Here is the full transcript of The Brooklyn Paper’s interview with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything is Illuminated”), author of the new anti-meat book, “Eating Animals” (Little, Brown).
Gersh Kuntzman: I’m not a vegetarian. Is that a problem?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Very few of my interactions with interviewers are.
GK: Is that because only meat-eating reporters call you because they want to go after you?
JSF: No, it’s because 95 percent of the country eats meat.
GK: Oh, yeah, I guess that makes sense.
Woman at a neighboring table: I’m a vegetarian.
JSF: Why, may I ask?
Woman: It started out as health reasons, but now it’s for moral reasons.
JSF: I wrote a book about it.
Woman: I love you! I heard you on NPR. I was impressed when you said you did this [became a strict vegetarian] when you had your child.
GK: Actually, I don’t buy the I became-a-parent motivation. I’m a parent, and I didn’t do anything except curse less. Is that really the motivation here?
JSF: I didn’t feel like I needed a big change. I felt like I wanted to stop changing [between vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism]. I didn’t want my son’s life to be one of changing simply because choices were made halfheartedly or willfully ignorantly by me.
GK: But you went back and forth between eating meat and not eating meat, and you’ve had a rich life. We are all always the sum total of our choices and choices made for us.
JSF: We’ve made many choices since having a child, but this is just the only one I wrote about. We talked about where we wanted to live, how we wanted to live, how our professional lives would interact with our personal lives. This [being a vegetarian] is not the thing I care most about in the world, but it might be the thing I care about most that isn’t written about. For every other thing that I care about, there’s already someone very intelligent writing about it, and better than I could imagine writing about it. But here, this is the elephant in the room, something that everyone knows is there, something that everyone knows is off, yet isn’t talked about, isn’t written about.
GK: Give me an example of a topic, besides, obviously, community news, that you think there are people doing the work better than you could.
JSF: Well, Samantha Powers about genocide, for example. Do I care about genocide more than I care about animal welfare? Yes, I do. But I don’t think my particular skills could have approached it in the way that she does.
GK: You mention that a lot in the book, “I’m not a journalist,” but this is a piece of journalism. Why do you think you’re not a journalist?
JSF: Maybe because I found the process of writing it so difficult. I felt like it was a learning process for me. When I write novels, no matter how difficult they get, I feel like I’m in my element. In here, I did not feel that.
[Pause to look at menus]
JSF: I think I’d like a lentil soup.
GK: You know that it’s vegetarian? I’m going to have the chicken sandwich. Now, you said in the book that people should actively discourage friends from eating factory-farmed meat. Why didn’t you discourage me?
JSF: I never actually do it. I should, but it’s complicated because it depends on who I’m sitting across from and what it will accomplish. My interest is in having people eat less of it, but telling people they should eat less of it is usually not a good way of having them actually decrease their consumption.
GK: You’re worried about offending me?
JSF: Not just that. But I don’t know you, and it is a tricky conversation to have. You have to find specific points of access for different people. For some, they’ll watch a video of a slaughterhouse and they say, “Never again!” Others don’t care about that, but they learn about the environmental effects and they say, “Never again.” So I don’t know what you care about, so I wouldn’t know now to appeal to it.
GK: I don’t either sometimes. I’ll have the chicken sandwich, even though I know that it’s a bad choice, given what you talk about in the book. OK, I have a full menu of questions, so let me get into it. In the book, you make two major arguments against eating animals: the suffering of animals themselves and the environmental devastation that factory farms are causing in this country.
JSF: And human health is the third prong.
GK: So let’s start with animal suffering. There’s a point in the book where Bill Niman [a well-respected “humane” rancher] says that it’s important to let pigs be pigs. But is it so important? Is animal suffering something we really should care about?
JSF: It’s not an intellectual issue. If you go to a factory farm and you see a pregnant pig in a crate so small that it can’t turn around, it’s just wrong. It’s fundamental. It’s not a progressive, liberal, East Coast value. Ninety-six percent of Americans think animal deserve legal protection. So it does matter how we treat them.
GK: I disagree. I think people still debate that. A pig in a crate is wrong? But in your book, you have an eloquent passage from a factory farmer who argues that factory farms have kept animal protein prices down. And then he says, “It’s a bad mistake to confuse something unpleasant with something wrong.” That really stuck with me.
JSF: It’s also a mistake to confuse something wrong with something that is merely unpleasant. A lot of this depends on things we can’t really prove. We’ll never know what it is like to be that pregnant pig in that crate. Is that suffering merely regrettable or tragic?
