Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals

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Eating Animals Summary

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Eating Animals is a non-fiction book by American author, Jonathan Safran Foer, first published in 2009 in collaboration with the non-profit organization, Farm Forward. It takes a look at the ethical, cultural, and personal factors that impact American society’s dietary habits, and in particular, the prominence of meat in that diet. Safran Foer, an animal-rights activist, wrote the book with the intention of creating more awareness about dietary choices and the process of bringing meat from the farm to the plate. Exploring themes of awareness, animal rights, and the impact of diet on culture and the environment, Eating Animals received mixed reviews from critics, with some praising the research that went into the book and its in-depth approach, while others found Safran Foer’s personal interjections to be distracting. The book went on to become a best-seller, and is being adapted into a documentary by producer Christopher Quinn and actress Natalie Portman, in close collaboration with Safran Foer and Farm Forward.

Eating Animals begins with Safran Foer explaining his aim to expose Americans to the larger context of eating animals in America, and the consequences of this choice. He doesn’t intend to convince readers to go vegetarian, but he wants to get people to think more carefully about what goes into their meals. He states that the book was inspired by his young son asking him why people eat animals. He reflects on his childhood, where eating meat was a fact of life and no one thought twice about it. One night, a vegetarian babysitter wouldn’t share his chicken and that was the first time he thought seriously about the context of eating meat. After that, he began alternating between vegetarianism and a standard omnivorous diet, both during college and afterward. After he got married and had a son, the family adopted a puppy that was soon considered a member of the family. This made him think about why some animals are seen as food while others are seen as companions. Although there are many theories, Foer believes it must relate to cultural differences and personal compatibility.

Foer began reading all the literature he could about animals and how they’re raised and consumed, seeking out materials ranging from government pamphlets to internet videos. He learned that until 1923, the United States economy was largely based on family farming. As such, animals were raised by farmers, treated well, and then killed as needed for food. However, in 1923, a housewife named Celia Steele received five hundred chicks instead of the fifty she ordered. Rather than killing them or selling them, she raised them on feed supplements and, by 1935, the farm had two hundred and fifty thousand chickens. Her experiment in mass farming led pioneers like Arthur Perdue and John Tyson to attempt to duplicate her success, and this was the genesis of the factory farming industry in the United States. Factory farming is dependent on the mass growing and slaughtering of animals to sell to an audience of millions. This leads to cruel, cramped conditions, which leads to diseased, ill animals.

In addition, Safran Foer points out that there are consequences for humans to factory farming. The farms are large polluters, and the employees there tend to be treated poorly. While even factory farmers agree there’s room for improvement, they argue that the old family farm system couldn’t supply the current need. Safran Foer agrees, pointing out that current family farms couldn’t even fully supply the food needs of Staten Island. Although Safran Foer states that factory farm conditions have largely committed him to vegetarianism, he points out that ethical alternatives to factory farming do exist, and could succeed if customers cared enough and were willing to pay a premium. He points out family and independently owned farms that do large-scale farming with higher ethical standards. They include Frank Reese’s turkey ranch, or Niman Ranch, where renowned cattle are raised by Bill and Nicolette Niman. Nicolette, in fact, is a vegetarian herself. Foer concludes by stating that the way people treat animals is a mirror to how they treat humanity.

Jonathan Safran Foer is considered one of the most acclaimed authors of his generation. He rocketed to fame with the release of his 2002 novel Everything is Illuminated, a fictional version of his family history which also dealt with the collective trauma of the Holocaust and World War 2. It was adapted into a 2005 film starring Elijah Wood. His experimental art book, Tree of Codes, was released in 2010. In 2016, he released his most recent novel, Here I Am, centering around a complex series of events affecting a Jewish family in Washington DC. He has been widely honored for his writing, including winning the Holtzbrinick Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and being named to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list. Most of Safran Foer’s works are deeply influenced by his Jewish heritage and his family’s experiences in the Holocaust, and this led to his appointment to the UN Holocaust Memorial Council in 2013. He is currently a teacher of Creative Writing at New York University.