As regular readers know (and some former readers, who left as a result), I post plenty of material on food, the implications of eating meat, and the idea that giving meat up is the single most powerful choice an individual can make when it comes to the health of the planet, the health of humans, and the welfare of billions of animals.
Reader Maria Ramos wrote in and offered to write up a guide to some of the most thought-provoking documentaries on the topics of factory farms and meat consumption. Since the power of documentaries to inspire change is another of my favorite topics, I said “Sure.”
So here is Maria’s list of films that can change the way we eat. Feel free to add your own favorites (Earthings–if you dare!–anyone?) in the comments. I would also recommend “A Peaceable Kingdom,” a very moving film about what it means to give animals the lives they deserve, as well as “The Ghosts In Our Machine,” about photographer Jo-Anne McArthur‘s quest to capture what it truly means to turn animals into human commodities.
Take it away Maria:
Documentaries That Show the Truth About Factory Farms
Factory farming, and its far reaching effects on both the environment and the public health of American citizens, is one of the most important issues of our time. Gone are the days of the small independent farm where animals have all the space they need to roam. Instead, farming has been turned into a corporate operation that continually sacrifices ethics for profits. Below are five documentaries that expose the truth about factory farms and other aspects of modern farming that need to change – now.
This 2008 film, directed by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner, looks at the many dark sides of corporate farming in America. The first part of the film exposes the awful living conditions of chickens, cows, and pigs on factory farms. Food, Inc. is effective because it changes people perspective on meat from an object bought at a supermarket to a living thing. This may make viewers apply a different set of ethics when purchasing their meat and has already sparked several companies to be more transparent with how their meat is produced.
Farm to Fridge
Farm to Fridge, a documentary made by Mercy for Animals in 2011, provides undercover footage of animal cruelty at some of the nation’s largest factory farms. Although it is only 12 minutes long, its graphic footage leaves a lasting impression. Some of the worst footage shows male chickens being grounded up while still alive. Other scenes show dairy cows being physically abused by workers. This graphic style of filmmaking has been a big contributor in the 100% vegan diet movement that is growing steadily in America. It certainly leaves a lasting impression – find it here on YouTube.
Cowspiracy exposes how Big Meat is the number one destroyer of the environment through the use of unsustainable farming practices. It discusses impacts most people don’t associate with agriculture, such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions from food transportation and slaughter factories, and the long-term harm most pesticides have on the environment. It also shows just how much political red tape surrounds the problem by including interviews with industry whistleblowers, in which the whistleblowers discuss various threats against their career and life for spilling industry secrets. This film makes viewers realize that there is a business behind their food and how these businesses have complete disregard for the health of their customers and the planet.
Indigestible: The Film
Indigestible is a 90 minute film that exposes the hidden costs of providing cheap meat to consumers. It breaks down the illusion most people have of the small-time farmer showing his animals tender love and care each day, and exposes viewers to the realities of factory farming. Once people see how our food is confined to tiny spaces similar to a prison and treated as raw materials to be converted into product rather than a living organism. Like Food Inc, it changes the way people view the production of their meat by putting the face of a living animal to the process. You can find clips of the full film here on YouTube.
This heartbreaking documentary is one chicken-farmer-turned-whistleblower’s story on how the corporate chicken industry exploits its farmers to maximize their profits. He compares being a chicken farmer for a corporate farming company to being a sharecropper. The farmer just works the farm. The corporation owns all of the chickens and equipment and decides how these chickens are treated (cruelly). The film also shows how the number of chicken farmers have shrunk from over a million in 1950 to just 30,000 today, with 54% of them contracted by the same company. This documentary from Fusion filmmakers and DirecTV and makes viewers realize how their fellow Americans are also exploited in order to bring meat to their plates.
The one underlying theme that links these five documentaries is they outline severe problems within our food industry that must be changed if we are expected to survive as a species long-term. Films like these prove documentaries have the power to not only raise awareness, but inspire widespread positive change.
What I love about all these films, and there are so any good ones, is that they convincingly, systematically, and powerfully, rebut all the spin, truth-twisting and outright BS or the industrial farm lobby. Watch them and see whether you thing there are any happy chickens or cows. Whenever I hear such talk, or contemplate the vast industry that grows and processes meat for human consumption, I go back to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who captured the relationship between humans and animals in a perfect and unforgettable frame:
What do they know–all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world–about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.
