A meaty movie on what's wrong and what could be right with meat production in America. Photo: American Meat.
After an assortment of documentaries in recent years on America's industrial food system — Food, Inc., Fresh, The Future of Food, King Corn, Super Size Me, Vanishing of the Bees — you might wonder what another can possibly add to the conversation.
Most observant, open-minded and thinking persons get it by now that our corn fed, fossil fuel heavy, confinement livestock operations produce, in the most efficient way possible, cruddy foods that make us fat and destroy the very land we depend on for more food.
The conflict, or so we're told, is that in spite of a few organic farmers here and there making a go of it, industrial farming is the only way to feed America. Choosing otherwise — a niche fetish for the elite we're also told — doesn't profit and costs too much for consumers.
It seems those spouting that line are still refusing to listen to renegade farmer Joel Salatin, whose passion for sustainable farming is matched only by his commercial success, and by his advocacy against governmental regulations that hamstring efforts to get into the market.
Salatin's fervent view of deregulation would seem a natural fit for old-school conservatives (the authentically small government types). But the truth is food regulations are often written by big industry not to protect the public, but as a way to protect their profits by blocking competition from the little guy. Sadly, your free market proponents aren't likely to fess up to that one while still urging Tea Party Patriots to "Take back your government." They just leave out the "from plutocrats" part.
In American Meat, the latest food and farming documentary, Salatin's methods and mission are front and center, as filmmaker Graham Meriwether focuses on the viability and profitability of sustainable farming for meat production using Salatin's Polyface Farms as a key example. It also shows, like no other farming film yet, just how vulnerable our food system is to oil shocks.
Unlike Food Inc., and Fresh, American Meat doesn't focus on the largest scale industrial livestock operations. There's no gruesome footage of the tight-quartered feed lots, no shots of cows knee-deep in manure in crowded and filthy barns, and no look into factory slaughterhouses with hook-hung carcasses coming quickly down the stainless steel assembly line.
Meriwether first grew concerned about that kind of meat production from an encounter with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) materials. But, he says, with a background in journalism he was more inclined to dig into PETA's claims rather than take their graphic imagery and agitprop materials at face value. Instead he looked across the spectrum of livestock farms, from operations like Polyface, to farmers tied into the industrial system but still operating on a relatively small scale. And he decided early on to only film openly, no hidden cameras.
What emerges is the story of farmers who are struggling whether they are in the industrial model or the independent model.
What's great about this is that it allows the viewer to separate the industrial model into discrete parts, seeing those who have been in the system for a long time in more human terms. Meriwether allows us to sympathize with these farmers' situations. They are not Cargill; they are just serving Cargill. And these farmers very often are barely making it themselves, with many heavily in debt to the system. They've also become hooked into the use of chemicals, antibiotics, and confinement styles expected in rapid rate productions. They have, or feel they have, little way to break out.
This is contrasted with farmers like Salatin, who've long used sustainable methods (Salatin's father rejected fossil-fuel inputs and industrial methods back in the 60s) but with different requirements — more labor (jobs) and a more demanding and direct relationship with end users, whether restaurants, grocers, or the consumer.
One of the biggest difference that emerges is a sense of joy for Salatin and others like him who are farmers precisely because they experience awe, wonder and gladness in their relationship to the natural elements and the animals they tend. They also know what tastes good.
Over the past few years as Polyface Farm's operation has grown, Salatin has grossed over $2 million in sales and added nearly 20 full time jobs to his business. In addition, his apprenticeship program helps with labor while teaching his proven methods (there's been sustainable farming throughout human history) to a new generation of emerging farmers. Beyond that, he's scored a lucrative deal with a local branch of the Chipotle restaurant chain, itself a model of how fast food can change in the marketplace, offering higher quality products and a lower carbon footprint while satisfying the demands of its customer base.
Meriwether adds some compelling statistics on acreage in the US, arguing that we have more than enough arable land to produce meat fed on grass rather than corn and to use other nature-friendly methods pioneered by Salatin.
As I wrote earlier this week, in my review of the film The Greenhorns, many young farmers are embracing just that, going back to the land determined to use sustainable methods while achieving profitability.
But more than any of this I was impressed with Meriwether's clear inclusion of the peak oil phenomenon, and what the end of the era of cheap energy means both for industrial farming methods and for sustainable ones. While the film never mentions peak oil by name, Meriwether makes clear just how fragile is a system wholly dependent on fossil fuels for the lion's share of its inputs. What will declining supplies and spiking prices mean for a system built on so tenuous a prospect?
Sustainable farming, on the other hand, largely rejects fossil fuel inputs, whether to run industrial machinery, or to laden the crops down with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Instead it is a job-creating machine, heavily reliant on the human factor. This means better food produced, more workers employed, less damage to the land, and a boon to the local economy as what's made locally, often stays local.
It strikes me as an immense irony that the US has long assailed the old Soviet style system, arguing that centralization was a poor model for getting things done. The Soviet system was top-heavy, unwieldy, and unresponsive to the needs of the people. That the American system looks much like the old Soviet system, save being capitalist rather than communist, makes little difference. The result is the same: a centralized, top heavy, unwieldy system unresponsive to the needs of the people.
Yet American Meat shows that our food production can be decentralized, job producing and result in a desirable and affordable product for consumers while supporting family farms and farmers.
Salatin has a book called Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal. If we really want to "take back our country," we'll drop the slogans, stop asking permission and just do the thing that may be illegal but is certainly right. It's called making stuff and selling it. Working. Buying. Living. Tilling the soil. Reaping the harvest. I believe it's even been called an inalienable right, the pursuit of happiness, even if that means selling goat cheese without the USDA issuing marching orders on how it's done. Do let the market decide.
American Meat shows us not only what could be right, but empowers us with the right to do what is right.
And we can still put special sauce on it.
--Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice