Giving Up Meat for a Better World


Katja Thimm - Spiegel

Jonathan Safran Foer used to love his grandmother’s chicken and carrots. But after his son was born, the bestselling American author decided to give up meat. Like German author Karen Duve, who is also writing a book about eating ethically, Foer is trying to make the world a better place.

It was a magical moment when Jonathan Safran Foer decided to find out the truth about meat.

The author had just become a father a few minutes earlier, and now he was watching his son suckling at his wife’s breast. The newborn’s instinct to immediately recognize the correct food source filled him with an unfamiliar sense of reverence. Jonathan Safran Foer was a man with a new responsibility, and he was determined to do everything within his power to make sure that this child would eat the right kind of food in the future.

Foer spent three years researching the subject. He knew that he would discover a different reality than the one portrayed by the animals in the picture books he would look at with his son on the sofa. But the scope of the horror that reality had in store for him was unexpected. He decided that he would raise his child without meat.

Here are five examples, five of the hundreds Foer unearthed during his research:

  • Industrial-scale poultry farmers inject birds with “broths” and salty solutions, so that they look plump in the store and their meat is more flavorful.
  • Hog farmers cut off the teeth of piglets and rip out their testicles — without anesthesia.
  • In tuna fishing, 145 other species — fish, birds and mammals — are also caught in the nets, where they die and are subsequently tossed back into the ocean.
  • Factory farming accounts for between 18 and 51 percent — depending on the study — of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest offenders are cows, which release methane during digestion. Methane is 23 times as harmful to the climate as CO2.
  • Some factory farms are so big that they produce more excrement every day than some major cities.

The Search for a Better Life

“As a father, I was confronted with realities that, as a writer, I couldn’t keep to myself,” says Foer today. The 33-year-old author wrote a book about the horrors of factory farming, which triggered passionate debates about food and nutrition in the United States. His son is now four years old and has a brother, and the rights to “Eating Animals” have been sold in 16 countries. The German-language version, “Tiere Essen,” appears in bookstores in Germany on August 19.

Foer shocked hundreds of thousands of people with his book, and for a time the author received angry emails on a daily basis, from people calling him a jerk and complaining that they couldn’t eat meat anymore after having read his book.

It’s the author’s first non-fiction book. Foer, who has published two novels, one about Jewish identity (“Everything Is Illuminated”) and one about the 9/11 attacks (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”), is considered an exceptionally talented young writer in the United States. In “Eating Animals,” he brings together anecdotes, facts, news coverage and correspondence. He describes breaking into a chicken farm, offers accounts of organic farmers and writes about how his inquiries to major meat producers went unanswered. It is an unsettling and moving document — the account of a man’s search for a better life.

Before long, Foer was thinking about more than just his son. He was thinking about the entire world.

‘We Have to Give It Up’

Foer doesn’t come across as a man on a mission. He has a slim build and is dressed casually in a T-shirt. He is unshaven, and the frames of his glasses match the tone of his dark hair. With his calm voice and unassuming presence, he looks more like a thoughtful, polite graduate student. He is currently living in Tel Aviv. Foer and his family spend every summer exploring a new place and have also spent time in Berlin, but their home is in Brooklyn, New York, a borough known for its large population of writers, artists and intellectuals. Foer owns a house there, close to a store that sells ethically produced food.

“Nothing is as destructive to people, animals and the entire planet as factory farming,” he says, as he rattles off one number after the next. He is even familiar with German figures: “Twenty-one thousand animals die to feed an average American. Ninety-nine percent of those animals are mass-produced. In Germany, the number is 98.” Then he shrugs his shoulders and says, quietly, almost matter-of-factly: “There’s no good way to feed 6 billion people with 50 billion animals. So we have to give it up.”

Vegetarian organizations would love to have him speak at their events, but he shudders at the thought, and not just because he isn’t a zealot. He believes that his place is behind the computer, not in front of the public. But people recognize him on the street, even in Israel, where he spends his days sitting in a café with his laptop, writing and revising, sometimes drinking a cappuccino — with milk, of course.

But didn’t he write that dairy cows and laying hens are sucked dry until they die? He nods. “Sure. And actually, I do try to avoid eggs, milk and cheese if I don’t know where they came from. I do what I can, but I can’t do more than that.”

He’s periodically tried living without meat in the past, sometimes because he felt like it and sometimes because it happened to be in. But now he has finally made up his mind. Foer is a vegetarian, out of shame and out of a sense of global responsibility. He cooks lentils and pasta for his sons, and his wife, author Nicole Krauss, is also a vegetarian.

