The next time you tuck into a burger, grab a schwarma or sit down for Friday night dinner, it might be worth considering where your meat came from – or indeed, as Jonathan Safran Foer questions, if something has gone horribly awry with the food industry.
Best known for his novels, including the besteller Everything Is Illuminated and his most recent book, Here I Am, the 42-year-old took a detour from fiction for his 2009 book, Eating Animals, which examines how society’s increasing hunger for meat has resulted in a catastrophic effect on the environment and the farming industry as a whole.
Now his book has been turned into an award-winning documentary, which is directed by Christopher Quinn and narrated by actress Natalie Portman, and is released in UK cinemas on Friday.
From images of floating dead fish in polluted, lurid water, to obese animals, overcrowded livestock and disease, the documentary makes for uncomfortable viewing about factory farming in the United States, which accounts for 55 billion animals – or a staggering 99 percent of the meat eaten – every year.
As Portman’s narrative tell us: “Today’s chickens have been bred with mutant obese genes to grow faster and fatter than ever imaginable before.”
Despite its stark warnings and shocking facts, Safran Foer insists the film is not “a philosophical question on whether it’s right to eat meat”, but rather, “a very practical question in the year 2019 about whether agriculture of today is doing things right”.
He credits that sense of justice about how we treat animals to his Jewish upbringing, which he says taught him there was “nothing more fundamental than the valuing of life”.
He adds: “I am capable of distinguishing between the lives of humans and animals, but not dismissing the lives of animals. It’s hard to imagine a person who feels the lives of animals are totally unimportant to them.
“The laws of kashrut, as I was taught them, emphasised the ethical component of respect to animals. Caring about how we eat, recognising food as a choice, that there are cruel and less cruel ways of slaughtering animals, was very much a part of my Jewish education.”
Safran Foer grew up eating meat, but began to question his food preferences after becoming a father.
“We read bedtime stories that have animals as heroes and we have pets we are taught to treat a certain way,” he explains. “We even sleep with stuffed animals to give us comfort and yet there’s this other thing we do that’s not in keeping with this.
“For me, this discomfort never went away and when my son was about to be born, I faced the prospect of having to make food choices for someone else. I felt an urgency I hadn’t felt before and began questioning what was important to me.”
So began his journey into discovering more about where meat comes from – and the hefty price society is now paying, having discovered technologies that allow production on a scale never seen before in history.
But he also discovered the agricultural industry was particularly secretive about its practices and found it near-impossible to access any farms.
With no options left, Safran Foer joined a group of animal activists late at night and illegally accessed farms to see the stark reality for himself.
He says: “This industry is particularly abusive and it’s kept from sight. If I wanted to see how my car was made, it wouldn’t be that hard to get access to the facility. If I wanted to see how my breakfast bagel was made, it wouldn’t be hard to go behind the counter and see the equipment – but if you wanted to see where your meat comes from, you’re out of luck.”
Depicted as abusive, harmful and secretive, mass farming methods are certainly condemned by the film, but what of its necessity in making food more available and affordable?
“What we consume today is an historically unprecedented amount of meat. Our eating habits have been transformed by factory farming and the fast food industry.
“When we eat 180 times more chicken per person than we did a century ago, it’s because so much is eaten with the fingers of one hand while driving – something our parents and grandparents would never have done.”
What is the solution? The rise of plant-based food companies and imitation meat may be one way to counter factory farming, but the real answer for Safran Foer is much simpler.
“Our biggest problem is our need to eat meat” he says. “We don’t need to become radical, we need to become more conservative, to revert to farming methods of the past and enjoy meat as a delicacy, like we used to, with our families around
Eating Animals (12A) is released in cinemas on Friday. Details: eatinganimals.co.uk/screenings