Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, reviews the feature-length documentary “Eating Our Way to Extinction”, now available to watch for free.
There is one in each room.
Anywhere in the world, if there is a room where people sit to discuss how we can solve our major global crises, there is one there, in the corner. Invisible and unnoticed, there is one there. Making noises, stamping her feet, flapping her ears. Trying to draw attention to herself — which never has been a problem in the savannahs or forests where she lives.
People talk and talk, and do not see her. Well, some do see her, but they do not want to look at her. They do not want to acknowledge her existence. They do not want to notice her enormous size.
“There was a lot of discussion about the contribution from buildings and from industrial factories, but I became aware during that same period of time that there was another factor that was going undiscussed, and that is the role of animal agriculture, which I could see was playing some significant role around the planet. But this was the elephant in the room no one wanted to talk about.”
Jeremy Rifkin, an Economic & Political Advisor, said this in Eating Our Way to Extinction, the 2021 feature-length documentary directed by Otto Brockway and Ludo Brockway, which since July 2022 is available for anyone to watch — as it is on YouTube free to view, as well as in other platforms.
I watched it, I liked it, I learnt from it, and this article is my review of it.
A Milestone in the Vegan Documentary Arena
I think Eating Our Way to Extinction will be remembered as one of the key milestones in the history of vegan documentaries. Although there had been documentaries about veganism, animal rights, and animal protection issues for many decades, in the last 20 years some feature-length documentaries crossed the barrier from niche to mainstream and had a much wider impact. Such a dynasty began in 2004 with a pre-vegan documentary that started dismantling the carnist paradigm without even mentioning the word vegan, or directly advocating for veganism. This was Super Size Me, the documentary directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock, an American independent filmmaker. Spurlock’s film follows a 30-day period from 1st February to 2nd March 2003, during which he ate only McDonald’s food, and then found out why that was a bad idea.
The first proper vegan milestone documentary premiered in 2005. The American Shaun Monson produced Earthlings, narrated by the actor and animal rights activist Joaquin Phoenix (vegan since he was three years old). This showed, with very graphic images, the reality of humanity’s use of other animals as food, clothing, entertainment, and scientific research. It became the “must show” documentary in the vegan movement, and I have no doubt it was responsible for many people becoming vegan. Inspired by the social impact of Earthlings, many other pro-vegan documentaries were produced in the following years, covering all the different dimensions of veganism (animals, health, environment, etc.). For instance, Meat the Truth, (2007), Food, Inc. (2008), Vegucaded (2011), Forks over Knives (2011), The Ghosts in our Machine (2013), Speciesism the Movie (2013), Blackfish (2013), Cowspiracy (2014), The End of Meat (2017), What a Health (2017), Land of Hope and Glory (2017), Dominion (2018), 73 Cows (2018), The Game Changers (2018), The Animal People (2019), Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story (2020) and Seaspiracy (2021).
Now we have Eating Our Way to Extinction, covering a gap that should have been filled twenty years ago. In 2006, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim about former US Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global heating, should have included animal agriculture as one of the leading causes, but it did not. It should have advocated for veganism, but it did not. That serious omission is what Eating Our Way to Extinction corrects, making it a kind of “The Real Inconvenient Truth.”
It not only looks at the problem that is the ignored cause of our global climate crises, but it is also a very important cause of so many other crises (deforestation, mass extinction, pandemics, health epidemics, water scarcity, etc.). It finally addresses the global negative impact of animal agriculture, and how imperative it is that we replace it with a much better system: plant-based agriculture.
This is a truly international documentary. Its scope is so global, that I would say it deserves the label of a “planetary documentary”. Full of facts and expert opinions, it features people from all over the world agreeing about what the problem is — among them, many reputable scientists. For instance…
“If you look at the impact that food choice has on global warming, it’s very significant. Eating meat is huge for global climate, and that’s something where personal choice is the determining factor. The only case I can think of where individual human choice would have a big effect would be food” (Prof. Peter Wadhams, Arctic & Ice Expert, University of Cambridge).
