Producer Natalie Portman exposes disturbing truths about factory farming in "Eating Animals"

Director/co-producer Christopher Quinn talks about adapting Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" to film

Published June 25, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

Natalie Portman (Getty/Emma McIntyre)
Natalie Portman (Getty/Emma McIntyre)

Welcome to Salon Talks. I’m Alli Joseph and today I’m joined by Director/Producer Christopher Quinn. Christopher is here with his new documentary, “Eating Animals: A look into the disturbing world of factory farming.” The film is narrated and produced by Natalie Portman as well as Author Jonathan Safran Foer I knew I was going to botch that, but I recovered, on whose book the film is based and it opens, I believe, June 15th


This film is quite hard to watch, not surprisingly since it details the abuses of animals who are being raised and then subsequently, quickly killed on factory farms. What made you want to chronicle this history of factory farming?

Jonathan and Natalie got together after the book came out and decided to make it into a film and they came to me to ask if I would direct it and produced with them. My initial thought was do we need another food documentary? But, I started reading Jonathan’s book and it really changed me in a number of ways. One, just kind of its moral charge about what was going on. But then, also, it just amount of evidence that’s in the book itself about where we’re going and how catastrophic factory farming actually is on our environment, our own human health, and then also, you have billions of animals suffering mightily to put meat on our plate. The book caught me and then we all got together here in Brooklyn and—

The genesis of many good ideas start here in Brooklyn. We are in New York.

We are in New York. We just started to talk about how we’re going to make it and we talked about not making kind of a vegan abolitionist film or one side or the other, but just to offer a body of evidence and then leave room open for people to draw their own conclusions about what they wanted to do on a daily basis. What they want to put on their plate.

Where do our eggs, dairy and meat come from?

Watch Salon’s conversation with the director of “Eating Animals” Christopher Dillon Quinn

It should be said that this is not a vegetarianism film per se, it’s about a return to the origins of farming and how that was less destructive to the environment among other things. But the beginning of factory farming I understand from the film was around 40 years ago and was heavily influenced by Coronel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken which was I think probably the first brand to mass produce a poultry based product versus a McDonald’s, excuse me. Talk about that history a little bit.

Yeah. I mean, I think, they were two things that went. One, there was the ability to kind of recognize food and mass produce it in a quick and efficient way. Then, also the public started to demand it. They liked the idea in the 70s of having quick food that’s inexpensive and you could have your meal in minutes. That’s really the beginning of this, the acceleration into factory farming. Colonel Sanders was the guy that was like, how can I cook chicken faster?

He devised a pressure cooker that he could cook in half the time and meet the overwhelming demand that he was receiving when he first opened his franchise. There’s a lot of things that let us to getting to where we are. But, now, 99 percent of all the meat, dairy and eggs that we consume come from factory farms. There’s just about one percent of farmers and Jonathan and Natalie and I both… all of us agreed that that one percent is important because I think in my lifetime I’m not going to see people not eat meat and it’s really about an idea of presenting the case of maybe eating a lot less meat and eating quality meat coming from people who actually care for the animals.

It seems inevitable. Humans always want better, faster, more, right? Maybe, I mean, it seems intrinsic to human nature that this would have happen in some fashion that, “Hey, we can have something faster and I don’t have to cook it,” and it was a whole revolution for women, who certainly at that time were the primary homemakers and cooks in the home and then it’s like they can take their kid out. We’ve created these people. This is our fault.

Yeah. I mean, I think that’s right. I think we have the kind of take it on the chin because we . . . this is a demand. It’s not just corporation’s kind of . . . but, it supported . . . there’s also these resources now. I mean, it’s very hard for a lot of people to get good food in certain urban centers especially low income centers. This is a big issue. But, also, we talked about plant based which is I think moving forward into the future, it’s if you’re going to eat meat, you should know where it comes from and you should eat a lot less of it and then, there’s also incredible plant based alternatives that are coming out like Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers. It’s just like some new stuff that’s coming out that will kind of fulfill the cheap meat—

I have to ask because I’m always looking for a good alternative. Is there a favorite that you’ve landed upon especially in doing this film and in learning about the alternatives?

Yeah. I mean, I like both the Impossible Burger and then Beyond Burger. They’re just . . . they satisfy that by the time you put ketchup, mustard, pickles— 

You have to hide it. Just to cut— 

Well, don’t we hide all of our burgers?

I don’t know.

Anyway. But it’s—

I digress, but at the current stage, is it even farming? Because some of the chickens we see in the film was very difficult to watch, they only lived a few weeks. I mean, does this terms who have come so far away from the original meaning.

Yeah. I mean, I think, the average chicken, broiler chickens what they call it, goes to processing and goes to the slaughter house, 35 to 42 days. That’s really remarkable when you think about it and that’s all a hybridized bird. They genetically changed or altered the bird so that it ends up growing at this accelerated rate. It’s obese genes and stored genes and they found a way to kind of maximize the growth rate while feeding it very little. It’s kind of like farming by accounting almost.

