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Natalie Portman explores the ethics of 'Eating Animals' in new documentary

The new documentary, “Eating Animals,” is produced and narrated by the actress Natalie Portman. The film raises some troubling questions about the people — and, more accurately, the conglomerates — who raise and grow most of the food that we eat.

We would like to think that there’s a way for many people to essentially shop for farm-to-table food. But the vast majority of American meat and produce comes our way not from family farmers, but through sprawling corporations whose decisions are almost always governed by profitability. And if you really want to buy free-range eggs and meat from pigs and cattle who graze outdoors, it is not cheap.

John Horn saw the film at the Telluride Film Festival and then spent some time with Portman:

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On the line at the end of the film that says: “You vote three times a day with your fork.”

There's a reason that food, and food restrictions, are such a big part of every religion. Because it is a way that you can state what you believe in and what you care about three times a day. Voting is a statement of believing in something, caring about something, making decisions based on what you care about. And we eat three times a day, at least, and each time you do you're making a statement about your values.

How she became interested in food activism and what compelled her to produce the film "Eating Animals":

I've been a vegetarian since I was quite young, and then when I read Jonathan Safran Foer's book "Eating Animals," that the film is based on, it really changed me. First of all, I became a vegan from being vegetarian because he chronicles the dairy and egg industries, as well as the fish and different meat, poultry [industries]. And it also made me go from [thinking], I'm just going to make decisions for myself, to being someone who wanted to be an activist for it.

You see all of the different aspects. It's not just an ethical question of how you want to treat animals. It's also an environmental issue. It's also a social issue because, of course, these factory farms are located near the poorest areas and they're spraying feces into the air and making the people there very sick. And those people have no political power or clout. And there is the health issue, where you find out that there's cow mucus in milk, which is totally upsetting. And that they're genetically engineering turkeys with obese genes to have more fat because Americans like fat.

It's outrageous. And it's upsetting. And it's our health, it's our environment. And it's our values.

On the economic and social questions and issues raised in the film:

It can be a completely elitist solution to talk about small farming because you're talking about more expensive meat. And that's only available in fancy farmer's markets or fancy grocery stores that don't exist in many areas. So I think the answer is two-fold. One is that I think it has to do with people eating less meat. It's unrealistic to expect that people are going to become vegetarian or vegan based on this. But it's been a lie that you have to eat meat every meal. That's been an advertising ploy that didn't happen in the '50s. Since the '50s, there's been this huge push to get people to consume more eggs, more dairy, more meat. And that's not something that you have to have at every meal. So if everyone said, You know what? I'm only going to eat meat once a day, or I'm not going to eat meat one day a week, like this "Meatless Monday" sort of trend, that would make a huge impact. That would make an enormous environmental impact. And then also if you're decreasing your consumption, maybe you can [afford] the quality meat that is ethically sourced and environmentally friendly and not harming humans or animals.

And then the second part that it's sort of been a lie that they've fed to us that factory farming and this industrialization of animal farming is helping feed the world. We have more starving people than any other time in history. We have starving people in the United States. We're not feeding the world. We're just creating an industry that is torturing animals, that is polluting our environment and that is hurting the health of humans.

On what surprised her in her research during the course of production:

The mucus in milk was the most upsetting thing. There's a legal pus limit in milk that the U.S. government has set. I think it's like 11% that's allowed. And these swine factory farms channel all of the feces into these lagoons. And then when you fly over you see these pretty pink bodies of water but, of course, they're just swimming with feces. And it's going right into the soil.

And also what was shocking to me is that avian flu, swine flu, E. coli is found on things like spinach. That's happening all because of factory farming, because you're basically creating a system where the animals are sick, they're pooping into the ground their sick bacteria, and it's getting into our other food sources. I mean, why are vegetables getting E. coli now?

On what the next steps could be to create change after seeing this film:

Well I'm a vegan and I love food, and so I think you can live really deliciously without consuming these animal products. Some people are, like, I could never, I'm too used to having steak. I'm too used to having chicken. I'm too used to having cheese. You don't have to give it up. But if you just choose one meal a week or one meal a day, like any small step, I think would be a huge step collectively.

On why it's somewhat easier for her to talk about a documentary she's produced than it is to talk about a narrative film she's acted in:

When you're making a fiction feature, you don't have a statement. Art is more ephemeral than that. It's not something you can grab on to and explain. It's something that is more felt in your stomach. And that's why you should just see it. You don't have to talk about it. But this is about a very "expressable" — if that's a word — set of ideas and issues. And I think something that's really compelling is that most people agree that they don't want to hurt animals and they don't want to hurt the environment. They're some of the most unanimously held opinions, and so this seems like it should be compelling to good people.

To hear John Horn's full interview with Natalie Portman, click on the player above. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.