“The critical, widespread negative impact of animal agriculture on our planet is undeniable. Severe global crises from climate change and environmental damage to species extinction, hunger, poverty, disease and antibiotic resistance, all of these have direct connections to animal agriculture and the massive inefficiency of our current food production systems” (Dr Joanne Kong, a lecturer at the University of Richmond).
A Fountain of Useful Facts
The documentary shows an abundance of very interesting and useful facts, presented with stunning graphics and realistic 3D animations that made them very palatable — and everything can be checked as the sources are provided. I learned a lot, and I was impressed by the very innovative ways to present information that make it very accessible. I particularly liked the animation of the world being lighted up region after region while the following facts were presented:
“Agriculture has transformed the planet like nothing else. To produce milk, we farm an area about the size of Brazil. To produce beef, we farm an area about the size of Canada, the United States, the whole of Central America, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador combined. To produce eggs, we farm an area the size of Sweden. To produce aquaculture feed, an area about the size of the UK. A plant-based diet would reduce the amount of land required to produce our food by 3.1 billion hectares. That’s an area the size of the entire African continent” (Joseph Poore, Environment & Agriculture Researcher from the University of Oxford).
The documentary is co-directed by Otto and Ludovic Brockway and produced by Kian Tavakkoli, Mark Galvin and Ludovic Brockway of Broxstar Productions (a London-based production company). Executive Producers on the film include Sir Richard Branson, Magnus Hollo, Ivan Orlic of Seine Pictures, Lauren Mekhael, James Wilks, Joseph Pace, Susan Vitka, and Kate Winslet, who is also the narrator in the original version. Additional versions in several languages are being produced, including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, and French (released on World Animal Day on the 4th of October 2022), and these will be narrated by other celebrities appropriate for each version.
Many of the interesting data — extremely useful for vegan outreachers — are delivered by Kate Winslet while beautifully edited infographics fluidly fly into the screen one after the other. For instance:
“Of the estimated 70 billion land animals reared for human consumption each year around the world, nearly 90% are chickens. An emerging problem is that chicken consumption is now on the rise. Whilst chicken has a lower environmental impact than red meat, over 90% of chicken globally is now intensively farmed, and this is having devastating effects on our planet. If we compare the equivalent protein calories for meat and plant-based proteins, such as chickpeas, chicken does less harm to the environment than commonly consumed red meats. And yet, still causes 40 times more climate-related warming per calorie of protein than chickpeas, and uses 50 times the amount of water.”
The Effects of Animal Agriculture
This fact-driven documentary is divided into several chapters, each covering the different global problems caused by animal agriculture. It starts with deforestation, focusing on the Amazon rainforest. Kate Winslet says, “The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest. This ancient and richly biodiverse world is slowly being replaced. It is often assumed that much of the soy being planted in Brazil is for human consumption. In fact, less than 6% of the soy grown across the globe is fed to humans. The vast majority is grown to create animal feed for livestock. The soy is exported all around the world and fed to the billions of chickens, farmed fish, pigs, and cows that we eat each day.”
Then it moves to the devastating effects of animal agriculture in the oceans, particularly the creation of Dead Zones. Over amazing satellite images, she says, “The millions of square miles, given over to growing feed for the animals we eat, are heavily sprayed with nitrogen fertilizers. The nitrogen runs off the fields working its way down rivers, and eventually into our oceans. The nitrogen-rich water stimulates massive overgrowth of algae, resulting in algal blooms so large, they can be seen from space. The algae starve the water of oxygen, leading to the death of the marine life around it. Since the demand for meat has grown, these low oxygen dead zones have been steadily growing and growing.”
I found the next chapter particularly poignant. It deals with fishes, particularly fish farms. The images of the suffering of fishes are very vivid and sad. About 70% of the fishes people eat today come from fish farms, and Norway produces more farmed salmon and cod than any other country in the world. Using aerial footage taken by undercover drones, we get to see how these horrible factory farms work. Thousands of fish are kept close together in very small sea cages, ridden with disease, and sprayed with dangerous chemicals to combat it. We also see Scottish salmon farms, equally horrible. Several experts talk about this problem:
“Our oceans have become humanity’s sewers. Everything eventually flows into the sea, so if you had a time machine that could go back before the industrial revolution, it might be a different story. But now, the highest levels are many of these persistent organic pollutants — we’re talking about DDT, PCBs and dioxins — the highest levels in our food supply are found in the aquatic food chain. Fish are not the safest choice anymore.” (Dr Michael Greger, physician and creator of Nutritionfacts.org)
The interview of entrepreneur Tony Robins was particularly insightful. He shared his experience of suffering from mercury poisoning because of deciding to become a pescatarian after having been vegan for 12 years.
