The romantic ideal of the traditional, barnyard-and-a-haystack family farm is all but dead in the ground. Over the past half-century, the majority of our livestock farms have become large enterprises owned by giant corporations. “Big Agriculture” as it is sometimes called, has developed technologies to maximize profits and efficiency without thought towards the health and well being of the animals.
While we have made enormous strides in the time it takes to obtain meat products – in the 1920s, the average chicken took 16 weeks to reach 2.2 pounds, today a modern chicken only takes 7 weeks to reach 5 pounds – this has come at price.
Today approximately 95% of the red meat in the US comes from animals raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or farms where the animals are confined and fed for at least 45 days out of the year. Such “farms” hold hundreds or even thousands of animals, and the resultant waste is a major source of pollution. To encourage growth and prevent disease, the farmers give the animals growth hormones and antibiotics. Consequently there are numerous health and environmental concerns associated with CAFOs, and some courageous filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to explore these implications further:
Food, Inc. (2008)
Directed by Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. shows how industrial farming harms both animals and humans. The film consists of three parts with the first focusing on livestock, the second on crops and the third on the power of the corporations that control the farms. Industrial farms use methods and technologies that are both unsustainable and unsafe, and they produce food that is ultimately unhealthy. Crops, for example, are exposed to petroleum-based chemicals in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, and the resultant food, while cheap, is often contaminated.
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret charges that animal agriculture is the most destructive industry on the planet. Filmmaker Kip Andersen calls it the leading cause of water pollution and deforestation, and points out that it generates more greenhouse gases than does the transportation industry. Methane is at least 25 times as destructive to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide is, and cows alone produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day. Yet environmentalists and environmental organizations tend not to discuss animal agriculture. Industry whistleblowers warn Andersen of the dangers in persisting in his investigations.
Cock Fight (2015)
Cock Fight depicts a chicken farmer turned whistleblower. Craig Watts, who raised chickens for Perdue Farms, invited the Fusion filmmakers and DirecTV to document his story. The film depicts conditions on a chicken farm and Watts’ struggles with his decision to become a whistleblower. Chicken farming is hard on both humans and animals. The farmers suffer because they have both an unstable income and little to no control over how they do their job, while the chickens are kept in appalling conditions. The chickens are often sickly or deformed to start with, and Watts has to euthanize the weakest birds. While the Obama Administration has attempted to reform the chicken industry, the large producers have so far successfully resisted the reforms.
In Farmageddon, producer Kristin Canty tells of her quest to find healthy and nutritious food for her four children. When she uncovers roadblocks, she decides to investigate the reason for denying consumers the right to choose the foods they want from the producers they want. Government policies tend to favor industrial farms and penalize small family farms – despite the fact that food safety problems tend to originate in the factory farms. The film describes cases of federal agents forcibly closing small farms on trumped-up charges, and the owners of the farms are often forced out of farming altogether.
Our Daily Bread (2005)
Made by Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Our Daily Bread describes and depicts the technology involved in modern food production. The unnamed companies use techniques to increase profit, efficiency and consumer safety. The movie has no narration or soundtrack, and it simply shows industrial farms in Europe. The film emphasizes the mechanistic nature of such farms: the machines have center stage while the humans operate them and have to keep pace with them. There is little room for individuality, and the industrial farms reflect what people value: a lot of food that is produced as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Eating conventionally produced meat is not only detrimental to your health, but also the environment. Considering adopting a vegetarian lifestyle is a beneficial option for a number of reasons, but those who can’t or won’t give up meat altogether should look into sustainable options, like organic meat sold at a farmers’ markets and in general grocery stores.
These documentaries show the different ways industrial farming harms the environment, people and animals – while surprisingly, still holds favor from the government. Thanks to government subsidies, food from a factory farm is less expensive than organic food, even though the former is produced with chemicals and machines that ought to add to the cost. Watching these documentaries should encourage consumers to seek more sustainable sources of food, and Eat Well Guide, a directory of over 25,000 sources of local and sustainable food, is a great place to start!