Thinking Twice About “Eating Animals”

Thinking Twice About “Eating Animals” November 11, 2018

Frank Reese and his beloved turkeys, in “Eating Animals”

Funny how current events can make a film suddenly more relevant.

In its wide-ranging take on factory farming, Eating Animals considers the polluting effects of massive pig farms in eastern North Carolina, more worrisome since Hurricane Florence caused many waste lagoons to overflow into nearby waterways.  The documentary also points out that factory farming is in the top two or three offenders of nearly every measure of environmental degradation, now more urgent with reports that human-induced climate change is occurring more rapidly than previously thought.

Beyond its environmental effects, Eating Animals impresses viewers with the animal cruelty inherent to Big Farma.  Mercifully, it doesn’t go heavy on the PETA-style hidden camera videos, but a little goes a long way.  If you didn’t think that animal slaughter causes sentient beings to suffer beforehand, a few of these videos of beaten pigs, calves screaming over separation from their mother, or panicky turkeys stuffed into poultry trucks will likely make you reconsider.

This documentary – directed by Christopher Quinn and based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer – covers a lot of ground in its 94 minute run time.  It crosses the US to look at poultry, pig, and cow operations stateside, but also shows how these practices have spread to India and China.

With factory farms now responsible for 99% of meat products in America, it punctures the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of small family farms.  In spending time with a Purdue employee in South Carolina and with an independent turkey breeder in Kansas, it shows how agricultural megacorporations squeeze the little guy in the name of profit.  The exhausted chicken farmer runs a Sisyphean “treadmill of debt,” and when he bravely turns whistleblower, the Purdue PR machine makes him into a standalone bad apple.

Inside a South Carolina chicken factory farm, in “Eating Animals”

Eating Animals doesn’t have nice things to say about our government either, charging that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has basically become a cheerleader for factory farms, leaving whistleblowers to do the risky work of exposing unethical and dangerous practices.  Meanwhile, several states have “ag gag” laws in place, making it a felony to photograph factory farms.

Quinn’s film asserts that the USDA privileges business over human welfare, allowing unhealthy food into school programs.  Not only is the meat and dairy content unnecessarily high, but with a failure of oversight, products from diseased animals make their way into school lunches.

Equally bad, the wanton use of antibiotics – to treat sicknesses induced by close quarters and stressed-out immune systems – creates the perfect conditions for the emergence of the world’s next “superbug.”  One of the biologists interviewed ominously intones that if current policies are left unaltered, it’s a matter of when, not if, such a superbug will emerge.

This partial overview may give the false impression that Eating Animals is yet another documentary that inflicts information overload on its viewers.  Fortunately, this is not the case.  Quinn’s film is equally interested in telling stories of people and animals.  We get a taste for the lives of the Purdue farmer, a USDA whistleblower, a Kansas poultry breeder and his beloved turkeys.  And besides the horrifying video of suffering farm animals, there are moments of sublimity, as when the setting sun is seen through the translucent wattles of a contented turkey.

Eating Animals is narrated by Natalie Portman, who produced the film with Quinn and Foer.  I suspect some of her script is lifted directly from the pages of Foer’s book:  while it may scan just fine in print, it is on the dry side when coupled with Eating Animals’ imagery.  Then again, a more dispassionate approach isn’t such a terrible idea, so the documentary can’t be dismissed as shrill propaganda.

Going into Eating Animals with the expectation that you’ll hear equally from both sides of the factory farming debate is about as realistic as thinking that you’ll get “fair and balanced” from Fox News, or that you’ll get a level-headed take on political conservatism from Michael Moore.  (For those who want another side, the Washington Post article that fact-checks this film is a decent place to start.)

However, the film takes pains to offer alternatives to factory farming that aren’t exclusively about vegetarianism.  Besides the aforementioned small farmers who leave a smaller environmental footprint, we meet food scientists who are creating plant-based alternatives to meat.  Like me, I suspect the filmmakers are sympathetic to the argument that a 100% vegetarian or vegan diet is financially out of reach for people living on a tight budget.

Though difficult to watch at a few points, Eating Animals is a film that should have a readymade audience among secular humanists.  Besides the humanistic obligations to care about human welfare and our planet, in rejecting the theistic notion of a unique human soul, we humanists ought question our egotistical privileging of our species and embrace the reality that we are not the sole sentient beings on our planet.  Perhaps a new and better word than humanist needs to be popularized, for those who advocate for more species than Homo sapiens:  a sentientist.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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