The next chapters deal with plastics, mass extinction, diseases, pandemics, antibiotics, water scarcity, and climate change. Each of them very informative and interesting.
Educational and Entertaining
Through all these chapters, we not only hear from experts from the scientific and business communities but also from indigenous communities (such as from the Amazon rainforest or the Taiwanese mountains). And we also hear the testimonies of politicians and whistle-blowers (such as ex-butchers). With excellent photography directed by Paul Barton, we get to travel all over the world and feel that we are there seeing what is going on with our own eyes.
Eating Our Way to Extinction — which started pre-production in 2016 and took many years to complete due to the pandemic — has all the “thriller” elements so characteristic of this type of documentary, such as undercover investigations, publicly challenging the authorities, whistle-blowers, exposing corruption, etc. This is what makes the narrative dramatic and you never get bored. But it does not overdo it, and it does not lean too much on the “conspiracy” narrative — which is welcomed progress, because in the post-truth era we live where conspiracy theories are doing so much damage, it is much better to stay away from that trend now. As such, it is not that “plot-driven” as many other documentaries of this genre is, and relies more on laying out facts in an organised and visually compelling manner.
It also has many original elements that help the viewer digest everything easily. For instance, an interesting infrared absorption experiment was conducted to see the greenhouse effects of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide. This is to illustrate that methane is 25 times more potent per molecule as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and nitrous oxide 298, and both are heavily emitted by the animal agriculture industry.
The music is also great and gives the perfect atmosphere to each section. I particularly remember the comical music accompanying the ridiculous answer of an EU Commissioner when asked about “the elephant in the room” issue, and the music which resembles the ticks of a clock when learning about how time is running out in the Amazon.
And as with all good documentaries, it ends on a positive note. The last chapter is no longer about the evils of animal agriculture but about the solution. That’s when veganism and plant-based agriculture kicks in. We hear about Veganuary, the Oxford EPIC study, and all the health benefits of the vegan diet, and we also hear about the five regions known as the Blue Zones (Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Icaria in Greece, Nicoya in Costa Rica, and Loma Linda in California) where there is a particularly high number of people living more than 100 years. Dr Gemma Newman, an NHS Doctor & Plant-Based Nutrition Specialist in the UK, has a good idea why: “They have a predominantly plant-based diet. They have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, soy, lentils, and chickpeas. They have a diet rich in all these nutrients and that’s one thing that they have in common.”
I was pleased to see that the term “vegan” was not shunned and replaced by “plant-based” — as is often the case in documentaries. It was mentioned 12 times, compared with 30 times the word plant-based (but this was correctly used to describe the diet, rather than the philosophy).
The documentary ends with the expected warning: “We are running out of time. The world community must acknowledge that animal agriculture is the most destructive industry on our planet. We can’t wait for government policies and other organizations to create a better life for ourselves. We need to stand up now and make our voices heard” (Dr Joanne Kong, lecturer at the University of Richmond).
If you go to the official website of Eating Our Way to Extinction, you will find several resources to help you move towards the vegan world. There is a plant-based meal planner people can sign up to, a forest pledge, and a comprehensive section with facts (including a debunking myths section). All this is essential to expand the influence of any documentary, and now that everyone can watch it for free (it was initially available only via Amazon Prime from 22nd April 2022), hopefully, more people will watch it and decide to become vegan. Because of this, I think Eating Our Way to Extinction will indeed be remembered as another key milestone in the vegan documentary history, comparable to Earthlings and Cowspiracy. Another veganising documentary helping to build the vegan world.
Thanks to it, perhaps the elephants in all the rooms will finally be heard.
Stamping their feet for decades.