On 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