The Dark Side of Progress:
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals
Jonathan Safran Foer
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2009
Why do we behave morally? There’s reciprocity and looking out for our genes. For many (most, I hope) of us there’s a natural dislike of cruelty. We try not to be responsible for any extra suffering in the world. Humans also desire approval from others and usually being a scoundrel isn’t good for your reputation.
But imagine a situation where you act cruelly by the decisions you make about what to buy. You don’t have to see the creature being tortured and mutilated for your sensual pleasure. There’s no social censure for your complicity in this evil system. As a matter of fact, 95% of the rest of the world does the exact same thing and the moral 5% are looked upon as eccentrics and weirdos. That’s the situation we find ourselves in today on the issue of meat consumption. A morally responsible being has no choice but to look and see where his food comes from. Eating Animals gives us a glimpse into the factory farm, and it’s not pretty.
Most of us have a somewhat romantic image of the farmer, with his humility, simple down home wisdom and personal relationship with his animals. That world is practically gone. Today 99% of the meat consumed in the US comes from factory farms. In the modern world, the decision to eat meat or not has less to do with an abstract notion of animal rights than whether or not one wants to contribute to the continuation of a hellish system.
On the one hand, the factory farm is a capitalist triumph. The drive to provide consumers what they want at the the lowest possible prices has resulted in modern Americans spending a lower percentage of their incomes on food than any other civilization in history. In 1930, more than 20 percent of the American population worked in agriculture. Today less than 2 percent do. Sixty years ago it took one farmer to supply every 15.5 people, compared to one for every 140 today. But technological and scientific innovation contributing to a higher standard of living is a beautiful thing only when the commodities in question aren’t sentient beings.
At some point, it was realized that keeping animals happy or healthy wasn’t required to profit off of them. We’ll start with the pig, an animal that is at least as intelligent as your dog. The industry journal Hog Farm Management wrote that a pig should be treated “just like a machine in the factory.” So since pigs tend to bite one another when crowded together, within the first forty-eight hours of life their tails and “needle teeth” are pulled off without any pain relief. The piglets are kept in a warm and dark room so they become lethargic and unwilling to fight. At the age of ten days males have their testicles torn off, which somehow improves the taste. 9–15 percent of piglets die before they start weaning.
The weaning begins sooner than it would in nature, since the faster the animals grow the faster they can be slaughtered. Because the pig is eating before it can digest solid foods, drugs are given to prevent diarrhea. They are then taken to “nurseries,” stacked cages, purposely designed so the animal can move as little as possible and avoid burning any calories. The goal is for the animal to gain as much weight on as little food as possible. Pigs that don’t grow fast enough have their heads smashed against the concrete floor. After the nurseries come crowded pens the pigs live in until slaughter. The existence is so unnatural that it requires a cocktail of pharmaceuticals just to keep them alive in such a cramped space.
The female sow usually spends the 16 weeks of her pregnancy in a “gestation crate” so small she can’t turn around. When she’s carrying in nature, she has excessive energy that she uses to build a nest and prepare for her piglets. Here the sow can barely move. There isn’t even any bedding. Chickens and turkeys have it little better; the National Chicken Council recommends each bird get eight-tenths of a square foot (about the size of a sheet of printing paper) to walk around on and many have even less than that.
While the lives of factory farmed cows aren’t as bad as those of poultry or pigs, and this isn’t saying much, the slaughter is about as horrifying an experience as one can imagine. Before the cow is killed, it’s supposed to be rendered unconscious by a stun gun to the head. But it doesn’t always work; an industry-wide audit showed that the majority of slaughterhouses were unable to regularly knock cows out with one blow. In these situations, the animal is “bled, skinned and dismembered while conscious.”
Foer emphasizes that the stories he tells are not unique, but representative of the meat industry. He quotes an animal rights activist who broke into factory farm after factory farm to try to prove to herself that the horrors she saw were unique. I find it entirely plausible that the stories that come from the animal rights activists are accurate; they make too much economic sense not to be.
What is it like to work for the meat industry? I can’t think of a more horrifying job than being an assembly-line killer and people without any other options are the dregs of society (This is my opinion. The author is a liberal and sees poor people as another class of victims.) Gail Eisnitz has put together a sort of “encyclopedia of cruelty” made up of worker testimonials in her book Slaughterhouse. One worker tells the story of a stun gun being broken all day and the workers killing the cows while still conscious. Another wrote
Down in the blood pit they say that the smell of blood makes you aggressive. And it does. You get an attitude that if that hog kicks at me, I’m going to get even. You’re already going to kill the hog, but that’s not enough. It has to suffer. . . . You go in hard, push hard, blow the windpipe, make it drown in its own blood. Split its nose. A live hog would be running around the pit. It would just be looking up at me and I’d be sticking, and I would just take my knife and-eerk-cut its eye out while it was just sitting there. And this hog would just scream.
