Jonathan Safran Foer rose to fame and acclaim in 2002 with his first novel, Everything is Illuminated. His latest book, Eating Animals, sees him stray from fictional writing for a critical interrogation of the farming industry, combining undercover journalism with opposing arguments, and personal reflection.
A vegetarian, Foer was inspired to write the book by the imminent arrival of his first son, and a desire to be well informed in what to feed him. I sat down with him to discuss the importance of what we eat, ethical agriculture, and Eating Animals.
The book doesn’t explicitly promote vegetarianism. Why is this?
The existence of very good farms. They surprised me at least as much as the very bad farms, and I found it impossible to argue against them. I think most people want the same thing, which is as little violence and cruelty, and as little environmental destruction. I respect people who say “the world is never going to become vegetarian”, and it’s naïve to try and encourage that. It’s much better, for me, to reform the system. Another way of looking at things is that it’s impossible; they’re never going to reform the system. You can’t feed six billion people meat in a responsible way, so we should stop eating meat.
One farmer in the book argues, ‘if you can’t do it right don’t do it all’.
The point is that we shouldn’t all do the bare minimum that any human being would be able to do. I don’t want to just resort to a type of laziness, of like, ‘well, it’s probably good enough’.
A big argument for eating meat is our natural predatory instinct and our physiological design. Male humans seem to be designed to have many partners, not to be monogamous. Wouldn’t you say that a marriage is unnatural? Yes! But in a way that we really value, and there are types of meat-eaters around who would say “Humans are made to eat meat. Forget it, I’m going to eat meat” and then you say to them “your daughter is married. Do you want her husband to act on all of his sexual cravings?” they would say – “I’ll kill him!” You know? We’re very picky, choosy and arbitrary with when we appeal to nature as a moral guide. Humans are great at resisting our cravings, that’s what makes us human.
You talk about your grandmother and your children as key influences. You emphasise that what we eat is an important, conscious decision.
We have a whole web of associations, emotional associations. Food can evoke memories of childhood, family, places that we’ve been, times in our lives, it’s very powerful. But my grandmother served us this particular kind of food but also taught us certain kinds of lessons, that maybe when I was a kid or 50 years ago or in a different place those lessons in that food were not in conflict. In the year 2011 they are in conflict. It may be that in order to have one value we have to let go of another.
How did you explain your vegetarianism to your children?
I think eating animals is something that you have to explain to them. The stories that we read to them, almost always, have heroes that are animals, when they cry very often parents give their kids stuffed animals, a lot of homes have pets, we’re taught to treat them in a certain way, but then there’s this other thing, the animals that we kill and cut up and eat their bodies, and I think for a kid that can be confusing.
What effect do you hope this book will have?
I would hope the average reader would read the book, say to their husband, wife, or brother, you should read this, we really should be thinking about this. The idea is that we really shouldn’t be ignoring this anymore. I think different people can reach different conclusions about how to engage it but, until recently, the default position is ‘I know its bad but I just really don’t want to know about it.’ And we can’t do that anymore. We really are at a crossroads. There is still time, there are still ways to reform all of this. Whenever something is on the ballot it always passes by the widest margin. Even though the industry spends tens of millions of dollars lobbying. People just share these instincts, it’s just common sense: who is the person who wants to cram chickens into a cage?
It ties in to pollution, deforestation, global warming, animal rights, human rights…
Right. In terms of bang for your buck in life, the best way the individual can change the world is to eat less meat.
Eating Animals is out now and is highly recommended reading.