I Need to Talk About Eating Animals for a Minute or Two

I am reading a book right now called Eating Animals, which is sort of like an investigative memoir about the examination of vegetarianism, factory farming, and the food we eat by Jonathan Safron Foer. I was convinced by Natalie Portman to see the documentary about the book that she produced by the same name—however, much to my dismay, the documentary, Eating Animals, wasn’t playing in SF so I bought the book instead.

Going in, I knew surface level amounts of information about factory farming and the meat industry but have personally shied away from the more gruesome aspects of it, because I enjoy meat. And while the book isn’t gentle with its information about the meat and dairy industry, nor is it new information, it’s the tone and honesty of Foer’s voice and thought process throughout each page that lends itself to be palatable. Instead of the platitudinous rhetoric of a staunch vegetarian yelling at you to stop eating meat, it reads almost as if you yourself are taking steps toward furthering your education on what you ingest.

I decided to become a vegan before I purchased the book because I care about the environment and found out that the meat industry is the largest contributor to numerous environmental issues.  After reading, and now finally seeing the documentary, it became clear to me that this issue is larger than the environment, it is also deeply personal, ethical, and even pertinent to my religion.

Determined to simplify things that are not so simple, I have drafted responses from an unassuming Jonathan Safron Foer, who I’m sure, spent years researching, investigating, and uncovering the truth of the animal food industry and vegetarianism/veganism and has written a book, and now, produced a movie, to give a more poignant explanation than the one I will give you here—BUT, because facts for some of us are so confusing and different scientists exhort different protocols, I wanted to know what was arguably and consecutively true.

The Terms

Vegetarian: Excludes meat, seafood, poultry, sometimes excludes either eggs or dairy.

Vegan: Excludes all animal products, especially meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Does not require consumption of whole foods or restrict fat or refined sugar. Although I would make the case that this isn’t exactly what a vegan is, as most vegans I know do limit the consumption of refined sugar, and eat whole foods regularly.

Whole Foods, PlantBased: Encourages plant foods in their whole form, especially vegetables, fruits, legumes, and seeds and nuts (in smaller amounts). For maximal health benefits, this diet limits animal products.

Factory Farming: a system of rearing livestock using intensive methods, by which poultry, pigs, or cattle are confined indoors under strictly controlled conditions.

The Self-Interested Effects

One of the largest misconstrued information that is out there is that vegetarians and vegans live longer than meat eaters. This is untrue. Correlation does not inherently imply causation—meaning just because you become an herbivore, doesn’t mean you live longer. Factors like exercise, smoking, drinking, marriage, genetics, and a number of other components contribute to living a longer healthier life. There is no direct correlation between a vegetarian/vegan diet and longer life. However, more often than not, vegetarians and vegans tend to shy away from drinking and smoking which deeply reduce life expectancy.

The other aspect of self-interest lends itself to the health benefits of a meatless lifestyle. This sort of idolization of veganism or vegetarianism is becoming increasingly trendy, but when it comes to scientific evidence, nutritional science isn’t as definitive as we’d like it to be. A large part of the research we have on nutritional science can show us the links between certain foods and diseases, but not necessarily that not eating one food causes a particular disease to aires. For instance, claims that eating an ‘egg a day is as harmful as smoking cigarettes,’ aren’t entirely true. There is evidence to support similar diseases between eggs and smoking but not enough to equate them as the same. You can still be unhealthy and be a vegan, which is why so many vegans are supporting a ‘plant-based diet’ terminology, rather than ‘vegan.’

The truth is, the American diet is rife with obesity, diabetes, and other serious health issues regarding the food we eat. By limiting your diet to plant-based foods that are widespread and diverse, whole grains, fruits, legumes, nuts, and moderate alcohol consumption, you will significantly improve your health.

Foer doesn’t necessarily make claims that living a vegetarian lifestyle is sufficient health-wise, as this isn’t his main prose lends itself to seeing animal cruelty, factory farming, and the agriculture industry as tremendously harmful to the environment and ourselves in the long run.

The Morality Issue

As far as morality goes, this is purely relative. Some people find no issue with animal consumption and some do. This argument, Foer makes throughout his book, is that humankind has made too much of a distinction between animals and humans and which ones are okay to eat and not. He alludes to this presumption as unscientifically basing our ethics on the relationship with an animal rather than the biological aspects that show signs of high intelligence, like fish. He also makes the case that in the U.S. we don’t eat dogs or horses while in other countries, it is perfectly acceptable to eat either of the two, but it isn’t okay to eat a cow or a pig. This question, like almost every other one regarding morality, has its own hypocrisies but is definitely worth considering.

There is also an argument regarding the pain of the animals that are treated poorly in factory farming conditions—and while there is no definitive answer regarding if animals can feel pain, or feel pain in the same way humans do, there are numerous studies that show animals in pain undergoing behavioral disturbance. These cases are even larger in animals that we eat like cows, chickens, pigs, horses, and sheep.

The Truth

Regardless of how you feel about the morality or self-interested effects of living a meatless lifestyle, farming in America sucks. This, in essence, is similar to the morality question, but given the treatment of animals on American farms and what they are fed in order to produce most efficiently and bountifully, it is the most important—which is the main case Foer makes. Sure, there are health benefits to consumption of dairy and meat, but at what cost?

Nearly one-third of the land surface on the planet is dedicated to livestock. 

Aminal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change. 

In 2011, more than 80% of antibiotics produced in America, were fed to livestock, and while some were used to keep animals healthy in the harsh conditions they live in, most antibiotics were specifically administered to artificially increase rapid growth. The administration of these antibiotics contributes to a rise of diseases and superbugs, that could be harmful to humanity, like H1N1 and Bird Flu. 

At the end of the day, there is a shit-ton of information out there that support the case to at least cut-down on meat consumption, and there is information that supports eating meat. An ideal world would be one where harm isn’t inflicted on each other, animals included, and sustainability is in everything we do—and although we are a long way from that, we can start by actively choosing to consume products that are good for us, rather than do nothing.

There are arguments out there that say targeting processed foods and the meat industry directly are more important than trying a ‘radical’ diet, like veganism or whole food plant-based diet, but at the end of the day, we live in a capitalist society that meets supply and demand. If we demand better foods by choosing to abstain from others, maybe the industry will change. It sounds idealistic, but we have the power to influence culture and demand change every day with every dollar we spend.