Agriculture is a fundamental human enterprise, and civilization could not exist without it. It’s also a noble enterprise, and farmers are among the hardest-working of laborers.
Yet, as Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food" and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” observes, “The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.” Especially when it comes to animal production, it’s become industrialized, environmentally destructive, and needlessly inhumane.
"FOOD, Inc.," a new documentary showing now across the nation, chronicles how far modern industrial agriculture has strayed from its roots. Nicholas Kristof, who grew up on a mixed agriculture farm in rural Oregon, lauds the movie in his Sunday column in The New York Times.
And Jennifer Fearing, who was our manager for the landmark Proposition 2 campaign, has much to say about the documentary. She recently participated in a forum in Sacramento after a screening of the film and I asked her to share her thoughts.
The fundamental aim of "FOOD, Inc." is to expose the rampant abuse of power that has resulted in an inefficient, polluting, degrading, cruel, and unhealthy food system in America.
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 underscores the cognitive dissonance so many people live with: identifying and empathizing with certain animals while eating others.
One scene sticks out in this regard and generated an interesting discussion at a screening The HSUS co-hosted in Sacramento last month. Joel Salatin, 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. Certainly Salatin’s methods are far preferable to how most farm animals are raised on industrial factory farms. But the film also shows Salatin and crew performing an outdoor slaughter of a number of chickens. They grab flapping birds and cut their throats while they’re fully conscious.
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 acts, the audience becomes uncomfortable.
It’s in this space that "FOOD, Inc." has the biggest opportunity to impact the lives of the 10 billion animals raised for food each year—nearly all of whom live their lives on industrial factory farms and endure far more suffering than Salatin’s chickens. The film opens a window into modern food production, one which most consumers of food never get to see.
At the film’s close, a number of individual actions are proposed for filmgoers who will definitely be hungry for change. We all have the potential to positively affect the ills the film highlights, by reducing our consumption of animal products, supporting farmers who raise animals more humanely and sustainably, or making other lifestyle changes.
It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Every meal counts. And it’s not just The HSUS on board with this idea: writers such as Pollan and The New York Times’ Mark Bittman advocate reduction as well, with Bittman’s new book describing his “vegan until dinner” strategy.
A new PSA for "FOOD, Inc." featuring NBA star John Salley was unveiled at the Sacramento screening, and appears now on our website. Salley sums it up best: “Skip the meat, eat some veggies. You are the consumer, you have the power. Vote with your fork, three times a day.”