BBC One’s documentary which aired last night has strongly divided opinions. Its aim was to discover the truth and “to investigate the impact that our hunger for meat is having on our planet’s environment.”
The BBC states that the document “contains some upsetting scenes”. Upsetting in the sense that animals are killed, the realities of industrial farming are laid bare, and world farming methods are clearly shown to be causing environmental havoc.
Presented by Liz Bonnin, the documentary switches between huge industrialised Texas farms, a San Francisco meat laboratory producing chicken nuggets, the destruction of the Amazon and a sustainable Welsh farm. It aims to understand our attitude toward meat.
Is the world bonkers?
It is well known that global meat production is a major cause of biodiversity loss, that industrialised monoculture farming is causing huge problems and that our oceans are dying. By and large, we just keep doing what we’ve always been doing. We kill three billion animals a day according to some sources, use 83 per cent of farmland to produce 18 per cent of global calories. Arable land used so inefficiently that a Martian landing on earth today would probably conclude that we are bonkers.
The issue of global meat production is one of the thorniest issues facing the world. It is part of the legacy of how things have always been done and the world has woken up to the fact that it wreaks havoc on the global environment. There are many thoughtful farmers who condemn modern industrialised farming methods and seek to do things differently as the documentary Eating Animals eloquently points out. The world does eat a lot of meat, and it is declining. The meat production system will not disappear overnight and some kind of middle ground needs to be found to help the world transition into a more sustainable future.
Society’s disconnect from what meat really is
Another key factor is our relationship with the meat we eat. Towards the end of the documentary we saw a small scale farmer in Pembrokeshire, Wales producing food in a different way to the industrial farms in Texas. He had fifty chicken in a shed, not 32,000 of them. It was not force farming.
At the core of all of this is the reality that most of us do not genuinely connect with what meat is. We see it as food that is brought to us nicely packaged on our supermarket shelves. We do not, generally speaking, see it as coming from a living, breathing animal.
This farmer slaughters chickens at the end of their natural lives, in what is deemed a humane way. He stuns the chicken and then immediately breaks her neck. It is quick and instant, and the chicken never knows what’s happening. The farmer admits he is nervous about doing the deed. “It’s not easy if it was you’d stop respecting it,” he says.
To some, this is simply impossible to watch. These people will shed a tear at the poor, lovely chicken having its neck snapped, and ask how anybody can kill an animal he farmer claims to respect.
Two thousand chickens are killed every second for our meat. This fact is a profound reminder that we should not disconnect the process that goes into putting that chicken on our plates as a packaged product.
Of course, it is impractical for most people to rear and kill their own animals, but we do insist on continuing to eat meat then we must as a society connect with the reality that these are real living, breathing sentient animals. If this connection can be made then society will inevitably begin to eat less meat.
How much meat we as a society consume is critical. For meat production to be sustainable, the documentary claims, we need to cut down to a few hundred grams of meat a week – that’s perhaps just a couple of proportions.
Never the Twain Shall Meet
In seems as there with the two sides on this issue it is a case of “never the twain shall meet” as society attempts to square the circle.
In one corner, we cannot lose sight of the animals. This concern and love for the animals are at the heart of this side of the argument.
The system is destroying our planet and innocent sentient lives are literally taken and made to suffer for just a few moments of taste sensation. We do not need this food, so why put the animals through this suffering just for our pleasure?
The system of farm subsidies are ensuring that cheapness is the driving force so someone or something has to pay the price, and as things stand it is not the consumer.
They do not understand how everyone is not sickened to the pit of their stomachs. They watch as people find reasons for their consumption patterns and let future generations pay the price.
Finally, there is the sight of Daffodil the cow having a hole cut in her stomach for scientists to study how diet might reduce a cow’s methane production. This is unacceptable for an animal lover.
As Sir Paul McCartney said: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”
Farmers fed up with being labelled the bad guys
On the other side sits the farming community. British farmers reacted strongly against what it perceived as one-sided unbalanced journalism. One described the documentary on twitter as “the agricultural equivalent of production programme called Government a threat to our planet and then spending an hour showing North Korea as the only example.
@meatmanagement described the documentary as a
“dreadful piece of biased journalism” pointing out the 24,854 miles of air travel involved in making the programme and lamenting the material that they had provided which remained on the cutting floor.
One after another British farmers fought back happy to admit that many countries’ production systems “have got it very wrong” pointing out the UK’s aspiration to get to net zero by 2040 with some of the most sustainable production in the world.
British farmers have the highest welfare standards in the world, they proclaimed, urging consumers to reduce the CO2 footprint by not buying intensively produced meat and flown half the way around the world. Support your local farm and your local grass fed economy, they say.
By and large, the farmers say they are proud to be producing sustainable, environmentally friendly beef that is “helping to save the planet”.
One farmer on twitter said that “regenerative and perennially cropping our Cornish hills enables us to produce quality meat and provide habitat, grassland here is an important part of the mosaic landscape.”
“Rather than watching intense US factory farming, why not enjoy watching 200 UK Devon grass-fed dairy cows slowly make their own way in from a day’s grazing to get milked”.
Many farmers stated that they did not routinely use antibiotics or pesticides for the sake of biodiversity. They did not create pig waste lagoons as were depicted in the documentary.
The farmers expressed pride in their grass fed meat which maintain “our beautiful landscapes” and asked if the presenter had heard of regenerative farming.
To these farmers the programme was “a tad hysterical”. They do not care simply to be labelled as the bad guys.
As agriculture transitions as it must, it would do well for society to heed the basic tenet of green thinking: buy sustainably and buy locally.
There are thoughtful farmers who treat animals well, ignoring for one moment the actual slaughter and that is commonly seen as an oxymoron. But on the other hand, there are powerful vested interests who do unspeakable things to animals.
Meat eaters should certainly stop eating poor quality meat, get to know their local butcher, eat less meat and more vegetables. That isn’t exactly rocket science.
The documentary is available to watch on iPlayer to BBC Licence payers.