He begins the work by stating:
To be perfectly honest (and to risk losing my credibility on page 13), I assumed, before beginning my research, that I knew what I would find- not the details, but the general picture. Others made the same assumption. Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about 'eating animals,' they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It's a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case. (What assumptions did you make upon seeing the title of this book?)
I, too, assumed that my book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn't. A straightforward defense for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it's not what I've written here.
-page 13This sounds promising. Well, until you get to page 195, where Jonathan launches his full-scale attack against any form of meat eating. He starts off by stating "It seems to me that it's plainly wrong to eat factory-farmed pork or to feed it to one's family," continues with "for similar reasons, I wouldn't eat poultry or sea animals produced by factory methods," and then raises the question with the following given: since eating animals is "in absolutely no way absolutely necessary for my family- unlike some in the world, we have easy access to a wide variety of other foods- should we eat animals?" He decides that he can't, and goes on to explain why he won't even eat animals on farms like Paul Willis' pig farm or Frank Reese's poultry ranch. Here's Jonathan's reasoning:
Even though he does everything he can, Paul's pigs are still castrated, and still transported long distances to slaughter. And before Willis met Diane Halverson, the animal welfare expert who assisted his work with Niman Ranch from the beginning, he docked (cut off) pigs' tails, which shows that even the kindest farmers sometimes fail to think of their animals' well-being as much as they can.
And then there's the slaughterhouse. Frank is quite candid about the problems he has getting his turkeys slaughtered in a manner that he finds acceptable, and an optimal slaughterhouse for his birds remains a work in progress for him. As far as pig slaughter goes, Paradise Locker Meats really is a kind of paradise. Because of the structuring of the meat industry, and USDA regulations, both Paul and Frank are forced to send their animals to slaughterhouses that they have only partial control over.
Every farm, like every everything, has flaws, is subject to accidents, sometimes doesn't work as it should. Life overflows with imperfections, but some matter more than others. How imperfect must animal farming and slaughter be before they are too imperfect? Different people will draw the line in different places with regard to farms like Paul's and Frank's. People I respect draw it differently. But for me, for now- for my family now- my concerns about the reality of what meat is and has become are enough to make me give it up altogether.
~pages 196-197Granted, he isn't directly telling you what to do, only what he has decided to do. On the other hand, it's pretty disingenuous. After all, he's the author, and you've been following his footsteps the entire time, so if this is the conclusion he comes to, it's pretty clearly the conclusion he wants you to come to as well.
My main contention with the book, however, other than its incredibly emotional portrayal- see his statement about 'Kosher' slaughter that ends with the direful sentence 'We have no reason to believe that the kind of cruelty that was documented at Agriprocessors has been eliminated from the kosher industry. It can't be, so long as factory farming dominates' (page 69)- is that he consistently conflates humans with animals in a way that is completely different from Pollan's relatively reasoned, measured approach (granted, he is at times given to florid phrases as well). Where Pollan writes
Watching a steer force-marched up the ramp to the kill-floor door, as I have done, I have to forcibly remind myself that this is not Sean Penn in Dead Men Walking, that the scene is playing very differently in a bovine brain, from which the concept of nonexistence is thankfully absent.Foer deliberately invites the comparison and has us imagine ourselves in the chicken's situation- to great, if misrepresented, effect. When talking about the battery cage, he writes:
Step your mind into a crowded elevator, an elevator so crowded you cannot turn around without bumping into (and aggravating) your neighbor. The elevator is so crowded you are often held aloft. This is a kind of blessing, as the slanted floor is made of wire, which cuts into your feet.
After some time, those in the elevator will lose their ability to work in the interest of the group. Some will become violent; others will go mad. A few, deprived of food and hope, will become cannibalistic.
There is no respite, no relief. No elevator repairmen is coming. The doors will open once, at the end of your life, for your journey to the only place worse (see: processing).
~page 47This comparison is useful in that it shows us the conditions under which these chickens live, but it is not useful in that it assumes that our human desires for freedom, not to have our bare feet against wire etc are the same as the chicken's desires. And while that may be true, it is not necessarily true, and thus is really not the best way of proving a point. You must explore the animal's needs based on what you know of them, not based on what you know of humans.
The only saving grace of Jonathan's book consists of the letters he published within it showcasing different viewpoints across various people- a factory farmer, an animal rights activist, a vegan who builds slaughterhouses etc. I found the defense of factory farming very interesting- and did not feel like Jonathan adequately answered the questions raised in this letter. I'm publishing the letter below. It can be found on pages 94-97 of the book.
I Am a Factory Farmer
"When people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm a retired farmer. I started milking cows when I was six. We lived in Wisconsin. My daddy had a small herd - fifty, give or take - which back then was pretty typical. I worked everyday until I left home, worked hard. I thought I'd had enough of it at that point, thought there must be a better way.
After high school I got a degree in animal science and went to work for a poultry company. I helped service, manage, and design turkey breeder farms. Bounced around some integrated companies after that. I managed large farms, a million birds. Did disease management, flock management. Problem solving, you could say. Farming is a lot of problem solving. Now I specialize in chicken nutrition and health. I'm in agribusiness. Factory farming, some people might say, but I don't care for the term.
