Playful, elegant, and not above the judicious use of the word “shit."

As American as apple pie

There have been a few books I’ve read in the last couple of years that have changed parts of me in one way or another, but there are two that stand out as ones that have transformed me completely. They both altered, one, my perception of the characteristics of human decency, and two, what I consider to be my dutiful role as someone who was born in America.

The first one I wrote about last year called The Warmth of Other Suns became and remains one of the best and most important books I’ve ever read. It kicked wide open a door into the vast expanse of what I had not ever explored to be my responsibility as a white woman born in this country, that my birthright of privilege built upon the marginalization, enslavement, torture, and dehumanization of an entire race of people requires me to make quantitative efforts to dismantle it. I get caught up a lot in the minutia of the day-to-day details of juggling work and kids and don’t do nearly enough, so I concentrate a lot of what I try to do in raising my girls to do better than I have done. But, now I know. The knowing is so crucial.

I cannot un-know it. And I see it everywhere now, brazen and glaring and monstrously ugly.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I spent a day and night in Hudson, New York. To pass some of the time between checking out of my room and waiting a few hours for the train back into the city, I ducked out of the cold into a small independent bookstore. After glancing at several rows of titles I finally landed on a cover whose vibrant color caught my attention. It was this green hue, not the title or the author or its possible contents, that made me pick it up. And for that I will always wonder why and think, whoever designed that cover changed my life. I would not have picked it up otherwise. And now… now after reading it from the front to the back of that jacket, I know.

I cannot un-know.

Back in March after running a half marathon with Scott Jurek in Tanzania I came home and read his book Eat and Run that goes into great detail about his vegan diet and ability to maintain a high endurance athleticism because of it. After I did more research and self reflection (yes, about the treatment of animals) I decided I wanted to eat a vegan diet, or at least give it a go. After a month of eating that way I didn’t look back, didn’t want to look back. But my travel schedule became increasingly insane, and finding things I could eat became more difficult in direct proportion to the miles piling up in my rewards account. I far too often sat starving in an airport dreading the taste of yet another bar or bag of granola.

So I became a terrible vegan, a sometimes vegan, an “I’ll eat this way when I’m at home” vegan. And because I didn’t want to inconvenience friends I’d eat whatever they were eating when none of it was vegan. Essentially, I was not a vegan.

While flipping through the pages of that green book, my body tucked up against a shelf to let the crowds of other people seeking refuge from the cold pass by, I happened to land on a passage that made my face burn:

“Farming is shaped not only by food choices, but by political ones. Choosing a personal diet is insufficient. But how far am I willing to push my own decisions and my own views about the best alternative animal agriculture? What should we all expect of one another when it comes to the question of eating animals? What positions on eating animals would I insist are basic to moral decency?”

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is the least militant or preachy or guilt-tripping book about the ethics of eating animals you’re ever going to read. In fact, it is so even-tempered that I am going to recommend this book to my 74-year-old father who could not possibly be more conservative or have less regard for the existence of an animal. In fact, Foer doesn’t even advocate for a vegetarian diet. No pun intended, he is not brandishing a pitchfork, except to say, basically: if things don’t change, the earth is pretty much screwed.

foer

What this book uncovers and exposes and lays bare about the origin of the meat we consume is so important primarily in the knowing of it. We, and I specifically mean Americans, are far too removed from the food on our plate, and these pages bring the stench and filth and chemicals and screeching echoes of suffering right into our hands in the most matter-of-fact, Kanye getting on the stage, he will let you finish that pulled pork sandwich, but this is exactly what it means when you do so kind of way. Beyoncé’s video was better. The truth.

It’s the knowledge.

I already knew most of what he uncovered in over three and a half years of research into factory farming, that from which 99% of the meat we consume comes from:

“More than any set of practices, factory-farming is a mind-set: reduce production costs to the absolute minimum and systematically ignore or ‘externalize’ such costs as environmental degradation, human disease, and animal suffering. For thousands of years farmers took their cues from natural processes. Factory farming considers nature an obstacle to be overcome.”