A USDA inspector found “deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis” at 32% of the plants she made announced visits to. If the workers don’t start out as sadistic, it’s hard to see how they don’t become so. Slaughterhouse workers may kill as many as 2,000 cattle a shift. The man who can cut throat after throat or rip open stomach after stomach without going insane is the scary one.
While the government has anti-cruelty laws on the books, many states have what are called Common Farming Exemptions. These declare anything commonly practiced in the agriculture industry to be legal. In other words, corporations decide what rules and standards they have to follow. Labels like “organic” and “free range” are in general meaningless.
The meat industry has done remarkable things in the field of genetic engineering. A special chicken has been bred for laying eggs (layers) and one for meat (broilers). Between 1935 and 1995, broilers increased in weight by 65 percent while their food requirement went down 57 percent. “To gain a sense of the radicalness of this change, imagine human children growing to be three hundred pounds in ten years, while eating only granola bars and Flinstones vitamins.” Modern factory farmed turkeys can no longer even mate naturally. Most new pigs used by the industry wouldn’t even be able to survive outside of their artificial environment.
Foer wants to pretend that there are arguments against eating meat that have to do with health. I don’t believe him, as we evolved as omnivores, and there really aren’t that many good sources of protein that don’t come from animals. He also talks about the impact that factory farming has on global warming, which is probably nonsense. There’s the argument that eating animals is inefficient: much is made of the statistic that the corn and grain fed to farm animals could feed the world’s 1.4 billion hungry people. This is socialist thinking and assumes that as much food would be produced and transported where it needs to go without the profit incentive.
On more solid grounds are Foer’s concerns about diseases caused by mutating viruses. Doctors could potentially give all of us antibiotics. We would be healthier for a while but pathogens would evolve to be much stronger. Thus, the drugs are only prescribed to those who need it. The way factory farm animals are raised requires nontherapeutic use of antibiotics; they’re fed the stuff their whole lives, which keeps them alive as they grow but creates new diseases that could jump to humans.
While all this may increase the odds of a terrible epidemic, in the end, humans are healthier than ever. All the laments about our modern unnatural lifestyle seem to overlook this obvious and inconvenient fact. While we can debate to what extent meat corporations are passing on their external costs onto the rest of us through pollution, our own well-being isn’t an argument against eating meat. The only true case is a moral one.
There are 50 billion factory farmed chickens killed every year. The number boggles the mind. If you think a chicken’s life is worth 1/1000th that of a human, it’s like torturing and killing 50 million people. Even if you think a human life is worth a million chicken lives, that’s 50,000 murders. If China and India ever start eating chicken at the rate Americans do now the 50 billion number will double. Joseph Stalin supposedly said “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” The thought of someone torturing or killing a cat is disturbing, but I have no idea how to react to hearing about 50 billion miserable lives and deaths. The number might as well be 50 thousand or 50 trillion. The ruthlessness of nature, for humanity is part of nature, is a terrifying thing when faced honestly.
I’d like this problem to go away. I’d like to be able to eat my steak and chicken with a clear conscience and not think that humans can be so indifferent to something so cruel. Things that have done so much to bring about advancement and improvements in human well being, business competition, the division of labor, technical innovation, and hard work, have been used to carry out evil on a scale the world has never before seen. William Saletan holds out hope that we’ll eventually be able to grow meat in labs. There will have to be a demand for it though, and that will require a revolution in human thinking.
People tend to get mad at vegetarians. I’ve seen it, and it’s very weird. There have been times in my life where I’ve thought deeply about eating animals and periods when I didn’t give the issue much thought. The more I’ve felt a desire to be more humane and live a life that I consider moral the less I’ve wanted to eat meat. There isn’t a philosophical system that allows one to both support factory farms and oppose needless suffering. Most people realize that at some level. Before the author wrote this book he knew that the more he researched where our food came from the more likely he was to become a vegetarian, as did everybody else he discussed his ideas with. We don’t like to be reminded of our own moral cowardice.
We are after all, nothing more than animals ourselves. Humans supposedly have the ability to “choose” to act contrary to our nature, whatever that means, but in reality we’re more complicated versions of the beings we butcher. Let’s just hope a higher life form never discovers our planet and finds us tasty.
Source: HBD Books, March 2, 2010
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