berry has eloquently explained in his writings, the most ecologically sound farms raise plants and animals together. They are modeled on natural ecosystems, with their continual and complex interplay of flora and fauna. Many (probably most) organic fruit and vegetable farmers depend on manure from livestock and poultry for fertilizer."

   I agree that we (Americans, and more recently, peoples of the developed world) should generally eat less meat and I agree that we should not support factory farming in any way. Note I did not say factory ranching or feedlot operations because farming covers more than animals. Mr. Foer fails to point out the industrial mono-cropping of fruits and vegetables as being a problem to the health of us and our planet. He does not talk about genetically modified produce that raises questions of if our fruits and vegetables are really vegan at all. He doesn't talk about pest and pesticide resistant crops, the chemicals that are sprayed on them, or the resistant "super" bugs and bacteria that are being created as a result. My point is that I believe the author's intent is true, but his focus may be a little off target. I fear the book maybe missed the bigger point in favor of an emotional response.

   In the end, Eating Animals provides a lot of really good information and, as I said, I would (and will) recommend it to anyone, but with a caveat. Our entire food system in this country -- not just the meat -- is broken. What we really need is an ecological food system, not an industrial one. On that, I believe the author and I would agree.

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