Jonathan Safran Foer: There are many injustices in the world, but meat is a special topic

The American environmental online publication did an interview with the author of the book “Eating Animals” Jonathan Safran Foer. The author discusses the ideas of vegetarianism and the motives that prompted him to write this book. 

Grist: Someone might look at your book and think that again some vegetarian wants to tell me not to eat meat and read me a sermon. How would you describe your book to those who are skeptical? 

Before: It has things that people really want to know. Of course, I understand this desire to look, but not to see: I myself experience it every day in relation to many things and problems. When, for example, they show something on TV about starving children, I think: “Oh my God, I better turn my back, because I probably don’t do what I should do.” Everyone understands these reasons – why we do not want to notice certain things. 

I’ve heard feedback from a lot of people who have read the book – people who don’t care too much about animals – they were just shocked by the section of the book that talks about people’s health. I have spoken to many parents who have read this book and they have told me that they no longer want to feed their children THAT.

Unfortunately, talk about meat has historically been not talk, but controversy. You know my book. I have strong beliefs and I don’t hide them, but I don’t consider my book an argument. I think of it as a story – I tell stories from my life, the decisions I made, why having a baby led me to change my mind about certain things. It’s just a conversation. Many, many people are given a voice in my book – farmers, activists, nutritionists – and I wanted to describe how complex meat is. 

Grist: You were able to formulate strong arguments against eating meat. With so much injustice and inequality in the food industry in the world, why did you focus on meat? 

Before: For several reasons. First, many, many books are needed to describe our digestive system in the way it deserves, comprehensively. I already had to leave out so much just talking about meat in order to make a book useful and suitable for a wide range of reading. 

Yes, there are many injustices in the world. But meat is a special topic. In the food system, it is unique in that it is an animal, and animals are able to feel, while carrots or corn are not able to feel. It so happens that meat is the worst of human eating habits, both for the environment and for human health. This issue deserves special attention. 

Grist: In the book, you talk about the lack of information about the meat industry, especially when it comes to the food system. Do people really lack information about this? 

Before: Undoubtedly. I believe that every book is written because the author himself would like to read it. And as a person who has been talking about this issue for a long time, I wanted to read about things that interest me. But there were no such books. The omnivore’s dilemma sort of approaches some questions, but does not delve into them. The same can be said about Fast Food Nation. Further, there are books, of course, directly devoted to meat, but they are more rigidly philosophical than, as I said, conversations or stories. If such a book existed – oh, how happy I would be not to work on my own! I really enjoy writing novels. But I felt it was important. 

Grist: Food has a lot of emotional value. You talk about your grandmother’s dish, chicken with carrots. Do you think that personal stories and emotions are the reason why people in our society tend to avoid discussions about where meat comes from? 

Before: There are many, many reasons for this. Firstly, it is simply unpleasant to think and talk about it. Secondly, yes, these emotional, psychological, personal histories and connections can be the cause. Thirdly, it tastes good and smells good, and most people want to keep doing what they enjoy. But there are forces that can suppress the conversation about meat. In America, it is impossible to visit farms where 99% of the meat is produced. Label information, very manipulative information, keeps us from talking about these things. Because it makes us think that everything is more normal than it really is. 

However, I think that this is a conversation that people are not only ready, but also want to have. No one wants to eat what harms him. We don’t want to eat products that have environmental destruction built into the business model. We don’t want to eat foods that require animal suffering, that require insane animal body modifications. These are not liberal or conservative values. Nobody wants this. 

When I first thought about becoming a vegetarian, I was terrified: “This will change my whole life, not eating meat! I have so many things to change!” How can someone contemplating going vegan overcome this barrier? I would say don’t think of it as going vegan. Think of it as the process of eating less meat. Maybe this process will end with a complete rejection of meat. If Americans were to give up one serving of meat a week, it would be as if there were suddenly 5 million fewer cars on the roads. These are really impressive numbers that I think could motivate a lot of people who feel like they can’t go vegan to eat one less piece of meat. So I think we should move away from this dichotomous, absolutist language towards something that reflects the true state of the people in this country. 

Grist: You are very honest in describing your difficulties in sticking to a vegetarian diet. Was it the purpose of talking about it in the book to help yourself stop rushing back and forth? 

Foer: It’s just true. And the truth is the best helper, because many people are disgusted by the notion of some goal that they think they will never achieve. In conversations about vegetarianism, one should not go too far. Of course, many things are wrong. Just wrong and wrong and wrong. And there is no double interpretation here. But the goal that most people who care about these issues is to reduce animal suffering and create a food system that would take into account the interests of the environment. If these are indeed our goals, then we must develop an approach that reflects this as best as possible. 

Grist: When it comes to the moral dilemma of whether to eat meat or not, it’s a matter of personal choice. What about state laws? If the government regulated the meat industry more strictly, maybe change would come faster? Is personal choice enough or should it be a politically active movement?

Before: Indeed, they are all part of the same picture. The government will always be dragged behind because they have a duty to support American industry. And 99% of American industry is farming. Several very successful referendums have recently taken place in different parts of the country. After that, some states, such as Michigan, implemented their own changes. So political activity is also quite effective, and in the future we will see its increase. 

Grist: One of the reasons you wrote this book was to be an informed parent. The food industry in general, not just the meat industry, spends a lot of money on advertising aimed at children. How do you protect your son from the influence of food advertising, especially meat?

Before: Well, while this is not a problem, it is too small. But then we will talk about it – let’s not pretend that the problem does not exist. We will talk about these topics. Yes, in the course of the conversation, he can come to the opposite conclusions. He may want to try different things. Of course, he wants to – after all, he is a living person. But frankly, we need to get rid of this crap in schools. Of course, posters of organizations driven by profit, not by the goal of making our children healthy, should be removed from schools. In addition, reform of the school lunch program is simply needed. They should not be the repository of all meat products produced on farms. In high school, we should not spend five times more on meat than on vegetables and fruits. 

Grist: Your story about how farming works can give anyone nightmares. What approach will you take when telling your son the truth about meat? Before: Well, it only gives you nightmares if you participate in it. By giving up meat, you can sleep peacefully. Grist: Among other things, you talk about the connection between intensive farming and major pandemics of avian influenza. The front pages of the most popular publications talk about swine flu all the time. Why do you think they avoid talking about the animal industry and swine flu? 

Before: I dont know. Let them tell themselves. One might assume that there is pressure on the media from the wealthy meat industry – but how it really is, I do not know. But it seems very strange to me. Grist: You write in your book “who regularly eats meat products from farms cannot call themselves conservationists without depriving these words of their meaning.” Do you think that environmentalists have not done enough to show the connection between the meat industry and climate change on the planet? What else do you think they should do? Before: Obviously, they did not do enough, although they are well aware of the presence of a black cat in a dark room. They don’t talk about it simply because they’re afraid they risk losing people’s support by bringing it up. And I perfectly understand their fears and do not consider them stupid. 

I’m not going to attack them for not paying enough attention to this issue, because I think environmentalists are doing a great job and serving the world well. Therefore, if they went too deep into one problem – the meat industry – perhaps some important issue would be taken less seriously. But we must take the meat problem seriously. This is the first and main cause of global warming – it is not a little, but much ahead of the rest. Recent studies have shown that livestock is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gases. This is 1% more than all other reasons combined. If we’re going to seriously think about these things, we’re going to have to take the risk of having conversations that are uncomfortable for many. 

Unfortunately, this book has not yet been translated into Russian, so we offer it to you in English.

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