I’ve read the statistics, watched the documentaries and sickening YouTube videos, learned that “cage-free” and “organic” are meaningless labels. And so, why is this book the catalyst that has made me decide that I will inconvenience my friends by my dietary choices?

Because what he so deftly emphasizes again and again is that we do not want to know. We do not want to talk about it. We want to ignore it, and we can. And we do. And that is so very fucking American. It is because we are American.

And, but of course, Americans consume more meat than any other country in the world.

I refuse to ascribe to this part of my privileged birthright anymore. That birthright allows me dietary choices and demands that I make an effort to help end the factory farming system on behalf of those who cannot afford to:

“Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless—it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another.”

It is the number one cause of climate change, and “the earth will eventually shake off factory farming like a dog shakes off fleas; the only question is whether we will get shaken off along with it.”

I’m not asking you to change what you eat. I’m not saying a vegan diet is superior to any other. I’m not saying any of that. I’m saying this: you need to know where that meat on your plate came from. You need to want to know.

  • Kate G

    Interested to see the discussion on this one. If I can wring a few spare minutes from my week, I may pick up/download the book. My husband and I stopped eating meat for a while because factory farmed meat tastes like crap and isn’t good for you, and it’s also crap for all the killing-the-planet reasons. We now live in super-rural-land, which has a lot of drawbacks, but the food ain’t one. The meat we eat now comes from the cows and occasionally chickens on a neighbor’s farm and is chopped up at the local butcher and sold at the local natural foods market or direct to consumers. I’d be curious to know what the author thinks about meat when you DO know where it comes from.

  • erinn

    Agree wholeheartedly, and I just wanted to stop by and add that there is still a lot of hope when it comes to farming. I have a boring office job, but I have been volunteering on local family farms during my weekends for a number of years. I have met so many farmers who care–care very deeply, about the welfare of their animals. Have barns that will always be more carefully and consistently cleaned than their own houses. Have wept at losing a laboring sow after being up all night with her and the vet. Consistently put it all on the line, emotionally, physically, and financially, because they love what they do and they believe in what they do and the people that they want to safely feed, even when the pay-out is barely breaking even.
    It costs a zillion times more to ‘ethically farm’, because it requires more space per animal, more care, better feed. The cost to the consumer is thus almost always more than factory farmed produce, and it is fair to acknowledge that not everyone can afford to consistently feed their family with eggs that go for $7.00 per dozen, etc. Personally, I’ve found that cutting my weekly meat intake by half (sometimes a third) allows me to afford meat that was raised in conditions that I am comfortable with.
    Ps., I am a Canadian, but I have had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with several American farmers, and every one of them was passionate about their vocation and proud of the way they raised their animals.

  • Erin

    Yes, yes, and also, yes. I have not read this book, but I’ve read many others and I can’t unknow. It’s the knowing. So I up and quit meat and dairy (except cheese, but I managed to take it down to “only cheese when it’s in dishes”). So, same as you, vegan-not-vegan. And then I got sick. So, so sick. Sicker and sicker as the months went by and guess what I learned?! My body can’t deal with legumes. All stomach upset vanished when I stopped eating them. I returned to eating meat (as little as I can) and I’m glad you posted this because you’ve got me thinking that it’s time for me to do some research and figure out where I can buy meat from local farms. I so very badly want to opt out of factory farming and that might be the solution to my Paleo (body) vs. Vegan (mind) quandry. Thanks for posting this, it was nice to yap about my diet a little. I care very much about the animals we’re hurting, but so many people do not care to discuss it.

  • mary

    Thank you, Heather, for putting this out there. Having been vegetarian for 31 years, for ethical reasons, I am going to try and take the final step.

  • KimFunk

    I, for one, do know where my meat comes from. Most of it is wild game that my husband hunts down. There is no more free-range, cage free existance than that. A friend raises my bacon with ear scratching and love. And I’ve visited the ranch where my cows eat grass and wander around.

    I do try to eat local by using the lovely downtown farmer’s market and produce stands around the valley.I’m working on being conscious when I purchase anything, even when I purchase something Made in China. When I feel aware, I do make better choices.

