book review: the chain

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a food book – awhile since I read a food book. I think that it’s almost like the feeling you get when you watch the news a lot, and you realize that the bad news is just a little bit too much. But when I saw many people in the food world talking about Ted Genoways’ The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of our Food online, I thought it was time to get back in the game. I’m disappointed that books like this even exist for me to read, but I am glad I picked this one up and am putting my toe back in the water. It’s not a good habit to just turn my face to truth because it’s too hard to handle.

the chainThe art on the cover of The Chain is compelling and accurate. The pig shown has its body cut into parts, so you can see “inside” where the pig is filled with cogs and sprockets – the mechanics of a factory. While there are many books that detail the problems with factory farming, this book takes it down to the micro level and illustrates those larger problems by telling the story of two factories – one in Austin, Minnesota and the other in Fremont, Nebraska – that service Hormel by creating Spam – the ubiquitous hunk of gelatinous “pork product.”

Book after book and essay after essay have been written on the problems with factory farms, detailing their detrimental impact on the environment, animal welfare, public health and food safety. But The Chain is different by primarily focusing on the meat packing that happens at the two plants and tracing the problems backwards.

Because all large meat companies, such as Hormel and Smithfield, are now vertically integrated, they produce their own grain, to feed their own pigs, and they slaughter, package, ship and sell them. One compelling section details the work of undercover workers in a factory pig farm that services the Hormel meat processing plants, there to investigate inhumane treatment of animals and violation of regulations (and basic decency). State legislatures are increasingly being asked by industry to pass legislation that outlaws this type of recording and whistle-blowing, collectively referred to as Ag-gag laws (For some background, this is not new. I wrote about this in April 2013).

Genoways interviews Amanda Hitt from the Government Accountability Project, and her comments are too good to paraphrase (p. 39):

Ag-gag laws, as they’re know, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistle-blowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistle-blowing.’ In short, ‘you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.” She said she couldn’t believe that an industry that had been to regularly recorded breaking the law “would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do a favor and criminalize catching us?'” Amanda Hitt, Government Accountability Project

Ag-gag laws are just one of the ills that Genoways mentions – sections on water pollution and the fight of small towns to have their watersheds protected from contaminated manure lagoons as well as horrifically abused animals are both fascinating and horrifying. And the book is carefully and meticulously researched, with an extensive notes section and an index – one of the marks of good non-fiction.

But the thing that sets The Chain apart is its focus on people. The people who work at the Hormel plants in Austin and Fremont and what it does to them and what it does to the surrounding communities. It is truly heartbreaking that we pollute clean water, abuse animals who are dependent on us for their care, and expose workers to horrific working conditions for near poverty wages – all for something like Spam. Spam, people.

The section that detailed a mysterious illness that plagued workers at one particular plant actually made me sick to my stomach. Workers at a table that sucked out the pig’s brain matter with high pressure hoses had to work at such high speeds, that a cloud of brain matter always hovered over the table, because the matter never had a chance to settle before more was introduced. That’s right. A cloud of brain matter. Without proper safety equipment (that encumbered workers too much for them to keep up with the company-mandated line speed), workers inhaled the brain matter of the pigs daily for hours upon hours. It gave them nerve diseases that stripped their nerves of the sheaths that protect them, making it virtually impossible for them to stand or move without excruciating pain.

The fight for workers’ compensation and for the company to acknowledge these abuses is sickening. Workers were permanently disabled with their quality of life forever diminished for something like $10/hour if they were lucky. On my worst day in my cubicle job, I can’t even begin to comprehend what working on the kill floor or the butchering line would be like at a meat processing plant.

Why could Hormel (and other companies that have similar problems) get away with this? Having destroyed the unions that supported the workforce for decades, the companies rely on a workforce of primarily immigrant labor. No matter where you stand on the side of immigration reform or law, the situations created in these communities are no good for anyone involved. The workers and communities that are at odds against them are both under the same boot that’s pressing down on them – the corporate interests of companies who have free reign by government to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.

