Kat Johnson sat down with award-winning director Christopher Quinn about his new documentary, Eating Animals, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book of the same name. Eating Animals delves into the history of how a once family-run industry developed into the factory farming system we know today and features farmers and activists who are working to keep the old methods alive. Topics range from the impact the industry is having on climate change to the tournament system used by corporations to pit farmers against farmers.
Listen to the interview here:
Here is a transcript of the full interview, edited for clarity:
Kat Johnson: Welcome to this Heritage Radio Network special report. I’m Kat Johnson, and I’m here today with Christopher Quinn, the director of the new documentary Eating Animals, which is based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. Welcome Christopher.
Christopher Quinn: Thanks for having me.
KJ: The New York Times just released their review today, which says Eating Animals makes a persuasive far ranging case against factory farming, which it skewers from philosophical, epidemiological, and economic perspectives. Why was factory farming the aspect of the food industry that you felt needed to be addressed?
CQ: Because I think it’s where all the problems are. It’s as simple as that. When I first read Johnathan’s book, and then we decided to make it into a film, these were things I didn’t know. For instance, it doesn’t matter what lens you look at factory farming – if you’re coming from a health standpoint, or if you’re coming from an animal suffering standpoint, or environmental – all three of those are enormous things that we should be focusing on. So, it was pretty easy to put a lot of effort and attention into talking about the ills of factory farming.
KJ: Jonathan explains that this film goes into issues that his book didn’t address, since it is a newer piece, and because film has a strong way of impacting people. What were the reasons behind actually making a full feature documentary?
CQ: Well, because I think it needs to be said. Ninety-nine percent of all meats, eggs, and dairy that we consume comes from factory farms, and yet it’s the leading cause of climate change. So, it’s something we all have to address and take a look at. If you look at the fact that we’ve raised fifty billion animals for the food that we eat, and in fifty years they say we’re going to be a population of nine billion on the planet, that means we have to double the animals to a hundred billion animals to meet the demand that’s growing around the world for consuming meat and dairy and eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a huge planet, and there’s no way it’s going to survive. We don’t have the water resources or the land resources.
KJ: You had a really interesting segment towards the beginning of the film that talks about the genesis of factory farming, which surprised me. Can you talk a little bit about where this all started?
CQ: This is kind of a personal thing for me. I was like, “When did this all begin?” I remember certain aspects of my childhood, and one of them was that I always wanted one of those tubs of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I grew up in a household where I had to work at the co-op. In the seventies, it was not that long ago you know, we really kind of traded in scratch cooking, for more cheaper, more efficient ways of getting food. It also came at a time when a lot of women were starting to enter into the work force. The the convenience that we can cook or emulate a home cooked meal – like Kentucky Fried Chicken did– was interesting for people. We consumed it and embraced it, and then it started to run away from us. Now it’s gotten to a place, one step at a time, and we’re in real trouble.
KJ: It’s interesting that you mention Kentucky Fried Chicken, because technology played such a big role in the rise of that restaurant chain, with the pressure cooker. You focused towards the end of the film on some technologies that are promoting plant based meat substitutes. Do you think that those technologies will have the same massive affect that a pressure cooker did at one point?
CQ: There are people who fully embrace plant based technologies as if its going to solve all of the problems, and I don’t really believe that. I think it’s part of the solution. I think if you look at it like – can you make a burger out of like sweet pea that taste like a burger, or are you going to use a cow from a feed lot? Those are questions you have to ask yourself. There’s less input that goes into that plant based burger, and if its just going to McDonald’s anyway, and it’s going to taste the same, then that’s a better alternative.
But, we spend a lot of time focusing on the so-called one percent of farmers who are out there doing farming in the traditional way. We spent a majority of the time talking about that in the film: a turkey farmer from Kansas City, Frank Reese; Paul Willis from Iowa, who runs Niman Ranch pork; and Bill Niman who’s up in Bolinas, California. The reason – and Jonathan also covers this in the book – is that they really matter, because I don’t think in my lifetime, I’m going to see the world without meat. We’re going to consume it, so let’s go back and look at the way we used to raise animals. That really requires us to eating less meat, but at a higher quality. Getting to know where your meat actually comes from is a very important thing, and i think were gonna have to pay more for it and eat less of it.
KJ: I wanted to talk a little bit about your farmers that you profiled, particularly Frank. Why was his story so compelling to you?
