Photo by Josua De on Unsplash

New Natalie Portman doc sees solution to factory farms in high-tech diet

Tim Schwab
Jul 11, 2018 · 5 min read

“Eating Animals” is long on the problems with animal agriculture but short on solutions. Can Silicon Valley veggie burgers really put an end to factory farms?

In the new advocacy film Eating Animals, producer and narrator (and vegan) Natalie Portman guides us through the horrors of factory farm meat production, righteously inveighing against how the United States produces most of its pork, chicken and beef.

The documentary offers us familiar, but still difficult to watch, grainy images of confined animals being pushed, prodded, and injected. We’re shown surreal, aerial images of bright pink “lagoons” where manure and other animal waste are stored. And we hear from the beaten-down whistleblowers who have pushed against the structures of power propping up the factory farm model, the USDA and giant meat processors like Perdue and Tyson.

For anyone who has never thought too deeply about where their hamburgers come from, the documentary may offer a vitally important message, though it’s hard to imagine this demographic will be flocking to theaters. More likely, Eating Animals will reach an audience who’s heard the sermon, and storyline, before. In the last decade, dozens of like-minded foodie docs, some featuring the same characters, have made similar interrogations into our industrialized food system (Food, Inc., Cowspiracy, At the Fork, Forks over Knives, Super Size Me, and on and on and on).

Eating Animals adds a few new lines of criticism to this packed canon, notably arguing that the factory farm model exploits not just animals but also farmers. One poultry grower interviewed at length in the film likens himself to being an “indentured servant” to the corporate meat processors that pay him (poorly) to raise their chickens. He’s so saddled with debt from the loans he took to build his specialized poultry barns, he says, that he has to keep raising chickens, or he’ll lose the farm.

The film’s ranging critiques of factory farms (animal cruelty, environmental damage, public health risks, labor abuses), however, feel diffuse and fatalistic, and Portman’s sporadic, somber narration adds little to the story. As an advocacy film, Eating Animals isn’t wrong to draw our attention to the problems with factory farms, but, ultimately, the documentary’s dark imagery doesn’t transport us; it dwells on the horrors of caged animals (and the broken men raising them) instead of giving audiences the light we need to imagine a robust, realistic alternative.

If the documentary offers a solution, it is in a brief segment toward the end of the film that promotes the next generation of imitation meat. Silicon Valley is pouring money into tech start-ups whose new-fangled recipes promise to disrupt the future of animal agriculture and how we consume protein.

In recent years, this techno-solution-ism to factory farms has drawn celebrity boosters, enormous media hype and angel investors, two of whom happen to be funders of Eating Animals. Ev Williams* and Biz Stone, the co-founders of Twitter, are credited in the film as executive producers. But they also helped fund the film. And they have helped fund the plant-based protein company Beyond Meat, which is featured in the film (favorably). This seems to present a conflict of interest for director Christopher Quinn, one that audiences might like to know about before going into the film.

Whether colored by its funding or not, Eating Animals seems to argue that if we can build a better veggie burger and bring the wonders of modern food technology to bear, the meat eaters will come. It’s an extremely forward-looking view for a largely untested market.

As Bloomberg reported in January, “For all the buzz about pea protein and lab-grown burgers, Americans are set to eat more meat in 2018 than ever before” — around 222 pounds per person.

Eating Animals’ uncritical featuring of the fake-meat fad feels empty on other fronts, too. Beyond Meat, for example, sells a veggie burger whose 22 ingredients include a few that you’ll have trouble recognizing or pronouncing: Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Cellulose from Bamboo, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Natural Flavor, Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Dried Yeast, Gum Arabic, Citrus Extract (to protect quality), Ascorbic Acid (to maintain color), Beet Juice Extract (for color), Acetic Acid, Succinic Acid, Modified Food Starch, Annatto (for color).

While many consumers will likely see this veggie burger as more humane than a burger wrought from feedlot cattle, will they view this highly processed meat-ish food product as healthy? Where are the vegetables?

Today’s imitation-meat zeitgeist also includes efforts to produce animal protein in laboratories from cell cultures. This isn’t specifically described in Eating Animals, but one of its proponents, the Good Food Institute, is featured in the film. An offshoot of the animal rights organization Mercy for Animals, the institute’s endorsement of cultured meat is a testament to how widely these high-tech alternatives are being embraced.

Replacing animal agriculture with lab-grown meat faces significant technical hurdles and enormous financial costs. It also faces questions about its environmental impact. The energy and resources needed to grow meat in laboratories may or may not release fewer greenhouse gases than factory farmed pigs or a pastured cattle. But cultured meat, like all veggie burgers, will almost certainly have a larger carbon footprint than a salad of barley, peas and carrots. Or a bowl of rice and beans. Or a plate of quinoa with vegetables.

Promoting a relatively unprocessed diet of whole plant foods — even including the occasional omelet or bone-broth pho or plate of raw oysters — seems like the simplest, most obvious dietary intervention available to challenge the factory farm model or reduce meat consumption. But simple isn’t sexy, and a low-tech diet isn’t part of the worldview of Silicon Valley, or, apparently, the documentaries it helps fund.

Eating Animals debuted in New York last month, and is making its way to theaters across the country. It will eventually be available to viewers on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, according to its distributor, IFC Films.

*Ev Williams is the founder of Medium.

@timothywschwab is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC whose writing has appeared in the British Medical Journal, Undark, and The New Food Economy, among other outlets. He previously worked as a researcher for an advocacy group called Food & Water Watch where his work was credited with helping compel the National Academies of Sciences to overhaul its internal conflict-of-interest polices.

Tim Schwab

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is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC who writes mostly about conflicts of interest. Follow him @timothywschwab

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