I could go on for days. It was a great book. You should read it.

What I can’t seem to shake after reading it is the feeling that we so easily take horrifying abuses and problems and distill them to numbers. Commodities. We think of pigs as “pork” and not as animals, with the ability to feel pain and excitement and care and attachment. X number of chops and roasts. That’s it.

It would be easy to say that “only” X number of workers were affected by the nerve disease. But these aren’t just statistics. These are people. With faces and names and families. Hobbies and thoughts and dreams for a better life for their families – the same dream that all of us are working to reach. Does a human being, whether he/she has legal papers or not, deserve to inhale pig brain matter and suffer daily, agonizing pain, because the company increased the line speed so that we can eat more Spam than ever before? And so that Hormel can make increasingly more profit? Would the CEO of Hormel work at that same spot on the line, knowing what it’s done to people? I would venture to say no. Yet somehow, it’s okay to put someone else there. And leave them permanently disabled, physically and financially. Because that person isn’t a person. He’s a number. He’s a cog in a machine.

When you buy a package of Spam, or some Hormel bacon, you help that cog in the machine keep spinning. The machine doesn’t stop until we do.

TV review: Food Forward on PBS

food.forward.logo_-e1307320024221I recently started watching through episodes of a series called Food Forward on PBS via online streaming. The full episodes are available on their website – all 13 of them for the first season.

The series focuses on “food rebels” – people and groups across the country that are trying to make the food system more sustainable and just – as well as delicious. I watched the first three episodes (each about 25 minutes long) to determine if I wanted to go through the whole series, and I definitely do.

The episodes are very well produced. They feel like mini documentaries, but the editing on them is so good – there’s nothing extraneous (with the exception of a guitar player that has shown up in two episodes and makes it feel more hipstery than it has to). I found all of the first three episodes engaging, even though they dealt with topics that are old hat to me in some ways.

The episodes are sponsored by Chipotle and Applegate – two companies that in theory are dedicated to more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. In a culture where everything is sponsored and naming rights to everything are for sale and funding for public broadcasting is slim, PBS (I’m assuming) chose companies that operate under a mission most closely related to the programming. I can give them credit for that.

So about the episodes.I really like that the episodes focus not on problems with the current food system, but on solutions that are actually happening. Save for a brief outline of the problem that the food rebels are trying to solve, the episodes really focus on normal, everyday Americans who took an idea and ran with it. There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit that you can feel behind the people in the episodes. And they’re not all Berkley hipster “foodies.” They are just regular Americans.

I watched the episodes in streaming order, with the first one being the pilot called “Urban Farming”. The episode asks the question – what if we stopped importing food into cities and grew it within the city limits? It focused on farmers (“food rebels”) doing some pretty innovative things, from rooftop aviaries in New York City to an urban farm with integrated hydroponics (fish and produce production together) in Milwaukee – from a CSA operation in an area of Oakland, California with no grocery stores to rebuilding vacant lots into farmland in Detroit.

An episode called “Meat of the Matter” addresses the issue of the cost of America’s meat consumption. Centering on the idea that we should eat less meat in general and eat higher quality meat when we do, it profiles several different ranchers and farmers who are producing meat by raising bison, cattle and hogs in a new way. Their practices focus on humane treatment, understanding the animal as more than just a commodity. They also spent a lot of time on the benefit to the earth of a polyculture system, where no one species is in isolation from the others surrounding it.

Overfishing is a big issue, not just in America, but worldwide. An episode called “Go Fish” profiled several American “fish rebels” who are fishing in different ways – going back to the way that fishing happened several generations ago. The practices used by these family and small businesses and cooperatives are less damaging to the environment and the fish population, and they are bringing a higher quality product to the marketplace while supporting their local economy. The most interesting part of this episode was a program called Dock to Dish, which is like community supported fishing. Subscribers get the freshest catch possible – same day caught. That would be so great – makes me want to move to the coast!

