Thursday 7 July 2016

Food-related documentary bingeing on a rainy weekend

Normally a Sunday afternoon in late June should be the cue for a lazy pint of bitter in a beer garden, or a bike ride along the coast. Instead, this particular weekend brings bone-cold temperatures and rain pummelling the windows. Netflix provides a lifeline to somewhere else.

Food, Inc. (2008) 
First up is the chance to finally knock off watching Food, Inc. by Robert Kenner. Although the focus is on the US food industry, particularly the rise of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) where animals are effectively warehoused from birth to slaughter, there’s a feeling of inevitability that Britain will one day follow.

The fantasy of farming 
Food, Inc. looks behind the neat rows of boneless, bloodless meat cuts on the supermarket shelves to expose the inconvenient truth of industrial-scale meat production. We allow ourselves to buy meat, he argues, because we are sold a pastoral farming fantasy. In fact, we’re supporting a largely hidden, automated production line where the animals never see sunlight or grass, the farmers rarely see a profit, and a handful of giant corporations have regulators, supermarkets and the government hog-tied. He points out that in the US the top four beef packers control 80% of the market and that McDonald’s alone is the largest purchaser of ground beef and potatoes in the US.

There’s nothing natural, either, about the farming. Chickens are raised for slaughter after just 48 days, and cattle jacked up on corn and antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to grow big enough for slaughter. When this final stage comes, the animals are funnelled through just 13 slaughterhouses for beef in the whole country, where contamination leads to outbreaks of eColi in the food chain. Likewise, at the largest slaughterhouse in the world in Kentucky, up to 2,000 pigs an hour are dispatched.

Kenner’s conclusion is depressing. You as a consumer are kept at a distance from the process, and barely anyone seems to have the right to regulate, censure or control the big packers. Every time you buy meat, however, you vote. And with the average American putting away 200 lbs of meat per year, that’s a landslide.

Cowspiracy (2014)
Kip Andersen's Cowspiracy is more ponderous, a little looser round the edges, and follows the technique of Vice documentaries in placing the director firmly at the centre of the story. The shocking aspect of the conspiracy in question is that it’s going on right out in the open.

Anderson investigates the central thesis that livestock produces more greenhouse gas than all transportation combined, making it the biggest single threat to the environment. Although his figure of 51% of all greenhouse gas has been disputed, the statistics within the documentary are otherwise supported by peer-reviewed research.

So Cowspiracy unloads one jawdropping statistic after another:
  • US livestock requires 34 trillion gallons of water a year.
  • 1 quarterpounder needs 660 gallons of water, 1 pound of beef 2,500 gallons, a gallon of milk 1,000 gallons of water. A cow eats about 150lbs of food a day and requires 30-40 gallons of water.
  • The world’s human population of 7 billion needs 21 billion pounds of food and 5.2 billion gallons of water per day. The world’s 70 billion farm animals need 45 billion gallons of water and 135 billion pounds of feed. As a result, 30% of global water production is for animal husbandry, and 50% of the world’s grain for livestock.

Counting the real cost
This isn’t a documentary that attacks the cruelty of farming livestock, but targets the environmental cost of eating meat. He points to the fact that 91% of the Amazon that has been destroyed is just for raising livestock, yet land can produce 15 times more protein from plants as it can from animals. In most of the countries where starvation is high, the land that isn’t desertified has been turned over to raising livestock, inevitably to provide meat for wealthier nations. When the livestock is raised at home, the industry receives such generous subsidies from the taxpayer and government that, he calculates, a $4 burger typically involves $7 of additional costs that the manufacturer doesn’t cover.

Some local input
The documentary also puts the kibosh on the idea that grass-fed livestock could be a solution, since they take longer to mature and produce more waste in the process, on top of the fact that there’s simply not enough land to sustain the numbers. By coincidence, the issue is touched on in Ben Watson’s excellent Riverford blog which drops into my inbox a few days later. He takes a different view, arguing that, “There are actually many arguments in favour of grass-fed beef and the same applies to lamb which, if anything, offers even more benefits on hilly, marginal farm land. So for better or worse, grass-fed beef, lamb and venison is pretty much what it says on the tin. With non-herbivore pork and poultry things are different; in extremely simplistic terms and ignoring all the other building blocks of a good diet, there’s plenty of protein in grass but pigs and chickens don’t have the digestive system to extract it.”

The most unsettling part of the documentary is when the director tours various environmental groups asking for comment on the greenhouse gas statistic. None of them seem to be aware of the problem. When they are, Anderson finds himself stonewalled, obfuscated and finally threatened. The inference appears to be that the war on fossil fuels is something of a red herring, but that mysterious forces are preventing discussion of the bigger problem.

Ultimately, both documentaries support the view that the only way a planet of some 10 billion people can possibly support itself is by cutting out meat. Not just once a week, not by switching to organic or grass-fed, but by eliminating the industrial-scale farming of corn-eating, methane- and slurry-producing, water guzzling livestock.  

It’s a change in behaviour that can only happened day by day. But for each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life.

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