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Market solutions for improving treatment of farm animals? A review of At the Fork

How are farm animals treated and should one care? For the record, I am not vegetarian and I follow something similar to a paleo diet high in animal proteins and fats. But whether or not one believes animals have rights, libertarian philosopher Loren Lomasky once gave me the most succinct argument for caring about the welfare, at least some, of animals: “You wouldn’t put your cat in a microwave, would you?” But what if certain farm animals had intelligence and awareness levels in the same league as pets we care so much about? It turns out that pigs can master certain basic video game tasks that dogs and even monkey cannot, and they appear to be able to non-verbally communicate with humans or other pigs in much the same way as dogs. Regardless of one’s position on eating meat, one can still care about not intentionally inflicting pain on animals, or care that they are treated in humane ways. John Locke and Immanuel Kant adopted such a perspective.

Producers John Papola and Lisa Versaci, whom I know from their most excellent economics music videos, have produced a feature length documentary, At the Fork. John is a meat eater and Lisa is not, and in this film they visit various farms to see how meat and dairy animals are raised and treated. John narrates the film and at the beginning states, “So while I’m no animal activist, I am a filmmaker and the best way for me to honestly explore this issue is to hit the road and make a film about it.”

At the Fork is beautifully shot with attractive visuals throughout. It is well edited, well-paced, and accompanied with a quality soundtrack including music from executive producer Dave Matthews. A 1970s PBS documentary this is not. The movie also interviews different farmers, ranchers, politicians, business people, and scholars with different perspectives. A Michael Moore style documentary this is not, either.

The film shows a range of farms; from factory farms that keep animals in close quarters, to free range farms. I appreciated that the film never showed anything close to gruesome, but bringing viewers close to the animals let viewers see aspects of how pigs, cows, and chickens for meat, dairy, or eggs live.

While letting viewers reach their own conclusions about animal welfare or rights, the film raises many interesting questions. Toward the beginning, they visit an animal sanctuary where John voluntarily locks himself in the equivalent of a gestation crate that most pig farms keep breeding pigs for the entirety of their pregnancies. These crates are two foot by seven foot cages not big enough for pigs to turn around or fully lie on their side. Breeding pigs have multiple pregnancies per year so can find themselves in one of these crates for 10 months in a year and in slightly larger farrowing crates after giving birth. John asks, “So this is the price that they pay for me to eat my spare ribs?”

After showing some factory farms where pigs spend their lives indoors, the film shows farms with varying degrees of outside access to open pastures. When the film cut to a sweeping visual of pigs almost certainly enjoying themselves, at a free range farm, I started feeling guilty about having no idea about the conditions that these animals are raised. If I would not force a dog to live in a six by twenty inch cage, should I, as a consumer, demand that a pig be raised under such conditions? The film interviews animal scientist Temple Grandin who states, “It would be like living in an airline seat and I’m never allowed to walk in the aisle.”

A nice aspect of the movie is its presentation of range of animal husbandry methods. One particular pig farm uses gestation crates only for artificial insemination, then transfers pigs to open pens where pigs can move freely and socialize with each other. Another uses an outside system where pigs go between a barn during inclement weather and pastures otherwise. In another, pigs and four other red meat species forage a forty acre forest. This rancher states, “I think it’s our moral obligation to care about these animals. This whole idea that we have dominion over the animals, well yeah that’s fine, but dominion does not mean domination.”

The film shows how factory farming arose because of economic factors with consumers demanding lower prices. In a market economy, producers seek to supply whatever consumers ask for. But At the Fork also shows how many consumers are now demanding more ethically sourced meat and dairy products. One popular program that one may have observed at Whole Foods and other meat counters is the Global Animal Partnership 5 Step Animal Welfare Rating Program. This private certification program rates farming methods and gives a farm a Step 1 rating if it has “no cages, no crates, and no crowding” all the way a Step 5 if it has animal centered pasture farms.

The system has many parallels to private certification systems I have documented in my research. The London Stock Exchange, for example, was first created to give assurances to the public, and its members adopted as their motto “my word is my bond.” Similarly the New York Stock Exchange provided a Good Housekeeping Stamp of Approval that its listed firms were not “fly by night” operations. Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey states, “For the first time ever higher degrees of animal welfare are being rewarded in the marketplace, and that’s creating incentives for people to innovate and create this race to the top.”

Although chains like Whole Foods are at the forefront of such movements, consumer demand is king at all price points. Temple Grandin states that most consumers dislike the idea of gestation crates when they are told about them, and at this point America’s largest pork producer, Smithfield, is phasing out the use of gestation crates, and McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s are phasing out purchasing pork from producers that use them. These are not exactly expensive food suppliers, but their actions show that greater awareness and demand from consumers can help improve animal welfare.

As an economist who usually spends time reading about financial markets and alcohol, I did not know how I would react to seeing At the Fork. I ended up finding the film very moving.

The film does not present anyone in a bad light, and many, including Temple Grandin, come off in a particularly good light. Grandin has been working for decades advising farms and slaughterhouses on how to be more comfortable and less stressful for animals. Grandin states, “Yes, I ethically justify eating meat, but we’ve got to give animals a good life, we’ve got to give them a life worth living.”

At the Fork is really a visual story that gets people to think about what could be abstract philosophical questions in different ways. It is also presented in an aesthetically attractive way. Even if you don’t change your mind, watch it and enjoy.

Featured image credit: Cattle grazing silhouette by skeeze. Public domain via Pixabay.

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