  • PhotoCoyote

    I agree. And I’d dearly love to be vegetarian. But I really don’t feel well unless I eat some sort of animal protein every day. I’m not really sure why. In any event, I only eat chicken, turkey and certain kinds of fish. My body doesn’t like soy or legumes, and doesn’t care much for eggs, but I can eat certain types of nuts. I’m gluten and dairy free; my body doesn’t care for those either. It kinda sucks.

  • Rachel

    I’d love for everyone to be able to see where their food comes from, but it’s a luxury of self-education most people will never get. I don’t quite understand how people can eat at Harris Ranch on the 5 in California, when it’s within smelling distance of their Cowschwitz facility. Driving past their finishing lots put me off most beef for years.

    I’m really lucky to live where I do, because I can hop in the car, and within about an hour and a half, go visit all the land animals that end up on my plate – be they dairy or egg producers, or chickens, cows and pig. When I’m flush I can buy cow shares with friends, and have a hand in raising the animal I’ll spend the next 6 months eating. I bring my garden snails to my friends’ chickens, and get some of the most beautiful eggs in return. There are not too many places where this is possible, yet. I’d love to see more urban and suburban farm growth. If zoning allowed neighbors to supply each other with fresh eggs, we’d break the back of the factory egg industry overnight.

  • ElisaCam

    These are two books that also changed my life. I went vegetarian in 1989, and finally went vegan in 2006 after reading Meat Market by Erik Marcus, but Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, read *after* becoming vegan helped imprint that choice more deeply and more permanently, I’m convinced. He’s a beautiful writer, fiction or non-. And the Warmth of Other Sounds is just pure brilliance. Must-read for anyone who wants to understand this country better. Thanks for sharing this, Heather.

  • sandra brown

    Yes,yes,yes.

  • undisclosed location

    I beg to differ with the moral argument. animals come at all levels of sentience and I judge which I eat by that sentience. I will not eat goats, dogs, or pig level sentience. chicken and fish are tasty, dumb but tasty. the only reason a chicken has a brain is to keep the spinal cord from fraying.

    one can argue that there is an ethical argument for reducing the pain of living conditions as inflecting pain is wrong. creatures like chickens and fish do not suffer as they are not self aware enough.

    last, a counter moral argument. why do we stand by and let people suffer? hell, even factory farmed food animals get fed, have shelter and a bit of health care. we have people starving, living on the streets, dying from preventable diseases right here in boston. every day I see people begging at traffic intersections. I know people who could work but are constantly told they have no value, fuck off and die.

    yes, I am angry. I am very angry that people spend any energy on factory farms miles away when you can throw a stone in any major city and hit a person in need.

    as they say in the airlines, “put your own mask on first.” only after you have taken care of yourself can you care for others. we, need to put our own masks on first; we need to take care of our fellow humans and that care will raise our level of care for everything we do.

  • Chickens and fish have pain receptors and most certainly suffer. I am a pescatarian as I feel less bad about eating animals that have lived freely in the ocean until caught; however, it’s becoming increasingly hard to justify with the damage overfishing has done to the oceans. Every human that cares about the planet and/or compassionate treatment of animals should do their best to limit their consumption of animal products, whether that means Meatless Mondays, going vegetarian or vegan. EVERY SINGLE PERSON making a small change like that would add up to so much more than a small percentage of the population going vegan.

    The people vs. animal argument is not valid if you believe at all in improving as a society. We can improve in every area, treatment of humans AND animals.

  • Thank you, Heather. Thank you for putting this out there. I’ve been vegetarian/vegan for most of my adult life and this stuff is so important.

  • undisclosed location

    pain is what nerve sensors signal. suffering is cognition in reaction to pain, usually self induced and self reinforcing. chicken do not suffer. they have no self awareness and are basically biological automatons.

    another problem is illnesses that interfere with glucose metabolism. illnesses like diabetes. I ate lots of veg, whole grains exercised, etc and the constant overproduction of insulin caused insulin resistance then t2 diabetes. only after I develop diabetes did I find out that “normal” people should limit carb intake to 150-180 g of carbs a day to defer onset of diabetes. a typical vegetarian diet clocks in at 140 carbs per meal.now, I’m limited to 25 grams per meal. try to get a 400 cal vegetarian meal with only 25 carbs.

    I’ll keep eating those that can’t suffer so that I don’t suffer and I will focus my care on actions that help those that can suffer.

  • Just me

    Thank you. I’ve been vegan 10 almost 11 years and sometimes I wish I could I unknow what I know, because it’s so depressing to know how badly food animals suffer. But you’re right, most people simple choose to ignore the reality of how cruel meat and animal product production is and how harmful it is to the environment.

  • Xak Grossman

    “Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That’s the question. -JSF, Eating Animals. I read that book 6 years ago and stopped eating meat immediately (something that I’d been considering for a while before picking up the book.

  • Jamie

    I admit that I want to know but I really don’t want to… My husband grew up on land where they raised their food and hunted. I felt like such an idiot when I asked why their chickens were so small and he told me that’s what they look like when they’re not pumped full of stuff.

  • AG

    I love this comment, so perfectly summed up.

  • jawnbc

    I accept there are ethical arguments for being vegan or vegetarian. I don’t accept there are scientific ones about how doing so whilst remaining healthy. The truth is there is a lot of obesity among vegetarians who end up using refined sugars to satiate hunger. I’ve been a vegetarian before for extended periods and found it killed my energy and my cognitive ability: whether that’s conditioning or epigenetics or our nature, I dunno: it is what it is. I live under the “eat less, mostly plants, smaller portions of meat” mantra. I will only buy certified free range chickens (which still means something in NZ); where possible I buy free range, organic beef. Lamb are ruminants, so factory farming isn’t really a thing. I do, however, avoid nearly all dairy, since the dairy industry treats cows brutally. I think it’s equally ethical to insist on verifiably ethically reared and slaughtered animinal products.

  • I’ve read a number of books about food and Eating Animals was certainly one of the most thought provoking, moving, and yes, non-judgmental. I am “bad vegetarian” who regularly eats seafood, but I agree that if one is going to eat animal products, one should be aware of the costs.

  • Kim

    I do. It came from my farmer named Tom. He’s awesome and all his animals are happy and friendly when I visit.

  • Amy

    Can I have your ‘meat is murder’ shirt?

  • Rosemary

    Thank you for addressing this Heather. I can tell you that there is real anger towards America for all that it has done. And more than that – the blatant refusal to take responsibility for it – even NOW. And then forcing poorer countries to clean up these messes. So, thank you, that at least this is being acknowledged. It means a great deal.

  • Gem Wilder

    Thanks for this post. I will definitely be reading this book. I’m making the move towards a vegan diet myself. The treatment of animals and the health benefits of veganism are influences, but a major reason why I am becoming vegan is because of the environmental harm caused by the meat and dairy industries. With countries in the Pacific facing the very real and urgent effects of global warming, I feel obligated to change my lifestyle, to shrink my carbon footprint as much as possible.

  • Karen Bernstein

    Maybe if people opened their hearts to think about the suffering that industrial agriculture causes for the animals AND the people that do the work (assembly line butchering, hurting animals, polluting the waterways and air around the factory farms)…maybe then those same people would have hearts opened to the plight of their homeless neighbors. I’m not sure why there is a need to say that we shouldn’t spend any effort to clean up our food supply while there are people suffering. These two issues are not part of a zero sum game.

  • Kimberly Wydeen

    I agree entirely that factory farming is, for the lack of a better phrase, really bad.

    But I feel like I cannot criticize something unless I have a solution. I do not have a solution that provided food for people that isn’t factory farming, to some degree.

    I think it’s tremendously easy to make the choice not to eat factory farmed food when you have the resources to make that choice. But not everybody has that luxury.

    If all factory farming stopped, right now, today, would there be enough food to feed us all?

  • Kimberly Wydeen

    To be fair, we can’t all care about everything all the time. It’s nearly impossible to be completely informed and an advocate of every single important cause.

