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: How do narratives we tell ourselves affect our relationship to food?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, you know, it might not have been true five years ago, it probably wasn’t true 10 years ago or 15 years ago, but now, most people have some sense of what the factory farm system is. They might not know the breadth of it, that it’s 99% of all of the meat that’s sold in the supermarkets and restaurants. And they might not know that the, sort of, environmental destruction that results from it. And they might not even know of the extent of the animal cruelty or the human health effects. But if you ask most people, you know; do you think most meat comes from a place you’d like to visit or not? They would say, probably not. Probably not a good thing.
And every day we’re given more and more reasons to worry about where our food comes from. Right now there’s an egg recall, half a billion eggs. There’s been e-coli tainted beef a number of times in the last couple of years, people are dying from it. We now know very, very firmly that animal agriculture is the number one cause of global warming, and yet very few people, including people who are normally quite political and quite moral and moralizing, talk about it. And even fewer people act on their concerns about where food comes from. And I think it’s because food is not just fact and it’s not just reason; it’s culture, it’s personal identity, it’s what our parents and our grandparents fed us. How we think of ourselves, how we want to think of ourselves, and it’s always attached to some kind of a story. And that confuses things. The Thanksgiving turkey confuses things. The Christmas ham confuses things. Every family has its own version.
But what we need is a different way of talking about meat that is itself a story. It’s not an argument or a work of journalism, but something that involves this messiness of being human beings and that is what I tried to do with this book.
Question: What responsibilities do we each have a modern individuals?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well I think different people feel these responsibilities differently. So somebody who is very active in environmental causes might think about meat in a way that’s different than an animal lover or a pet lover would. And that person might feel about meat differently than a doctor would. But what we can say is that Greenpeace doesn’t serve meat anymore at of its functions, Al Gore has advocated eating less meat. The United Nations has said that animal agriculture is one of the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem on the planet. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Disease Control has said that we need to stop raising animals in the way that we are because it’s making antibiotics less effective and also propagating Swine Flu and Avian flu and anyone who knows anything about how animals are treated is repulsed by it. It doesn’t take being an animal lover. I myself am not an animal lover. I don’t particularly care for chickens to be honest, or cows or pigs. But there are some things that are sort of below the line of very basic human decency and the farm system that we have is.
Recorded on August 26, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller