Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eating animals (Jonathan Safran Foer)

Ahimsa – is vegetarianism the only moral dietary choice? I just turned the last page of Jonathan Safran Foer’s excellent eye-opener of a book, and am trying to find an answer for myself. If I ever used to be a veggie, it never was on moral grounds, but more as a reaction of utter disgust at discovering (or being remembered?) how meat is raised and where it comes from. As the mad cow disease crisis spread its way through Europe 15 years ago and images of kill floors and factory farms became a staple of the 8pm TV news, meat wasn’t just a styrofoam-packed, cellophane-wrapped anonymous piece of flesh anymore, it actually did come from an animal, raised in the most inhumane conditions one could imagine, and slaugethered in even worse sanitary conditions…Not eating meat at all and not eating factory-farmed meat make two entirely different statements, and as the author points out “Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare”. If it is not the only moral choice, not eating meat (even ethically raised) seems at the very least to be the only healthy choice. No matter how well treated was a pig, or that a chicken fed only on organic grains, the complete disappearance of rural infrastructure and its concentration in giant processing plants leaves no choice to independent farmers but to have their animals processed by slaughtering and packing facilities where health and safety standards are (to say the least) appalling. There is plenty of information sources and books available out there about the working conditions in slaughterhouses (for those who want to know), starting with the excellent The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (which, even if more than three quarters of a century old now, has never been so relevant), and they would all agree with the statement made by Foer that “It’s the most perfect workplace alienation in the world right now”. Like many similar books that touch on the topic of “frankenfoods” (Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Greg Critser’s Fat land spring to mind), Foer’s go at the issue addresses only the situation of US factory farming (from the widespread use of antibiotics to the ever growing problem of externalities) and may not be representative of what the rest of the planet is doing; at least, I find some comfort in the belief that it does not (is there any single book out there on factory farming in the EU ??), but even then, the numbers speak for themselves:
- Americans choose to eat less than 0.25% of the known edible food on the planet;
- 450 billion (yes BILLION) land animals are factory-farmed every year;
- 99% of all land animal eaten or used to produce milk or eggs in the US are factory-farmed;
- animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined, and is the number one cause of climate change (read: McDrive is the sum of all evils);
- omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do;
- KFC alone buys nearly a billion factory-farmed chickens in the US each year;
- The typical factory-farmed egg laying hen has an average of 67 square inches of space available (less than the area covered by an A4 sheet of paper);
- Upward of 95% of all factory-farmed chicken are infected with e-coli, and 39 to 75% of the chickens in retail stores are still infected. Around 8% of the birds become infected with salmonella. 70 to 90% are infected with campylobacter. All these pathogens are potentially deadly in humans.
The list goes on… so is vegetarianism more that just a very idealistic and romantic idea? Is there anything more in it than just a dream of innocence? After all, the reasons for eating and not eating animals are the same: we are not them…

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Jungle (Upton Sinclair)

Zola transplanted in the stockyards and meatpacking plants of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. A gripping read, owing a lot to the effective style of the author. This book was often cited recently in the BSE context as one of the 1st exposing the dreadful conditions faced by cattle (& workers...) in slaughterhouses as a root cause for the recent epidemics of food-borne illnesses (cf Greg Critser & co.). The author uses the few end chapters as a long (too long ?) discussion of the virtues of Socialism, which was expected of him but does not really do justice to the rest of the book, which then just looks as one long introductory rant against capitalism and exploitation - that is the only downside I would find to the book, which remains otherwise a very good read.