A Long List of Culinary Sins

Many others have chosen the same path, and more and more people are writing about their experiences as vegetarians. German author Karen Duve, 48, stopped eating meat several months ago. The writer, whose 2008 novel “Taxi” was a critical success, is in the midst of an experiment. In her adopted home in the Brandenburg countryside outside Berlin, she is trying out four ethically correct ways of eating and is researching everything she can find on the subject. The result of the experiment will be a book detailing her experiences, “Anständig Essen” (“Eating Decently”), which will be published by Galiani in January.

Duve is the first to admit that she has committed many a culinary sin, as she puts it, during her life. As it happens, it was prepared grilled chicken from the supermarket, priced at €2.99 ($3.92) a bag, that was to play an important role in her thinking. “I had an idea, of course, that something was very wrong in the food industry, but I behaved as if everything was just fine,” she says. “Then I decided that I didn’t want to live with this contradiction anymore.”

The number of conscientious eaters is growing, including those who practice restraint purely to help save the planet. In the past, the people who stayed away from meat did so because of fears of disease, religious rules or love of animals, but today many are motivated by a concern for the rest of the world.

Residents of big German cities are holding meat-free “veggidays.” The northern German city of Bremen, for example, has introduced a program, sponsored by the mayor himself, to encourage cafeterias, daycare centers and schools to serve only vegetarian meals on Thursdays. If all 550,000 residents heeded the mayor’s call, the effort would lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions equal to taking 40,000 cars off the road for a day.

Saving the Planet

So is vegetarianism a doctrine of salvation for the survival of the human race? Some important thinkers believe it is. Renowned London economist and climate expert Nicholas Stern, the author of the influential “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change,” argues that the only way to save the planet is a global movement toward vegetarianism.

After all the years in which the word “do-gooder” deteriorated into a term of derision and pleasure became the measure of our sense of wellbeing, it seems that the time is ripe for a new generation of good people. It’s a generation that has found an eloquent spokesman in Jonathan Safran Foer.

“We should try to make our way through the world in a manner that reduces suffering,” says the author. He is convinced that anyone who grapples with the problems of factory farming will also develop a greater awareness of other injustices. And it is this kind of behavior, Foer believes, that is necessary to live a good life. “A good life means looking at yourself in the mirror and being able to say: This is me, and I’m not perfect, but I try to be mindful of the things that really count.”

His circle of friends and acquaintances includes people who refuse to fly and who only read borrowed books to help save paper. Others try to turn off as many light bulbs as possible or wear sweaters in their homes rather than turn up the heat.

Pragmatic Choices

But unlike the 1970s and 80s, when people joined forces to champion good causes in the world, protesting against nuclear power or using jute instead of plastic bags, the new vegetarians’ motivations are more pragmatic than ideological. Very few see their message as an all-or-nothing choice.

“The meat issue is a very practical matter, and it affects every average person,” says Foer. “It’s responsible for the only form of suffering in the world that any person can successfully combat on his or her own. But no one has to discover his inner angel to do so, or even share any particular convictions.”

Foer says that he has had countless discussions about the Christmas ham, “with all kinds of people who would say: It means so much to me. It’s all about family and tradition. Of course, I say: Go ahead and eat your Christmas ham! That’s not the point. But forget about the chicken wings at fast-food restaurants. Save meat for the important occasions in life.”

Meat is food, and ever since Eve took a bite out of an apple, food has always been more than just a way to obtain energy. Food is a cultural artifact and it embodies pleasure. It offers us the opportunity to escape from our daily lives for a moment, and its smell alone has the power to awaken comforting memories. In religious communities, dietary rules are palpable symbols of belief. Shared meals create a feeling of security, and certain dishes, such as Germany’s beloved Currywurst (curry sausage), are synonymous with a sense of belonging and identity.

Realistic Model

That’s why Foer believes that part-time vegetarianism is a realistic model. A food critic he worships adopted this approach: No meat or animal products before 5 p.m., but anything goes for dinner. “The world won’t be saved if 20 percent of people become uncompromising vegetarians,” says Foer. “But the problems will be solved if 90 percent make conscious decisions about eating meat.”

His logic follows the tempting image of man as a responsible being capable of curbing his desires, a person who has internalized the idyllic image of the traditional farm — or else he would be unable to support factory farming and its consequences.

But as soon as he does become aware of the truth, Foer reasons, he will eat fewer animals, thereby contributing to the end of mass production. At that point, he will know that the only way to satisfy his desire to eat meat is to continue to violate the laws of nature, and to do so even more blatantly than before: with even more growth hormones, more antibiotics, more test-tube chicks and more damage to the climate and the environment.

It is the normality of this horror that Karen Duve also finds so outrageous. She feels conned by the rosy halo of advertising claims invoking a hearty country life.