It's a different world from the one I grew up in. The price of food hasn't increased in the past thirty years. In relation to all other expenses, the price of protein stayed put. In order to survive - I don't mean get rich, I men put food on your table, send your kids to school, get a new car as needed - the farmer had to produce more and more. Simple math. Like I said my daddy had fifty cows. The model now for a viable dairy farm is twelve hundred cows. That's the smallest that can stay in business. Well, a family can't milk twelve hundred cows, so you gotta get four or five employees, and each of them will have a specialized job: milking, managing illness, tending the crops. It's efficient, yeah, and you can squeeze out a living, but a lot of people became farmers because of the diversity of farm life. And that's been lost.
Another part of what's happened in response to the economic squeeze is that you gotta make an animal that produces more of the product at a lower cost. So you breed for faster growth and improved feed conversion. As long as food continues to get cheaper and cheaper relative to everything else, the farmer has no choice but to produce food at a lower production cost, and genetically he's going to move toward an animal that accomplishes that task, which can be counter productive to its welfare. The loss is built into the system. It's assumed if you have fifty thousand broilers in a shed, thousands are going to die in the first weeks. My daddy couldn't afford to lose an animal. Now you begin by assuming you'll lose 4 percent right off the bat.
I've told you the drawbacks because I'm trying to be up-front with you. But in fact, we've got a tremendous system. Is it perfect? No. No system is perfect. And if you find someone who tells you he has a perfect way to feed billions and billions of people, well, you should take a careful look. You hear about free range-eggs and grass-fed cattle, and all that's good. I think it's a good direction. But it ain't gonna feed the world. Never. You simply can't feed billions of people free-range eggs. And when you hear people talking about small farming as a model, I call that the Marie Antoinette syndrome: if they can't afford bread, let them eat cake. High-yield farming has allowed everyone to eat. Think about that. If we go away from it, it may improve the welfare of the animal, it may even be better for the environment, but I don't want to go back to China in 1918. I'm talking about starving people.
Sure, you could say people should just eat less meat, but I've got news for you: people don't want to eat less meat. You can be like PETA and pretend that the world is going to wake up tomorrow and realize that they love animals and don't want to eat them anymore, but history has shown that people are perfectly capable of loving animals and eating them. It's childish, and I would even say immoral, to fantasize about a vegetarian world when were having such a hard time making this one work.
Look, the American farmer has fed the world. He was asked to do it after World War II, and he did it. People have never had the ability to eat like they can now. Protein has been never been more affordable. My animals are protected from the elements, get all the food they need, and grow well. Animals get sick. Animals die. But what do you think happens to animals in nature? You think they die of natural causes? You think they're stunned before they're killed? Animals in nature starve to death or are ripped apart by other animals. That's how they die.
People have no idea where food comes from anymore. It's not synthetic, it's not created in a lab, it actually has to be grown. What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it's consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They've wanted cheap food. We've grown it. If they want cage-free eggs, they have to pay a lot more money for them. Period. It's cheaper to produce an egg in a massive laying barn with caged hens. It's more efficient and that means it's more sustainable. Yes, I'm saying that factory farming can be more sustainable, though I know that word is often used against the industry. From China to India to Brazil, the demand for animal products is growing - and fast. Do you think family farms are going to sustain a world of ten billion?
A friend of mine had an experiece a few years ago where two young guys came and asked if they could take some footage for a documentary about farm life. Seemed like nice guys, so he said sure. But they edited it to make it look like the birds were being abused. They said the turkeys were being raped. I know that farm. I've visited it many times, and I can tell you those turkeys were being cared for as well as they needed to survive and be productive. Things can be taken out of context. And novices don't always know what they're looking at. This business isn't always pretty, but it's a bad mistake to confuse something unpleasant with something wrong. Every kid with a video camera thinks he's a veterinary scientist, thinks he was born knowing what takes years and years to learn. I know there's a necessity to sensationalize stuff in order to motivate people, but I prefer the truth.
In the eighties, the industry tried to communicate with animal groups, and we got burned real bad. So the turkey community decided there would be no more of it. We put up a wall, and that was the end. We don't talk, don't let people onto the farms. Standard operating procedure. PETA doesn't want to talk about farming. They want to end farming. They have absolutely no idea how the world actually works. For all I know, I'm talking to the enemy right now.
But I believe in what I'm telling you. And it's an important story to tell, a story that's getting drowned out by the hollering of extremists. I asked you not to use my name, but I have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. You just have to understand there's a bigger picture here. And I've got bosses. I've gotta put food on the table, too.
Can I make a suggestion to you? Before you rush off trying to see everything you can, educate yourself. Don't trust your eyes. Trust your head. Learn about animals, learn about farming and the economics of food, learn the history. Start at the beginning."
I found the factory farmer's letter compelling and am curious to know whether there are any books out that address the points he makes in greater depth. Does anyone know of any sources?