Friday, June 25, 2010

Review: "Animal Factory" by David Kirby

"The looming threat of industrial pig, dairy, and poultry farms to humans and the environment," says the subtitle.

Marketing copy like that makes a lot of us decide to read, say, a detective story instead. We are tired of hearing about what's wrong. We don't want to add to our guilt over what we eat. And besides, this book is 492 pages long. So why read it?

If you've already read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, and Nicolette Hahn Niman's Righteous Porkchop; and if you've watched King Corn and Food, Inc., you probably don't need to read Animal Factory, though you might be exactly the kind of reader the publisher had in mind: you are already worried about not only the cruelty but also the economic, ecological, and epidemiological dangers inherent in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations).

If you haven't read those other books or seen the films, Animal Factory could be a good and relatively painless place to start your education. Kirby, like Pollan, is a journalist, and he knows how to tell a story. This is not a book of data (though it contains quite a lot of information), nor is it a book of sermons (though it may convert you to a new way of thinking about your food). It is rather an extended and very readable story about Rick Dove, a retired marine and Vietnam vet, whose North Carolina fishing business was destroyed when the fish all died; Helen Reddout, a farmer in central Washington whose town and livelihood were threatened by the overpowering smell wafting off lakes of pig crap; and Karen Hudson, an Illinois farmer who tried but failed to prevent her neighbor, a dairyman, from dumping millions of gallons of poop into nearby waterways. The book tracks Dove, Reddout, and Hudson as they all become activists in the fight against factory farms, Davids against the Goliath of Big Ag and corrupt politicians.

Kirby is a columnist for the Huffington Post, so some conservatives may be inclined to dismiss Animal Factory without opening it. They should not: the book has an agenda, but the agenda is not partisan. To his credit, Kirby usually avoids the soapbox, letting the stories carry their own message. Many - perhaps most - of the farmers and activists he profiles are ardent Republicans. And, as he points out, both Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to provide and enforce the regulations needed to avert disaster.

A reporter once commented that ex-Marine Dove does not look like a tree-hugger.
Rick jumped at the chance to explain himself. "No, I am not." He grinned. "I am a Republican. And I am a capitalist. I believe that industry is good and development is good. But it's got to be right, or we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
 The good news is that, as the word about factory farms gets out, change is beginning to happen.
Helen Reddout went so far as to predict that ten years from now, "We will have a lot more farms transition back to sustainable operations. And if the government can resist a bailout on large corporate farms, you will see a lot of them folding. They are having serious economic problems now, and if we don't come in and bail them out with more subsidies, then the free market will finish them off. Give us a chance and we can do it."

1 comment:

Jonathan Merritt said...

Great review. I hadn't heard of this book but I am gonna get it.