A New Way To Talk About Eating Animals

(Little, Brown & Company)
Jonathan Safran Foer, the wunderkind behind "Everything is Illuminated," is out with his first work of non-fiction, Eating Animals, a unique take on the food debate taking place in this country. While the way we eat has been discussed and exposed a number of notable times in recent years, including in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Foer comes at it from the perspective of a new father - spurred by basic but critical questions: What should I feed my kid? Where should I get it from? Can we be doing this any better? As an expectant father, I've had similar talks with my wife. There are no easy answers. Whether you agree with Foer's conclusions or not, it's a fascinating discussion.

Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write this book?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Fatherhood compelled me to write Eating Animals. Like most people, I'd given some thought to what meat actually is, but until I became a father, and faced the prospect of having to make food choices on someone else's behalf, there was no urgency to get to the bottom of things.

I never had it in mind to write non-fiction, and frankly I doubt I'll ever do it again. But this topic, at this moment, is something no one should ignore. (As a writer, putting words on the page is how I pay attention.) If animal agriculture isn't the most important problem in the world right now -it's the No. 1 cause of global warming, No. 1 cause of animal suffering, a decisive factor in the creation of zoonotic diseases like bird and swine flu, and so on - it is the problem with the most deafening silence surrounding it. Even the most political people, the most thoughtful and engaged, tend not to "go there." And for good reason. Going there can be extremely uncomfortable. Food is not just what we put in our mouths to fill up; it is culture and identity. Reason plays some role in our decisions about food, but it's rarely driving the car.

We need a better way to talk about eating animals, a way that doesn't ignore, or even just shruggingly accept things like habits, cravings, family and history, but rather incorporates them into the conversation. The more they are allowed in, the more strongly we will want to follow our best instincts. And there is not a person on earth whose best instincts would lead him or her to factory farming.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

JSF: The real horror of factory farming is not found in the instance, but the rule. It's a shame that most people's exposure to the meat industry comes through horror videos of slaughterhouses. While such images do correspond to very real events (which are productive and necessary to document and share), they are, even at the worst farms, the exception. And unfortunately, they can conceal something that is far more horrible: the everyday, systematized cruelty and destruction. In a way, videos of animals being tortured are a distraction that the meat industry is probably happy to have, as they suggest that the fault is with workers. The fault is not with workers, but the system itself. It is simply impossible to raise the number of animals we are currently raising for food without making their lives miserable. The misery is built into the system. Another system could take this system's place. But a movement toward small, family farms will require people to eat much, much less meat. And that's not going to happen any time too soon. In the mean time, the most important thing is to come to terms with the dominance and destruction of factory farming, and reject it.

JG: What would you be doing, if you weren't a writer?

JSF: I almost became a doctor. I damn near went to medical school, actually. There's much to envy about doctors, perhaps most of all the assurance that you are doing something that matters. I don't imagine an obstetrician ever goes home and thinks, "I delivered three babies today. What's the point?" And yet that question - What's the point? - is never more than a step behind me. "I wrote three sentences today. What's the point?" Or even, "I just finished a novel that took me three years to write. What's the point?" I suppose that incessant questioning is a reason for others to be jealous of writers. It's a kind of blessing - if a terribly annoying one - to always have to search for justification for how you spend your time. It keeps you honest, makes you work harder at working better.

JG: What else are you reading right now?

JSF: I just finished Rich Cohen's Israel is Real, and am about to pick up Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood.

JG: What's next for you?

JSF: Fiction. Fiction from here out. Fiction, fiction, fiction. Probably.

  • Jeff Glor

    Jeff Glor was named anchor of the Sunday edition of the "CBS Evening News" in January 2012 and Special Correspondent for "CBS This Morning" in November 2011.