My own epiphany came when I was given Pele, King of Soccer for my eighth birthday. At night I would read it under my bed covers and rehearse in my mind the skills and tricks illustrated by Paul Trevillion’s drawings at the back of the book. In the morning I’d race into the garden with my orange and black plastic football and practice for hours on end.
With a child’s absolute certainty I knew that this was the book that would lead me to FA Cup glory with Chelsea, swiftly followed by a winners’ medal for England at the 1982 World Cup. The absurdity of football’s next global superstar emerging from a middle class Jewish family in Hampstead Garden Suburb, rather than the teeming flavelas of Rio de Janeiro, never occurred to me.
For quite a while, Pele, King of Soccer was the only book I would read. The idea that you could read more than one book seemed disloyal. This was my book; the only book I needed. Eventually I realised that in spite of my garden diligence I wasn’t going to be the best footballer in the world. Or even my class for that matter. To my parent’s relief I agreed to try another book.
I must have read hundreds of books since then. Some have moved me, some have amused or educated me and many have entertained me but none have changed me. Until I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.
Safran Foer’s book was inspired by three things: his holocaust surviving grandmother, getting his first dog, and the birth of his son.
Food was important to Safran Foer’s grandmother. Like many grandmothers she liked to see that her grandson was never hungry. She had more reason than most. When the War started she ran from home to avoid the Germans:
"I was always running, day and night, because the Germans were always right behind me. If you stopped, you died. There was never enough food. I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I’m not talking about being skin and bones. I had sores all over my body. It became difficult to move. I wasn’t too good to eat from a garbage can. I ate parts others wouldn’t eat…I took whatever I could find. I ate things I wouldn’t tell you about."
When a Russian farmer saw her he went into his house and came out with some meat for her. She didn’t eat it. The reason: it wasn’t kosher. "If nothing matters, there’s nothing to live for."
No wonder she kept 60 pounds of flour in her basement, dozens of Coke bottles and pyramids of Uncle Ben’s rice. As Safran Foer concludes, it was "as if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed braches of our family tree".
If Safran Foer’s grandmother gave him an understanding of the importance of food, the birth of his son raised its own questions. He wanted to understand why we eat certain foods and not others. What is meat and where does it come from. How is it produced and how are the animals treated? Why for example do we eat pigs and not dogs? He wouldn’t dream of eating his pet dog George so why do we eat pigs – animals clever enough to play fetch like dogs and even unlock their own pens.In the past 50 years the average cost of a new house has risen nearly 1,500 per cent, a new car 1,400 per cent, but the price of eggs and chicken meat has not even doubled. How is this possible? The answer is factory farming. It is responsible for 99 per cent of the meat eaten in the U.S.A and 95 per cent of poultry and 60 per cent of pigs eaten in the U.K.
Safran Foer’s book makes horrifying reading. He explains how the chickens we eat are genetic freaks, bred to grow at rapid rates so they can be killed at only 39 or 42 days. The quicker they grow the bigger the profit. They’re kept is such unnatural conditions, standing in tiny spaces covered in excrement, that they have to be pumped with antibiotics to keep them alive and free of disease. Even then thousands die every day. The labels ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ are a sham. A chicken may in theory have access to daylight and grass but theory and reality don’t coincide.
The story is the same when it comes to pigs and cows. Pregnant pigs are kept in crates so small they can’t even turn round and some go insane from the confinement. The meat we eat comes from drugged, sick animals bred to exhibit unnatural characteristics, kept in horrendous conditions, and killed when they are still juveniles.
If these animals live a miserable life then their deaths virtually defy belief. Safran Foer describes cows being butchered while still conscious due to stun guns not working, and chickens routinely being scalded alive. These and similar abuses are not isolated incidents. They are part and parcel of standard processing practices. Then there are stories of pigs being beaten with metal bars or having their snouts cut off and then rubbed in salt solely for the amusement of slaughterhouse workers. His research revealed that every processing plant has hundreds of similar stories of torture to animals.
Safran Foer, and others quoted in the book who raise and live with animals, say that we cannot turn a blind eye to this suffering. Animals, even birds and fish, feel pain, anxiety, terror. Anyone who has had a pet knows this. Like Safron Foer I only got my first dog in adulthood and it has changed the way I see animals. We have a duty to treat them properly. How many of us would eat meat if we had to look an animal in the eye before killing it ourself?
Then there is the effect on our health. Safran Foer argues that a flu pandemic, similar or worse even than the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 which killed over 50 million people, is almost inevitable. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer are striking at younger ages than ever before. For the first time in over 200 years children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
This book is not a one-eyed rant by a vegetarian about why we shouldn’t eat meat. Safran Foer interviewed factory farmers, animal rights activists and traditional farmers for this book and they are quoted at length. This is a reasoned argument by a curious investigative journalist.
Ultimately you have to draw your own conclusions and make your own decisions. Does cheap meat justify not only the suffering of billions of animals, but also the effects on our health and the huge environmental consequences - 30% of the earth’s entire land surface (70% of all agricultural land) is used for rearing farmed animals.
You only have to see my previous blog post Trial By Lunch to see that I enjoyed a good steak or burger. But films like Supersize Me and Food Inc and books like Michael Pollen’s In Defence of Food had left me with nagging doubts. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals has tipped me over the edge. When I make dinner or go to a restaurant my motto is no longer Withnail’s, "I want something’s flesh". I have become a vegetarian.
Whether I can keep it up I don’t know but it has been two weeks now and I haven’t wavered. My kids are less impressed. Yesterday I made lentil soup. I overheard my nine-year-old say to his brother, "If Dad asks you if you want some of his lentil soup, whatever you do, say no. It looks like cow-pat." It did, but at the moment I’d rather eat that than the cow it looked like it came from.