I will definitely be working my way through the other episodes. Take advantage of the free streaming of these, especially if you like documentaries and are interested in food systems.

 

dan-barber-third-plate

book review: the third plate by dan barber

I first encountered Dan Barber when I watched the TED Talks Chew on This collection through Netflix. He’s the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill restaurant and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, but his talk was something of a precursor to this book.

Now, I’ve read a lot of food books. A ton of books on food systems highlighting the problems with our current one and people’s visions for the future. So while I expected the book to be well written, since Dan Barber’s TED Talk was, I didn’t expect it to really say anything new.

Well, I was wrong.

I knew after reading the intro that this book was going to be different, and I was not disappointed. The Third Plate has the audacity to challenge the farm-to-table movement – one I personally hold dear – and question what it means to support farms and sustainable agriculture. By “third plate,” Dan Barber is alluding to his vision of where cuisine is going for the future. (He came up with the idea as a response to a reporter who asked him where the future of cuisine was going.) The first plate is a traditional American meal of a large, corn-fed steak and baby carrots. The second plate is a farm-to-table plate of a grass-fed steak with heirloom, organic carrots. But the third plate is a carrot steak, with a side of beef seconds (the more obscure cuts).

What in the world is he talking about?

He realized that as a chef cooking in the farm-to-table philosophy of cuisine, he was still cherry picking what he wanted for ingredients – ones that were often expensive to produce and not the best for soil management and long-term sustainability. Our food culture dictates that farmers grow what will sell – not what is better for the land. And it extends to livestock – we throw away many usable and edible parts of animals that we raise for food, all in a quest for more boneless, skinless chicken breasts and beef tenderloins. 

Through four sections organized around soil, land, sea and seed, Barber profiles various farmers, fishermen, bakers, seed managers and more in an attempt to explain what is missing from our current food culture and how we can get on a path toward a more sustainable future.

Barber argues that what we need is a food system organized around the whole system of agriculture – and most perhaps most difficult for us to wrap our heads around – is that we can’t always get what we want. He calls on chefs to start cooking with other types of foods that are the most important for soil management – certain grains and vegetables that return nutrients to the soil. In essence, chefs need to create the market demand for the items that the farmers need to maintain their land to sustain its health. The idea is that once the chefs start a trend, it can morph into our home kitchens. Which, if you think about it, makes sense – think about what chefs have done for pork belly and brussels sprouts.

This book has fascinating new ideas and a comfortable writing style – definitely for the person who feels like they’ve already heard it all when it comes to food systems and sustainability. You’ll also get a healthy dose of information about international cuisines and agriculture (including the story of some of the world’s only foie gras that is not from force-fed animals). It’s optimistic, but logical and realistic, which was a tone I really found refreshing. Gives me hope that there are visionaries who are really getting to the heart of what needs to happen to ensure sustainable agriculture. 

And it really makes me want to try a carrot steak… 

saving the rail trails

There’s a group based out of D.C. called the Rails to Trails Conservancy. They work on converting old rail lines to trails across the country, and also help to maintain those trails and raise interest in their use and protection.

Here in the Pittsburgh area, we’re blessed with an abundance of these type of trails – Montour, Panhandle, and Three Rivers Heritage just to name a few. The Heritage trail (left) is used as a commuting route for many people. I run on that trail at least twice a week and have done so for over a year now. Mark uses the Panhandle frequently, and we both have used the Montour before. I even had my first half marathon there. Those are just three that are within the metro area. Go out a little further and they are everywhere.

Which makes it even more ironic that recently, it was Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania who proposed an amendment to the Preserving America’s Transit and Highways Act that would eliminate funding for the Transit Alternatives Program (TAP). TAP is the largest dedicated funding source for walking and biking infrastructure, and it would seriously jeopardize the trail system in this country that many rely on for recreation and fitness.

