The food landscape has changed significantly since acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer published his nonfiction debut Eating Animals 10 years ago. Oat milk happened; Beyoncé went vegan; Reba McEntire played Colonel Sanders in a KFC commercial. And yet, the bleak reality of factory farming presented in the book remains the same: it’s a major cause of virtually every single environmental issue, from water pollution to biodiversity loss, and it produces more greenhouse gas than all other factors put together.
These facts now form the basis of the timely-as-ever documentary version of Eating Animals, coproduced by Foer with Oscar-winning actress and longtime friend Natalie Portman, whom he credits with conceiving the adaptation early on. “I gave her a draft while I was writing the book, and she said it would make a great documentary,” says Foer.
Laced with Foer’s trademark mix of lush imagery and existential dread, the film, also narrated by Portman, traces the unlikely origins of factory farming to 1923 when a Delaware housewife named Sylvia Steele received an oversized order of chicks. “She started raising them inside rather than outside and regulating the lighting cycle so that it seemed to be day when it was actually night,” Foer explains.
That accidental discovery, as the film illustrates in full, unflinching color, eventually led to today’s fast food industrial complex—one that wasn’t easy to document, even with Foer’s foundational text. “It took a long time to make [the movie],” he says. “[Director] Christopher [Dillon Quinn] traveled all over the world and accumulated tons of footage. It’s a very complicated story to tell and that resists telling because factory farming as an industry is very secretive.”
But meat’s stronghold may be weakening, says Foer, thanks in no small part to a growing number of pro-veg celebs. “Nothing is more powerful than when people like Beyoncé come out and say, ‘I’m not going to tell you what do to, but I’m going to share with you why I do what I do—that’s the beginning of the end,’” says Foer of the singer, who recently launched the vegan meal planning program 22 Days.
With Eating Animals the book and now the documentary under his belt, Foer is undeniably an apostle of the no-meat movement. But, he says, he’s hardly vying with Queen Bey to be the nation’s foremost vegetarian influencer. “Whether I’m cooking, ordering at a restaurant, or grocery shopping—I don’t think of myself as a vegetarian,” he says. “I think of myself as an eater who’s trying to be conscientious. And it feels good to try.”
Main image credit: Matt Huprel