Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I started reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals a few days after deciding to become vegetarian in February. I didn’t go for vegetarianism lightly; in my usual nerdy, obsessive style, I read a wealth of books, online articles, magazines and watched hours of videos and documentaries while reserving the right to go back to an omnivorous or pescatarian diet later on, were I to find my research findings inconclusive.

What I found out between February and now (mid-April) is how the propaganda of the meat, egg and dairy industries I had been fed for 32 years had got so deeply ingrained in my brain that I could not even see the irrationality of my eating habits and the utter disregard for  ethics of my past behaviour. Being French was not helping – until three months ago I truly believed that to be a good sportswoman, you have to eat eggs, steak and tuna; and that to have healthy bones, you  need to drink milk. It turned out to have all been a pack of lies, which most of my compatriots still buy into, little helped by the fact that our government’s links to the meat and dairy lobbies reach deep into consciousnesses and public canteen menus.

Calcium from kale and spinach is better absorbed by the body and doesn’t come hand in hand with lactose-intolerance discomfort. Proteins from chickpeas and beans are better quality than that of red meat, but won’t increase risks of colon cancer or obesity. My favourite triathletes were all eating a plant-based diet; I just didn’t know. It actually takes a fair initial amount of curiosity, and to let go of your natural anti-vegetarian prejudices as a meat-eater who doesn’t want to face up to their buried conscience issues, to actively research the morality of animal consumption and the truth about the merits of various diets on one’s health and well-being. After all those hours of research, I am now

What I found out between February and now (mid-April) is how the propaganda of the meat, egg and dairy industries I had been fed for 32 years had got so deeply ingrained in my brain that I could not even see the irrationality of my eating habits and the utter disregard for  ethics of my past behaviour. Being French was not helping – until three months ago I truly believed that to be a good sportswoman, you have to eat eggs, steak and tuna; and that to have healthy bones, you  need to drink milk. It turned out to have all been a pack of lies, which most of my compatriots still buy into, little helped by the fact that our government’s links to the meat and dairy lobbies reach deep into consciousnesses and public canteen menus. Calcium from kale and spinach is better absorbed by the body and doesn’t come hand in hand with lactose-intolerance discomfort; proteins from chickpeas and beans are better quality than that of read meat, but won’t increase risks of colon cancer or obesity; my favourite triathletes were all eating a plant-based diet; I just didn’t know. It actually takes a fair initial amount of curiosity, and to let go of your natural anti-vegetarian prejudices as a meat-eater who doesn’t want to face up to their buried conscience issues, to actively research the morality of animal consumption and the truth about the merits of various diets on one’s health and well-being. After all those hours of research, I am now vegan and have never been happier in my entire life.

I have found out that while I have been tucked away here in Malawi for the past two years, the world has evolved for the better, too. Although earlier this year you could still watch programmes on French TV claiming that a vegan diet is unhealthy for children or pregnant women (I guess, unlike me, some French TV hosts and pseudo-journalists cannot read or find easily-accessible, peer-reviewed information), it is still the case that interest in France and elsewhere for ethical living is on the rise. The supermarket chain Monoprix has recently announced that they will no longer be selling caged-hens’ eggs, regardless of their brand, and there are now vegetarian and vegan supermarket own-brand food lines in France, which was certainly unheard of even a year ago. Meanwhile, in the UK, the searches for ‘vegan chocolate’ this Easter have gone through the roof. All things that show our societies are moving towards more compassionate and environmentally-conscious modes of consumption, which is great news. On an individual level, it must also make life easier for vegans, who can now find convenience food in many corners and feel embraced by plenty of like-minded people wherever they live.

This companionship in the process of finding out more about ethical eating and its drawbacks (very few, mostly to do with people asking funny, defensive questions), its benefits (so many they take too long to list when answering those people), and its utter rationality, is certainly the first things that Eating Animals provide you with. Jonathan Safran Foer tells you about his own research and the journey he has been on to find out more about how we breed, exploit, and kill animals for human consumption as if writing for a curious, interested friend. He admits to having eaten meat for a long time. He admits to having thought it would be nice to be vegetarian, while still feasting on burgers and sushi. His personal story is relatable.

