Eating Animals is more a meditation about our collective future than a harsh indictment of the past and present.
Watching Eating Animals, the new documentary by Christopher Dillon Quinn, reveals how inured we’ve become to our current corporate dystopia. The film is not only about the conditions in the factory farms that provide most of the livestock we consume, but the loss of farming traditions that were once the staple of this nation. The film is replete with images of mutated creatures that would look more properly placed in a horror movie than in a work of nonfiction about the circumstances that produce our food. There are chickens with extremities that bend like rubber, steroid-infused cattle—too fat to move—hauled around by forklifts and sickly pigs attached to nightmare machines that can only be described as disassembly lines. Despite the inherent revulsion, you might find yourself thinking “this again?”
Realizing how deeply we’re desensitized is a terrible revelation. Live chickens should not be bendable, but the David-and-Goliath structure of these documentaries about corporate malfeasance has grown as sadly familiar as the aforementioned images. A tacit acceptance has formed around the exploits of Big Everything. In terms of food, little has changed since the publication of Fast Food Nation or that brief window after Super Size Me when McDonald’s reviewed its practices. Furthermore, there have been outbreaks of swine flu and avian flu, both of which led to warnings of antibiotic-resistant superbugs immune to the drugs fed to the animals in factory farms. The warnings have joined the din of new, more tragic news, and the images from the factory floor have lost the power to shock.
The story Quinn and Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the source book, tell most effectively concerns the history of factory farming. There was a time when many farms had a copy of a book called Standard of Perfection. Detailed in its pages were illustrations and instructions on how to raise one’s livestock. Farming is an imprecise endeavor, but the Standard showed what needed to be done as effectively as possible.
The practice of factory farming began due to an accident. In 1923, Delaware housewife Celia Steele received an order of 500 chicks when she thought she’d asked for 50. She experimented with raising the chicks indoors to sell as meat separate from her flock for laying eggs. Her “Broiler House” was the development that began the push to find industrial methods to make farming more efficient. A half-century later, the notion of efficiency took hold in the agricultural industry. Efficiency really means producing anything as cheaply as possible, so in the 1970s high fructose corn syrup began to replace sugar and corporations began buying up struggling farms to eliminate competition and implement their notions of industrial agriculture.
Quinn draws a line from Standard of Perfection to Steele to the pink lagoons that sit beside industrial pig farms in North Carolina. There are hundreds of these chemical pools, full of fecal matter and factory waste, across the state. Each pool is unlined, its contents seeping into groundwater and rivers. Each factory farm is likely to hold 10,000 pigs, making the environmental degradation unfathomable. The people in charge of these enterprises aren’t farmers but something more akin to middle managers. They operate opaquely and treat whistleblowers and investigators with threats and lawsuits.
“Efficiency” becomes the buzzword for agriculture conglomerates like Perdue using outside contractors. There can never be enough industrialization, so legacy farmers who are struggling financially look to the big companies for economic gain. There are most often promises of increased profits that rarely come to fruition. According to Craig Watts, one of the farmers featured in the film, such contracts are treadmills of debt. Bonuses go to the farmers who can raise chickens as cheaply as possible. What those conditions create can barely be termed animals. And while the system that breeds these practices has been labeled as capitalism, it has little to do with notions of free markets or competition.
In the end, Eating Animals is more a meditation about our collective future than a harsh indictment of the past and present. Factory farming is on the rise internationally. The potential for a world covered in toxic pink lagoons is very real. We eat cheaply while poisoning ourselves. It’s a fool’s bargain that we keep renewing. But there is hope. The film highlights farmers who raise their livestock with love and care. They cry on the days when their animals leave for the slaughterhouses. There is great poignancy watching these men care so much about their craft. In the end, you want to believe that a coexistence between the industrial and traditional farm is possible, but history tells us otherwise. The inclination will be to feed the world “efficiently,” but the cost will be devastating.