When I first heard about the documentary Earthlings, I have to admit, I immediately assumed the worse. The fact that Joaquin Phoenix is on the cover and Moby provided the musical score brought to mind images of Pamela Anderson screaming meat is murder. I expected a greatest hits film of animal suffering with little subtlety and a complete lack of nuance. Unfortunately, that’s mostly what this film offers.
Since this is a food blog, I’ll naturally focus on the aspects of the film that relate to food production. The core flaw of this film is that Earthlings too often presents a flawed practice as the only possible alternative. They take the classic arguments of “Animal Liberation” and remove all the subtlety. They start the film by equating modern day human society with Nazis because of our treatment of animals. Instead of Jews, it’s Animals that we kill needlessly in a holocaust of massive proportions. The idea being that like the Nazis, human society has systematically built a world in which animals are tortured and eliminated because of their identity as the other.
The film takes this same approach to food production. It implies that if we want to eat meat, then animals will be treated cruelly in factory farms. That there is no other way. It’s an all or nothing approach, that while appealing to PETA members, won’t change the way most people relate to their food. It may guilt trip a few people into becoming vegetarians, but for the rest of us they offer no answers to the problem of large scale animal suffering.
I agree wholeheartedly that practices such as “tail docking” and the countless other atrocities that take place on factory farms need to stop, but the greater question is how can we truly reduce the overall level of animal suffering incurred by our food system. And, that’s where I think this documentary fails. By presenting the problem from the urban, narrow viewpoint of animal rights activists, they’re ignoring too many aspects of man’s complex relationship with animals.
The film features a quote from Jeremy Bentham, the philosophical godfather of animal rights, who said the single most important question is not “Can they reason?” nor “Can they talk?”, but rather “Can they suffer?” This argument is often seen as the cornerstone of the animal rights philosophy. The irony of this quote is that Jeremy Bentham actually saw nothing wrong with eating meat. He ate meat once per day. But, he lived by the code that man should seek to give farm animals a decent life, and strive to offer the animal a death that was less painful than what would have awaited them in the natural world.
Animal suffering is perhaps one of the most complex ethical questions of the 21st century and it should be treated accordingly. It doesn’t deserve to be simplified and robbed of all nuance. To pretend that going Vegan will eliminate the animal suffering caused by our modern society is ridiculous. It’s the balm of self-righteousness. Every acre of soy that is planted requires the death of hundreds of small rodents. Field mice are shredded and baby deer are crushed underneath advancing tractors. Our end goal as a society shouldn’t be to eliminate the consumption of animal meat (leather is a byproduct of meat processing here in the states, not a separate industry as shown in the film’s clips from India), but instead we should to try and reduce the net amount of animal suffering that is incurred by our food production.
A pig who lives happily rooting in the woods until he’s killed at the hands of his farmer is most likely happier than one who dies in the wild at the hands of a bear. Man’s relationship with domesticated animals isn’t as one sided as it’s presented in this film. Farm animals have prospered by partnering with man. Chickens are more numerous than any other bird in the world. They are arguably the most successful species of their kind. However, their success shouldn’t doom them to live a life of squalor in tiny cages. Chickens deserve to roam, peck and kill bugs. Chickens should live their lives as chickens. Fortunately more and more farms are taking this approach, and realizing that the end product is better as a result. Grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry products are better for us health-wise than their corn fed brethren (higher levels of good fats/lower levels of bad fats), and have the added benefit of increasing the quality of life for the animal.
The real question about these these farming practices is, can they be adopted on a massive scale? Right now it’s a luxury that I can drive to Stockbridge to pick out my chickens, or buy a heritage turkey straight off the farm. However, the simple fact that I have to buy an entire 1/2 of a grass fed cow directly from a farmer (300 lbs at a time), instead of just picking up steaks at the super market, shows how far our food system really has to go. Ethical food has yet to move into the mainstream. And till it does we need to shine light on the worst aspects of our food system.
Since the best way to combat animal cruelty is to shine a light on the practices, this film does accomplish some of it’s goals. But, I’m left with the feeling that Earthlings was in the end a wasted opportunity.I don’t want to call it vegan propaganda, as the creators obviously had good intentions, but I feel that it could have been so much more than it was. Instead of taking the opportunity to create a film that looked at the complex relationship that human’s have with animals, with the intent of ending needless animal suffering, they decided instead to make the equivalent of a snuff film in the hopes of shocking people to adapt to their belief system. Peter Singer’s philosophy deserves to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of this film.
P.S. — If you’re looking to buy products from farms that treat their animals ethically, there are two approaches: Number one, meet your farmer and connect with your food. Visit their operations and see what really takes place during processing (Localharvest.org is a great place to start). Number two, seek out products labeled “American Humane Certified.” This American Humane Society certification ensures that animals are treated ethically and humanely on the farm.
About The Author
This guest post was written by Adam Harrell, a local foodie and interactive marketer. You can find him at www.neboweb.com/blog/