Yeah. It’s mad genius, but also so disturbing to think what we’ve tampered with. What are some of the greatest grievances of people not aware of the base of factory farming towards traditional farmers? Rather the grievances that they have against the factory farmers other than taking away their livelihood?

Well, this system is completely . . . Don Tyson or a lot of these architects of factory farming, they really figured out a way to own every step of it; so hatchery all the way down to processing plant to delivery. If you’re an independent farmer like you see Frank Reese, the turkey farmer at Kansas, it’s almost impossible for him to get his product to market.

He can’t get his birds to market because there’s no system in place anymore for that and that’s the real difficulty. By the time, he’s done, he sells his turkeys at Thanksgiving for about a hundred and twenty, a hundred and forty dollars which seems like a lot, but in the end what he gets back, I think, he was saying the other day about 20 bucks per bird. He fights mightily to keep his farm open, but the system really works against him.

It does and you see, the gentleman he’s speaking about his future in the film and he’s a turkey farmer and he’s such love for this birds and he tells all of these stories about them and also, details that people don’t know about turkeys and some of the fowl sees about the turkey, the rain, if you put a baby in the rain it too would drown, that they’re really not stupid. It’s really interesting.

I mean, Frank kind of challenges anyone, even Vegan Soup gone to visit. I mean because there is a communion with his birds that is unlike anything else. I mean you see it in the film, but they have this, I don’t want to say contract, but they kind of tend to each other in interesting ways. Kind of what we idolized as our vision of what a farmer would be or should be. He’s less than one percent of the farmers that are out there.

It’s a shame. I think, one of the people in the film talks about the response from the consumer who actually eats products that have been more humanely farmed than and in the more traditional manner that the meat is simply better and they say, “how do you do this? How do you make it taste so good?” Because what we’ve become accustomed too is so different.

Yeah. I mean, the chicken is tasteless because it’s also baby chicken. It’s not really . . . it hasn’t come to . . . it’s not as strong willful bird that goes out into the world and grubs and lives like you see on Frank’s farm. It’s a bird that is fed a minimal diet and fed antibiotics and plops down next to its feet or then gets up when it needs to eat. But they want to minimize its movement because the more—

They want it to be fat.

It’s three times the amount of fats in a commodity bird that in Frank’s bird. The argument with one of the universities is that you have to eat one of Frank’s bird, you have to eat to get the nutritional equivalent, you have eat six commodity bird. It’s really significant. You’re not getting the nutritional value you used too. That becomes a problem to for our own health.

There are tremendous health grievances here as your film highlights for the environment and for people in the consumption, as you just mentioned. Now, we see a water conservationist looking in the film and seeing the run off that’s leeched in the ground from pig excrement that’s not being properly disposed off from these mass farms and how it’s affected the water cycle and the fish and then people are getting sick and it just a… it’s disturbing to say the least.

I mean, the way that we raise our meat and dairy is the leading cause of greenhouse gases and the climate change. That’s pretty significant. There’s nothing else on the planet that causes more change to the environment that how we raise our meat.

On that, that’s a good segway. What are some of the consequences of continuing to eat and farm the way that we do and I think there’s some statistics to say that wide spread illness like a flu or something like that is inevitable?

Well, there’s that. Yeah. We’re basically putting these incredible breeding grounds especially as factory farm expands to other places. This emerge, so called emerging markets like Asia, South Asia, East Asia, China, India, and the factory farms are heading there. These factory farms are just petri dishes for avian. Avian flu and other . . . I think there’s a real challenge that we’re going to be faced with, with the problems of avian flu coming up. But there’s also other things that you have to consider, it’s no matter . . . you can look at it through so many different lenses.

There’s environment, we touched on that, but there’s also human health, there’s morbid of obesity and type diabetes that running rampant. Is this diet the best diet that we should be eating? Then, the other one is that you’re never in the history of man, we’ve never caused more suffering because these animals are kind of hybridized to grow fast, but they’re also from their waking moment are really kind of suffering in the factory farm system.

I think you have to kind of step back and ask and I hope this is what the film does, is just take pause and [say] 'like do I need to eat meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day?' If anybody makes a decision just to opt out of eating once a day meat, putting it on their salad or having a turkey sandwich, it will have such a significant effect on the environment and their own health. That’s the positive take away from this film is that there’s a lot of things that you can do that can personally empower you to change what’s happening in our world.

If you’re just joining us, this is Christopher Quinn and we are talking about his new documentary "Eating Animals" which comes out nationwide? Yeah. Tomorrow.

Yeah. It starts June 15th and then it rolls out all throughout June in cities across America.

If you have an interest in learning about not only the history of farming and how we’ve gotten to this place where 90 percentof our meat is not humanely produced and it is produced and mass and not necessarily in healthy ways for the environment and for ourselves, you should definitely check this out. Who is advocating for the animals? Who are the whistleblowers? What are some of the barriers that they face exposing abuse because you do show some of those things in the film?

Yeah. We have two whistleblowers. One is somebody who worked at US MARC which is the US Meat Animal Research Center, which is run by the USDA. They basically try and make animals grow faster in bigger numbers and he was a vet there and after 23 years he kind of had his breaking point and reached out to Michael Moss, New York Times.

