Wielding Our Forks For Good

A Review of At The Fork

I chose to adopt a vegan diet over 20 years ago, at a time in my life when I was radically reevaluating my patterns of thought and behavior, much of which was unconscious habit inherited from family and culture. I realized then that when I am in a grocery store or eating out, my ability to choose what I eat is a metaphorical knife I wield: I can use it to either slit an animal’s throat or just cut vegetables. I concluded that though I have the capacity to forget, shut down and not care about my consumption choices, I wanted to live in compassionate alignment with the vision that what we choose to eat matters. I decided to discipline myself to make conscious and ethical choices about what I would eat going forward. I haven’t regretted it since.

As time went on, I learned more and more about the impact of the standard American diet I was raised on. I learned that the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest—the lungs of the Earth—is an ecological catastrophe driven in large part by the rising global demand for meat. Old-growth rainforests and complex wildlife habitats are burned and cleared to create grazing land for cattle and massive monoculture deserts of soy for animal feed, while thousands on thousands of species perish. Massive amounts of carbon are released into the air not only by clear cutting rainforest, but also by industrial practices that ravage soils with carbon-intensive pesticide and fertilizer inputs, to grow grain that is inefficiently converted into animal protein and energy rather than used to feed people directly. The link between exploitation of animals and ecological destruction was clear 20 years ago—and has since only come more sharply into focus.

I learned about the horrors of factory farming of animals in cruel confinement systems, cages and feedlots, where they are denied the ability to express basic instinctual behaviors. These farm animals are made to suffer every day of their miserable lives. Over 95% of meat comes from animals raised this way, largely because consumers refuse to examine how the industrialization of cheap meat has come at the expense of animal life and suffering.

For the last two decades I have also worked alongside my brother, mother, sister and brother-in-law—all of them omnivores. While I’m often disappointed by their food choices when eating out, where only the worst factory farmed options usually exist, I’ve also learned to respect their choice to eat, when at home, only meat, dairy and egg products that come from farmers who uphold high animal welfare standards. My recent deep dive into regenerative organic agriculture has brought me into close contact with a community of farmers committed to raising animals humanely and sustainably on pasture, in ways that allow those animals to express their instinctive behaviors. So long as people dramatically reduce consumption of meat to sustainable levels, and choose to eat only from high animal welfare and pasture-based farms, then I consider myself in solidarity with them against the factory farm machine. I believe this ongoing dialogue with ethical omnivores and farmers has given me a balanced view of what it means to eat and farm ethically in this day and age, and earlier this year I published an article, titled Regenetarians Unite, summarizing my perspective.

A similar, balanced perspective is powerfully presented in the movie At The Fork, in which husband-and-wife filmmakers John Papola and Lisa Versaci visit different kinds of farms and speak with a wide array of farmers to discover what it means to eat meat and raise animals ethically. As in my family, John is an omnivore while Lisa is a vegan, and this tension between their dietary choices personalizes the narrative.

The journey begins with a look at gestation crates for sows—perhaps one of the most obviously cruel practices in modern factory farming. This method, which keeps gestating sows tightly confined for a period of weeks and months, has already been banned in nine states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Rhode Island). John visits an animal sanctuary and experiences a “human gestation crate,” so that he can feel what it must be like for a pig to be so confined. Here and throughout the film we see John grapple with periods of compassion and insight, giving way to numbness and indifference—he understands these methods are cruel, but like most, he compartmentalizes and shuts down when it comes time to eat, succumbing to the inertia of family, traditions and the gustatory pleasure of eating meat. John makes a great “everyman,” able to grasp the consequences of meat-eating but still driven by his tastes and desires.

The filmmakers visit farmers that use gestation crates who try to rationalize them to be necessary and humane, as well as others who have eschewed the practice, allowing the pigs to express more of their natural behaviors. As we will see throughout the film, consumers’ demand for cheap meat is the primary driver for industrial practices, and if consumers are willing to pay more for more humane practices, then farmers will adapt. “I will happily figure out a way to raise pigs however the consumer wants to have them, as long as the consumer is going to pay me for the expenses that I have to put into it,” says one hog farmer, illuminating the power of consumers to change how animals are raised to produce the meat they eat.

