GUY RAZ, host:
After the birth of his son, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer started asking questions about food.
Mr. JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER (Author, "Eating Animals"): (Reading) I simply wanted to know, for myself and my family, what meat is. I wanted to know as concretely as possible: Where does it come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter? What are the economic, social and environmental effects of eating animals?
My personal quest didn't stay that way for long. Through my efforts as a parent, I came face to face with realities that, as a citizen, I couldn't ignore, and as a writer, I couldn't keep to myself.
RAZ: That's Jonathan Safran Foer, reading from his new book, "Eating Animals."
Now, if you think it's an anti-meat screed or just an impassioned case for vegetarianism, it isn't, though the publication of the book has already irritated the meat and poultry industry and prompted actress Natalie Portman to declare herself a vegan.
Jonathan Safran Foer is also the author of the acclaimed novel "Everything Is Illuminated," and he joins me from our New York studios.
Welcome to the show.
Mr. FOER: Hi, I'm so happy to be here.
RAZ: How important was meat in your life, in sort of the cultural life that you were a part of as a kid?
Mr. FOER: I would say meat had considerable importance, and in different ways. I loved the way it tasted. I loved the way it smelled. I continue to love the way it smells. And I'm pretty sure if I were to eat it again, I would love the way it tasted.
Meat also had a real cultural value in my family and my upbringing. It was how we celebrated the Fourth of July. It was how we celebrated Thanksgiving, and I looked forward to that, and I loved it. And my ideas about thanksgiving, it's very, very hard to extricate that turkey from my ideas about Thanksgiving.
RAZ: Well, what do you do on Thanksgiving now?
Mr. FOER: I have all those great foods that we used to have, just without a turkey. The point of Thanksgiving is not to be rigid, it's not to follow somebody else's idea of what Thanksgiving is. It's to bring family together, celebrate together, feel grateful together, and transmit values from one generation to the next.
Whether or not there's chicken stock in the gravy has nothing to do with those things I just said. Having a conversation about what we believe in, that to me has everything to do with Thanksgiving.
RAZ: I want to ask you about the research you did, because you did visit several farms over the course of working on this book.
Mr. FOER: I would challenge any listener of this program to visit the kind of farm that raises 99 - more than 99 percent of the animals that become our food. It is impossible.
RAZ: And you actually tried to visit a plant that supplies meat to Tyson's, and Tyson's never replied.
Mr. FOER: Well, Tyson's, there's no need to single them out. I mean, I sent dozens and dozens of letters to all of the major, you know, agribusiness corporations, asking to visit their farms.
You know, if I wrote a letter to the producer of my son's apple juice, and I said, you know, I've been feeding this stuff to my son every day. I'm kind of curious, where does it come from, how is it made? I'd be able to go see the orchard. If I wanted to know about the bagels I feed my son for breakfast, the guys in the deli would let me around the other side of the counter. They'd show me the ovens, they'd show me their ingredients.
Why is this the great exception, and what does it say? What does it say that there's an entire industry that is set up that asks us to give them money, asks us to ingest in our bodies and feed to our children a product whose production they won't let us see.
RAZ: You visited a place called the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, and you profile a man named Frank Reese, the owner. And you described that this ranch is an example of a place where ethical meat is produced. The question I have about this place is that his meat isn't necessarily affordable for many Americans. It can cost five to seven times the price of, you know, say a rotisserie chicken at the supermarket. So what do you say to people who make the argument there's a little bit of elitism here?
Mr. FOER: Well, you referred to the kind of meat that you would buy in the supermarket, and factory farms happily tell a similar story that it's cheap and that Frank's meat is expensive. It's not true. I mean, it's true if you're only looking at the price at the cash register.
Factory farming has externalized all of their costs. Who do you think pays if factory farming, if animal agriculture is the number one cause of global warming? Who pays for that? Do you think we don't pay for it? Do you think they're going to ultimately pay for it?
Who pays for the decimation of land value across America, which has been a very direct effect of factory farming? Who pays for the water pollution? Who pays for the air pollution? And by the way, who pays for the costs of - the human health costs?
RAZ: Most people going to the supermarket, looking to make an affordable, relatively healthy dinner for their families, are not going to be thinking about land values and about global warming at that point. I mean, can you blame them?
Mr. FOER: I mean, clearly, what has to happen is people have to eat less meat. Americans have been convinced of a diet that is frankly unnatural and not what our parents ate, not what our grandparents ate.
RAZ: I mean, they ate meat.
Mr. FOER: Americans now eat 150 times as much chicken as they did 80 years ago. When, you know, factory farms talk about feeding the world, they're not talking about feeding hungry people. They're talking about producing incredibly cheap meat and finding wider and wider audiences who are willing to eat more and more and more of it.
RAZ: You make it clear, right, from the outset that you're not judging the decisions other people make, right? I mean, if people choose to eat meat, you're not judging them.
Mr. FOER: No.
RAZ: Or are you, in a sense? Because you argue that eating meat is the single worst thing that a person can do to the environment.
Mr. FOER: That is a well-established fact. I, in my own life, do all kinds of things that are bad for the environment, and I am a terrible hypocrite in all kinds of ways. And furthermore, I'm not altogether sure what I think about a lot of these issues when it boils right down to it.
I do think that there are some baseline things that we should all agree on, the most important being that eating meat matters. It's the number one cause of global warming. The U.N. and Pew Commissions have said that it is among the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem, locally and globally: air pollution, water pollution.
So if this is the most important way that we interact with the environment, if it's the most important way that we interact with animals, then our decisions when we go to a restaurant, what to order, when we go to a supermarket, what to buy, these decisions aren't passing. They're not - they can't be casual. You know, what we choose to eat when ordering in a restaurant, what we choose to buy at a supermarket, is frankly the most important decision, or at least one of the very most important decisions we'll make all day.
RAZ: Jonathan Safran Foer's new book is called "Eating Animals." He spoke with us from New York.
Jonathan Safran Foer, thanks very much.
Mr. FOER: Thank you.