As part of her experiment, she has already spent two months eating a strictly organic diet, as well as eight weeks as a vegetarian. Now she is in the middle of the vegan phase, which means no animal products on or in her body, no leather jackets, no down comforters, not even the lactose in medications. The contents of her shoe rack have also disappeared completely from her life. She now owns rubber boots, a vegan belt, a metal wristwatch and bags made of recycled truck tarps. “Felt and wool are off-limits,” she says. “As a vegan, you quickly end up with synthetics again.”

‘How Can You Do This, You Gruesome People?’

Her desk is covered with stacks of paper: newspaper articles, scientific essays, press releases and ads. “It’s hard work, discovering the truth,” she says. For example, it took her 112 hours to document the life of a German chicken. Anyone who tries to obtain data from the food industry is likely to find lots of contradictory information, depending on the author.

According to figures compiled by the German Ministry of Agriculture, more than 700 million animals a year are slaughtered for food in Germany, including more than 500 million chickens. Some 500,000 hogs, inadequately stunned, wake up in the scalding hot-water baths at slaughterhouses.

“At first I would think to myself: How can you do this, you gruesome people?” says Duve. But by the next day she was already salivating over the thought of eating a steak with herb butter.

‘It’s a Bit Like Sex’

“Sometimes it feels terrible, leading the life of a vegetarian,” says Jonathan Safran Foer. “The people at the next table are eating steak, and I don’t get any. A person I love is cooking, but I can’t eat with them.” The dish of his childhood, which meant everything to him — safety, confidence and home –, was his grandmother’s chicken with carrots.

Chicken with carrots isn’t part of his life anymore. “It’s a bit like sex,” he says. “During the course of a week, many people think to themselves: Wow, I’d really like to sleep with that person. But as beings with a civilized self-image, we curb our impulses. We do without some things because other things are more important to us. Good decisions sometimes include feeling awful.”

But, as Duve has discovered, the cravings eventually subside. By now, she even feels OK without milk and cheese.

She had not expected that the power of habit could be tamed in this way. Meat and dairy products are at the center of European and American food culture — and at the center of all excess. Milk is touted as a source of strength, and meat has always been associated with myths at various levels of awareness, from the butcher with his blood-spattered apron to the family man tending the barbecue in his shirtsleeves. The recently launched German magazine Beef! claims to appeal to “men with taste.” Gourmets can not resist Japanese Kobe beef, supposedly the best and, at up to €600 ($785) a kilogram, most expensive beef on the market.

Restaurants that specialize in meat and cater to people with a lot of money are suddenly all the rage. The “Meatery” in Hamburg advertises “the world’s most tender sirloin,” while in Berlin, the “Grill Royal” is the place to be for hipster carnivores.

Basic Instincts

People, at least in Western cultures, are apparently vulnerable to suggestion. Perhaps the steaks that appear in Duve’s and Foer’s fantasies are the product of a basic instinct. In the animal kingdom, the strong are the ones that devour the weak at the end of a battle. And few people are likely to salivate at the sight of a plate of cooked carrots.

Meat is part of the diet of most families in Western cultures. It was a staple until the late Middle Ages. During the course of industrialization, as the population grew rapidly, potatoes and fast-growing grain largely replaced slower-growing animals as food sources.

When factory farming was invented about 80 years ago, meat became a widely available product. Children develop a taste for it early on, even before they are capable of thinking about where the slice of ham on their sandwich comes from.

Doing without meat is so difficult for many people because it invalidates established habits and calls into question the rituals and narratives of a family: the favorite meals, the Christmas goose, a beloved aunt’s ham sandwiches.

“You’re no longer part of it,” says Duve. “Now I’m usually the problem case, the outsider.” She just attended a family event where mountains of cake were served in the afternoon and fish in the evening, but there was nothing for Duve. That was when her mother discovered that vegans can eat red berry compote, a traditional German dessert. From then on, she would bring her daughter a bowl of it at every meal.

‘It’s Impossible Not to Kill’

Duve hasn’t decided yet how she wants to proceed in the future. She does know that she won’t go back to the way she was living before she began her experiment. She still faces two months of fruitarianism, the most unpopular dietary regimen, because it’s the most restrictive. Fruitarians only eat what falls naturally from a plant, things like ripe apples, nuts and seeds. They are widely viewed as cranks. Nevertheless, their arguments are beginning to carry weight. Some scientists now believe that it is possible that plants might feel pain.

“It’s very distressing to grapple with these questions,” says Duve. “It’s because it’s impossible not to kill. All we can do is decide how much we destroy and under what conditions.”

It’s an inescapable dilemma for anyone who wants to continue to exist in the cycle of growth and decay.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan



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