In the past ten years, the way we think about food in the US has changed. Today the term ‘foodie,’ need not be explained, farmer’s markets are almost passe again, and vegan options are standard at modern restaurants. Yet has the way we make food changed at all in that time?
People’s diets are sacred to them. The what, where, when, how, and who you eat is a very personal thing. The ability to choose what one puts into their body feels like fundamental aspect of free will and ability to act on one’s preferences. Yet the process to get the food from its origins to our plates (or to go bags) is increasingly complex and troubling.
In 2009 Jonathan Safran Foer released “Eating Animals” which would go on to become a New York Times bestseller and even required reading for incoming freshman at a handful of universities. This year, a documentary of the same name will be released and unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), it seems that the meat industrial complex that was the fodder of the original book is just as horrifying today.
The book and documentary are broad reaching looks at the US meat and dairy industry in an attempt to really look at what it means to eat animals. The documentary features interviews with several farmers from across the US who are involved in the meat industry and their relationship with animals, the industry, and the forces that keep meat as a dietary staple.
The film is ambitious. It touches on a dizzying amount of aspects of the meat industry, to the point that it’s easy to get lost, but inevitably always circles back to the perils of industrial farming. Throughout you see the degree to which Big Agriculture is controlling farmers across the country through high tech monitors, relentless quotas, and unreasonable contracts. At one point, it is compared to Soviet-style central planning, which seemed pretty fair after seeing how farmers have virtually no independence in their decisions over the living beings they have growing next to their homes (that’s the livestock). The role that the US Government and the Department of Agriculture plays in propping up this industry only helps this elusion and is one of the more hopeless parts of the film.
The tender parts of the film are the interviews with the farmers and viewing their struggles. It’s there that you see how personal the work is for farmers and the degree to which this industry has made their careers practically indistinguishable from farmers just the generation before them. Beyond that, they are charming and their love for animals is so obvious that you realize that the connection between man and animal is something that is becoming increasingly precious, yet still as special.
Animal welfare is not the centerpiece of the film, rather an element that is sprinkled throughout. Unlike many of the meat documentaries I’ve seen before, there is not the ‘bloodbath section’ where slaughterhouse footage is strategically placed for maximum emotional reaction. Rather instead of compartmentalizing animal welfare as an element to consider when eating meat, the film reminds the viewer that it is a moral question that deserves more attention than just a few minutes of gross out shots.
The morality of eating meat is something that the novel by Safran Foer explored beautifully. I myself turned vegetarian after reading this book soon after its release in 2009. The documentary only grazes the surface of this topic and unless you went looking for it, would probably be overlooked, which seems like a missed opportunity. This is where the film could have stood out in the ‘food documentary’ genre, but instead chooses to touch on many topics. The narration by Natalie Portman which I assume is an attempt to do this, was unnecessary, distracting, and rather pretentious. Further, many of these topics are already pretty high in the mainstream consciousness, unlike when the book debuted a decade ago.
Overall, I would recommend the film for those who are curious about the food industry and/or like a well made documentary. Hardcore vegans and animal rights activists aren’t going to learn anything new, but shouldn’t be offended either. In any case, check out the film playing at Sun-Ray starting August 10 and enjoy one of the many vegan or vegetarian options from their menu. Your conscious will be better for it.