Last week The Humane Society of the United States co-hosted a screening of the film Food, Inc. for policymakers in Sacramento. It was a lively and engaged crowd representing the gamut from vegan activists to staunch carnivores, and it seemed every one of them learned something from Food, Inc. Alice Waters, Martin Sheen, Elise Pearlstein (the film’s producer) and the two most powerful state Senators brought cache and insight with their post-screening panel.
Dave Murphy’s great review of Food, Inc. the other day was spot-on and HSUS urges everyone to see it. Its fundamental aim is to expose the rampant abuse of power that has resulted in an inefficient, polluting, degrading, cruel, and unhealthy food system in America. To add to Dave’s commentary, I wanted to offer the perspective of someone who works daily to address the torturous conditions that 10 billion animals raised for food routinely each year endure.
About a third of the film’s footage features feedlots, confinement facilities, and slaughterhouses. In an artful and effective way, images flick quickly from living animal to dead animal to carcass to giant vats of flesh. In so doing, the film challenges the cognitive dissonance so many people live with: identifying and empathizing with individual animals while eating others.
One scene sticks out in this regard and generated an interesting discussion at the Sacramento screening. Both the film and Michael Pollan lionize Joel Salatin, who at his Polyface Farms in Virginia, is shown raising many of his animals in what most people would consider the “old-fashioned” way – outdoors, in small herds, with species-appropriate feed. And certainly Salatin’s methods seem far preferable to how most farm animals are raised. But the film also shows a matter-of-fact Salatin and crew performing an outdoor slaughter of a number of chickens. As he chats amiably to the camera, Salatin and his co-workers grab flapping and screaming birds, cut their throats while they’re fully conscious, and then de-feather and dismember the carcasses.
As was the case the two other times when I watched this scene with an audience, I looked around to see that the vast majority of the crowd reacts viscerally: grimacing, covering eyes, wincing, looking away. As Salatin and his workers engage in these fundamentally violent acts, the audience (mostly meat-eaters) becomes uncomfortable.
It’s in this space that Food, Inc. has the biggest opportunity to impact the lives of the 10 billion animals – nearly all of whom endure far more suffering than Salatin’s chickens. If we cannot accept our role in the process that turns living, breathing animals into commodities to be slaughtered and sold, we may want to consider whether our dietary choices really reflect our values.
At the film’s close, a number of individual actions are proposed for filmgoers who will definitely be hungry for change. But only one of those encouragements has the potential to positively affect all of the ills the film highlights: reducing our consumption of animal products.
- Pollution? Giant cesspools of liquefied manure are a significant threat to air and groundwater quality. The fecal waste produced by a single industrialized pig operation (500,000 animals) exceeds that generated by the residents of Manhattan (1.5 million people).
- Food safety? Nearly 70 percent of antibiotics produced are fed to animals raised for food, contributing to the growing problem of human antibiotic resistance. Further, there is simply an irresolvable tension between raising and killing billions of animals in only a handful of plants each year and ensuring proper traceability and food safety assurances.
- Global warming? According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is responsible for the largest contribution of any sector to global warming – more than transportation.
- Water conservation? Huge amounts of water are utilized in producing meat: According to the EPA, 400 gallons to make a single pound of chicken, for example.
- Mono-cropping? The majority of corn – 60% by some estimates – produced in this country is consumed by animals raised for food.
- Human hunger? We’re feeding animals the food that starving humans need desperately. It takes 6.5 pounds of corn for a pound of pork.
- Worker safety? Slaughterhouses are among the most dangerous workplaces. Low pay, repetitive work, the potential for injury, and the poor conditions are driven by the need to kill as many as 32,000 animals a day, as the film reports one Smithfield pig slaughter plant does.
- Rural communities? According to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, “[t]he family-owned farm producing a diverse mix of crops and food animals is largely gone as an economic entity… and rural communities have fared poorly. Industrialization has been accompanied by increasing farm size and gross farm sales, lower family income, higher poverty rates, lower retail sales, lower housing quality, and lower wages for farm workers.”
- Animal cruelty? Factory farming and the institutionalized cruelty it involves is driven by the numbers. There’s no way we can continue to eat the same number of animals without something akin to the current system – brutal, dehumanizing, and inherently cruel.
The most effective choice we can make right now is to reduce our consumption of animals. And it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. It is great to stop eating animals altogether, but every meal counts. And it’s not just The Humane Society of the United States on board with this idea: writers such as the New York Times’ Mark Bittman and Pollan advocate reduction as well, with Bittman’s new book describing his “vegan until dinner” strategy.
A new PSA for Food, Inc. featuring NBA star and vegan John Salley was unveiled at the Sacramento screening, and appears now on our web site. I spent perhaps too many words here saying what he sums up best, “Skip the meat, eat some veggies. You are the consumer, you have the power. Vote with your fork, three times a day.”