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Eating Animals

Eating Animals. 2017. Big Star Pictures. Directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn.

Eating Animals is an adaptation of the best-selling book of the same title by Jonathan Saffron Foer, which undoubtedly informed many readers of the abysmal conditions of the “agro-industrial complex.”  The personal journey of Foer learning about eating animals structures the book, but that frame is absent from the film.  Despite voice-over by Natalie Portman, also a producer, the result can be unwieldy, weaving together multiple characters and sometimes disparate events.  However, few who watch Eating Animals will be unmoved by its collection of alarming statistics, images of animals suffering, and grim vision of the future if humans continue to eat animals.

The central thesis of Eating is that factory farming abuses farmers, damages the environment, and makes cruelty to animals the norm, a thesis that also raises the question of whether killing animals for food is in itself wrong. Eating Animals answers by pointing out that 99% of animal products come from factory farming, but seems to leave open the possibility that eating animals might be done ethically under the right conditions.  From the perspective of human-animal studies, Eating Animals is a step in the right direction because it does give more attention to animals than Food Inc. (2008), which is mostly about the dangers of industrialized food for farmers and consumers.  However, neither film goes so far as to construct animals as individuals with interests, even though Eating Animals does depict nonhuman animals as feeling creatures ensnared in an industrial and toxic system where genetic abnormalities, disease, and intense crowding are the rule.

Eating Animals mostly frames a human perspective, introducing a chicken farmer beholden to Tyson Farms, a turkey and chicken farmer who raises heirloom breeds, and a hog farmer who refuses to factory farm.  These farmers, all middle-aged white men in the rural United States, oppose the industrial Goliath as the little guys who cling to traditional farming methods.  Eating includes an excellent and vivid historical lesson into what led to factory farming, including the woman in the 1920’s who invented it after receiving 10 times her order of chicks, Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the men who invented the Tyson method of exploiting farmers. Foregrounding sympathetic human farmers underscores the argument that factory farming, not animal agriculture, is the main problem with eating animals. Eating also suggests how pursuit of maximum profit and cheap meat has coincided with corporate capture of government regulation and, not coincidentally, of market share.

The idea of government complicity amplifies during interviews with James Keen, a veterinarian whistleblower on the US Meat Animal Research Center, a facility governed by the United States Department of Agriculture (Moss). Eating recounts many of the atrocities detailed in a New York Times exposé such as faulty hog surgeries, the euthanasia of an adolescent heifer who had been confined and immobilized with five bulls to measure their sex drive, and the debacle of the “easy care” lamb experiment, which largely failed to get domestic sheep to care for their lambs.  Not surprisingly, these segments provide some of the film’s most horrifying imagery of suffering animals. Eating explores the fallout for Keen, now an active animal advocate, who says that, despite his pending divorce, he would do it again.  The fate of Keen and other whistleblowers, as well as the proliferation of so-called “Ag-gag” laws, serve as evidence of a corrupt system captured by corporations and enacted out of sight of ordinary citizens.

The toxic effects of industrial agriculture, however, defy containment. Eating interviews a man in North Carolina who wants to know why fish are dying, and why his own skin has developed the same red open sores that he finds on the fish.  The answer lies upstream with the discovery of numerous concentrated animal feeding operations, with giant pink lagoons that leach excrement directly into the ground. Eating shows footage not only of such everyday contamination but also of the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, where “The carcasses of several thousand drowned hogs and several million drowned chickens and turkeys were left behind.  An incalculable amount of animal waste was carried toward the ocean” (Hernandez).  Climate change, with more frequent severe storms and rising sea levels, will only worsen this situation. Eating also mentions the rise of super-bugs, created by widespread feeding of antibiotics to animals in factory farms, and the threat of another global pandemic.  One interviewee speaks about the outbreak of avian flu in China, which led to the massive culling of birds and prompted the government to encourage people to eat less meat.  He and his comrade wonder, why not simply encourage people to stop eating meat?  To its credit, Eating Animals leaves the question hanging rather than answering or omitting it.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Eating Animals is that it spends little time body shaming or scaring the audience for harming their personal health with animal products.  Nor does it introduce anyone who experienced an improvement in well-being after adopting a plant-based diet.  In other words, the argument from personal health is almost entirely absent.  In other words, Eating is not about you and your personal choices, it is about them and your personal responsibility.  Perhaps the personal is implied rather than explicit to enable Eating to make the less controversial argument that factory farming is unethical rather than the more holistic argument that consuming animal products is unethical.  Abandoning factory farming would require either a drastic reduction in meat consumption, which would be a step in the right direction, or an untenable increase in land devoted to animal agriculture, which already occupies at least 30% of the land on Earth (Walsh). Eating Animals is a step toward acknowledging that intensive animal agriculture doesn’t threaten to bring on the next global pandemic; it is the next global pandemic.  But it stops short of saying what some viewers are likely to wish it would say: the problem isn’t the factory, it’s the farm.

References

Kenner, R. (2008). Food Inc. Magnolia Pictures.

Hernandez, A., Fritz, A., & Mooney, C. (2016, October 17). Factory farming practices are under scrutiny again in N.C. after disastrous hurricane floods Spill risk for N.C. hog farm waste pits amid flooding. The Washington Post.  Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2016/10/16/factory-farming-practices-are-under-scrutiny-again-in-n-c-after-disastrous-hurricane-floods/?utm_term=.b27afbd69e12

Moss, M. (2015, January 19). U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit: animal welfare at risk in experiments for meat industry.  New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/dining/animal-welfare-at-risk-in-experiments-for-meat-industry.html

Walsh, B. (2013, December 16). The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production. Time.  Retrieved from http://science.time.com/2013/12/16/the-triple-whopper-environmental-impact-of-global-meat-production/

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