CQ: Well, in the book there an open letter from Frank, and it was the most captivating. When I read it, I saw everything. He talks about at night, when he’s about to go to bed, he can hear the turkeys talking to each other, and he knows their language, so to speak. He knows when there’s a coyote thats trying to get into the barn, or he knows when there’s a ruckus with the birds brooding. There’s all this language, and he paints it as what we envision farmers to be like. He’s a kind of a last-on-Earth. If you wanted to equate it into film terms, he’s sort of like an Obi-Wan Kenobi, out there in the desert. He’s kind of the last one standing with these rarefied breeds that are so important. If we are going to eat chicken and turkey into the future, he’s essential. It’s what Paul Willis, the pork farmer says, he’s a national treasure.
KJ: The flip side of Frank Reese are these massive chicken house productions where Purdue has set up this tournament system. Can you explain what the tournament system is, for those who are unfamiliar with the term?
CQ: The tournament system is kind of brilliant if you lack the empathy gene, and just wanted to make money. It was developed by Don Tyson. He created this system where farmers compete with one another. So as a contract farmer, you know if you’re going to profit, it comes from your neighbor not making money. It divided rural America in a way that – I don’t think anybody knew about it. I didn’t know about it. If you are a top producer, you get rewarded by them taking the money away from other farmers, and you get that percentage. It subdivides these rural communities.
It’s very, very hard to make money. Farmers just end up in a big treadmill of debt, because they come in the next year and say you have to replace your ventilation fans with these new ventilation fans. Then, you have to put another $175,000 into restoring your barn to the standards that these corporations want you to have, and it puts you further in debt. They like the farmers to be in debt, because it’s a vicious cycle. The more they’re in debt, they more they’re trying to just get out of debt, and that’s the way most farmers, or most of the managers of these farms, deal with their lives in the factory farm system.
KJ: So, once a farmer signs his first contract with Purdue, or someone like that, they’re kind of stuck forever. There are some of these farmers like Frank Reese and Bill Niman, who knew from the get-go that they were going to farm the way farming happened fifty years ago, and would have never have gotten on this treadmill. What do you think it is about some farmers who know this right away, and what is it about others, who just get caught and don’t know how to jump off that treadmill?
CQ: I see it in the faces of the people who got it involved. They’re four or five generations into farming, and it’s a pride factor, and they made that decision to get into contract farming. You see it in the face of Craig Watts, who’s a chicken farmer in North Carolina, and his family is mired in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.
There was this whole period in the 80s of get big or get out, so landholdings were getting larger and larger. They insisted that you either produce a huge amount, or you’ll just get pushed out of the system. That put a lot of pressure on independent farmers, and a lot of farms failed, as we saw in the 80s where there were a lot of foreclosures on farms. These people really lost their way of life. I think there were three million family farms, and now there’s a very small percentage of farms that remain truly independent. The rest are these large facilities. I wouldn’t even call them farms.
KJ: Do you hope that by focusing so much on small independent farmers in the film that it can maybe be a blueprint or at least some inspiration for younger farmers? If they do decide to get into this business, that they kinda know here’s the right way to do it and here’s the very wrong way to do it?
CQ: Yeah. So, with Frank, his birds have been with him generationally for a little over 100 years. He doesn’t have to go back and order from the companies at the hatcheries. His animals can reproduce. They can regenerate themselves. Nobody know how to do that anymore. That’s the amazing thing. All the land-grant universities don’t teach it anymore. They teach at agriculture schools just how to go online, how to order your birds. There are two companies that control nearly all the genetics for poultry, and you order it up, and they Fed-Ex you your chicks, and they plop them on the ground, and then the next year they do the same thing.
With Frank, he actually candles the eggs, incubates the eggs, and he hatches them. He has the whole experience from birth all the way to death, when they ultimately go off to process or go to the slaughter house. He’s there through the whole process, and that is something that’s not taught anymore. It’s hard to learn, and Frank is getting up there, and its important that this continues.
KJ: And to try and make that happen, he’s opened the Good Shepherd Poultry Institute. In the film, you see them setting it up, but have you kept in touch and are you aware of what’s going on with Good Shepard right now?
CQ: Alice Walters closed down Chez Panisse for an event to raise money for the Good Shepherd Institute. It has a long way to go. It’s an idea – but he wants to and there’s some good people behind it – they want to create a center where people can come. So, this speaks to young farmers trying to do it a different way, and learn how to raise heritage breeds, these really strong willful birds, to go into the farming system again, one farm at a time. Once you learn how to do that, those birds that you would take from Frank’s farm would regenerate themselves for 150 years, or even longer. And that works completely independent of the factory farm system.
