This is my summary of the book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Contrary to what the title may suggest, it’s not a “vegetarian book” defending some variant of the argument “animals are cute, don’t kill them”: it’s a book about factory farming (it’s true that one of the conclusions is that you essentially have to go vegetarian to avoid factory farming meat, but this book is for anyone interested in how food is produced). Sadly I had to skip many interesting stories and data in order to give the summary some continuity.

Edit: corrected statement “total collapse of all fished species in 50-100 years” to read “we have depleted large predatory fish communities worldwide by at least 90% over the past 50–100 years” (the article it linked had the second statement, not the first; although it does say “We conclude that today’s management decisions will determine whether we will enjoy biologically diverse, economically profitable fish communities 20 or 50 years from now, or whether we will have to look back on a history of collapse and extinction that was not reversed in time”). I think the original statement is true, but I couldn’t find a reference for it.

Factory farming

Factory farming (and industrial fishing) is a mindset: reducing production costs to the absolute minimum, ignoring or “externalising” costs such as environmental degradation, human disease or animal suffering. Nature becomes an obstacle to overcome.

Factory farming possibly accounts for more than 99% of all animals used for meat, milk or eggs. As for industrial fishing, we have depleted large predatory fish communities worldwide by at least 90% over the past 50–100 years (see also Sylvia Earle’s TED talk, not mentioned in the book but related). It doesn’t help that the so-called “bycatch” is actually much more than the actual fish: typically 80% to 90% (and up to around 98%), which is tossed back (dead) into the ocean.

Diseases/shit

There is scientific consensus that new viruses, which move between animals and humans, will be a major global threat into the foreseeable future. According to the WHO the “World is ill-prepared for ‘inevitable’ flu pandemic“. The factory farm conditions encourage diseases in animals (some of them virtually unknown outside of factory farming), that end up in the actual food in the supermarkets. It’s even worse considering the animals are constantly fed with antibiotics (livestock gets almost 6 times more antibiotics than humans… if you trust the industry’s own numbers!), making the resulting diseases much harder to fight off for humans. The whole chapter 5 is filled with descriptions of filthy, dangerous and disgusting practices that are absolutely common and normal in (US, at least) factory farming.

Factory farming animal shit is a big problem both because of the quantity and for being so poorly managed: it kills wildlife and pollutes air, water, and land in ways devastating to human health. Its polluting strength is 160 times greater than municipal sewage, and yet there’s almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals. Ignoring these problems are part of why factory farming is so “efficient”. The problem, of course, is not the shit in itself but the desire to eat so much meat and pay very little for it.

Environment

Simply put, someone who eats factory farmed animals regularly can’t call herself an environmentalist.

It takes 6 to 26 calories fed to an animal to produce 1 calorie of animal flesh (the vast majority of the food produced in the US is fed to animals). The UN special envoy of food called using 100 million tons of grain and corn a “crime against humanity”, but what about animal agriculture, which uses more than 700 million tons of grain and corn per year, much more than enough to feed the 1.4 billion humans in poverty?

The FAO/UN summarised in “livestock’s long shadow — environmental issues and options” (which has been criticised BTW!):

The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale […]

Factory farmer perspective

Some interesting comments from a factory farmer (note that I don’t find them convincing, but there are some good points that need to be explained or considered when proposing alternatives to factory farming):

In fact, we have a tremendous system. Is it perfect? No. […] 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. […] 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 […] starving people.  […] Sure, you could say that people should just eat less meat, but I’ve got news for you: people don’t want to eat less meat. […] 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. […] It’s efficient and that means it’s more sustainable.

Closing thoughts

We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options. There isn’t enough nonfactory pork in the US to serve New York City. Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare.

Ending factory farming will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.

A good number of people seem to be tempted to continue supporting factory farms while also buying meat outside that system when it is available. […] Any plan that involves funnelling money to the factory farm won’t end factory farming […] If anyone find in this book encouragement to buy some meat from alternative sources while buying factory farm meat as well, they have found something that isn’t here.

Other quotes

I can’t count the number of times that upon telling someone I am vegetarian, he or she responded by pointing out an inconsistency in my lifestyle or trying to find a flaw in an argument I never made (I have often felt that my vegetarianism matters more to such people than it does to me).

Virtually all of us agree that it matters how we treat animals and the environment, and yet few of us give much thought to our most important relationship to [them]. Odder still, those who do choose to act in accordance to these uncontroversial values by refusing to eat animals […] are often considered marginal or even radical.

It might sound naive to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a veggie burger is a profoundly important decision. Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.

We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference […] We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?

It shouldn’t be the consumer’s responsibility to figure out what’s cruel and what’s kind, what’s environmentally destructive and what’s sustainable. Cruel and destructive food products should be illegal. We don’t need the option of buying children’s toys made with lead paint, or aerosols with chlorofluorocarbons, or medicines with unlabelled side effects. And we don’t need the option of buying factory-farmed animals.