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Eating animals

The Duke community is having a food awakening, and next year’s incoming class of freshmen are getting a front row seat at the table.

The latest in a long line of food-related events, debates and campaigns on campus was the selection in February of Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, as the summer reading assignment for the incoming Class of 2015 at both UNC and Duke.

Having snuck a copy of Foer’s book into my own stocking at Christmas (next to a copy of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara) I took the opportunity over Spring break to do a little reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel like any lunch after reading Foer’s book. It may be an easy read, but Eating Animals is an emotional sucker punch.

Reviewers who insist this book is not about food, or that it’s more about how we make and relate to decisions in our lives, are taking a theme out of context. Although Foer himself states, “This book is not an argument against eating animals,” the book is, in fact, not not an argument against eating animals. And it’s an emotional, fear-mongering presentation of the argument at that.

Previous books in this genre, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, take a far more nuanced, intellectual, comprehensive and optimistic approach, covering issues on both sides of the dietary divide. That is, they address both animals and vegetables and acknowledge that neither category of food is perfect. Foer instead acknowledges his bias as a long time not-fully-committed vegetarian, then proceeds to outline in graphic detail the havoc factory farming is causing on our health, the environment and the animals themselves.

Maybe this is just the type of packaging the reality of factory farming needs to get us off our couches and into action. But in my own experience, it might also serve to stifle the conversation.

I cried at the sight of packaged chicken on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator after reading this book, and I don’t consider myself prone to such instabilities in my emotional state. So, even though I wanted to discuss this book with my boyfriend, my behavior convinced him he’d rather not masochistically submit himself to a reading. So much for a conversation.

Interestingly and conspicuously missing from the coalition of schools that picked Eating Animals is North Carolina State University, home of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. According to that college’s website, “Agriculture and agribusiness generate more than $74 billion in value-added income annually and account for 688,000 jobs across the state.”

Some of that revenue comes from the state’s pork industry, which Foer discusses in the “Pieces of Shit” section of his book. Consider the message that sends to new students: “Welcome to North Carolina—here’s a book about how you might not want to drink the water, breathe the air or eat bacon, ever again.”

Here at Duke, the Offsets Initiative, part of the Climate Action Plan and climate neutrality program that I’ve mentioned before in this column, has partnered with Duke Energy to build a methane capture system at a hog finishing farm in Yadkin County, N.C. The idea is not just to capture methane for offsets credits but also to treat other environmental pollutants including ammonia, heavy metals and nutrients, as well as the odors caused by the methane.

While this end-of-pipe project achieves the intended local impact and potential benefit, it does not address the underlying factory farm issue that forms the basis of Foer’s argument not not against eating animals. Perhaps the freshmen should consider our institutional complicity when they discuss the local implications of the book’s message.

I applaud the selection committee for a reading so intimately tied to environmental issues. The freshmen will be engaged in events surrounding the book mostly in September, but I believe this book is capable of infiltrating the campus dialogue on a broader scale, as well. I might, however, recommend starting with the aforementioned books by Pollan and Kingsolver (winner of this year’s Leaf Award).

Now that I’ve shared a few of my thoughts with you here, I encourage you to go out and read this book. When you’re finished, email me. I’m taking bets on the percentage of converted vegetarians in the Class of 2015. Happy eating... I mean, reading!

Liz Bloomhardt is a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Friday.

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