I just finished a new book, this time non-fiction, by the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals. It’s been highly praised as an even-handed look at omnivorism. It also happens to be the “common book” for the entering classes of freshmen at both the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Duke University, in the first shared venture of this sort by the two schools. (A “common book” is one that every entering first-year students, no matter her school or proposed major, is expected to read over the summer and be ready to discuss in small groups during the first week of class.)
I like meat. It’s delicious. While I avoid MacDo and Burger King, an In-N-Out Double-Double sends me into raptures. In my memory are several recipes for chicken and beef to whip up without consulting notes or a cookbook. So the idea of not eating meat – and fish, which Foer explores in species-annihilating detail – comes as a no-brainer, a foregone conclusion. Why would I want to do it?
I respect vegetarians and vegans, who seem to have multiple reasons for their dietary preferences. But don’t humans have teeth designed for meat? Don’t we also possess the appropriate digestive enzymes to break down animal protein? The newest baby of the strictest Jain family is already designed to process meat protein, even though she never will (in fact, she will never eat potatoes, since the harvesting of tubers and roots would destroy the small animals such as worms which grown near them, and that would violate Jain tenets).
Foer respects other people’s food choices, too. In some of the book’s most moving passages, he discusses the emotional content of food, especially in light of his grandmother (the “Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived”) and her experiences surviving the Holocaust scavenging from garbage pails and cropland. As a small boy he spent weekly times with her. When he entered, and again when he left, his grandmother would pick him up for a huge hug. It wasn’t until years later that he realized that underneath the love and affection was pragmatism: she was weighing him. For a woman who nearly starved to death while being chased by murderous thugs, a grandchild’s size was no small concern.
And Foer ate meat. Lots of meat. Americans, as he points out, eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals during their average lifetime.
It’s the lifetimes of the animals that he wants us to consider. Paradoxically, cows, the largest animals generally eaten by Americans — who have no taste for horseflesh — seem to receive the best treatment in both their lives and their deaths. If they grow up on grass farms, they lead nearly idyllic lives. But pigs, chickens, turkeys? Dreadful.
Blame it on my upbringing in a preventive-medicine family (we were some of the first American kids to get certain vaccines, brought home by our father), but the fact that we’re creating our own medical disaster through agribusiness shocks me. Why are we starting to see microbes resistant to antibiotics? Because microbes evolve, and quickly. Big business crowds animals in to produce cheap meat. When you crowd animals, their resistance to disease goes down, and the disease mechanisms around them (dead animals, feces, slime and slurry) rises. Animals are thus given antibiotics in their feed as a matter of routine, in an effort to prevent inevitable disease before they reach ideal weight and are slaughtered.
So the microbes are given challenges. They can’t grow there yet, but what about a new strain? This year’s Wimbledon coverage included a fifty-year retrospective of Billie Jean King at the English tournament, and quoted her as saying, “Pressure is a privilege”. You unleash your best material — best serves, writing, products, creativity — when you’re pressured. So do microbes. They’re just trying to colonize. Unfortunately, they’re trying to colonize us.
I’m not sure who wants to return to the pre-antibiotic days of say, the 1930s, only eighty years ago, when women routinely died from post-birth infections and strep throat could kill a child in a week. I certainly don’t – I rank antibiotics one of the top inventions of the 20th century, right up there with personal computers.
If we don’t stop the practices of agribusiness, however, bacteria will grow stronger and stronger. There will come a time, and very shortly, when we are as vulnerable to them as our ancestors were. In the 1930s, every extended family, poor or rich, no matter the medical care, lost members to bacterial infections we now consider laughably treatable. Our laughter may soon stop and changing to screams of mourning and outrage. How dare these businessmen mount such a backdoor assault on our health?
That’s why I’m starting a countdown. I haven’t stopped eating meat yet, but I’m working toward it. Will it be a sacrifice? Yes, of course – see my mention of In-N-Out, above. A challenge? You bet – I’ll have to look out new recipes and ways to increase my consumption of non-animal protein. Pressure? You bet. Pressure to eat meat is American – think “a chicken in every pot”, the slogan of small-family-farm, pre-antibiotic America.
And I’ve promised my children that I won’t force my changes on them – because the emotional content of food (Thanksgiving’s turkey, Christmas’s Swedish meatballs and salmon) is so important and essential in family life.
But like fidelity in marriage, this kind of sacrifice/challenge is so worth it. It’s my one small vote for a healthier nation as well as a healthier me.
If you read only one book in 2011, make it Eating Animals. At the very least, it will educate you, so that in buying that package of chicken breasts you’ll be making an informed choice.