Like many youngsters trying to set their moral and dietary compass, Jonathan Safran Foer was a sometime vegetarian. But when the celebrated author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close learned he was going to be a father, eating meat became an urgent moral issue. What's actually in the chicken breast we buy from the supermarket? How do we happily chow down on pork made from a tortured pig and stroke our beloved pet dog? Four years spent researching his book Eating Animals , published this week, led him to witness the brutal conditions endured by animals at factory farms -the source of 99 per cent of our meat- and interview the makers of meat and crusaders against animal abuse in the United States. Eating meat, as it turns out, is as much about stories as it is about sustenance. He spoke with The Globe and Mail by phone.
Why was impending fatherhood the time to start thinking about meat?
[It was having]to think about making choices on another person's behalf, which is really different. It's not like thinking about food for yourself. It was certainly an ongoing question in my mind, but one that took on urgency when I was about to become a father.
Your grandmother's relationship with food also guided you.
She led me to think about all the things that food does besides just fill us up and the cultural, familiar, emotional pieces of it, and she reminded me that our food choices are guided by a lot more than just meat. It's not a coincidence that so many well informed, very smart and very good people continue to eat meat, often despite knowing that, at least as it's produced in America, it's counter to their values. It's very hard to extricate yourself from that web of resonance, emotional and psychological. And I don't think one should. The question is how can you find other residences for things that you might replace? It's much, much easier than one might think.
Like Thanksgiving, for example, that's coming up in America. The idea of not eating turkey at Thanksgiving may seem to many like tantamount to not celebrating Thanksgiving. But what would it really be like if we replaced it? I think it would actually feel more like Thanksgiving. If we were inspired to have a conversation about why [the turkey]is not there, then it's like 'Hey, these are our values, this is why we're choosing not to have it here - because we don't think it's right to breed animals to suffer. Or we don't think it's right to raise animals indoors. We don't think it's right to create animals that can't reproduce sexually.' It's not actually a depressing conversation. It's an inspiring conversation.
Obviously people are trying to make more ethical choices about meat, but even you acknowledge the challenge.
Even if you want to be an ethical omnivore or a selective omnivore, just given the realities of farming, it means you're going to eat vegetarian almost all the time.
You talk about how organic, free range, fresh is almost mythical [i.e. the labels have become almost meaningless] Are people who buy this stuff being fooled?
It's a good instinct, but yeah, they're being fooled. And what's particularly crappy about it is an industry is taking advantage of our better instincts. They're having us go out of our way to spend more money to buy something that will better align with the values we have.
What about factory farms horrified you the most?
Most people's interaction with these farms comes through videos of slaughter and so people think that's what's horrifying, some bloody animal running around a slaughterhouse. But even in bad slaughterhouses, that's still the exception. And in a way, it conceals something that is much worse, which is just the systematic cruelty of these places. The tens of billions of animals that never see the sun, never touch the earth, can't exercise any other species-specific behaviour, are fed unnatural diets and are bred to suffer. They are all like that. All the meat in supermarkets and restaurants. Only the rarest exception is like that. That to me is what's horrifying, much more horrifying than anything graphic.
Why don't we consider the animals when we buy pork or chicken breasts at the supermarket?
I think there's a real dissociation and a distance that is not accidental that is fostered by the industry. You should try and you should invite your readers to try to visit a farm. And I don't mean a green market farm, I mean a farm that produces 99 per cent of meat in America, and they'll have no luck.
Did visiting the factory farms leave you conflicted about meat eaters?
No, but I don't understand how anybody who knows the full picture can eat factory-farmed meat casually. Then there's the kind of person who says, 'You know, I just really, really love meat and I can't stop eating it and I'm going to buy from farmers I know myself and am comfortable with the way they raise and kill their animals.' But it's not what I've chosen for myself.
What are your choices?
I don't eat eggs or dairy, but my kids do. I don't think it's fair to ask a three-year-old not to have birthday cake at parties.
So, what do we do? Are you asking us to become vegetarians?
I'm not asking anyone to make conclusions. But if they just thought about what was at the end of their fork, if people just ate according to the values they already had and try to find compassion, if they just ate by the values they already have, then factory farming would disappear.
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