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Reinforcing the Need to Move Away from Meat

In Review: Eating Animals

Gearing up to watch a film about industrial animal agriculture isn’t easy. You know you’re going to see things you don’t really want to see, and be confronted with information you might rather avoid. But the new documentary Eating Animals — based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book by the same name — is worth gearing up for. Yes, it contains gruesome video of sickly chickens and abused cows that remind us of the almost unbearable cost of industrial agriculture. But it also uplifts the small family farmer, and perhaps as a result, manages to avoid getting too preachy about, well, eating animals.

photo of turkeysphoto courtesy of IFC FilmsEating Animals uplifts small-scale operations like Frank Reese's heritage turkey farm as much as it criticizes industrial animal agriculture.

If you’re well-informed about the many ills of animal agriculture, this documentary isn’t going to blow your mind. But it might provide a good refresher. The film covers all the major bases, including the egregious water pollution caused by massive agricultural operations; the truly awful conditions in which factory-farmed animals live out their lives and the brutal ways in which they are slaughtered; the vast quantity of antibiotics used on factory farm-raised animals; and much more.  

By the end, if the film hasn’t convinced you to put down your hamburger mid-bite, it will almost certainly have made you think about the cow it came from and the farmer who raised it.

Eating Animals also includes some interesting, lesser-known tidbits, particularly when it comes to the history of factory farming in the United States.

As the narrator — vegan actress Natalie Portman — explains it, back in the early 1900s, a woman named Celia Steele more or less accidentally became the first factory farmer in the country. She had ordered 50 chicks, but for some reason or another, received 500 instead. Rather than send them back, she decided to take advantage of the mistake, and experimented with keeping the chicks indoors for the winter. The experiment worked — the birds didn’t see the light of day or have space to move, but they survived.

By 1923, Steele was keeping 10,000 birds, and in 1935, she had 250,000. By the mid-‘40s, Delaware’s Delmarva Peninsula, where she lived, had become the poultry capital of the world, and Steele had, as Portman remarks, had “perhaps unknowingly given birth to the modern poultry industry and begun the global creep of factory farming.”

From there, the film paints a picture of factory farming more or less taking on a life of its own, pushed along, perhaps, by key figures like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame and Don Tyson of Tyson Foods, and the ultimate motivator: efficiency.

As Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy, puts it in the film: “Nobody ever got the idea, wouldn't it be really cool if we raised millions of animals under really hideous conditions and gave them short, miserable, and painful lives. By the way, we would also pollute our waterways and deplete our top soils. Wouldn't that really be a great way of doing business. There was never some evil genius whose idea it was to create a world that was like that.”

That may be true for the early years, but when it comes to the modern industry, there are certainly some villains knowingly perpetuating the system. And in Eating Animals, one of the them is Perdue Farms.

We don’t hear from Perdue in the film, but we do hear from one of their contract farmers, Craig Watts. As Watts describes it, the chickens on his farm are a far, far cry from healthy. In one particularly hard-to-watch scene, he shows a chicken whose legs can be bent like rubber. It’s impossible to imagine the chicken taking a single step. The conditions inside the chicken house are so awful that Watts has never let his children set foot in them.

In addition to the animal welfare concerns, there are also the economic challenges for the contract farmers. Watts says that working for Perdue is like “a treadmill of debt.” As Portman explains, “Year after year the lopsided contracts reduced Craig to little more than a low-level manager of his own farm, owning nothing more than the [chicken] houses, the waste, and the dead birds.”

By the end of the documentary, Watts has gotten out of the chicken business. He’s now growing legumes for use in plant-based “meats.”

Alongside videos of Watts’s massive poultry farm and other similar operations, the film also takes viewers to the more humane side of animal agriculture. Paul Willis, founder of Neiman Ranch, expounds on his free-range pig philosophy and the network of Neiman farmers “who weren’t going for the confinement system.” Bill Neiman discusses the difficultly of taking animals’ life, even when they’ve lived relatively good ones. And Frank Reese gives us a glimpse of his small, often-struggling heritage turkey operation, replete with footage of his pastured turkeys meandering through bucolic fields at sunset.

The film’s portrayal of these small-scale operations borders on the overly-romanticized. But these do farmers help get the film’s ultimate message across: If you must eat meat, you should be supporting small, ethical, sustainable farms like these.

What Eating Animals glosses over, however, is the high price tag that comes with eating more humane meat, and the fact that most Americans — and most people around the world — can’t afford pasture-raised turkey or a free-range pork. Nor do they really have access, at least not yet, to the fancy plant-based “meat” alternatives that are starting to hit major urban centers like San Francisco and New York. In that sense, one expert’s suggestion that, given the level of violence involved with meat production, “it’s only a matter of time” before we, as a society, move away from consuming meat, feels a bit naïve. What are the meat-loving members of the 99 percent to eat?

Potential naivety aside, the film is worth a watch for those looking to reassess their carnivorous ways, or reaffirm their plant-based lifestyle. And hopefully we will one day move forward as a society towards a culture that, at the very least, consumes significantly less meat, and treats all animals with the care and respect they deserve.

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. In addition to her work with the Journal, her writing has appeared in Civil Eats, Alternet,, and Truthout, among other outlets. She also holds a law degree from Berkeley Law, where she studied environmental law and policy.

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