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Juliet Dobson on eating animals

21 Jan, 11 | by BMJ Group

Juliet DobsonOn Wednesday night at the London School of Economics, US novelist Jonathan Safran Foer took part in a discussion about his latest book, Eating Animals, as part of the Forum for European Philosophy. The book, a departure from his previous two novels, is part memoir, part exposé. He writes about his struggle with vegetarianism and explores factory farming methods and the food industry.

The focus of the book and the talk was vegetarianism and whether people should change their eating habits to protect their health and the environment. For people living in the developed world food is no longer just about calories. We choose what to eat three times a day (or more) and the choice we make to some extent reflects our values and lifestyle choices. Do we eat fast food, with one hand, without cutlery, alone, while on the run, or in a car? Or do we choose to come home and prepare a meal, sit with friends and family, and eat together with cutlery, while sitting down at a table? On the one hand these choices are very personal, but on the other hand they also affect everyone’s future.

Safran Foer spoke passionately and eloquently about his experience of factory farming. As part of his research he visited factory farms in the US and recounted in great detail the horror of how animals are treated. The impact this way of farming will have on humans in the future is significant. It isn’t just the fact that we are eating more meat, which in itself is unhealthy, or that we are eating more unhealthy meat. He talked about the risks of antibiotic resistance because animals are fed so many antibiotics, and of the environmental effects of destroying rainforests to breed livestock for “$1 burgers.” The book goes into far more detail. He described it as “robust journalism,” which took him three years to research and was verified by two independent fact checkers.

In many ways this is something that we all already know. It is no secret that the process of making factory farmed food is detrimental to our health and environment. What was interesting was his approach to the problem. Rather than put pressure on people to adhere to a strict vegetarian lifestyle, he was advocating a more lenient approach. All we need to do is eat less meat, not necessarily stop altogether. The problem with animal activists and militant vegetarians and vegans is that they push the debate to two polar extremes. So as soon as someone gives in to eating a piece of meat, they give up vegetarianism altogether. But what about just having one or two days a week when you don’t eat meat? Or what about choosing a few significant meals a year when meat is important, like family celebrations, or going to an amazing restaurant, when you will eat meat, but being vegetarian for the rest of the year?

He did concede that it isn’t always easy. He himself is a vegetarian after years of struggling with it. Although he aspires to veganism, he says he cannot quite achieve that for now. He also admitted that there is a certain “elitism” to making these kind of choices. Not everyone is able to afford organically farmed meat, not everyone has the time to cook a meal, and some people don’t know how to cook so they resort to fast food. He argued that home economics should be put back on the curriculum because “it is just as important as maths.”

His rational approach certainly inspired me (and I sensed many other members of the audience) to make a small effort to try to eat less meat. After the lengthy discussion it just seemed like such a simple solution. As he said factory farming on such a massive scale is, “an American invention, but a global problem,” so we all need to do something about it.

Juliet Dobson is the assistant web editor and blogs editor, BMJ

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  • Richard Mahony

    “The problem with animal activists and militant vegetarians and vegans is that they push the debate to two polar extremes.”

    No. All debates on worthwhile topics receive a wide range of inputs. Animals rights campaigners and so-called militant vegetarians and vegan don't push the debate anywhere. Their voices simply become part of a wide ranging debate that is as old as the hills. Many followers of the Abrahamic religions have had strong views for roughly two millennia on what may or may not be eaten, how animals must be killed, how food must be prepared, when certain foods can be eaten, when food cannot be eaten and so on. And Indian and far eastern religions that predate the Abrahamic religions by some margin also have had plenty to say for aeons about what animals may or not be eaten.

    I don't cook, never have. A complete waste of time and effort in my opinion. I don’t go out to restaurants either. An even bigger waste of time and money. I eat meat when it's offered to me, otherwise not. I haven't eaten a take-away in many years largely because I can't afford them. That's another much repeated urban myth – that take-way is cheaper than making your own sandwiches for example. Not here in Oz it ain't! I eat very simply, abstemiously and fairly nutritiously for about $20 a week by making my own non-meat based meals from bread I make myself complemented by small amounts of cheap cheese, yeast extract, sliced tomatoes and whatever other fruit or veg is in season and correspondingly cheap. It's not hard to do. But the great unwashed have such empty lives that salivating about food is pretty much all they have left.

  • Kirsten Patrick

    “He himself is a vegetarian after years of struggling with it. Although he aspires to veganism, he says he cannot quite achieve that for now.” I do relate to that. I was a vegan for some years when I was in university, but veganism and a stressful lifestyle as a junior doctor did not go well together and I went back to eating animal protein and later some meat. I aspire to vegetarianism again because I watched a documentary about how meat is farmed and processed a year ago (http://video.google.com/videop…#). I eat far less meat than before and I make vegetarian choices where possible but it isn't always possible. I live with three males of the species who like meat and have to cook for them. But the most difficult thing for me is that when I eat vegetarian I am constantly hungry. Everyone thinks that vegetarians are healthy by default but I think that many vegetarians aren't because they end up eating too many carbs. I want to eat healthily but the price for being a healthy vegetarian is constant hunger (for me) and, hey, since I'm not a supermodel that price seems too high. All the fruit-and-carbs calories that get eaten instead of meat calories triggers an insulin response that leaves me hungry an hour after I've eaten. Much as ideologically I'd like to be a vegan I also need to be able to get through my day (which involves doing a fairly stressful job and mothering two boisterous boys) without the unwanted distraction of constant hunger. Anyone else have this problem and aable to share a solution?

  • Richard Smith

    I couldn't kill an animal in order to eat it, so I ought morally to be a vegetarian. But I'm not.

    My friend Pat Brown, a lifelong Vegan and a prominent scientist, says that the answer to eating less meat is to produce “vegetable-based mince” that is not only indistinguishable from the real thing but better. He says that that is not a hard problem but needs some investment.

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