Written by Alexander Zentgraf
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer was perhaps one of the most eye-opening books I have had the privilege of reading all year. It critiqued our society’s and the world’s anthropocentrism utilizing compelling emotional appeals and factual presentation of the severe environmental impacts we cause via our apathy towards animal suffering. For me, not only did it call into question my dietary habits (and make me avoid Raising Cane’s far longer than I thought possible) it also made me question whether Foer’s dream to disavow and demolish the practice of factory farming was possible or even desirable? After all, a trip to my recent Fry’s showed me that the cost for a dozen factory farmed eggs came out to $1.69, a feasible cost for any family. The organic, environmentally friendly and supposedly more animal conscious brands? Eggland’s Best organic large brown eggs were $4.99 and Pete and Gerry’s Organic free range were at an astounding $5.99; that’s three-and-a-half times the amount of the cost of the factory farmed option. Milk didn’t fare much better. The factory farmed cow’s milk came in at $2.29 while it’s shelf neighbor and organic, grass-fed competitor charged a whopping 2.5 times the amount at $5.79. Foer’s dream of animal-free products wasn’t any more economically viable. A half-gallon of coconut milk was $4.19, and Rice Dream’s organic rice milk was a brutal $5.37 for a 64 oz.
Some of you may not find these differences significant. Chances are you can throw down a few extra dollars for your eggs to soothe your conscience. But can everyone? The United States Census1 states that there are currently 39.7 million Americans in poverty (12.3% of the population). For context, the poverty line for a family of four (two adults and two children) comes in at $24.858. The lowest 20 percent of the population spends an average of 15.4 percent of their income on food2 – about $3,767 per year. To put it into perspective, using the eggs from earlier, if the family used all $3,767 dollars for food on Pete and Gerry’s eggs they would only be capable of affording 5.16 eggs per person per day – this does not meet one quarter of a caloric deficit diet for weight loss – alternatively, if they were spend their money on Fry’s Kroger brand eggs they could afford 18.3 eggs per person per day, which is more than sufficient. There’s also the issue of the “deeply impoverished,” the classification for the 5.6 million Americans who fall below half of the poverty line.
This doesn’t mean Foer’s goal is wrong, it’s that it’s premature. The problem resides in the moral dilemma that seems inherently tied to the progression of animal welfare rights and the burdens it places on the economically disenfranchised. Food prices have stayed constant over the last 20 years3 in no small part due to the stability that factory farms provide. Even though animal welfare organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have been around since 1954 and animal rights organizations have become more vocal and more prevalent since the 1970s, animals are still enclosed in inhumane conditions. At first, its easy to do as Foer does and claim the immorality inflicted on animals it is due to factory farms greedy exploitation of animals, especially when everyone seems to be advocating for better animal welfare if not outright animal rights.But the reasons for welfare stagnation are due to consumer demand, not just companies. Consumers talk about reform and activists preach Kantian ethics touting that we should treat animals as an end-in-themselves, but we all voice our opinions with our wallets and many of us are hypocrites behind closed doors, purchasing the factory-farmed, cruelty laden meat while chastising the companies that made it available to us. We all want change, but none of us want to foot the bill. Not all of us are hypocrites, however, many Americans are dependent on this food to provide for their families. Moral qualms for the suffering of animals are quick to fall by the wayside when money is tight, and your children are hungry. Meatless Mondays and other suggestions by Foer to reduce our environmental impact are great ideas, but until more economically viable avenues of production become available for the disenfranchised among us, Foer’s dream for the end of factory farming is only a fantasy and maybe that’s for the best.