GK: But you’ve concluded it for yourself that it’s far beyond merely regrettable.
JSF: For myself, I have. Basically, different people make different assumptions, and while we will never be proven right or wrong, those assumptions say something about us and what kind of civilization we want to create. There are people who would be indifferent to cracking open a conscious monkey’s skull. Is that person wrong? Maybe we can’t say that, but we can say “That person is on the fringes of our society.”
GK: But you haven’t answered whether it is “right” or “wrong.”
JSF: The way we talk about right and wrong is by a consensus opinion. Is it wrong to hit somebody for no reason at all?
GK: Yes, that’s wrong.
JSF: Is it objectively wrong? Could someone disagree? How small would the minority of people have to be before we could say that it was not definitely wrong? I don’t want to impose my values when there is a legitimate difference of opinion. But for some things, the legitimacy gets hard to defend. The pregnant animal in the crate is one of them. [Refers to a USA Today article about “Eating Animals” that had a response from a food industry executive]. The guy said, referring to these gestation crates, an animal who has never turned around, what does it care if can turn around or not?
GK: It’s an interesting argument.
JSF: It’s a ridiculous argument.
GK: Is it?
JSF: A human who has never been able to extend his limbs, what does he care? Does it matter if he cares or does it matter if we care?
GK: Do we know if the animal cares?
JSF: They give us very many reasons to believe they care. They bite off the appendages of other animals because they go insane under such treatment.
GK: OK, let’s talk about the environment. Not to diminish the other arguments, but the enormous toll on the environment is the thing that the broadest majority of people could find most compelling because it is thing that directly affects them.
JSF: My instincts agree with you, but a lot of research shows that the thing that actually motivates people to change to vegetarianism is almost always the cruelty.
GK: But when you look at the manure leaching into rivers, that’s a strong motivation; the food we grow should not irreparably pollute the land on which we grow it. That said, factory farms are not the problem. The problem is our overconsumption of animals. In other words, if we all ate only family farmed meat, but did so in the same quantities, we’d produce same pollution. As you write in the book, “If we consumers can limit our desire for pork and poultry to the capacity of the land (a big if), there are no knockdown ecological arguments against” small, family farms. So suppose everyone agreed to buy the kind of meat produced on farms you support?
JSF: People couldn’t do that because we there isn’t enough earth on which to grow that much food. the entire economic structure would have to change. You could not create enough supply to do it right. The problem with fish is not giving them more ocean, it’s overconsumption.
GK: So there is no way to satisfy the world’s appetite for meat and poultry without factory farming methods?
JSF: Yes. But factory farming created that desire. It lowered prices. It also invented foods that we eat in cars instead of at tables. It gave us radically new habits. We eat 150 times more chicken than we ate 80 years ago. Do we need to sustain those habits or could we go back to the ways before?
GK: OK, you talk about animal suffering, but the tradeoff is meat prices at historic lows.
JSF: At the cashier.
GK: Eighty years ago, the average American had a significantly lower quality of life. The average American also ate significantly less meat. Most Americans, despite what you say about polls showing that we mostly believe that there is too much animal suffering, most Americans like their meat. And the lives of the less-fortunate among us are filled with a great deal of suffering, too. But one of the ways in which that suffering is partly reduced is by food costs being reduced. How do we balance that?
JSF: It’s complicated. But the rates of diabetes and heart disease and obesity are much more prevalent in that population. And it’s due to meat consumption. So it’s not as simple as saying that their lives are better because of cheaper food. What if we raised twice as much meat, making it half the price, but doubled the environmental toll? Would that be a good thing? We could give poor people twice as much protein. But the amount of protein we eat now isn’t good. The USDA even says that we eat 40 percent more protein than we need. And we don’t need animal protein at all. It’s not the best kind of protein for human health.
GK: At one point Niman talked about how he rationalizes eating meat by saying, “The pig had died for an important purpose — to provide us with delicious, wholesome and highly nutritious food.” I thought this was selfish. I’m a meat eater and I don’t even make that argument.
JSF: That a pig is more noble than a candy bar. Yes, that was disappointing from him. It’s always disappointing to see that there are such smart people, well informed and good, who just become irrational at some point. They stop being all of those things when the argument gets to a certain place. Michael Pollan does that, too.
GK: But you present a turkey farmer — the lone good guy — who never gets to that point. Yet you said you could not eat his turkey — even though there is nothing more he can do to be more humane.