Thankfully, the Rails to Trails Conservancy rallied ordinary citizens as well as civic groups in PA to lobby the senator to withdraw his amendment. And he did. TAP funding is safe – for now.

This is yet another example that community activism and calling your representatives can work. (I wish I would have known about this before he withdrew the amendment or I would have added it to my list of letters to write this year!) I’d venture to guess as a Pennsylvanian, he’s probably been on a converted rail trail before, for one thing or another. Many races and community events are tied to the trails – there are too few parks in the city to accommodate them and the trails help to do that. 


These trails are really important, especially in a city center like ours where there wouldn’t be many places to run, walk and bike outside of traffic. While we do often mix up our routes with combinations of trails and city on the weekends, it’s nice to have dedicated places to go where no matter what’s going on traffic-wise, you can just GO. It encourages people to walk, run and bike when they know they can do it safely. 

And while any scenery gets boring when you’re running 16 miles, our trails are quite lovely, too. Not a lot of areas of the country where you can mix city scapes, riverfronts and forested areas. The trails conserve and expose people to nature, as well, serving as an oasis from the urban sprawl.

To find rails to trails near you, visit Trail Link, a service of the Rails to Trails Conservancy. It’s also a handy tool if you’re on vacation or camping and need to find a place to fit that run in! But if you live in Pittsburgh and haven’t made use of the trails, do it. Start with the riverfront near the stadiums and you’ll get hooked on the view. (And if you see a short brunette huffing and puffing by you in the early morning, that’s me. Say hi and offer me water. :)

Photos from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and Panhandle Trail in Pittsburgh and the W&OD Trail in Virginia.


movie review: frankensteer

Have you ever had the experience of reading or watching something thinking it was current, and then realizing it’s actually a lot older than you thought? And then it dawns on you how scary that is? That describes my experience watching Frankensteer, a documentary I didn’t realize is 8 years old until after I watched it. Because the issues it raises are all still relevant today.

As far as the documentary itself, it was clearly on the low-budget side, without the polished feel of more widely released films. It’s also not an American film – it’s Canadian – so some of the information is geared toward Canadian governmental policies, though it does look at things from a “North American” perspective as well.

For me, the best part of the film was in its opening line – that in order to produce cheap food, we have taken a benign, naturally flatulent vegetarian and turned it into a cannibal and vampire. We push these creatures to within an inch of their life until ultimately they lose it in a slaughterhouse to end up on our plates.

The film makes its way through a discussion of the dangers of growth hormones and sub-therapeutic antibiotics, two things that in 2014 the public is demanding be removed from our food supply more than ever. In discussing the differences between government policies on these items and showing the disparity between what Europe feels is safe and what North American nations do, it occurs to me that it’s amazing how we think that science and nature relate differently on this issue depending on your country’s borders. I think it’s safe to say that if it’s not safe for a member of the European Union, it’s not safe for me. Why that science cannot cross national boundaries is beyond me.

Frankensteer lays out all the basic reasons to avoid industrially raised beef, and in particular the health risk to humans of mad cow disease (not as much of an issue now as it was in 2006, but still nothing to dismiss) as well as E. coli and food borne illness. We shouldn’t have to take a product home from the grocery store that’s intended for consumption and have to treat it like toxic waste until cooked. 

Frankensteer doesn’t get into industrial agriculture’s effect on the economy, environment or workers, but that’s understandable for a film that’s only 44 minutes long. Honestly, there are 500 page books on the subject that can’t even cover it all. All the more reason to not eat or purchase it. 

For me, I try not to eat meat at all when I don’t know where it came from (as in, which farm). However, lately I’ve found it harder to make those choices when traveling, especially when I need protein and there are no vegetarian options that include any. While I didn’t find this film incredibly compelling in and of itself, it served as a good reminder for why I don’t eat industrial meat and a push to recommit to being strict about it in my own diet, even if it means making sacrifices.     

movie review: the end of the line

This week, Marty’s Market hosted a screening of the documentary, The End of the Line. Marty’s has recently partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to sell seafood that is approved by Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch program, so this was a fitting educational program for them to host. They also are partners with the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium – the first store in the area to do so.

