Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: You gonna eat that?
Jonathan Safran Foer asks, what did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals? A take on that truth can be found in his occasionally inspiring, occasionally gruesome book "Eating Animals." It's the first major work of nonfiction by this award-winning novelist; he spent three years exploring the realities of animal husbandry in America. In her review, Susan Salter Reynolds writes that Foer has "a kind of fearless modernity: one part 'whatever,' one part descendant of Holocaust survivor (we've only got this one life, if that, to get things right) and one part soaringly beautiful, annoyingly entitled liberalism.... Think your way through it, Foer warns. Define the terms. Choose your priorities. You have that luxury."
Foer will be in Los Angeles this weekend, appearing at the Santa Monica Library on Saturday at 7 p.m., at a sold-out appearance at the Skirball Center Sunday afternoon and Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. He spoke to Jacket Copy by phone.Jacket Copy: In "Eating Animals," you really bring to life how horrifying factory farms are. I wonder, as a writer, what it was like to write that horror story.
Jonathan Safran Foer: I don't really think of it as a horror story, for a couple of reasons. One, it might very well have a happy ending. Two, there's plenty of moments of not only levity in it, but also joy, whether it comes in the form of my own memories of happy meals – not Happy Meals, from McDonald's, but meals that are happy – or days that I spent on really good farms. Obviously the book is about an industry that is almost entirely horrific, but the story is bigger than just that industry.
JC: You open with a story of generations – what food meant to your grandmother, your family growing up, and now you with a new son. Is choosing to be a vegetarian a break from tradition, or can tradition accommodate change?
JSF: There are different kinds of traditions. My grandmother was not a vegetarian, and my parents are not vegetarians. On another hand, there's the tradition of wanting your actions to reflect your values. Or wanting to make good choices even when they're difficult or against certain instincts or cravings. Traditions happen on all sorts of levels, and sometimes we have to lose one tradition in order to maintain another.
JC: When you started the book, did you realize how important turkeys and Frank Reese's Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch would be to telling the arc of the story?
JSF: No, I didn't know very much about Frank Reese. I mean, I'd read a bit about him, mostly because he wins all these taste tests – that's how he became a famous farmer, because he makes food that apparently is the best that anybody is making now. I was really moved -- I was moved by him, his story, his farm, the way he thinks about raising animals, the way he thinks about feeding people. If there's a hero of the book, in a certain way, he's it.
JC: You're going on Martha Stewart right before Thanksgiving – are you going to talk turkey?
JSF: Presumably – I don't know. I don't boss her around, she bosses me around.
JC: Have you been on Martha Stewart before?
JSF: I was once, with my first book. I've gotten to know her a little bit just because she's very concerned about these issues. She's not a vegetarian herself, but she's a very very strong advocate of family farming, small farming.
JC: In the story you tell, factory farms are growing more and
more powerful, to the detriment of more humane small farms. What lesson
do you think we should take from that?
JSF: There are a lot of forces that are encouraging the growth of factory farms; they're enormously profitable precisely because they externalize all the real costs. We pay for it through subsidies, we pay for it through environmental degradation, that we are the ones who have to clean up. It's in their business model to destroy the environment. All these forces encouraging the growth of factory farms. It's very hard for small farmers, because it just costs more to raise animals the right way. Consumers are going to have get used to eating less meat – to paying more for better quality meat and eating significantly less of it. And that's not something that's easy to tell everybody.
JC: How much do you see the book as an exploration, and how much as a call to action?
JSF: I think that the call to action is to explore. I'm not asking people to make the same decisions I've made, or to reach the same conclusions. But to think, to investigate, to question what's at the end of the fork before putting it in your mouth. I have a feeling that most people – the values, of just about everybody – it's not like a Democrat or Republican thing, or liberal or conservative, city or rural, East Coast, West Coast or Middle America – mainstream American values would lead people away from factory farming.
JC: You see some alternatives to factory farms on the family farm scale. Do you think that there's also a role for small-scale urban animal husbandry, like people raising chickens?
JSF: It's a hell of a lot easier to grow vegetables in your backyard than to raise animals. Certainly if you're raising them for meat. It's one thing to raise chickens for eggs, but you can't slaughter your own animals, legally. Is it a solution to anything? Not really. It might be kind of nice in a hobby way. It might be even nice in re-establishing a connection to where our food comes from. But it's certainly not how we're going to feed the world, and it's not a viable alternative to the system that we have now.
I think having many many more farmers spread out all over the place is a great idea. Growing food that makes sense for where they live, and the seasons. American agriculture used to look a lot more like that. Flock sizes were a lot smaller, and on pasture, obviously.
People who do stuff on their own, it's more like a personal interest thing, rather than a real alternative.
JC: Something you said there, about feeding the world, is one of the reasons one of the factory farmers in your book uses to explain his business. But is feeding the world a secondary concern for you, behind the personal ethical decisions that we make when we decide what to eat?
JSF: Feeding the world is central. Factory farms don't feed the world, they feed the world very cheaply, in the sense of what you pay at the register, and produce very very expensive food in the sense of pulling the camera lens back and seeing all of the costs that are externalized – the environmental costs, the costs in human health and so on. In fact, it's the most expensive food ever made.
