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Jonathan Safran Foer: environmentalists who eat meat have a blind-spot

Tom Levitt

24th January, 2011

Factory farming depends on our ignorance but the world needs to move away from eating meat, US author Jonathan Safran Foer tells Tom Levitt

Tom Levitt: Do humans have genuine need for meat?

Jonathan Safran Foer:
Humans have a desire for meat no doubt about it. They also have a desire for sex but it doesn't mean that we don't contain our cravings. Humans are great at containing cravings; we do it all the time whether it's not stealing something from a store even if we'd prefer it for free, not punching someone who pisses us off even if our animal instinct want to do that. This ability to say no is precisely what distinguishes us from the other animals and is the culmination of our evolution. The fact that the people have been doing it for a long time, that we crave it or that our bodies seem to have evolved to eat it, doesn't mean all that much to me. What excites me is the ability to think it through, come to terms with the consequences and to make a choice. Sometimes choosing not to do something that feels good can be a fuller expression of our humanity.

TL: Can you see a situation in which you would eat meat again?

JSF: I don't think I would. I don't need to. On a desert island I might -  I might even eat a human. But this is the wrong argument to have because you end up ignoring what is right in front of us which is that 50 billion animals are factory-farmed every year. It's the number one cause of global warming, it's responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than everything else put together and the UN has said it's one of the top two or three causes of every single environmental problem on the planet. It's making our antibiotics less effective (we give seven times the amount of antibiotics to healthy animals as we do to sick humans) and is doing things to animals that anyone would find repulsive. So lets talk about this, the thing that is right in front of us, rather than a hypothetical situation that might happen 50 years from now.

TL: Is it possible to be an environmentalist and a meat-eater?

JSF: Sure, you could be an honest person who tells lies all the time but I don't think we need to get into whether such a thing disqualifies you or not but what we can say is this: We know it is indisputably the number one cause of global warming. So what does it mean exactly to be an environmentalist on a daily basis if you are not thinking about the number one cause of global warming or one of the top two or three causes of all other environmental problems? Does it mean you are necessarily someone who doesn't care about the environment? Obviously not, but it might mean you have a blind spot for something big. I should add that Greenpeace doesn't serve meat at any of their functions anymore. Oceana is having a big internal debate about whether they should serve meat and fish at its functions too.

TL: You say factory-farming is like pornography - 'its very hard to define but you know it when you see it'. Can you explain?

JSF: It's not any one particular set of technologies, it's more like this mindset that nature is an obstacle to be overcome. Animals require this much room in nature so maybe we can give them less. Nature suggests animals should lay this many eggs so maybe we can get them to lay twice as many. Nature suggests animals need this much food so maybe we can give them half as much. It's a kind of perversion of nature. Small farmers take nature as a guide and follow its cues. We almost don't need a term for it because it is so dominant; there is almost nothing left to compare it to.

TL: Has the farmer been pushed aside by the increasing dominance of factory farming?

JSF: Yes, quite literally. I hear again and again that farmers didn't become farmers to hurt animals or to trash the environment. It's actually an incredibly rewarding way of life and used to very diverse. Now its just one kind of crop or animal. It used to require lots of different knowledge and there was something joyful about seeing the cycle of life repeat itself and getting to know the animals as individuals and caring for them and then giving them a painless death or as painless as one could hope for. And all of that has been inverted with factory farming. It's all automated now for starters - with chicken farming they put them in the sheds and come back in 45 days and send them to slaughter. Other than that there is no human intervention.

TL: Does the consumer understand what farming is about today?

JSF: They would if we had some laws about truth and labelling. So long as we have pictures on our packages of meat with barns, grass and fences we will continue to think it is really like that. We have labels on cigarettes saying you will die I don't know why we can't have labels on packages of meat saying these 60,000 of these animals were raised in a windowless shed and fed antibiotics from birth to death. It's the truth so why shouldn't we have access to it?

TL: Why did KFC get so much criticism in your book?

JSF: They are just so terrible. Neither Tyson, Smithfield or KFC responded which suggests that they think the more people talk and think about these things, the less inclined they will be to eat meat. People don't learn more about factory farming and want eat more. It's an industry that literally depends on our ignorance and silence. My impression is that its enormously powerful and they spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying every year. I mean I got sent an email saying 'stand up to the well-funded vegetarian lobby' and support your local farmer. Well I did a bit of research and together, all the vegetarian advocate groups spend about $600,000 a year and have no full-time employers compared to the meat industry's numerous lobbyists. There is no vegetarian lobby but meat industry claims there is one in an attempt to create a certain type of story and marginalise that position. They try to make it seem as if caring about this makes you a weirdo or hippy. Small farmers like animals and the environment and want to protect both of them.

TL: What are your views on organic?

JSF: If you have a choice, it's definitely better than factory-farmed meat but it's not what people think it is either. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the way animals are treated and it has nothing to do with the genetics of the animal. I think a lot of people look at organic as a silver bullet - if i just buy this I will have done my bit - unfortunately it's not what most people think it is.

TL: Can you be as Michael Pollen suggests an ethical carnivore?

JSF: It's impossibly difficult to be an environmentally-sensitive carnivore. It takes so much time and energy to figure out where the meat really comes from, by what process it is brought to your table, how far away the farm is, what they do with their waste. There are just so many questions. Michael Pollen is the world's greatest advocate of ethical eating and yet he still regularly eats factory farmed meat. Doing what he argues against. I am not someone who believes in purity. My only point is that I would like to do what I believe in and I would find it very difficult to do that by eating meat. There is no alternative to some flying but it is simple not to eat meat. There is nothing necessary about it. We only eat meat because we like the taste and we should stop pretending it is about anything else.

TL: What about the dairy sector; do you still consume dairy and eggs?

JSF: In terms of animal cruelty it would be so much better to eat a burger than to drink milk. It's definitely the right thing to do but I just find it hard to give it up. I buy all of our milk and eggs back at home from a farmers market but the arguments are exactly the same. We have to get away from the expectation of perfection because it really intimidates people who would otherwise make an effort. People use the fear of hypocrisy to justify total inaction. I wish I weren't as hypocritical as I am but I think that's just part of what it means to be a person.

Jonathan's book 'Eating Animals' is published by Penguin
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