Last year, I connected with a dolphin trainer called Ashley Guidry, from Gulf World in Florida. Over the more than 10 years she worked with Gulf World’s dolphins she had come to find her love of the animals irreconcilable with the business of using them for profit-making entertainment.
I have always been interested in how trainers’ attitudes change over time, as they learn all the subtleties of the marine park business, and also develop deep bonds with intelligent, captive beings. Many trainers say “I love my animals” as a way of suggesting that the animals are doing fine in captivity; that their “love” means that everything is fine (because it would prevent them from condoning or tolerating practices that harm the animals).
However, I have long thought that what many trainers mean when they say “I love the animals” is really “I love working with the animals” or “I love having a deep relationship with the animals.” In other words, that being a trainer is about themselves and their desires, and not really about the animals and the animals’ welfare.
But Ashley Guidry provided an example of what truly loving the animals means: by walking away from a business that treats them like commodities, and telling the story. That takes guts and self-sacrifice. And real courage.
The story I wrote about Guidry and how her thinking about the dolphin show business changed has now been published at Longreads.com. Here is the original introduction I wrote for the story (cut from the published story for brevity’s sake–even on the web you can’t go on forever!). I am posting it here because it sets up Guidry’s story in the way that I framed it in my own mind:
This a story about empathy, about it’s power to connect us to animals, but also to suddenly change the way we think about animals and our relationships with them. It’s also the story of a stubborn, sassy, blonde named Ashley Guidry, and how her love and compassion for a dolphin calf turned her life, her career, and her view of herself completely upside down. Because it was empathy–and her undeniable compulsion to try and consider the world from the point of view of a little guy named Chopper–that unexpectedly dumped her into a morass of introspection, self-doubt, and painful self-discovery. In the end, Chopper changed her life for the very simple reason that she couldn’t change his.
Read the full story of Ashley Guidry’s change of heart here.
I am particularly sad to see this because while I don’t really think that any animal farming is truly humane, I felt that Certified Humane tried to set stringent standards that would at least minimize animal suffering. And so if I bought eggs for my kids and wife I always bought “Certified Humane” eggs (finding “Certified Humane” milk is nearly impossible).
So now I have to update my view. I still think that Certified Humane sets the most stringent standards for the treatment of livestock. It’s just that those standards allow a lot more suffering than I expected, or can stomach. Which is a pretty sad comment on the state of modern livestock farming and consumer denialism (the video also does a pretty good job of eviscerating Whole Foods’ self-congratulatory and wholly misleading marketing efforts that aim to make Whole Foods shoppers feel good, even virtuous, about the animals that are being abused and killed for their gustatory pleasure).
The whole thing reminds me of a joke I used to have about redefining the word “humane.” Given how humanity really behaves (as opposed to the way we like to think it behaves) it seemed to me that it would be more accurate to define “humane” as cruel, thoughtless, selfish behavior. And “inhumane” would more accurately describe enlightened, empathetic and merciful behavior.
Perhaps I need to look into backyard chickens if my family continues to insist on eating eggs. Though I am pretty sure that as they learn more my kids will eventually stop eating eggs.
Update: Certified Humane,Whole Foods, and Petaluma Farms push back against the video, saying it is edited for impact and does not accurately reflect the experience of Petaluma’s chickens. My bottom line for any farm that wants credibility and trust from consumers is: transparency. Allow open access to certified auditors from animal welfare groups. If a farm is not willing to be fully transparent about how it operates then I am not willing to take what it says on faith.
You can’t beat that combination:
I am always ambivalent about our endless and relentless efforts to track, film and commercialize killer whales (and other “charismatic megafauna”).
On the one hand, this is a much better way to see what a killer whale is really like than, say, going to SeaWorld. On the other, I feel that it must be stressful for whales and other animals to so frequently experience the presence of curious humans. I feel this most acutely with regard to the Southern Resident Killer Whales off the US Pacific Northwest coast, who daily have a flotilla of whale watching boats following them. Perhaps in addition to the citizen and nonperson rights we’ve been considering for animals, they might appreciate a right to (occasional) privacy.
Still, sometimes the result is spectacular footage. And if viewers walk away with an enhanced sense of the majesty and inherent value of a wild killer whale, then perhaps it is a trade-off that needs to be made.
