It was a pretty hard sell to get me watching two of the hardest-hitting documentaries out there exploring our dietary choices, their impact on the animal kingdom and the planet. I might well be a bleeding-heart, card carrying leftie with a soft spot for the underdog, but I’m also a serious foodie. Despite the fact that I’ve had to give up my nemesis, gluten, it hasn’t dampened my passion for good food, cooking, and yep, eating. I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch anything that might have a further impact on my diet, any more than being diagnosed with coeliac disease already has. Being said bleeding-heart leftie type, and bear in mind I’m usually hiding behind the sofa at fictional film violence, I knew there was a high likelihood that I’d be profoundly affected by watching both Earthlings and Vegucated, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. I’d been vegetarian in my late teens and early twenties, which did have some ethical grounding, but was more about wanting to be different and a bit edgy. I’ve always known I didn’t like the idea of killing animals for food, but since the whole process of doing so is kept so remote from the end consumer, I’ve never really had to stare it in the face. Vacuum-packed trays of meat in the supermarket don’t really resemble their original form, do they, so it’s pretty easy to distance yourself.
I agreed to watch these documentaries after a conversation at work with a volunteer who is a committed vegan. I work in a conservation centre, and, due to the fairly high proportion of passionate environmentalists I work with, inevitably there are also quite a few vegetarians and vegans, more than I used to encounter in my previous corporate office job. I was quite impressed by this particular person’s approach to talking about veganism – not at all preachy, or proselytizing, as I had feared, but more of the attitude that people should get all the facts and make an informed decision about their diets. We discussed some other documentaries and books that had influenced our attitudes towards food, such as Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me, and during the course of the conversation, I somehow agreed to watch these two documentaries that he told me had had such an effect on him as to inspire him to move from omnivore with doubts about the ethics of the food industry to a complete eschewing of any animal products at all.
Earthlings in particular is a no-holds-barred look at American factory farming, where the very concept of animal husbandry is completely absent. Sick, injured and dying animals are not treated, but tossed out like garbage, left to suffer and die, and it’s only the lucky ones that might meet a quicker end from a bolt gun. Animals are, without doubt, not treated as living beings, but as commodities, and I found it disturbing in the extreme how people employed to care for them could bear to inflict pain and suffering on them, or be immune to witnessing it. I know we’ve been hunting, killing and eating animals since time immemorial, but there’s a bit of a difference between hunting a woolly mammoth in the wild, and capturing said mammoth, keeping it in a cage, forcing it to breed more mammoths and subjecting them to sickness, painful procedures, dirty and cramped living conditions, and traumatic slaughter.
Whilst in the UK, we don’t have the same scale of factory farming, and some of the cruellest practices are not permitted here, I don’t think that the farmers of my grandparents’ generation would recognise the kind of farming we are doing now. Midland Pig Producers have been trying to construct a large-scale piggery and biogas plant in Foston, Derbyshire, for several years now, fighting tenacious local opposition. Although they plan to also produce biogas from the waste and minimise environmental impact, and also not to carry out mutilations such as teeth clipping and tail docking, the pigs at Foston would never see the light of day. Having seen the images of factory farming in both Earthlings and Vegucated, I firmly believe that we should resist any further move towards intensification, both for animal welfare reasons, and the environmental impact. One of the things I’d always felt about the idea of being vegetarian or vegan was that it was a bit pointless, as no matter whether I ate meat or not, other people still would, so the demand would still be there. Organisations such as Compassion in World Farming are campaigning to change some of the attitudes towards factory farming, and looking at the true cost of cheap meat. Should the monetary price of meat actually reflect the environmental cost and the sacrifice of life involved in producing it? Arguably, yes.
Vegucated at least had some gentle humour, in amongst the serious messages, and I needed it after an hour and a half of the emotional rollercoaster ride of Earthlings. Director Marisa Miller Wolfson plucks three ordinary New Yorkers from their meat-and-cheese-lovin’ lives and gets them to try out veganism for size. 6 weeks, several veggie burgers, two rescued chickens and a trip to a deserted slaughterhouse later, it was interesting to see that none of the participants wanted to go back to eating meat, although one compromised on vegetarianism.
In New York, of course, you won’t find too many problems getting good vegan food. I’ve been to California a couple of times, and had no problems there as a veggie, either, and in Berkeley I ate some of the best vegan and vegetarian food I’ve ever had (thank you, Herbivore the Earthly Grill). However, none of Vegucated‘s participants had any food allergies or intolerances, and none of them were coeliac. I have enough trouble here eating out as a coeliac, but a coeliac vegan? Heads up, trendy New Yorkers – this is God’s own country of Yorkshire, and it’s sacrilege enough to have to leave Yorkshire puddings off the plate, but the beef as well?
I don’t exactly know what my long-term actions will be as a result of watching these two very powerful and informative documentaries, but I am certainly not feeling much like tucking into a steak, in the immediate aftermath. I’ll happily come out and say that I like meat, but some of the issues raised here are ones that I don’t think I can continue to ignore, particularly the environmental ones. I don’t want to see Derbyshire drown in pig shit, like the area around the Ohio piggery featured in Earthlings, to put it quite crudely. And frankly, I’m confused by the labelling in the supermarkets – free range, Red Tractor, Freedom Food, outdoor bred – no matter what the label, I still can’t guarantee that the pig that supplied my bacon wasn’t kicked and abused by unqualified, unsupervised slaughterhouse workers, and that it was really rendered senseless before being hoisted by one leg on a hook and having a knife stuck in its throat. And before we condemn the workers too much, we should also remember that this dangerous work often attracts low-paid migrant labour, and in the USA, a lot of illegal immigrants – who have little recourse to any employment rights in a dangerous job with high rates of injury. And it’s not just the slaughterhouses – think of what it would be like to have to work in an intensive chicken shed, the stench of the ammonia from the chicken droppings burning your lungs and eyes. I am leaning towards the feeling that if I wouldn’t be willing to do any of that, then I’m not sure I should be eating the products of that system.
A rude awakening for the confirmed foodie – definitely don’t watch either of these if you’re wanting to enjoy your next bacon sandwich.