Magazine article The Spectator

Brutal and Brutalising

Magazine article The Spectator

Brutal and Brutalising

Article excerpt


by Jonathan Safran Foer

Hamish Hamilton, £20, pp.352,

ISBN 9780241143933

£16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

In this book, Jonathan Safran Foer, the American novelist, tries to make us think about eating meat. He ate meat, then became a vegetarian, then ate meat again, then got a dog, then started to worry about eating animals, and didn't stop worrying. This book is the result of what happens if you start to worry about eating animals, which is what most of us do, but then carry on worrying, which is what most of us don't do. It's horrifying.

He starts off by thinking about why we don't eat dogs. Well, we'd hate to do that, wouldn't we? They're dogs, for God's sake. They are 'companion animals'. We love them, in the same way that the Indians love their cows. But the Indians eat dogs, don't they? And Koreans eat dogs. And the French eat horses. And we eat pigs, which are just as intelligent as dogs.

By now, he's demonstrated something important: that a lot of what we do, when we eat meat, depends on creating a sort of mental block about what we're doing. Culturally, this stuff is deeply embedded, and therefore very hard to dislodge. In the rest of the book, Safran Foer attempts, rather skilfully, to dislodge our mental blocks about eating meat.

Here's what I remember, having just put the book down. A swirl of blood and guts. A funeral cortege of billions of animals. An undertow of cruelty and sadism. Enormous processing plants full of trapped, often deformed birds. A detail: half of chickens are bred to be good at laying eggs ('layers'), and half are bred to be plump for the oven ('broilers'). So what happens to the male chicks from the laying breed?

They are selected, thrown into vast vats, and ground up in machines a bit like wood-chippers.

One of the problems with eating meat, says Foer, is that 99 per cent of it is factory farmed. Realistically, this means that almost all the meat we eat comes from animals that have, at the very least, short and uncomfortable lives. Foer gets us to imagine being stuck in a crowded lift. I tried to. There would be no natural light. The people around you would get grumpy. Some would be violent. It would be a lot worse than being in jail. Now try to imagine being in that crowded lift for life.

Foer also tells us about fish. Catching fish, it turns out, is also pretty cruel. True, for wild fish, the cruelty only begins when they are netted or hooked. But their suffocating deaths must be pretty horrible - and this is true for all fish you eat. …

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