(As a side note – great place to watch a documentary. Comfortable tables, delicious coffee and nice people. Also a great place for brunch – I’m just sayin.)

I’ve known for awhile about the problem of declining seafood populations, having read Four Fish by Paul Greenberg.The End of the Line is based on a book of the same name by Charles Clover, and challenges the idea that we have operated under for centuries – that the sea is inexhaustible in its resources. (Come to think of it, we’ve pretty much thought that about land and underground resources as well.)

The film highlights the myriad of issues that overfishing creates – from environmental issues like drastically changed ecosystems. When a  species higher on the food chain collapses, there is a proliferation of the lower species. When those are overfished, there’s no way for the system to rebound. Bi-catch is also a big problem – the other sea life that is caught in trawlers and nets in addition to the intended population – making up 1/10 of what is caught. Bi-catch goes back over the side of the boat, dead. Bottom trawlers drag the ocean floor and destroy the life on the sea bed. None of it is so simple as putting a lure on a line on a fishing pole, which is the idea we have about fishing from the recreational fishing that people do as a hobby.

1.2 billion people depend on seafood as a key part of their diet, and many hundred thousands of jobs are dependent on it as well – everything from indigenous fishermen to international corporations. Overfishing might sustain jobs now, but as the populations of the fished species dwindle, those jobs will disappear anyway, since there will be no more fish left to catch. This is where the logic behind quotas and protected areas comes into play – but these are often completely disregarded. Indigenous fishermen in developing nations are also threatened by their own countries selling the rights to off-shore fishing to developed nations. The coastal areas where theses people have fished for centuries are now depleted, making it harder and harder for them to make a living in their own home areas.

The film also touches on farmed fish – often thought of as the solution to dwindling wild populations. But the problem is that farmed fish EAT wild fish. So using aquaculture for a species that eats fish isn’t actually sustainable in any way, since it takes many pounds of fish like anchovies, herring and mackerel to feed the farmed fish that seem to be such a great idea. There are also problems with these fish farms polluting and/or contaminating the wider ocean.

One of the ideas this film presents that I hadn’t really considered before was how we look at seafood as a different type of life than other animals, like dogs, cats, zoo animals, or even livestock. If restaurants served panda on their menus, the public would be outraged. Endangered species! How can we eat them? But yet restaurants across the country highlight bluefin tuna, which is highly endangered. As a society, we classify the life of animals according to our own use. We wouldn’t treat our dogs the way we treat cows and pigs. And we definitely wouldn’t treat a panda or cheetah the way we do bluefin tuna. 

So what do you do? The film suggested asking your legislators to “respect the science” – which I think is a great way of phrasing that governments can’t let private interests try to refute established scientific evidence. Both the film and Monterey Bay also suggest asking businesses and restaurants – is your seafood sustainable? If they answer that they don’t know or say that it isn’t, ask them to look into the issue and leave them with a Seafood Watch card. 

Also, if you’re going to purchase seafood on your own, choose from the Best Choices list, and from the Good Alternatives list, if the Best Choices aren’t available. Look for restaurants and businesses that prioritize sustainability and support those organizations. Download the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch app and check it out the next time you’re in the market for seafood.  

book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.


picking your ethical battles as a consumer

In our global economy, where much of what we consume from foods to retail goods is produced overseas, it’s hard to know not only what you are getting, but who made it and where. “Ethically sourced” and “conflict free” are some of the buzz words surrounding this issue. They come up in the media when a large-scale tragedy occurs (such as the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers) or a lawsuit is filed (such as the one filed against Apple for child labor in its Chinese factories).

