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Author Jonathan Safran Foer on Hunting, PETA, and Disagreeing with Michael Pollan

Foer's new book, Eating Animals, uncovers some ugly truths about America's meat production system, but he also weaves in stories from his own family history.

Since childhood, Jonathan Safran Foer has dabbled in vegetarianism -- but when he became a father he finally decided to  take a closer look at his dietary choices. The result is his first work of nonfiction, Eating Animals. Foer, author of the acclaimed novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, uncovers some ugly truths about America's meat production system, but he also weaves in stories from his own family history -- and shows how stories can shape our diets. While others have argued for reforming our system of factory farms, Foer argues for much more radical change: giving up meat (or at least eating dramatically less of it). I talked to him about switching from novels to nonfiction, raising kids veggie, and daring to disagree with the pope of the sustainable food movement, Michael Pollan.

Mother Jones:You've written only fiction before. How did the switch to nonfiction go?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Not smoothly. One of the things that I love about writing novels is that it really doesn't matter what next step you take as long as you're pursuing some intuition or instinct. Of course, then, intuitions or instincts don't make for great novels, but they often make for good first drafts. And here, that was not the name of the game. There are something like 70 pages of footnotes in the book. So I did everything I possibly could to be really rigorously objective and up-to-date and conservative with the statistics because the conversation is useless if you don't have a really firm grounding in reality. That said, there's more to reality and the ways that we make our choices than just statistics. So there's another kind of reporting that I did, that didn't take place out in the world. I also reported on my own history with these things, finding out which of them were just vestiges from my childhood, which of them I had because I thought I was supposed to have them, and what it was that I actually believed when I really probed and thought about it. 

MJ:Especially because, as you write in this book, the issues of food are so tied up with emotions and with stories that we learn from our families. It's hard to think about food as just a bunch of numbers and facts. 

JSF: I think that when you allow those other things, those irrational things, into the conversation, you're not only being more honest, I think you're actually enhancing the argument. Because of course we crave something that smells good or tastes good. But we also crave being consistent and acting on the thing that we sense is right. Of course food has an important cultural use in families, but there are things that have more important cultural uses in families, and broadening the conversation out simply from what's reasonable also allows in those other things. 

MJ: At the center of this book is the anecdote about your grandmother. Even when she was starving and on the run from the Nazis, she wouldn't eat pork. You write at the end, If nothing matters, then there's nothing to save. In our culture, though, one of the big problems that we have is wastefulness. Is it defensible to not eat meat even if you know that that meat is just going to be thrown away? 

JSF: It takes between 6 and 26 calories to make one calorie of meat. It is an incredibly inefficient protein because we are cycling through all of these other grains that humans could eat. It's a little bit different for grass-fed cattle because humans don't eat grass. But they are, of all the kinds of animals we eat, those are a very rare exception. Certainly for all of the pigs and chickens and well more than 70 percent of all cattle, they're eating food that we could eat. Eating a piece of meat, at its most efficient, we could say is like throwing away six times that amount of food every time you eat it because you're recycling all those calories through it. I know a lot of people who came to this issue not through animal welfare but through wastefulness. 

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