We also get to meet Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. I have visited White Oak myself and have seen firsthand what next-level animal welfare can look like. Will’s perspective in the film is key, as someone who came from a long ranching tradition but began to question many of its accepted tenets. His work has demonstrated that long-held beliefs about how to properly raise farm animals do not hold up under scrutiny—such as the myths that animals get sick if left out in the rain; that forage does not give ruminants (ie. cattle and sheep) sufficient nutrition; or that they need to be artificially inseminated to breed.

An important fact demonstrated at White Oak Pastures not addressed in the film, is that carefully managed “rotational grazing” ensures that any given area of pasture is given a long period to rest and recover, which actually helps regenerate the soil that grows their pasture. Along with cover cropping, minimal tillage, use of compost and complex crop rotations, this is the promise of regenerative organic agriculture: carefully managed grazing can recreate the conditions of large herds of ruminant animals that coevolved with grasslands, moved along by predator pressure so they did not overgraze any one area.  As a vegan, I’m personally for maximizing wilderness for wild animals, but respect that there can be a sustainable balance of livestock in our agriculture (at a much smaller population) that can beneficially integrate into pasture-based farming systems. My Regenetarians Unite article goes deeper into all this.

The laser focus on animal welfare however allows At The Fork to make one of its most compelling points: that minimizing stress and distress at the end of a farmed animal’s life is crucial when considering humane treatment. The stress of transport when going to slaughter, and the terrors of the noise and lights associated with conventional slaughterhouses, is immense. The autistic livestock-whisperer savant Temple Grandin has dedicated her life to minimizing this stress, and is featured prominently and effectively in the film.  Mr. Harris worked with Ms. Grandin to build a small slaughterhouse onsite at White Oak to avoid the transport problem, and vastly improve his animals’ last days.

At The Fork does an excellent job of showing us, without overdramatizing, the animal welfare issues entailed in each farm animal product we consume. For meat from cattle raised in large feed lots, it’s mud and heat stress; for meat and eggs from chickens, it’s genetics, culling, overcrowding and lack of movement; and for dairy, it’s separation of cows from their newborn calves while constantly being kept pregnant and lactating, eating a diet high in grain they did not evolve to consume. In each of these cases, we see vividly how efficiency and economics inform the decisions to farm in this way. We meet the farmers and can see them not as cruel capitalists, but as creatures constrained by market forces and entrenched culture—some choosing to rationalize, some seeing their plight for what it is. Their choices and movements are limited—not by cages, but by consumer tastes and the dictates of mass production.

And as the filmmakers visit each farm, we also see farmers grappling with what it means to take another creature’s life for food. Although their worldview is generally one that views meat-eating as fine and right, most also admit to an emotional toll that comes from constantly taking animal life. This theme comes into full, devastating force at the movie’s end, when we meet young teenagers at a farming competition who are both proud of their craft and deeply bonded to the animals they have raised to be slaughtered.

So what can consumers do to drive change?  In addition to adopting a plant-based diet, the filmmakers offer up certification systems that consumers can use to “vote with their dollars” for the kind of humane farming system we all want, such as: Animals Welfare Approved (AWA); GAP (Global Animal Partnership), which ranks welfare on a scale of 1 to 5, 4 and 5 being pasture based; and Certified Humane (a certification that is equivalent to GAP 3 and not nearly as good as AWA). By choosing to only consume meat, dairy and eggs that have been certified to the highest ethical standards, we can make it worthwhile for farmers to raise their animals humanely. It’s we, the eaters, that ultimately dictate the kind of farms that grow our food. Our plate is our farm, our knife our butchering knife, our fork our pitchfork. So we must refuse to eat factory farmed meat simply because it’s expedient or what happens to be available—and a lot of times this will mean forgoing meat altogether. Like Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6:00pm” diet or the approach of eating meat sparingly as a “condimeat”—for those who don’t feel ready to give up meat entirely, “less and better” meat is the clear path to reducing animal suffering.

We are truly “at the fork” in the road. As a culture, we must choose which path to take. One is a path of thoughtless consumption and industrialization that sacrifices the lives and wellbeing of animals and spells disaster for our climate. The other is the path of consuming more plants and significantly less and much better meat from regenerative organic and humane agriculture, that raises animals responsibly and ethically on pasture, while also helping to bring our climate back into balance.