We’re outraged when we hear about these incidents, and rightfully so. And they go on and on. Diamonds that are called “conflict” or “blood” diamonds (because they are illegally mined and sold to fund wars in war zones. Chocolate harvested by children who are also enslaved. Smart phones with parts made in Asian factories with bad conditions and gold mined with child labor in Africa. Coffee and other crops harvested with little to no profit to the grower. Beloved cookies made with palm oil, which destroys habitat for animals and precious rainforest. You could write for days on each of these issues and the conflicts they create.

Many of these lines are murky. For instance, it is almost entirely impossible to source a conflict-free diamond unless it’s made in a laboratory. Once diamonds are brought in for trade, they are legitimized and their “dirty histories” wiped away. (See this enlightening article for details on why this is the case.) And while most people are interested in the use of diamond profit to fund wars, there’s also the issue of who mines those stones in the first place – children. 

The same goes for smart phones. An ever-expanding electronic industry has made the demand for gold and the other minerals (copper, cobalt, tin, etc.) used in production increase, and Human Rights Watch has questioned the use of child labor in very dangerous mining jobs. Like diamonds, it’s nearly impossible to buy an ethically “clean” smart phone. The supply chains for the hundreds of materials used to create a phone are complex, diverse and sometimes untraceable.   

I only very rarely eat chocolate that is not fair trade or organic. (See this post – did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar? for details.) I don’t eat at fast food restaurants for a variety of ethical reasons that go beyond health. 

I also wear an engagement ring with a diamond in it. I use a smart phone and a Chromebook.

I buy as much produce and meat from local farms as possible, and buy other handmade, local products when I can. 

I wear clothes that I purchase at retail stores that don’t say “Made in the USA” on the tags. Or that the cloth it was made from is produced there either.

So what do you do? What do you do if you want to be an ethical consumer in a world where those lines are sometimes virtually impossible to understand?

My philosophy is this. I heard during a lecture once (or read in a book maybe?) that you can judge a person by the integrity of their compromises. For myself, I try to pick battles that meet two criteria: (1) it’s within my control and (2) has a reasonable alternative which can satisfy my ethical conundrum. 

I can choose to not purchase produce and other food products (meat, dairy, etc.) which are not produced and farmed in a manner I approve of, and a reasonable alternative is to buy them locally and be a member of a CSA. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants because I can reasonably choose local restaurants where many of my ethical issues with fast food are not present. Or I can just not eat out at all. (Novel idea!) Chocolate isn’t even a necessary food in the first place, but if I want chocolate, I can buy fair trade or organic chocolate, which satisfies my issue with child labor and slavery practices.

But I am going to choose to use a cell phone and to keep wearing my engagement ring. Because I can’t buy a locally made cell phone as an alternative, there’s no one who benefits from me not purchasing that one phone. I would be better off supporting organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which use their lobbying power to help change legislation to protect labor forces and get corporations (such as Apple and other electronics manufacturers) to own up to their supply chains and face monetary penalties for not doing so. 

That being said, I don’t need to go overboard on my consumption of retail goods in the first place. I realize that there are many other ways in which I could live my life “more ethically” and I try to think through purchases and understand what role I play in the world by being a consumer. I also do my best to research and understand what’s at stake with a particular issue, so that I’m not just hopping on a trendy, petition-signing bandwagon.

At the end of the day, I hope my compromises can be judged to be made with integrity, in the absence of perfection.  

movie review: Vegucated

If the point of a documentary is to get people to critically think about an issue, Vegucated certainly met its goal for me, though it caused me to scribble furious notes and get riled up more than any other documentary I’ve watched so far.

Vegucated follows three people who agreed to go vegan for a period of 6 weeks, undergo a health screening before and after, and be educated about why someone should choose to be a vegan. Childish cinematography aside, I didn’t want to hate this film. I felt like it meant well, but veered off into a lot of what I felt was misleading information.

