“American Meat” urges audiences think before they eat

Whether you’re seated at your dinner table or at a five star restaurant, it’s a good idea to think before you bite into that juicy steak or cut into your tender chicken breast.

According to the documentary “American Meat,” most meat produced in the farm industry is filled with various chemicals to make your meal as inexpensive and profitable as possible.  Farmers typically inject synthetic estrogen, testosterone and antibiotics into livestock to increase growth rates and make the animals gain weight faster. Now imagine that same meal — not as appetizing, is it?

(Photo Courtesy of American Meat)
(Photo Courtesy of American Meat)

On Thursday, the Environmental Center hosted a screening of “American Meat.” Focusing on corporation-run factories as well as family-owned local farms, this solution-oriented documentary takes the audience through the meat producing industry in the United States. The film, which is centered on the farmers who raise the animals we eat, raises questions about the moral, economic and ethical dilemmas of livestock husbandry by demonstrating the challenges that farmers face. Can locally grown food and organic farmers actually feed the entire American population?

It isn’t going to happen over night, but the answer is yes. The problem is productivity. The average American consumes about 40 pounds of pork, 60 pounds of beef and 82 pounds of chicken a year, which means the United States alone eats 59 billion pounds of meat. Conventional farmers can produce that amount for meat distributors in a shorter amount of time than organic farmers can, because the excess hormones and chemicals that are injected into cows, pigs or chickens quicken growth and fatten up the animal. On the other hand, local, organic farmers raise their animals naturally without pathogens. Hypothetically, if four million farmers were to raise organic and grass-fed meat, then the nation would be well equipped with the bonus of creating a plethora of jobs, but this isn’t reality.

Geography major Emma Ruffin thinks there needs to be a complete reconstruction of food policy in order for the industry to turn around.

“The business model makes sense, but nature is nature; it is unpredictable and not an industry,” Ruffin said. “The solution starts with a change in mindset through education programs starting with the schools.”

In a panel after the film screening, Ann Cooper, an advocate for children’s health and wellness, described the dilemma of the food industry as it pertains to a social standpoint. For example, a single mother of two with a minimum wage job won’t be concerned about the benefits of certain meat products compared to others, because she will be thinking about how much food she can put on the table. Education is key for finding a solution to eating healthier.

“As long as we keep thinking our food should be cheaper, we are always going to be sicker,” Cooper said. “We have to change the whole model [of the food industry].”

Emily Stenard, an integrative physiology major, explained that there are multiple ways to contribute to the organic farming community. From Mrin County, an extremely health-conscious suburb outside of San Francisco, Stenard is most concerned about being proactive about where your meat comes from.

“What is more important than your health, and what is going into your body?” Stenard said. “It is more than looking at what it says on the box. I try to buy food as local as possible by putting effort into the food that I buy.”

Stenard purchases local food anywhere she can. If the farmer’s market isn’t in season, then she will go to websites like localharvest.org to find restaurants in the Boulder area that serve organic and locally raised meats.

Buying organic can sound daunting due to the steeper prices of food – especially for students, but there are many ways to buy locally without burning a hole in your pocket.

The Second Kitchen, a community based on the Hill that promotes locally grown agriculture, is a fairly inexpensive way to purchase sustainable produce. They provide a product list of local and organic foods that the residents of Boulder can purchase for prices as low as the grocery store’s.

Additionally, the documentary not only praises farmers for their work in the organic industry but also illustrates the other side of the agriculture spectrum: conventional farming. It explains that “going green” is not as easy as it seems because it takes time and effort on the farmer’s end. We want to believe that if all farmers decided to become organic, they could in a heartbeat, but that isn’t actually the case.

Mel Coleman Jr., owner of Niman Ranch, explained after the film that in all his years in the agriculture industry he had never met a farmer who wanted to use chemicals. He said everyone he talked to made the decision to maintain a conventional farm because they knew it was the to keep their farm in business.

Distributing meat with the organic seal can be more difficult than selling produce conventionally.  In “American Meat,” Chuck Wirtz, a farmer in Iowa, tried to turn part of his farm into organic production, but because the economy was declining, no companies were willing to invest in his meat. Sustainable agriculture requires more uptake, staff and money, so Wirtz couldn’t afford the change and stuck with conventional farming, not due to choice, but practicality.

The conventional industry does have some positive effects on the nation. This industry provides more than enough produce to feed the entire United States, whereas organic farming takes more time to make smaller amounts of livestock.

“American Meat” highlighted issues of sustainability and health in America’s meat industry without focusing on undercover footage of conventional meat processing. Even without the disgusting images people are used to in animal rights documentaries, the film presented a view of the meat industry that many do not see.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Kelsey Samuels at Kelsey.samuels@colorado.edu. 

Kelsey Samuels

Kelsey Samuels is a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is majoring in psychology and journalism, but will probably switch her major 5 or 6 more times before she graduates. When she’s not watching movie trailers or Arrested Development, she enjoys cooking dinner for friends and playing epic games of ping-pong. Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Kelsey Samuels at Kelsey.samuels@colorado.edu.

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