A while back, I was contacted by some folks asking if I would agree to be interviewed for a new documentary about livestock production and animal welfare. I was a bit skeptical and discussion with some of the producers didn't allay my concerns. I wondered: was I being set up to be the stooge in a Daily Show type interview? Would my words be taken out of context? There is certainly precedent for these sorts of shenanigans in documentaries, even by well known journalists. Probably the only thing that kept me talking was the knowledge that the documentary was being made by John Papola, who along with Russ Roberts created the popular Keynes-Hayek rap videos.
Long story short, I ultimately agreed to be interviewed, and about 10 seconds of my four hour interview can now be seen on screens across the country. The resulting documentary, At the Fork, was even shown in theaters in Oklahoma City and Tulsa a week or so ago.
I suspect some of my friends in the livestock industries will find things not to like about the film. This piece in the National Hog Farmer, for example, questions why some large-scale commercial hog farmers agreed to be interviewed and bristles that the film was financially supported by HSUS and urges viewers at the end to eat less meat. For my part, I wish more of the questions I was asked about the economics of livestock production and animal welfare made the film - most of the snippets of me contained brief explanations of different production systems.
But, when it's all said and done, I think Papola did an admirable job trying to get an objective an honest picture of modern animal agriculture. As I encouraged the producers to do, they actually went and talked to large-scale hog and poultry producers, asked why they did things the way they did, listened, and didn't put them in dim lighting with ominous music. In fact, the only group who looked like they had something to hide is one large feedlot who wouldn't let the filmmakers on the property. From my perspective, the only way to counter the argument that no one would eat meat if slaughterhouses and production facilities had glass walls, is to directly challenge the premise and be more transparent.
Sure, the filmmakers didn't hit every nuance and industry talking point about gestation and farrowing crates or about improved resource use and carbon impacts, but this is not an industry film. Imagine walking up to a stranger on the streets of New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles and saying: "what do you think about modern livestock agriculture?" or "here's a camera, go make a film about farm animal welfare in America." What do you think you'd get? From the livestock industry's perspective, I'd say they got about the best they could hope for in At the Fork.
One other positive note. So many food and agricultural documentaries are filled with anti-market, anti-capitalist undertones (or in many cases overtones). Papola is a libertarian and you won't find that sort of sentiment in the film. His is a market-based message: he's going to try to convince you to buy different types of animal products. I spent a lot of time talking with him about whether government policies were to blame for consolidation in the food sector in general and large confinement operations in animal agriculture in particular. By and large, I told him I didn't think there was good evidence for that line of argument. I argued that it was predominately market forces driving these outcomes (none of this made the film). I'm sure he could have found someone else to say otherwise to fuel a particular narrative, but he didn't and I take that as a sign that he was truly trying to learn and not just push an agenda.
Enough of my thoughts. Watch the film and decide for yourself.