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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Is Eating Animals the right thing to do?

Published: September 17, 2010
Section: Opinions


I have always considered myself to be a “green” human being. I have sorted through trashcans to retrieve recyclables and cut plastic water bottles out of my life. I have continuously harped on my family to switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, to shop local and organic and to carpool whenever possible—all of this eventually driving my mother to drink (organic apple juice, of course).

I have been very content up on my eco-friendly cloud, floating on the fumes of knowledge and self-satisfaction. That is, until two Mondays ago when I experienced a rude awakening.

I perused a book kiosk in South Station, hoping pick up some light reading for my six-hour journey home to Philadelphia. Scanning the shelf, a bright green volume caught my eye. Upon further examination, I saw that the cover bore the name of an author who has changed my life before: Jonathan Safran Foer—the same guy who brought us such award winning books as Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. His newest book is entitled Eating Animals and is a work of nonfiction, a memoir inspired by Foer’s recent expedition into fatherhood and the decision that he has been faced with of how to raise his child gastronomically.

In this novel, Foer—who has vacillated between kashrut, vegetarianism, veganism, and meat eating throughout his adult life—tells the oft-overlooked story of the livestock and meat production industry. Frequently, those who advocate for animals focus on humane slaughter practices (making sure the death of animals is quick and painless). Foer takes the stance that the lens of the media should zoom out from the deaths of these animals and should refocus onto the horrific conditions that these same animals often suffer in life.

Foer illuminates the factory farm in all of its terrifying glory; huge windowless sheds “45 feet wide by 490 feet long, each holding in the neighborhood of 33,000 birds.” “The typical cage for egg-laying hens allows each sixty seven square inches of floor space” not quite the size of a piece of printer paper. “Such cages are stacked between three and nine tiers high.” Foer goes into disturbing detail on the filth and illness that fills and overflows from these wretched factory farms, but I’ll spare you the graphics.

If all of the sentimental animal stuff doesn’t sway you, then consider environmental implications, or possibly more importantly, the implications on human health that the meat production business poses.

Every year, factory farmers pump between 17.8 million (as reported by the industry) and 24.6 million (as calculated by the Union of Concerned Scientists) pounds of antibiotics into livestock (in contrast to the three million pounds used to treat humans).

These antibiotics are administered not to heal, but to cut the costs of treating sick animals and keep investments (read: profits) safe. This preemptive use of antibiotics doesn’t only negatively affect the livestock’s health; it also poses a serious threat to those who consume said livestock, reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics used when administered to humans. “As far back as the late 1960’s, scientists have warned against the nontheraputic use of antibiotics in farmed-animal feed… Still, the factory farm industry has effectively opposed a ban in the United States.” It’s almost enough to make you lose your appetite.

As disturbing as all of these statistics are, the thing that truly troubles me is the fact that while we openly discuss such “green” issues while consistently letting this problem fly under the radar.

As we discuss the environment over burgers from the grill in Sherman, we are contributing to one of the largest suppliers of greenhouse gasses in the world—the EPA states that “livestock produce[s] 80 million metric tons of methane annually, accounting for about 28 percent of global methane emissions from human-related activities.” As we contemplate sustainability over Asian Chicken Wraps, we are consuming animals who are so genetically modified and mutated that they are physiologically incapable of breeding without artificial insemination—that doesn’t sound very sustainable to me.

Although the scene seems dark, Foer does point out a light on the horizon. Over the past few years, there has been a resurgence of family farms. Places like those that your great-grandpa might have visited to pick out Shabbat or Thanksgiving dinner.

Places that treat animals with respect; that give them room to graze and ensure them a quick and painless slaughter. Places that treat animals not like human beings, but certainly like living beings and definitely not like dirt. Although these farms are few and far between—making up less than three percent of the meat business overall—they still provide a glimmer of hope in the eyes of the selective omnivore.

While I still haven’t fully processed whether or not “eating animals” is for me, it is unquestionably something that deserves a second thought and a place on the docket of dinner table conversation.