“If the consuming public saw what [factory farming] looks like, they would stop eating” the meat that comes out of it, one farmer insists in Eating Animals, and that is what this documentary sets out to do: show us the horror. Which director Christopher Quinn does an excellent job of. But will people stopping eating this meat? I suspect not. Sure, as noted, most Americans say they are against animal cruelty, and factory farming is definitely cruel: as we see here, chickens, pigs, cows, and other animals we eat get crammed into enormous sheds — often crammed into tiny cages inside enormous sheds — where they may wallow in their own filth and certainly never see sunlight, for just the beginning of the abuse they suffer. Factory farming is also bad for farmers, by turning independent business owners into little more than indentured servants for global corporations; bad for the environment (industrial quantities of pig and chicken shit get dumped into local water supplies, with disastrous impact); and bad for us: the animals are doped up on antibiotics, to head off the disease that inevitably crops up when creatures live in such unhealthy and unnaturally close quarters, which we then eat in their meat, causing all sorts of havoc in our bodies, too.
The only thing that factory farming is good for is corporate profits, and therein lies the problem. Factory-farmed meat is cheap and plentiful, and not everyone has the luxury of buying organic and free-range and heritage. Philosophical musings about American family farms as the backbone the country was built on, and gosh darn, we need to get back to that, trumps the practical here: the likes of heritage poultry farmer Frank Reese (pictured above) are never going to be able to feed the world, even if Reese is opening a facility to share his knowledge about traditional farming and ancient breeds of bird that are on the verge of being lost forever. But in a nation of 300 million plus people, the vast majority of whom have seen no economic progress in decades, the practical will trump the sentimental: if the choice comes down to a chicken suffering or a child going hungry, that’s no choice for parents. Eating Animals does have some optimism, probably quite justified, in up-and-coming plant-based “meat” products that could replace factory farming... but Quinn seems to miss the warning bell of those Big Agriculture megacorps getting in on the ground floor of these new foods. If these foodstuffs become mainstream staples, the corporate machine will surely find ways to maximize their profits that end up hurting people and planet in all-new ways.
Based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer and narrated by Natalie Portman, Eating Animals is tackling an issue that we only need to just barely scratch the surface of to realize that it’s part of an enormous mess of interconnected disasters — for starters: overpopulation, profit-is-everything greed, governmental kowtowing to corporations, and economic stagnation — all of which need to be tackled, somehow, at once if any progress can be made. The film doesn’t quite seem to appreciate that merely returning to traditional farming methods could fix this, or that even the whole world going vegan could. Factory farming is but a symptom of, it’s probably not too extreme to say, a slow-motion beginning of the collapse of human civilization, and its proffering of a way back from it feels like small potatoes. Probably of a lovely heritage variety, though.
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