JSF: I wasn’t arguing against anyone else eating it. But I was arguing that meat is a food that is not to be eaten by me. I would not persuade you of that. But there is more to it: the system of meat. Even to eat those exceptions is to endorse the dominant system of factory farms.
GK: Even to eat NON-factory farmed meat?
JSF: Yes, because you’re just one more person eating meat. In the book, I talk about how farming salmon was supposed to reduce the stress on wild salmon populations. But as farmed salmon took off, there ended up being a greater strain on wild salmon because the habit of eating salmon took off. I would rather be someone who withdraws from the habit. On top of that, a farm like [the turkey farm in the book] still makes bad mistakes. There’s a calculus that we all do. If there is 1-in-1,000 chance that a turkey experiences its own slaughter in the worst way imaginable, most people are comfortable with that. Even 1-in-100. But when it gets to 1-in-10 or 1-in-5, less so. I just don’t want to get involved with those odds for something that I feel no great attachment for or craving for.
GK: But in the book you talk about things you miss. You say, “I love a good steak.”
JSF: I love having sex, and I love it a lot more than I like having a steak, but I curtail that craving. I don’t act on it whenever I feel like it.
GK: I appreciate that, but you actively curtail those cravings and, as such, feel sad about that choice. And the difference here is that you could very easily satisfy the craving for steak.
JSF: Yes, but our society used to be structured in such a way that I could have enslaved a human being if I wanted to.
GK: So someday, our society will evolve to the point where eating animals will be seen like slavery? Or is it just a matter of everybody eating meat in such small quantities that we can get to sustainable farming.
JSF: The fastest-growing segment in the entire agricultural industry is cage-free and free-range eggs. Not in Berkeley or in New York, but everywhere. It doesn’t taste better. It’s not healthier. It’s only because of consumer instincts about what’s right.
GK: But you said in the book that “cage free” is a bit of a myth.
JSF: It’s a total myth, but the instinct is real. People want to spend their money on that.
GK: Like Fair Trade coffee or chocolate.
JSF: So the idea that consumers care about this is not in the distant future. The future is the present. But we need to clear the lines of sight and allowing consumers see what it is they are eating. [pause] By the way, this is far and away the most thoughtful interview I’ve ever done on this book.
GK: Well, I did read the book, and these are things that I think about.
JSF: I really appreciate that. It’s invigorating to talk about this, no matter what you believe. I haven’t encountered any unreasonable people.
GK: Come on? On an issue so personal? We get death threats on curb-cut stories.
JSF: Before I went on tour, I talked to Eric Schlosser [author of “Fast Food Nation”] and he said, “Can I give you some advice? Get a bodyguard.” He was serious.
GK: He took on specific companies, perhaps. Maybe that’s the difference.
JSF: Well, I say that KFC is responsible for more suffering than any company in human history.
GK: That’s true. You did say that. But your book is more of a personal exploration. So did you take him up on the bodyguard idea?
JSF: No. Think of the weenie I would have to be to ask my publisher for that before anything had happened, the self-importance it would convey. [Besides] a punch would have been great for book sales anyway.
GK: We do like that kind of thing at The Paper. If any of our photographers ever gets punched on an assignment, we run the photo on the front page. OK, let’s segue to human health. You have a segment of the book about the feces-tainted water that is absorbed by chickens during their processing. It’s feces in the chicken.
JSF: I just got an e-mail from [a powerful Hollywood writer-director] who said, “I haven’t eaten meat since I read your book. I wasn’t into this stuff. It’s not what I care about. I love meat, but the fecal water killed it for me.”
GK: It’s disgusting and appalling.
JSF: But you see, it wasn’t the environment or the suffering of the animals. It was the feces in the food he eats.
GK: But you would think that industry would not want feces in the chicken in any form. Now, I understand that factory farming means that corners are going to get cut. And I understand that there is a cost-benefit analysis that these companies do. But are you saying that the cost-benefit analysis shows that the number of consumers who are willing to accept a tiny amount of chicken feces in their meat is high enough that the industry does not need to worry about the few who don’t.
JSF: How would they control the feces anyway?
GK: By using clean water.
JSF: It’s all a cost-benefit analysis.
GK: Yes, they’ve done it. They could make the food healthier, cleaner and all the things we’re talking about.
JSF: Yes, but you wouldn’t have a 49-cent burger. That is the tradeoff.
GK: OK, what do other people tell you?
JSF: Another woman, a really prominent environmentalist, couldn’t give a s—t about animals. But now she’s basically stopped eating meat because of the environment. She said she was simply unaware of the effects of factory farming on the environment.
GK: How is that possible?