KJ: There were two whistleblower stories we followed in the film. Why are those such important figures in this story of where industrial farming has taken us? Can you talk a little bit about the price that whistleblowers are paying when they’re speaking out?
CQ: Yeah, so there’s two whistleblowers. There’s one that worked at a place called US MARK which is Meat Animal Research Center, and it’s smack in the middle of America – Nebraska. It used to house all the ammunitions for WWII. There’s these crazy bunker silos there, and there they test and try and modify animals to be more productive. It’s kind of like a Frankenstein lab that nobody knew anything about until Jim Keen, who’s in the film, wrote a letter to Michael Moss at the New York Times and Michael Moss started to investigate it and uncovered this secret lab that the USDA was doing all these experiments with. He exposed it in the New York Times and it had an enormous impact.
The center closed down for a little while and then reopened after public pressure subsided, but Jim was left holding the bag and he really got hammered for whistleblowing. We had the person who represents Jim. Her organization has represented Snowden. There’s some high-profile whistleblowers that she represents. She says more often than not, the whistleblower gets hammered.
The same thing happened with Craig Watts, because he ended up opening up his doors to us. We filmed in there, and he also showed it through making his own video and it going out to reddit and all these other places. There were people that were really angry that this was the so-called free range, antibiotic free chicken that they were buying and paying the increased price for. It had a big effect, but you know it really affected Craig and his family in a significant way. They really tried to put pressure on him. They had people come and inspect his farm. They were trying to say he was a bad farmer, but he had been a top producer for a number of years.
These are the things that happen. What is it when people speak up against a system that they get so hammered for? You think in the United States, we should know where our food comes from. This was kind of a basic thing. We were all attached to a farm. You knew an uncle, or an aunt, or a great aunt that had a farm, and now that’s replaced with these large complexes that are considered biosecure zones that you can’t penetrate or go in. Now there’s constitutional challenging ag-gag laws that will stop you from even filming. This isn’t something that I think we are all comfortable with, at least I’m not, and so that’s why it was important to have the whistleblowers in there.
KJ: You mentioned that chickens in some of these large houses are labeled as free range, organic. If you actually see the conditions of their life, it is not what you picture in your mind. It’s not an open field where the chickens get to range free like they do at Frank’s farm. Do you think that there’s a fundamental issue with labeling and how does that need to be changed?
CQ: Absolutely. This is covered in Jonathan’s book, and luckily visually it becomes very apparent in our film that these labels are nothing but a marketing tool for the big companies. It really requires you – and I’ve learned this the hard way, and this is what I do – to go and really find your fact finding, which takes a lot of effort. There’s no way that I would serve meat at a holiday meal that doesn’t come from someplace I know. That’s radicalized my way of eating. I opt out of eating any commodity meat whatsoever. It’s difficult. It’s a hard thing to do. People are busy, and you want to get on with your lives, and this is a difficult thing to. But, I think we’re at that stage that if you really want to eat something that is good for you, and is not causing animals suffering, you have to do your homework.
KJ: There’s not an easy solution.
CQ: There’s not an easy solution. And look, we’re humans. Jonathan and I were talking about this the other day. It’s so much pressure, this decisive thing of to eat meat or not to eat meat. People always feel like you either have to eat meat or you don’t have to eat meat, and it’s not that simple. Maybe you can not eat meat one day out of the week, or you can just say to yourself, “You know what, I’m gonna go out to dinner tonight. I’m gonna eat a delicious steak, but maybe I won’t go to the corner deli and pick up a turkey sandwich.” Just opting out of eating that commodity meat actually has enormous ramifications for all the things thats we’ve been discussing. You can actually literally change the world we live in by making those decisions.
KJ: For anyone who wants to check out the documentary, where can they go to learn more?
CQ: So, we’ve set up a website that’s the films website, eatinganimalsmovie.com. All the informations is there. You can type in your zip code and it will tell you the closest place the film’s playing. But it starts June 15th here in New York, and then rolls out to the west coast on June 22nd, and then it goes to theaters nationwide after that.
KJ: And you’re doing some special screenings this weekend in New York?
CQ: Yes, Natalie Portman and I are introducing the films, and we’re doing Q&As afterwards. All of the farmers and the whistleblowers and everybody that’s in the film has come for the New York premiere. So, we’re looking forward to that tonight.
KJ: Christopher, thank you so much for joining me and congratulations.
CQ: Thank you, thanks for having me.