There’s a big investigative article that came out and it really rattled people. but he really took . . . it caused him quite a bit for whistleblowing which is another thing. We find ourselves now in a place where somebody points this out and there’s real ramifications against you or the family if you actually speak out. The other person was Craig Watts who’s a contract farmer for large poultry company.

He, after 20 years had had enough and opened his doors to factory farming. We’re lucky enough that it happened while we were filming. I put fillers out to find somebody that was working within the factory system to do that and after a year of filming, finally Craig came through and we ended up . . . he opened up his doors to us.

It’s always important to have folks who are willing to help in the effort to expose wrongs and to help influence positive change. Have any factory farmers pledged to make positive changes to how they do business? Or they’re just one foot in front of the other? Because we do see in your film some of the people who were otherwise really struggling as farmers and they got these contracts that they were told would be lucrative and that wasn’t necessarily the case either.

Yeah. It’s the system that really works against the farmer and the farmer is the one that’s really holding the bag. I mean, it’s a treadmill of death as one of our farmer says and you end up going in and you have to . . . the farmers are responsible for maintain the barn and doing something with all the feces that come. It’s responsible for two things that nobody really wants to deal with. It ends up costing them. They have to update these barns and they end up . . . a lot of the farmers saying they were 400, 500, $600,000 of debt.

That’s a lot to carry the burden especially when you’re either break it even or just making them minimal amount of money. That works in favor of the factory farms and the corporations that on it. The corporations, it’s interesting because the plant based that we were talking about earlier, Tyson has taken a five percent equity estate in one of these companies and then Perdue has been reaching out in trying to . . . this is who Craig Watts grew birds for and has been working on growing more humanely raised birds.

There’s efforts because this is basically coming from the people who are demanding it. It’s really for us to change. I think, then ultimately the corporations are going to have to act and adjust to what we want to eat, how we want, and how we want to eat even if it’s plant based. They’re going to have a stake in it. I think, it’s all . . .  it really requires us and the corporation’s kind of moving to adapt to a world. China has made a mandate to reduce meat consumption by 50 percent there in China by in less than a decade.

That’s significant because the writings on the wall, we don’t have enough resources to do what we’re doing and we’re going to grow into nine billion on the planet in 50 years. If we do that and if we keep eating the way we’re going to eat, we’re going to have to go from growing 50 billion animals to hundred billion animals and there’s not the water resources or the ground to grow these animals and the food that they need to eat. It’s an impossibility. That’s why I always say that in the end, factory farming is doom to fail. It’s just a matter of like stops supporting it and opting out of supporting it and then real change will come.

It’s not sustainable. Just before we wrap up, top three things somebody watching can do if they want to reduce on meat consumption other than simply not take it for breakfast or find a more responsible company to buy it from.

Yeah. I mean, I think, a couple of things. I mean, you really make . . . it’s very empowering what you put on your plate. It’s actually the most significant thing you can do for helping control climate change. Even if you and look it’s really difficult, I went from a party meat eater or meat eater to barely eating meat and that was just a decision going through this process.

But I think, when you look at it, if you just make a decision to opt out of eating meat and if everybody did that, it would have enormous ramifications for our planet. The other thing is support the farmers who are attempting to really kind of raise these animals in the most humane way possible, and that means really having to pay more for your meat, but you can do that if you just eat less of it. you don’t need all protein from meat and eggs. That would be a big take away.

It’s quality over quantity.

Quality over quantity.

For sure. Quickly, before we wrap up and this has been Christopher Quinn with Eating Animals. He’s new documentary that comes out tomorrow and then rolls our nationwide afterwards. I stumbled once again as I have many times before on Mahatma Gandhi’s quote that “the greatness of a nation and it’s moral progress can be judged by the way it’s animals are treated.” This all makes me wonder what the practice of factory farming says about we as Americans in the United States.

I mean, yeah. That quote really resonates, right? I mean, what are grandkids going to say when they look back on this period and I think, it’s going to be kind of a dark stain on our human history. It’s just that we reached this breaking point and most people don’t even know we’re at a breaking point. But 98 percent of the people out there don’t want the animals to suffer, to put something on their plate.

That’s pretty significant. But if you actually look at the system that we’ve developed, it’s exactly that. That’s the big challenge moving forward. Do we want to be a people who caused so much suffering? Gandhi said it best, it is a reflective blast on us that we ethically and morally kind of don’t care where we know we don’t make decisions, to know where food comes from. If you did, as a farmer said, most people if they knew where their food came from, they wouldn’t eat it.

On that note, thank you for joining us.

Thanks very much.

You’re so welcome. This is really an important film. Please do check out: "Eating Animals." It comes out nationwide in the subsequent weeks after tomorrow, June 15th. Coming nationwide and this is a really important piece of work about factory farming. If you’re interested in reducing your meat consumption or certainly at least learning where the meat comes from and perhaps making different choices, definitely check out the film. Have a great afternoon.

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By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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