JSF: How is it possible? How is it possible that Al Gore never talks about it when the way we raise livestock is responsible for 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions? How is it possible that you will never see the word “meat” and “Copenhagen” in the same sentence? It’s crazy. It produces more greenhouse gas emissions than everything put together.
GK: So why not?
JSF: They are afraid, and rightfully, of alienating people who are willing to engage on the issue of greenhouse gases. I don’t blame Al Gore. I’m not that kind of person.
GK: So cars and trucks are the low-hanging fruit, imagine that. But we have organizations, like the Congressional Budget Office or others, that are actually in charge of figuring out what the true cost of things are — in this case, “cheap” meat actually not being cheap at all when you add in all the externalized costs. Are such groups just not doing their jobs, or is it that we just don’t care?
JSF: If we don’t care, it’s because we don’t know, I think. Look, when I got into the book, and I’m a fairly well-informed guy who reads the paper every day, I was totally blown away by the relationship between the environment and factory farming. It’s the top two or three causes of every single significant environmental problem in the world.
GK: Books like yours and others can end that shock. You say that 76 percent say animal welfare is more important than the price of meat they buy? What planet do you live on? I do not believe that Americans will be willing to pay more to secure better animal welfare.
JSF: As I said, cage-free and free-range are the fastest growing segment of the food industry.
GK: The reason we do what we do as a society — and this is my bike-riding, canvas-bag-toting, Fair Trade-buying Park Sloper coming out here — is for expediency. We want cheaper food. We want convenience. And you said it, it’s about the Faustian bargain we make, the forgetting. And I think we are willfully forgetting. You say, maybe it’s not willful or maybe people just don’t know. Look, they know.
JSF: If we could move away from the notion of getting it all the way right, and just making better choices and having greater consciousness. Look at me, I’m wearing a shirt that someone probably spent $100 on. Or you and I don’t need to be doing this business [having an effete conversation]. And we certainly don’t need these things [gestures towards our cellphones]. There are kids starving. But we have made a choice, one might say, to have the cellphones or the expensive shirt, or the conversation about my book rather than ensuring that they have food. But it’s not that simple. That’s why I wish food could be integrated into the larger conversation of Having Too Much.
GK: Can this be fixed?
JSF: Unlike many other issues, ending factory farming does not require us to go to war with another country or spend $1 trillion. It doesn’t require us to elect a new government. It doesn’t require us to even to find new values. I’m convinced of that. It just requires us to pause at the supermarket before putting the first thing we see in your cart, or pause at the restaurant when you see a number of different options. There’s no way that in 20 years, the majority of Americans will be vegetarians, but there is a way that in 20 years, the majority of meals will be vegetarian. If we can move towards thinking about meals, it’s better. Even that word, vegetarians, has done a great disservice, because it does not leave room for people who want to eat meat but also care about this stuff. Forget the term. We don’t use the term “environmentalist” anymore. Are you an “environmentalist”? I have no idea. I know I care about it. I know I try to make good choices, but I also know that I fly on planes, which is about the worst thing you can do. But I still try to do good. I don’t leave the car idling in front of the house. But food is much easier. It’s easy to get it right.
GK: The book asks so many questions, which is a bit annoying because you’re the guy who has been thinking about this intently for three years. Have you answered them?
JSF: No. What’s the most basic question in the book? “Is it right or wrong to eat animals?”
GK: What’s the answer?
JSF: I don’t know. I know that I don’t want to do it, but if there are a lot of questions, it merely reflects my uncertainty about a lot of things. But I have no uncertainty about my practices. Did I prefer sushi that had actual fish? Yes. It was better.
GK: So you miss it.
JSF: As I write in the book, there are cultures that eat chimp and feel that we are severely missing a culinary treat. Do we feel lacking? Does that deficiency burden us?
GK: I’ve never eaten dog. But I’m willing to. Sounded in the book like you were willing to eat dog, too. Are you?
JSF: No, I’m not.
GK: You’re not a journalist! OK, last thing: Is this non-fiction thing the new Jonathan Safran Foer?
JSF: No. I’m going back to novels. I’m working on a few things right now. I always wait to see which dies. Sometimes they become one or one will become three. It’s ugly, and very inefficient. I feel like myself — with all that entails, which is not all good.
GK: I, on the other hand, can’t write anything longer than 500 words.
JSF: Just write a lot of 500 word things and put them all together.
GK: Yeah, right. There hasn’t exactly been a lot of demand in the publishing industry for the collected short columns of Gersh Kuntzman, but I can send you some printouts if you want.