Monday, December 7, 2009

Eating Animals: Influence / Speechlessness - the fifth chapter in the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

In my household growing up, we ate chicken for dinner at least four nights a week. As my mom saw it, she had enough to struggle with without having to think any harder about dinner than "broiled or cacciatore?" This seems to be a common situation in U.S. households - we consume a fairly incredible amount of chicken, or, I should say, number of chickens.

In the fifth chapter of his book Eating Animals, entitled Influence/Speechlessness, Foer focuses on this humble bird, the chicken. And for good reason - as previously discussed, due to the mass quantities in which we reproduce these animals and the fact that the vast majority of them are factory produced, they become an ideal icon for the animal-as-product problem. So just how many do we make, sell, and eat? The USDA doesn't want to talk to us about numbers of beings - that might be acknowledging that they're living creatures after all. But they do tell us this:
The United States is the world's largest poultry producer and the second-largest egg producer and exporter of poultry meat. U.S. poultry meat production totals over 43 billion pounds annually; over four-fifths is broiler meat, most of the remainder is turkey meat, and a small fraction is other chicken meat. The total farm value of U.S. poultry production exceeds $20 billion.
That's not to mention the production of 90 billion eggs per year, give or take. At any rate, the number of chickens raised, slaughtered, sold and consumed in this country is in the billions annually.

And that's just the U.S. What if the rest of the world decided it wanted to be like us with regard to eating those fluffy white birds (more McNuggets, anyone)? According to Foer, whose book was thoroughly fact-checked by people more skilled in research than I:
The global implications of the growth of the factory farm, especially given the problems of food-borne illness, antimicrobial resistance, and potential pandemics, are genuinely terrifying. India's and China's poultry industries have grown somewhere between 5 and 13 percent annually since the 1980s. If India and China started to eat poultry in the same quantities as Americans (twenty-seven to twenty-eight birds annually), they alone would consume as many chickens as the entire world does today. If the world followed America's lead, it would consume over 165 billion chickens annually (even if the world population didn't increase).
It is in this chapter that Foer addresses the inevitable subject of the flu strains shared among humans and other animals, such as Swine Flu / H1N1. There are those who postulate that these viruses capable of species transference all originate in birds. This makes the information that flu vaccines are made by cultivating viral strains inside of fertilized chicken eggs a bit less surprising. No less upsetting, just less surprising. But that is perhaps a separate topic.

For many there is little question that the domestication of birds for food is the spark that has led to various wildfire flu pandemics. The domestication and, more specifically, concentration of food animals has without a doubt caused other public heath concerns, both with regard to food safety (foodborne illness being chief), and in overuse of antibiotics which both renders the drugs useless in humans and creates dangerous (and virulent) new strains of infectious bacteria. Foer notes that in 2004 and again in 2005, major world organizations concerned with food production came together and both times concluded that current methods of animal agriculture posed serious public health concerns.

By this point we've all heard about the conditions in which chickens are raised: beaks clipped, each given less space than a sheet of paper, feet grown around the wire cages which are stacked eight high and hundreds wide, breasts so heavy they can barely walk even if they did have the room, air so heavy with ammonia that it stings the eyes and burns the lungs and nostrils (yours and theirs). This isn't science fiction or the exception to the rule; this is what we now mean when we say chicken. So to me it's really a matter of common sense. Putting aside the ethical and moral implications of supporting such a system, how could it be healthy, or really anything but poison, to consume an animal which spent its life in an environment so toxic?

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