First, my disclaimers. I think anyone should be able to pursue the diet of their choice. I respect vegetarians and vegans for their diet choices and see the myriad of benefits diets such as these provide, not only for animals and the environment, but for individual health. However, if the choice to live by those diets involves twisted logic (which is then used to attack what I’d call an ethical omnivore diet), that’s where I have an issue.

When the three participants decided to go vegan for the purposes of the film and were beginning the transition, the filmmaker/narrator emphasized that they should look for vegan versions of their favorite products to ease the transition. This film was so full of processed foods, it made me ill. I’m not sure why someone would choose to give up dairy or eggs, only to constantly eat heavily processed foods with artificial additives and GMO soy. Processed foods have a huge impact on the environment and vegan versions of regular processed junk are not at all more healthy. To wave GMO soy milk and veggie/soy burgers packed with a list of 30 ingredients and claim that it’s the epitome of health is misleading. If I saw one more person waving a container of Earth Balance around acting like it was health food, I was going to scream.

Along those same lines, the filmmaker points out all the wonderful restaurants where you can eat vegan – like Subway! and Johnny Rockets! My question is this – even if you eat a vegan option at Subway, you are supporting a corporation that does not support environmentally sustainable practices, and sources the meat it serves to other people from the worst of the factory farms they claim to not support. So it rings false to me when you claim veganism is good for the environment, but give your money to the exact corporations that destroy it. 

There was a great deal of footage from factory farming operations in this film, which in some ways is great. I applaud any effort to get people to stop eating factory farmed meat. I’ve written about that before, as well as made clear my support for defeating Ag-Gag laws. If the only meat available were from factory farms, I’d never eat another bite for the rest of my life. Factory farms are atrocious and disgusting in the extreme and should not even be allowed to exist. However, the filmmaker/narrator doesn’t just stop there with farms – she visits a “small, family farm” and claims it’s just as bad as factory farms. No kidding. The “small, family farm” that she showed had a CONFINEMENT SYSTEM for its chickens. 

The farms where we source our meat absolutely would never use a confinement system. I’ve been there and seen it – I don’t have to go undercover with a camera because they openly welcome people to visit. While I think people can legitimately have ethical issues with eating animals, it is unfair to paint all meat eaters as people who allow animals to suffer. Not everyone who drinks milk sources the milk from a cow who had her calf ripped away from her at birth.    

Another argument that doesn’t hold up is that all animals raised for food contribute to environmental decline. It’s true that factory farmed meat is terrible for the environment, and the majority of grain production in the country (as well as most of the antibiotics, incidentally) goes to raising these animals. Last time I checked, our farms allowed their cattle to graze on pasture, not grain shipped in from across the country. They also use their manure to fertilize fields, not trap it in a waste lagoon and then spray it everywhere, contaminating water supplies. They use rotational grazing methods that are sustainable. They don’t destroy the earth – they nurture and protect it.  

And this doesn’t even touch the health portion of this film. Yes, in 6 weeks the three people each lost a few pounds and saw benefits in their blood pressure and cholesterol. And it’s a fact that a plant-based or plant-heavy diet that’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol is great for your health. But these people were not active and also continued to eat junk food – but it was vegan junk food, so it was “healthy” (ooh, Teddy Grahams are vegan!). These people are obviously not representative of all vegans, but to promote it as a healthy lifestyle while still encouraging people that they can eat processed cookies is wrong. “Vegan” doesn’t equal health any more than “organic” equals health.

Ultimately, to paint all farms and meat eaters with such broad strokes is irresponsible. I know many vegans and/or vegetarians that eat a whole foods diet and don’t rely on processed garbage as an “easy way out.” But this film made me feel like I was on one side of a war, good (vegans) versus evil (everyone else). In actuality, I think an ethical omnivore has a lot more in common with a vegan than most people would assume – both are conscientious eaters, aware that what we eat involves much more than just mindless bites. So why can’t we just get along?