Jonathan Safran Foer is a writer and practicing vegetarian. He published his first novel "Everything Is Illuminated" in 2002, winning much critical acclaim and several literary awards including the National Jewish Book Award and The Guardian First Book Award. His second novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" dealt with a 9-year-old coming to terms with his father's death in the World Trade Center during 9/11. Foer's most recent work is "Eating Animals," a non-fiction exploration of the factory farm industry in the United States.
Foer graduated from Princeton University in 1998, where he studied with novelist Joyce Carol Oates. He now lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn.
Question: Could we really feed the nearly 7 billion people on earth without factory farming?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well the argument is sometimes made that factory farming feeds the world and it’s not only untrue, it’s the opposite of the truth. It takes seven calories of food input into an animal to produce one calorie of food output. It’s an extraordinarily inefficient way to produce food.
Now, it’s true that there are some landscapes in the world and some you know, communities where meat really is the only option, and I would not argue against that at all, but that’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about the meat industry. We’re talking about McDonald’s. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about Burger King, we’re talking about airport food, we’re talking about supermarket meat, Tyson’s, Smithfield, and this is food that is not only not going to hungry people, but in a very direct way is injuring the Third World. Absolutely raping Brazil, you know, the number one cause of deforestation of the world, number one cause of the loss of biodiversity. And the way the subsidy structure works makes it almost impossible for, for example, countries in Africa to produce their own food.
So we can absolutely eliminate animals from the equation. They are not necessarily the most important part of this conversation. If what you care about is hungry people eating, then that in and of itself is a very good reason to reject factory-farmed animal products.
Question: How do farm subsidies exacerbate the factory farm problem?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, there’s a farm subsidy structure now that encourages us or encourages farmers I should say, to feed corn to cows. Now, corn is not a food that they’re naturally able to digest. This is why virtually all cows in the country are on antibiotics and other kinds of special drug additives in their feed. Ironically, one might say, cows naturally digest grass, which is a food that humans can’t naturally digest. So instead we’re feeding them something, corn and soy, that you know, could go into human mouths.
Vegetarians are often made fun of for eating a lot of tofu, but 98% of the soy crop in the world goes to cows; to feeding livestock. So, in any case, we have now created an economic system which is very advantageous to feed animals unnaturally, house them unnaturally, and raise genetic stocks that are destined for illness. And the small farmers, who are really the heroes of my book, farmers at places like Niman Ranch, farmers like Frank Reese at Good Shepard, farmers like Paul Willis, are at a severe economic disadvantage for doing things the right way; for being environmentally responsible; for treating their animals like animals rather than like rocks or pieces of wood.
Question: Is the farming situation as bad in other countries, or is this a uniquely American invention?
Jonathan Safran Foer: The factory farm is an American invention, but it’s a global problem. So in German, for example, 98% of the meat that they consume comes from factory farms. It’s 99% in America. In England, it’s about 95%. So there are differences. And some of the differences are very important. The European Union has been much more progressive with food laws than the United States. But there’s no reason to be hopeful and unfortunately China and India are now changing their eating habits and their farming techniques to resemble the United States. And if the Chinese and Indians eat like Americans do, and everything else in the world holds constant, if the population holds constant, we’re going to have to farm twice as many animals as we do now. That will be 100 billion animals every year.
Recorded on August 26, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller