American Meat is a documentary about how commercial meat is produced in America -- and how it could be done better. It features Joel Salatin, who has taken on mythic proportions in the local food movement. He's a terrific spokesperson, even if I do have some differences with him.
The film is a good introduction for those whose interest has been sparked by choices on supermarket shelves -- what's organic, grass fed? How is it different from the rest of the meat in the case?
Bob Banner of HopeDance hosted the showing in San Luis Obispo's Palm Theater. He invited local ranchers who are raising grass-fed beef. One has made an attempt to raise chickens and turkeys but lost the chickens to predators and found the turkeys expensive to raise, costing $150 each. She found buyers for them anyway, but I'm confident that there are ways to do that better. Raising meat in more environmentally responsible and humane ways takes time and patience to restore. I applaud these ranchers for taking the steps to engage this change.
Our local university, California State Polytechnic University, has a large ag program that is committed to industrial methods. The administration stepped into a controversy a couple of years ago when Michael Pollan was invited to speak on campus and the ag department demanded that he not be allowed to speak unless industrial spokespeople were included in the program. The university terminated its organic farm CSA a year ago for dubious reasons. Nevertheless, some of the aggies and the faculty continue to carry a torch for alternative agriculture. An alum who left a ranch in Santa Cruz County provided a place to raise grass-fed beef, and it's available once or twice a year. Swanton Ranch Beef is worth the price, $6 a pound in 30-pound lots.
In the film, one hog farmer decides to raise some of his hogs in more humane conditions and on organic feed so that he can sell the pork at a premium price. When economic conditions changed, the buyer backed out, but the farmer continued to allow the hogs access to the outdoors. He wasn't able to get the organic feed, so that goal evaporated, but even so, he found that he and his fellow farmers prefer the flavor of the humanely raised pork. Oddly, he still resists agreeing that humane methods are better. Go figure.
Sadly, the outdoor access that qualifies as 'humane' is bare concrete. At least it's outside in the fresh air and sunshine. He remarks that he didn't think the hogs would want to go outside, and is surprised that they are outdoors even when the temperature is below zero. Duh.
Bob made the point that even though the meat produced by organic and humane methods is one percent of meat sold, it's a niche. That's the way I feel about backyard chickens and fresh eggs: every family with their own chickens is one less customer for that industrial system.