We have to shift our subsidy structure – we're over-subsidizing corn and soy, which is almost entirely fed to livestock. And we would be much better subsidizing more diverse plant agriculture, different kinds of vegetables. Something like 98% of the soy raised in the world now goes to livestock; that's what they're clear-cutting Brazil to plant.
As people ask for different kinds of food, farmers will grow different kinds of food. And the whole price structure will change. But the dollar a pound you pay for ground beef at Walmart is not the real price of the food.
JC: You bring in other voices, including factory farmers, who tell their stories in their own words, in three to five page testimonials. Why let these other people speak for themselves – was someone just so compelling…?
JSF: I found all of them really compelling. I wanted to put in points of view that weren't my own, and I couldn't encapsulate in my own voice. It's a topic that, some things about it are quite clear and simple. But a lot is very complicated and nuanced, and you just have to keep returning to it from a different perspective. What's another way to look at it, what's another way to look at it? A book that's only whatever mine is, 300 pages, can't be comprehensive, but I wanted to give a flavor of the different ways of looking at it.
JC: In your research, did you ever find yourself in a place you didn't want to be, or observing something you didn't want to look at?
JSF: All the time. I would say that was the better part of my research. I didn't especially want to go inside factory farms, certainly not in the middle of the night. And I didn't like being in slaughterhouses. But – that's OK. It was more important to me to see with my own eyes, rather than trust somebody else's version, or watch a video. Who knows how representative videos are.
JC: Did you take notes when you were in the slaughterhouses? When you were in the moment, how did you document what you would be writing about later?
JSF: Often I would go back to the car and write everything down. I had a camera, but usually what would happen was I would get back in the car, and then spend however long was necessary to write everything down.
JC: As a writer, you set yourself a difficult task – in order for me as a reader to understand how horrible those scenes are, you have to evoke them.
JSF: Well, they're naturally horrible. Sometimes just a simple description is enough. I think often, in the book, I am detailing some of the most horrible things in the most plain unadorned way.
JC: Was there anything in your research that took you by surprise?
JSF: Many many many things took me by surprise. I'm asked that question a lot, and often it comes in the form of what was most horrific, or most shocking. In fact, what was shocking was not any instance, not something I saw in a slaughterhouse – it was the rule. All these farms really look the same. All these animals are the same genetic type, and they're raised in the same ways, and fed the same kinds of drugs. The way that the cruelty is systematized, and the way that environmental destruction is part of the business model. That was the thing that shocked me the most.
JC: I was surprised to read about how toxic and how dangerous the waste from factory farms is, even though at some level I think I knew.
JSF: Most people have a sense of the gist – they kind of know that things are bad, but they have absolutely no sense of the real breadth and depth of the details.
JC: Did you have any trepidations about going from fiction to writing this personal nonfiction book?
JSF: Great trepidation. Because precisely what I most value about fiction is a kind of freedom that is withheld in nonfiction, especially this kind of nonfiction. I went to the greatest lengths I could to make it factually accurate: I had multiple independent fact-checkers, I used the most conservative statistics I could find. I did everything I could to be rigorous in that way. Whereas with fiction, I do everything I can to be free. To remove myself from any constraints, to let my imagination have as much space as it can fill.
JC: So despite your trepidations, was there a conversation, something specific that kept you going down the nonfiction road?
JSF: Well it's such an interesting subject. It's interesting, I found, on so many different levels: it's interesting politically, it's interesting intellectually, it's interesting aesthetically. The deeper I got into it, the more interesting I found it to be.
JC: When did you decide to put the Swifitian piece about dogs early on in the book? It makes your case very well.
JSF: I start this book asking philosophical questions, hypothetical questions – what is right and what is wrong – and I quickly moved into asking practical questions. Like, a lot of things might be right or wrong in the abstract, but it doesn't matter, because the particulars lead us to a different place.
I know lots and lots and lots of vegetarians who think it's perfectly all right to kill animals for food to eat, but don't do it because they think all the ways in which it's done are wrong. I think that asking practical questions are more important, and also more interesting.
JC: Could you talk about what happened with Niman Ranch after the book was finished?
JSF: I spent a really really nice time with Bill Niman and his wife Nicolette Holland, who are two of the other heroes of the book. They used to be in charge of the largest truly alternative meat source in the country: Niman Ranch, which has between 700 and 800 family farmers supplying it. Just before the book went to press, Bill was asked to leave his namesake company, he left willingly, because according to him, they were changing their welfare standard in order to scale up in ways that he wasn't comfortable with. If the book has a punch line, it's that Bill Niman doesn't eat Niman Ranch beef anymore.
JC: I can only imagine that someone with his history would go back into business for himself.
JSF: He will. He already has. He's trying all kinds of new things. He's raising heritage poultry – I believe he gets the birds from Frank Reese. And I think he's raising goats as well.
JC: Do you hope that people who read your book come to the same conclusions you did?
JSF: I don't think it's realistic to hope so, but sure, why not? What I really hope is that people find the questions important. That they realize that something really huge is at stake when they make daily decisions about what to eat and what not to eat.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Jonathan Safran Foer at home in 2002. Credit: Robert Spencer / Special for the Los Angeles Times