Is ‘Eating Animals’ a Vegan Documentary or Just Pushing an Animal Farming Agenda?

Is 'Eating Animals' a Vegan Documentary or Just Pushing an Animal Farming Agenda?

In his best-selling 2009 book “Eating Animals,” author Jonathan Safran Foer went in search of answers to his questions about our food system, namely animals’ roles in our diet. The feature-length documentary film of the same name, executive produced by Safran Foer and narrator Natalie Portman set for its theatrical release next month, aims to explore these same questions. But producer and director Christopher Quinn (Sundance award winner “God Grew Tired of Us”) seems to have another story in mind.

“After having spent nearly three years learning about animal agriculture,” Safran Foer writes in the book, “my resolve has become strong in two directions. I’ve become a committed vegetarian, whereas before I waffled among any number of diets. It’s now hard to imagine that changing. I simply don’t want anything to do with the factory farm, and refraining from eating meat is the only realistic way for me to do that.”

But, he goes on to say that the other direction of his resolve includes a “vision” of “sustainable” farms “that give animals a good life (a life as good as we give our dogs or cats) and an easy death (as easy a death as we give our suffering and terminally ill companion animals) has moved me.”

The film seems to get lost somewhere in between the two stories, and more often, it seems to slant more toward the latter, making the case for and defending small-scale animal producers more than it does to expose the atrocities of the alternative–where most of our animal food comes from–factory farms.

Granted, access to the world of factory farming typically involves breaking the law or planting an undercover investigator inside a farm, but the film seems all too occupied with promoting animal farms Niman Ranch and Good Shepherd, both of which, no matter how “nice” they are to their animals, are profiting off of their confinement and inevitable slaughter. Frank Reese, the founder and owner of Good Shepherd, says he’s “saving” some of these heritage breeds from extinction by raising them for slaughter. It’s circular logic, even despite what seems like genuine concern for the birds until he kills them. The same goes for Niman Ranch, which seeks to make eating animals as healthy as eating a salad, despite study after study after study saying the contrary.

The film highlights former Perdue chicken farmer Craig Watts’ well-known story documenting animal suffering and profoundly elucidates the tournament process used by most major companies, and shows how difficult it can be for these farmers to survive under what one expert in the film compares it to Soviet Era food production. But the film falls flat in finishing the story, diverting instead to a history lesson about Colonel Sanders and the origins of KFC.

Perhaps with Safran Foer narrating or navigating the reader through his journey the film would have stood on more solid ground. But even with the roster of expert talking heads, it seems lacking, missing the human quandary that made “Eating Animals” such a must-read exploration into this massive issue. Portman weaves through Safran Foer’s words eloquently but the viewer is barely given a moment to ponder the existential dilemma at the heart of the story before being ushered into the next scene.

And from there we keep bouncing — a brief visit to “pink lagoons” where massive amounts of hog waste are polluting waterways and air quality. It’s an all-too-familiar story but one that’s only told by the Waterkeeper activists rather than the locals battling the pollution daily. There’s veterinarian and scientist turned whistleblower James Keen forced to flee his home and loses his marriage as a result; and one almost-visit to a large-scale factory farm that feels forced and anti-climactic.

Despite the concerns about factory farming and raising animals in general inherent to the book, the film’s goal seems to be in turning people toward its loose definition of “ethical” animal farms instead of the more ethical (and sustainable and healthy) alternatives, like vegan food tech companies Beyond Meat and JUST, making meat (and eggs, and dairy) without the need for animals. Combined, these two companies get about three minutes total in the film despite the fact that they seem to solve all of Safran Foer’s concerns.

But despite these glaring answers to ethical, health, and climate concerns, the film’s stance seems to not be against killing animals for food — but simply in how we do it. It paints a dangerously unrealistic picture of how even the most “humanely raised” animals are slaughtered. While Safran Foer imagined well-cared for farm animals experience “as easy a death as we give our suffering and terminally ill companion animals,” this is simply not the case. Murder is messy stuff most all of the time. Cows and chickens aren’t sitting in the lap of farm owners while a veterinarian gives a lethal injection like one might experience with a terminal pet. They’re stunned (if lucky), bludgeoned, and then their throats are slit, often while they’re still conscious.

A lot has changed in the decade since Safran-Foer’s book was published. None of the major companies reshaping our food system today were even operational then. JUST (formerly Hampton Creek) has proven eggs are no longer a necessity for binding, baking, or scrambling. Beyond Meat is engineering meat 2.0 — it’s cracked the code on plant meat, figuring out how to make vegan burgers and sausage that look, cook, and taste indistinguishable from the post-slaughter stuff. Impossible Foods is doing this too with its vegan burgers that “bleed.” And there are scores of other companies doing the same for meat, milk, cheese, and more.

The answers seem so obvious (and delicious) that one must ask, would Safran Foer even have written the book today if these companies existed a decade ago? Because the story is no longer about whether or not it’s right to eat animals — that answer seems explicitly clear. The story is how we finally moved past it, once and for all.

“We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference,” Safran Foer wrote in the book.“Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?”