At The Fork can be viewed on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.

Author Profile
David Bronner

David Bronner is Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) of Dr. Bronner’s, the grandson of company founder, Emanuel Bronner, and a fifth-generation soap maker. He is a dedicated vegan and enjoys surfing and dancing late into the night.

See all stories by David Bronner
  • Kim Gustafson

    Thank you so much for recommending the movie, At The Fork. I just finished watching it on Amazon. It is a testimony to many people, including me, in learning about our choices in food consumption.

    • Lisa Versaci

      Thank you for watching, Kim! Please tell your family and friends about the film. Did it affect your dietary decisions in any way?

      • Kim Gustafson

        I have been active in my food choices, not always choosing wisely. Every film I see, including At The Fork, brings me a little closer to not eating meat at all. I loved the resources to take away from the film. I now plan to read Vegan Before Six(VB6).

        • Lisa Versaci

          That will make a HUGE difference! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Sally Dodge

    A long time ago I read an article in Blair and Ketchum’s Country Journal which suggested that the 23rd Psalm is a testament to the life, and death, of a lamb. The lamb lives a good life, provided by the good shepherd, but finally is sacrificed, with great respect, for the table. Parallel to the story of Christ. I always recited this psalm when my own lambs, which led a happy life till the day of sacrifice, went to slaughter.

  • Ely

    This is a really good article and I am so glad I came across it! I will be watching the film today. I am also really interest in the regenetarian principle and vegan before 6pm principle, although for me it would be ‘vegan outside the home’ as this is my history:

    I studied nutrition and have spent my life learning about food and diet, cooking on yoga retreats and running my own business. I never eliminated meat, especially fish and eggs, due to the Omega 3 DHA connection with good health, especially mental health. But as the years have passed I have become increasingly unable to reconcile myself with an industry that profits off the life of an animal if it means the animal doesn’t live a natural life. I don’t have an issue with eating meat per se, but we are generally so far removed from what really goes on due to clever marketing and packaging, that I hit a cross roads with my conscience about a year ago: whether to stop eating animal products because where does one draw the line?

    Fortunately in the UK we have fantastic farmers’ markets and small producers, so I buy from them, but out and about daily, one cannot guarantee the welfare and quality of the meat, fish and dairy which is in the food we are served (very occasionally from certain restaurants and cafes one can have the guarantee).

    But I struggled with the notion of becoming ‘vegan’ because I am essentially not vegan! I can go sea fishing and catch a mackerel, or eat my friends’ eggs from the ex battery chickens they keep, or have local raw honey in my coffee, or chicken from another friends’ smallholding – you get my drift. I also live in an area where much of the arable land is useless for crops but great for grazing, so the sheep and cattle spend most of their lives outside, feeding on grass, in places where nothing else can grow: hence a minimal footprint environmentally.

    Some friends and I decided to do ‘going plant based for 30 days’ and I am really enjoying it – discovering new foods and rediscovering recipes I used to cook on retreats. I know that going forward I will stay mainly plant based, but that mackerel, that egg, that honey – makes me non vegan – so what do I say when I am out and about. Only a couple of days ago I was in a cafe and asked what was vegan on the menu. “Oh are you vegan?” “Well yes, no, sort of!” I said.

    There has historically been a black line drawn between vegan and non vegan, which I feel has often proved divisive and rather than educating omnivores, it has served to alienate and antagonise them. That’s not every vegan I know and I have plenty of friends who just get on with it. I mean the angry keyboard warriors that call any and every omnivore a murderer and turn it into a battle between good and evil. There needed to be a sea change because there has, quietly, been a movement by some omnivores, to change the way we rear, kill and purchase animal products as laid out in the article above.

    This article, is one of many signs I have come across that demonstrate the line is slowly being erased on behalf of the greater good and this is so important and needs to be encouraged. We need a healthy mutually respectful dialogue and not treat omnivores as the ‘enemy’ to make long overdue changes; engaging in proper debate that is not only essential to animals and their welfare but to the future of our planet.