So let’s roll tape (background here):
What if domestic animals — pets such as dogs and cats as well livestock like cows and chickens — were granted citizenship rights? That may sound like a crazy question, but Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka thinks it’s a critically important one.
Kymlicka, a professor at Queen’s University, is a well-regarded figure in modern political philosophy. He’s also the author, along with writer Sue Donaldson, of Zoopolis, a book making the case for animal citizenship. Their basic premise is simple: animals are already part of our society, as pets and work animals, therefore we should formally recognize them as such.
That’s not just a head-in-the-clouds thought experiment. We already have basic laws forbidding animal abuse and regulating industrial slaughterhouses. But, as anyone who has visited an animal shelter or thought about the ethics of what they eat can attest, we as a society have not come anywhere close to solving the problem of animal mistreatment. If we really want to improve animals’ lives, Kymlicka and Donaldson argue, we need to stop thinking in terms of merely treating animals better. Rather, we need to acknowledge on a fundamental level that animals are a part of society and deserve to be treated as such. That leads you, however improbable it might sound, to citizenship.
Here’s a key point from Kymlicka, in an interview with Vox:
We need to create a shared interspecies society which is responsive to the interests of both its human and animal members. That means that it’s not just a question of how you ensure that animals aren’t abused. If we view them as members of society — it’s as much their society as ours — then it changes the perspective 180 degrees. The question is no longer “how do we make sure they’re not so badly treated?” We instead need to ask “what kind of relationships do they want to have with us?”
That’s really a radical question. It’s one we’ve never really bothered to ask. I think there are some domesticated animals that enjoy activities with us — I think that’s clearest in the case of dogs, but it’s also true of other domesticated animals whose lives are enriched by being part of interspecies activities with us. But there are other animals who, if we took what they wanted seriously, would probably choose to have less and less to do with us. I think this would be true of horses.
And if you are still with him to this point then there is a logical implication that follows. As Kymlicka puts it: “We can’t go around eating our co-citizens.”
Fair point, fair point. Read Vox’s full interview with Kymlicka here. It is a very interesting way to stretch our thinking and logic as we apply it to animals. One way or another, via personhood or citizenship or some other cultural/legal construct, we will eventually give animals the rights and protections they deserve.
Humpbacks are high on my list of fascinating animals, in part because of this sort of spectacular and complex behavior, filmed by drone in Alaska’s Prince William Sound:
For the uninitiated, I09 describes what is going on:
Typically, humpback whales lunge into a shoal of prey, but as described in Arkive, they also herd their prey using a “bubble net” to trap them in quantity:
During this process, a number of whales will circle underwater emitting a continuous stream of air which traps fish in the centre of the ring, the whales then surface up through their ‘net’ gorging on the contents within. During the summer months, humpbacks must feed intensely as they do not feed again during either the migration or the time spent in tropical breeding grounds.
The fact that many species have developed unique and distinctive behaviors gives credence to the idea that animals have “cultures,” that both define them and help them survive. Increasingly, conservationists are arguing that understanding and incorporating those cultures into conservation strategies is a key to success. Last month, delegates at the UN Convention on Migratory Species passed a resolution (PDF) that calls on conservationists to acknowledge and incorporate animal cultures into conservation thinking.
This is a key evolution in thinking about the animal world and its future. Philippa Brakes of Whale And Dolphin Conservation explains:
In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.The new resolution recognises both positive and negative consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.
How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population numbers.
In African elephants, older matriarchs are thought to act as “repositories of social knowledge”, holding information important to the survival and fitness of their social group, such as the location of food or water. Their removal may have impacts beyond the loss of one elephant.
There is also evidence that baleen whale calves learn migratory routes from their mothers and that hunting two species – southern right and humpback whales – meant that critical knowledge was lost.
I would add another benefit. Understanding the distinctive cultures of animals opens the door to empathy. A mother elephant or whale who has knowledge and plays the same role that your own mother might is more than just a whale or elephant. She is inherently valuable and her protection is inherently important.
That makes a difference. It shouldn’t, in my view. But unfortunately humans care more when they can see parallels to their own lives and social structures. So the more awed and compelled we are by any cultural behavior, like bubble-feeding, the better.