Safran Foer also had the inclination and opportunity to research a field so opaque (factory- and other methods of farming) that, if we are honest, we should all want to know more about it (although the ostrich’s head in the sand policy is quite comfortable, and certainly was for me for 32 years). His book is forever referenced by ethical consumers as having informed them in an invaluable way about the reality of our meat production; it has the reputation of turning people vegetarian overnight, in a Morrissey’s ‘Meat is Murder’  way. Let me be honest, though : I do not believe people just turn vegetarian overnight after reading a book or hearing a song. They have to have been ready to listen in the first place; in most cases, you don’t start reading a book unless you are interested in the topic matter to start with and open to seeing some facts in a new light. At the end of the day, we all knew and know deep down that meat consumption is wrong; the question is whether we were or are ready to start considering why we have accepted to be wrong ourselves.

What Jonathan Safran Foer did for me in my first few days as a vegetarian is to inform me on facts of life I truly had no idea about, such as what happens to pigs and cows in factory farms, or how fish get caught in the wild. I have been thinking a lot about how someone like me, who is fairly highly educated, reads on average a book per week, and wouldn’t consider themselves an utter idiot, could go for 32 years not knowing the things that I know now. But the plain answer is, I just didn’t want to know. It was convenient to feign ignorance and keep as ignorant as possible, rather than get my world rocked and maybe turned upside down (thankfully, it turns out it just falls fall back on a steadier ground). For somebody who thought of themselves as very curious intellectually and drawn to life adventures, I was finding it incredibly convenient to not go digging into these issues. I now reflect on how, whenever we would meet a vegetarian, I would not make any comment and never even ask them why they were vegetarian, unlike most around me. I must have known why – I just didn’t want to hear it. I even used to have a T-shirt in defence of sausage eating: isn’t passive-aggressive attack the best defence? I try not to feel guilty – or rather, I just don’t – as most people are still victims of those cultural barriers our Western societies have put in place to excuse the indefensible. From what I have read, the only regret vegans have is to not have found out the truth earlier and gone vegan sooner, but dwelling on that serves no purpose, other than perhaps, keep us strong and committed in our ethical ways. Oh ! The bliss of finally living every day according to one’s innermost feelings and moral principles! I won’t write about it here; it feels indecent as the feeling is so strong, and words cannot possibly do it justice.

The main nugget of wisdom Eating Animals definitely gave me in those early days concerned our treatment of fish. The day I thought about giving up meat, I still wondered whether I would start eating fish again, once back in a fish-eating country. Two things made me realise the irrationality of such a thought. First, I found out that a self-proclaimed vegetarian among my colleagues ate fish and still thought he qualified as a vegetarian – there is nothing like witnessing folly in others to start recognising it in yourself, too. Secondly, I was so ignorant I didn’t know before reading Safran Foer how much pain and suffering fish and shellfish go through on their way to a sad, needless death. I also didn’t know how many fish and sea life are tortured and destroyed even more needlessly when caught together with the target species fishing companies are trying to put on our tables. The sight of a seafood platter is quite difficult for me now, more so than that of a steak, partly because of the number of sentient beings’ corpses that are displayed on it, and also because I can’t help also picturing the ghosts of the other 9 seafood platters whose fish and shellfish were not deemed good for consumption and just got thrown back out of the boat, dead or dying.

Finally, the anecdote I loved the most in Eating Animals was that of Kafka’s declaration of inner peace at having turned to strict vegetarianism. Observing the fish in a Berlin aquarium he was visiting with his friend Max Brod, who reported this quote, he said to them: “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you anymore.” Max Brod commented: “If you have never heard Kafka saying things of this sort with his own lips, it is difficult to imagine how simply and easily, without any affectation, without the least sentimentality – which was something almost completely foreign to him – he brought them out.” I understand this feeling; the chirping of birds sounds different to me now that I am vegan, as if I have touched upon a new level of understanding and kinship with the world and whoever lives in it with me.

Dipping back into Eating Animals to write this review, I am also reminded of how well-written it is, in part autobiography, in part personal reflection, as well as journalistic sum. It intertwines elegantly Safran Foer’s voice with that of activists, ranchers or philosophers he encountered during his investigation.

This is a read that kept me awake for the three nights it took me to take it in. It is absolutely brilliant. Everyone should read Eating Animals and pass it on.

Jonathan-Safran-Foer-©Peter-Rigaud (1) eating-fish


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