Opening today at the Cinema Village in NYC and the Laemmle in Los Angeles is a documentary titled “At the Fork” that makes the case for alternatives to profit-driven, industrialized and inhumane food production. As it happens, one of the interviewees is Mark Bittman who has written books and articles promoting the humane treatment of farm animals, many of which have appeared in the NY Times over the years. It is therefore something of an irony that no review of “At the Fork” appeared there in keeping with a recent decision to end the paper’s obligation as “newspaper of record” to cover all film premieres in NY. You will, however, find a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”, a film that Manohla Dargis describes as follows:
Two idiots need dates; they get them.
That’s about all you need to know about the aggressively stupid “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” a would-be comedy about a pair of imbeciles who are best understood as representations of the enduring, marrow-deep contempt that some moviemakers have always had for their audiences.
So a thoughtful documentary about food production gets overlooked while one exhibiting “marrow-deep contempt” for audiences makes the cut. I would argue that the failure to review “At the Fork”, the 95 percent of farming based on the industrial model, and the inclusion of a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” are all joined at the hip and apt symbols of the Decline and Fall of American Civilization—such as it was.
“At the Fork” begins with a barbecue at the home of director John Papola’s father with heaps of spare ribs cooking on the grill. He explains that meat is king at his Italian family’s household even though for his vegetarian wife Lisa it is anathema. This leads the couple to conduct an odyssey across the USA in search of farmers who try as much as possible to create a setting for pigs, chickens and cows that are as close to their natural habitat as possible even though their ultimate fate is not death by old age but a slaughterhouse.
This ethical contradiction is addressed most cogently by Temple Grandin, one of America’s leading authorities of humane treatment of farm animals who has garnered attention for her achieving this status despite suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Grandin advocated and designed a slaughterhouse that could be housed on a ranch, thus saving animals from the deeply traumatic long-distance travel on trailer trucks. Key to their effectiveness is a lengthy, circular ramp that has been proven to be less stressful for cattle that are not used to confinement.
The farmers and ranchers who operate such facilities are a remarkable breed with a keen sense of the ethical and economic factors that naturally collide with each other. In the case of egg farms, you get to the heart of the choices that must be made. In the typical egg farm based exclusively on profit, the chickens are confined in cages and fed through automated conveyor belts. It is the Fordist model applied to living creatures. But unlike a fender or a steering wheel, a chicken is a sentient being that suffers every single minute it is in such hellholes. By contrast, free range chickens that lay eggs in a setting close to that of their ancestors from millennia ago enjoy their lives while being a source of nutritious food. (Recently Bittman has made a strong case for eggs being a protein-rich foodstuff with very little risk of bad cholesterol.) A carton of eggs based on the industrial model cost about $2.50 while the free range type cost from 8 to 9 dollars. In a different economic system, it is likely that the humane choice might come down to $5 but it would be worth the extra money just to have good karma.
If you have doubts that it matters much that a “dumb” chicken suffers one way or another, you might be better off going to see “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” anyhow. But if you are sitting on the fence, there is plenty to put you in the humane treatment camp especially the terrible fate that awaits pigs on the assembly line of Smithfield and other mega-corporations. The film takes you inside an immense shed where female pigs are confined in gestation cages. The Humane Society, whose executive director is interviewed extensively in the documentary, condemns their cruelty on their website:
Pigs are among the smartest animals on Earth. Studies show that they are more intelligent than dogs and even some primates: They can play simple video games, teach each other and even learn names. They also form elaborate, cooperative social groups and feel fear, pain and stress.
Yet on U.S. factory farms, where sows are kept in row after row after row of gestation crates throughout their pregnancies, they’re also among the most abused. The 2-foot-wide cages are so narrow, the animals cannot even turn around. They chew on the bars, wave their heads incessantly back and forth, or lie on the pavement in an apparent state of dejection. Nearly immobilized, the pigs spend months staring ahead, waiting to be fed, likely going out of their minds.
My only criticism of the film is its connection to Whole Foods that is described as a partner on its website. While the stores are certainly a superior source of food that is produced in humane conditions, its CEO John Mackey, who is an interviewee in the film, has little regard for humane conditions when it comes to human beings. In a Salon.com interview, he enunciated his libertarian beliefs:
When I was in my very early 20’s I believed that democratic socialism was a more “just” economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift…
I didn’t think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left.
While Mackey likely endorses the idea that pigs should not be confined in gestation cages, he certainly puts their welfare above that of others in similar confinement:
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, whose net worth exceeds $100 million, is a fervent proselytizer on behalf of “conscious capitalism.” A self-described libertarian, Mackey believes the solution to all of the world’s problems is letting corporations run amok, without regulation. He believes this so fervently, in fact, he wrote an entire book extolling the magnanimous virtue of the free market.
At the same time, while preaching the supposedly beneficent gospel of the “conscious capitalism,” Mackey’s company Whole Foods, which has a $13 billion and growing annual revenue, sells overpriced fish, milk, and gourmet cheeses cultivated by inmates in US prisons.
The renowned “green capitalist” organic supermarket chain pays what are effectively indentured servants in the Colorado prison system a mere $1.50 per hour to farm organic tilapia.
Colorado prisons already grow 1.2 million pounds of tilapia a year, and government officials and their corporate companions are chomping at the bit to expand production.
That’s not all. Whole Foods also buys artisinal cheeses and milk cultivated by prisoners. The prison corporation Colorado Correctional Industries has created what Fortune describes as “a burgeoning $65 million business that employs 2,000 convicts at 17 facilities.”
While I recommend “At the Fork” wholeheartedly, I hope that the director might rethink his ties to John Mackey—at least if he cares as much about human beings as he does about farm animals.