    Be cautious when you cast stones at what other people are ignoring, because I guarantee you are ignoring something, too. We all are.

  • undisclosed location

    factory food is abstract, It is distant and easy to ignore because of the distance.. the people you see on the street many times a week are near. it takes much more work to ignore the person on the street corner with a sign begging for money.

    you are right, it is not a zero sum game but taking care of our own should come before anyone or thing else.

  • Karen Bernstein

    I think that is Heather’s point. Read the book. Open your eyes to the state of our agricultural system and food supply. Don’t be willfully ignorant.

    And yes, take care of the people around you who need help, too.

  • Karen Bernstein

    You don’t have to adopt a vegan or even vegetarian diet to improve the condition of the animals that provide the proteins you eat. I also cannot adopt a meat-free diet but I do choose to eat only pasture-raised meat, and that only once or twice per week. The rest of my protein comes from legumes (including tofu there), dairy and tree nuts. I have gluten intolerance, so I cannot eat whole wheat/barley/rye, but I do eat other grains, too, like brown rice and quinoa. Perhaps this is too many carbs for you, but I do think it is possible to eat a healthy, balanced diet without resorting to factory farm meat.

  • Maria

    Not everywhere are animals treated in the way of American ‘factory farming’. In New Zealand even dairy cows are (pasture) grass fed, walking to the milking shed twice a day to then return back to pastures. Our family’s eggs come from chickens who I see every time I pick up their eggs: they are running around a large field, eating seeds and they come to check me out every time I stop at the ‘egg box’ by the road. A friend’s husband hunts deer who live in the Southern Alps, and so I sometimes get a share of the meat – wild game, live naturally and eat naturally. A guy who hunts ducks down in the valley gives us duck meat in exchange for ferret tails which we trap.

    Yes, there are still problems that arise from any kind of farming, but I feel it’s a little… unfair to look at American ‘factory farming’ and then draw conclusions about eating meat and dairy in general.

    One of the reasons I feel ambivalent about this topic is that a few years ago I, too, tried to switch to mostly vegetarian food, with limited amount of dairy and eggs. But then I found out I have borderline insulin resistance which made it difficult to care for my own health, whilst keeping to this diet. There was a lot of carbs!

    So I returned to eating dairy, eggs and meat, but I have remained conscious about where my food comes from. That alone has meant that there’s a limit to the amount of animals products my family eats because our eggs and meat cost more.

    Besides, one of the most carbon-harmful things a person can do to this planet, from what I understand, is HAVE A BABY. What’s the cumulative carbon footprint over an additional person’s lifetime, compared to eating meat and dairy by one person?

    I think as America catches up with more sustainable and humane farming practices, the problem of eating meat and dairy and eggs is going to partially solve itself because they’re simply going to cost more. Just as having children has become expensive which is why some people are already turning to smaller family sizes, amongst other reasons.

    I hear what you are saying, and I have viewed some disturbingly graphic videos, too. But I also understand that almost everything is about balance.

  • undisclosed location

    my father raised, slaughtered and prepared chicken. I grew up next to a dairy farm, I buy meat from a local slaughter house when I can. I am mindful of the source, state and methods of food production. I never reduce meat to a bloody lump of flesh in a foam tray with a cling film wrapper. I am mindful that an animal was killed for me to eat.

    I am many things but ignorant is not one of them.

    still, I will eat meat but like i said, only of animals not capable of suffering. they do experience pain and a responsibility of a slaughter house is to minimize that pain.

  • I read this book a few months ago and immediately insisted that my husband read it. When he saw the title, he said, “I don’t want to read this! It’ll make me sad.” To which I responded, “Well, that’s exactly why you need to read it. If you’re going to eat meat, you should do so with the knowledge of where it comes from.” We’ve both stopped eating meat since reading this book (aside from a few fish dishes, but whenever I eat seafood now I feel frightfully guilty, so that will stop as well — eating fish was only about convenience while away from home).

