Directed by Graham Meriwether
Leave It Better, LLC
The contrasts between two different styles of farming are highlighted in “American Meat.” On one side, we see a factory farmer. I should choose my words carefully here. I could say he is raising hogs but that implies a natural environment filled with thriving life. This, however, is a factory producing units of pork and related byproducts. Technically the hogs are alive but they are not enjoying life since they’re not allowed to do what they like to do. These animals merely exist rather than truly live.
On the other side we see Polyface Farm, a sustainable, “beyond organic” farm where pigs are happy, spending their time outside doing what they like to do. The pig-ness of the pig and the chicken-ness of the chicken are respected and encouraged rather than seen as behaviors to stymie or genetically modify out of the species. Polyface Farm is an environment teeming with thriving life.
These differences go beyond just the animals. The farmers and the people on the factory farms don’t look happy. They are trapped in a system that relentlessly enslaves them to neverending debt. There is a lot of anxiety over keeping the whole thing going for one more year. At farms like Polyface, I’m sure there are challenges but the farmers and the people have a positive outlook. They believe in what they are doing and they are happy.
One of the featured factory farmers decided to make the move toward organic. He was not able to find a market that enabled him to go fully organic but he did improve his farm to a more humane operation. He had to admit the pork tasted better and, much to his surprise, the pigs actually liked being outdoors, even in the winter in Wisconsin. Go figure. The quality of food he was producing was clearly better but he still seemed to think that factory farming was more economical. Is it really?
The end of the movie focuses on Richard Morris, who trucks food for Polyface Farm. At one time he worked in the corporate world and made a six-figure income. Now he probably doesn’t even come close. Did he make a bad financial move? If you’ve read his book, A Life Unburdened, you know that corporate life and cheap junk food were killing him. While pulling down that hefty paycheck he weighed over four hundred pounds, was hypertensive, diabetic, and suffered a long list of health problems. All that money was not helping his condition, and the cost of poor health is enormous. Smart economics must take into account the high cost of an unhealthy lifestyle. If you are producing nothing of true value, nothing you would use yourself, while drowning your sorrows in the cheapest food you can find, this must have a negative effect in the long run. Doing something you don’t believe in has to eventually suck the life out of you. The result can be cancer, obesity, mental illness or other modern ailments. How economical are they?
Thinking outside the cubicle, Richard Morris has lost at least one hundred fifty pounds, is no longer hypertensive, diabetic or otherwise unwell. He is healthy, happy, and believes in what he is doing. Can you put a price tag on that?
Another aspect of economics touches the question of why organic or local food from small farms costs more than factory food. Organic food is not inherently more expensive to produce. Part of the reason for ostensibly cheap factory food is externalized costs. The cost of the environmental damage caused by factory farms is cleverly separated from the farms, and the price of cleaning it up is shifted to taxpayers or other industries. Poor health of their customers is another cost not charged to the factory farm. A big root cause of the price difference is government subsidies to factory farms. One person in the DVD suggested that the solution to that is for the government to subsidize organic farms.
Subsidies sound like such a good idea but when you think it all the way through, some ugly problems arise. Subsidizing factory farms created the unfair playing field that makes it difficult for small farms. Einstein himself said the same thinking that caused the problem is not going to solve it. More subsidies will just create more economic imbalances. What if we quit subsidizing nutrient-sparse junk food and other useless products? We should also realize we are controlled by those who fund us. Maybe we should let government control everything. They’re doing such a great job. Do we really want government bureaucrats, who know nothing about farming, to control farmers? You have to admit that control becomes extremely oppressive when government not only dictates what farmers produce and how they produce it, but also what citizens are allowed to eat. I think it is an insult to farmers (and anybody else) to suggest that they can’t make a good living without help from the government. I’ve talked to a lot of them who don’t want any help. The best way to help is to leave them alone and let them do their jobs.
This movie illustrates some important points to ponder and I give it a thumbs UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2011.