The film American Meat is a logically structured portrayal of the broken system of agriculture in the United States. Offering not only solutions to our present unsustainable industrial farming practices, the video also looks honestly at the obstacles faced when attempting to implement sustainable farming initiatives. Highlighting the unnatural and disease-stricken conditions in which farm animals are kept on modern industrial farms, American Meat provides a “better for all” alternative in which the “chicken-ness” of the chicken, among other farm animals and their “animal-ness,” are respected and allowed to be exercised while at the same time producing high quality and better tasting meat for humans to enjoy and reducing carbon emissions so as to slow down climate change.
One might wonder what I mean by the “chicken-ness” of the chicken. To better paint a picture of this, let’s first look at the “human-ness” of the human, or in other words, what it means to be human. This is also commonly referred to as human nature and is posited most notably by those in favor of a natural law theory of ethics, especially our very own St. Thomas Aquinas. Taking a concise and hurried look at Aquinas’ thought, the nature of the human being is to be a rational animal. This means there are two features that make up the human, rationality on one side and animality on the other, but they both exist together to form the whole human. Just as other animals need to be sustained, humans must drink water and eat food in order to continue to actualize their existence. Unlike other animals, human beings have the capacity for rationality, and thus, have the capacity to choose ends of their own accord, whether that capacity is actualized or not. Further, Aquinas follows in Aristotle’s footsteps to hold that humans are social by nature, or rely on other humans in order to survive and flourish. So the “human-ness” of the human is to be a sustained, relationship-holding, choice-maker, and as Aquinas would argue, aims at being a practical choice-maker of reasonable, or good, action.
Now, let’s consider the nature of the chicken. The “chicken-ness” of the chicken consists in its being a free-ranging fowl that spends most of its day foraging, walking, and pecking at the ground for bugs, plants, and whatever else it can scrounge up from other organisms’ leftover meals. Nowhere in this definition of the nature of a chicken is there a mention of chickens naturally eating corn, soy, and cottonseed based feed infused with additives such as growth hormones, meat and bone meals, antibiotics, and chemicals, or being confined indoors their whole lives, though, in fact, these are the conditions chickens are forced to live in on industrial farms. Thus, it is evident that such industrial practices do not respect or allow chickens to exercise their “chicken-ness.” To complete the analogy, to feed chickens such a diet and hold them in such confinement is the equivalent of depriving humans of developing their rationality or restricting humans from entering into meaningful relationships with others. It is not only unnatural but it is also unjust to do so. A sustainable approach to raising chickens like that of Joel Salatin, covered in American Meat, is an uplifting example of how feasible it is to treat chickens as chickens while still running a profitable farm. Further, on Polyface Farm they utilize the ‘chicken-ness’ of the chicken for the overall benefit of the farm. The chickens follow the cattle herds through the pastures, eating the fly larvae out of the cow manure and helping to control the on-farm bug population.
Sustainable farming practices like those carried out by Salatin, though possible, are met by barriers hindering their actualization such as government subsidies for large-scale industrial farms and the demand for affordable meat by the everyday, strapped for cash American. All in all, American Meat provides a long overdue outline of where our meat comes from and a convincing vision for where it should come from in the not-so-distant future. The consensus, then, is that we as a nation must return to the farming culture of the early United States where small, more sustainable farms ruled and larger, unsustainable farms were non-existent, while still meeting the multifold challenges of providing sufficient nutrients for an ever growing world population, and mitigating the rapid deterioration of our world and the resources we garner from it.
Senior Philosophy major, Envr. Studies minor