    I don’t purchase dairy or consume it at home, but I’ve been more lenient when away from home, just like you were (mostly cheese, of course). I was already considering going strict vegan, and your post has inspired me. Thank you for writing this and putting a spotlight on an important book.

  • Fannneee

    I would be extremely interested in hearing about some of the things you eat as a vegan. I have been trying hard to be vegetarian for 23 years. It is difficult when you are stressed or sick or over hungry but if I fall off the wagon I just get back up on. I think a vegan diet is the hardest, I don’t know how people do it, but I wish I could.

  • Linda

    I am very interested in this topic of discussion. I wonder when buying sustainable or in my case halal meat that I know is slaughtered without undue suffering, if that really makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. I always have this discussion with my husband when I express my horro at how animals are treated for us to have food on the table. We always end up at a stand still with me saying that I would like to buy the food that I know came from a farm owned by this guy, he slaughters his cow and sheep this way, he feeds them this and that. From my husband’s point of view, it is always if you become a vegetarian or a vegan, you are not stopping the factory farmin, you are not closing down the industry and making them rethink their ways, people will always buy meat and in this economy they look for cheaper meat because that is all they can afford, if they can afford meat at all.
    I am not sure what individuals can do with the knowledge gained about farming practices to make major change to the industry, other than buying from sources that are known, and signing petitions to get certain issues across.

  • Amanda

    powerful. i bought “warmth of other suns” after you recommended it, but haven’t started reading it yet. I think that will be my first book of 2016. i think you’re totally right about not wanting to know where our meat comes from. in the back of my mind, i know it’s not good… not healthy, not sustainable, but i burry those feelings under excuses like connivence or costs. going to add “eating animals” to my book list as well. thank you.

  • Spendthrift

    What we need to eat for health, the environment and moral principles are often at odds – there are arguments against large-scale farming of crops such as soybeans, for example (de-forestation in areas to convert to a cash crop; large-scale farming methods that may or may not harm small animals; use of pesticides or fertilizers that cause environmental harm), against eating meat, against eating fish (I gave up fish – we can raise cows and pigs and breed them sustainable, but so far we can’t make new cod or striped bass on the farm); it goes on.
    I think being mindful is important, but once you start going down the rabbit-hole of what food does the least/most harm, it gets tangled. My own view is that the best way (for the planet) that I could feed myself would be to have a small farm with rotational grazing and planting practices. Think that’s going to happen? So I fumble around making the best choices I can. If we think about it, we all do. But for me, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Eat what you feel comfortable with, and I will too, and we’ll have to live with it.

  • Spendthrift

    Here’s a question, though: one of my neighbors raises sheep for wool. (Vegans don’t wear wool, right? So we’re wrong-footed from the start. The sheep are, anyway, pastured and seem to be happy. But I digress.) Here’s the thing. She was a vegetarian to begin with and started eating lambs because: she only has enough room for a certain number of sheep. Sheep must be separated by age and sex according to esoteric sheep practices. So she’s raising these sheep, and they don’t care if she needs ewe lambs or ram lambs, they give birth to what they give birth to. If she has an over-abundance of ram lambs, particularly ram lambs whose wool is lower quality, what should she do? She started eating them (cooked) because, well, there they are and she needs food.

  • KathyB

    Sounds like she found a workable solution.

  • Paige Horst

    I think this is an important part of this discussion. Food has always been, and is currently, a classist issue. Those who have resources can make choices. Those who do not have the resources, such as families who live in food deserts, have limited choices and must make do with processed, packaged food, a limited selection of proteins and very limited fresh produce. Those of us on very limited budgets make the best choices we can with the resources we have. I have been taken to task for “harming” my children by preparing food that was not organic or for which I could not provide a farm to table lineage. I teach master’s students who are preparing to enter the workforce as teachers. Some of these students are agriculture teachers. They have really opened my eyes to the nuances in this debate, and the question you ask is one they ask too. How do we feed everyone without some type of factory farming?

  • U L

    Foer really doesn’t suggest that the only solution is being vegan. He advocates ethically sourced food more than anything. She is ethically sourcing her food. I don’t see the problem.