Director David White writes about his experience making the documentary MEAT.

Whenever I would say I was making a documentary called MEAT, invariably people would say "Have you read the book My Year of Meat?"

I would say "No".

They would say "You should" and I would say "I will look into it".

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I never did.

When you start any artistic process people all have views about what you should do. Read this book, see this movie, listen to this song – normally this information is coming from your friends, who generally have similar values and views to you.

The information comes at you thick and fast. As a director you are doing your best to be inspired, but not so much that your vision is distorted. It's about knowing what you were trying to bring to the world at the very start, but it also involves being challenged by the right pieces of information to create a better film and being open to a different result evolving from this process.

David White director supplied 10 June 2018 NZH 11Jun18 -
David White director supplied 10 June 2018 NZH 11Jun18 -

Over the course of two years, I worked on the documentary MEAT. This piece is about how it came about, what inspired it, the people involved and the issues I encountered while making it, which ultimately challenged me and my thoughts about food.

In 2012 I made the short film I Kill. It was about a mobile slaughterman called Beatle. I had known him for most of my life – he's our family's killer of beasts. (I had grown up on a third – about to be fourth – generation eight-hundred-acre sheep and beef farm.) Beatle's numberplate reads 'I Kill' and he truly is an artist of death. With the animal standing there in the paddock, he would calmly wander in, click his tongue; the cow would lift his head and BANG the .22 calibre gun would go off and the cow would drop to the ground. Instant death. I Kill travelled extremely well around the world; film festivals across the globe played it. It won awards. It had notoriety. Producers and other documentary makers alike noticed me because of it. I had not shied away from death in its rawest form.

For a long time I didn't quite understand what I had made. For me, the slaughter of animals was natural. Beatle was part of life. But for many it provoked a visceral response. It was in your face – people would leave the cinema half way through a ten-minute short film. Animal slaughter was something they had not seen and something many had not thought about. And further to that I was telling them that this animal sniper was the best way for animals to die, and that slaughterhouses – where most meat comes from, – probably weren't ideal. People were shocked.

On the farm growing up, the natural cycle of birth, growth and death was ever-present. But what was natural to me was unnatural to so many. People didn't know where their meat was coming from. Over the next couple of years I spoke to people about this – at parties, over cups of tea, at film conventions. But so often these conversations would focus around the production of chicken (and eggs) and pork, and the large indoor ways of growing those foods.

During those subsequent years I then started to notice something about my own buying habits in the supermarket in regards to those proteins. I would only buy free range (unless I was drunk at two am and I wanted that curry – oh, it seems my morals could be overridden by about seven beers and a couple of shots of tequila). I questioned myself about how I had come to this conclusion – that free range was best. I realised I was making up my mind about these purchases without truly knowing what the farming practices were. And if I didn't, and I thought I was quite educated about farming, what was it like for the true urbanites? How did the people who were so shocked by I Kill get their information?

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My investigation started and it soon became apparent that there were two main voices dominating discussions about pork, chicken and farming in general in the media – and that these were diametrically opposed. On the on one hand there were the activists with strong vegan messages and the viewpoint that farming is bad with statements like "True animal lovers are vegans" which could be interpreted as farmers don't love animals, then at the other end of the scale, farmers with articles that simply start with "Don't believe the eyewash spouted by the anti-farming brigade" who tell us everything is wonderful and not to worry about a thing.

I felt that exposure to only two viewpoints, a choice of one or the other, oversimplified things and that this was inherently wrong. Surely meat production was more nuanced than this. From where I was standing, I didn't believe farming was bad and I was not a vegan. But I also knew from the many years working on farms that meat production was not all rainbows and unicorns. Some parts of farming can be a grizzly affair. It can be beautiful, absolutely, but it can also be visceral and heartbreaking. And when you are growing thousands of animals for the purpose of slaughter, there are always questions that we should be discussing.

As this point I realised I wanted to create a film that was down the middle and that explored the nuances of meat production – moving the conversation beyond a simple matter of black and white. I personally wanted to learn more about chickens and pork and also show people sheep and hunting. I wanted people to see four different meat farms and farmers, and hear them talk about their farming practices in their own words. The audience could then make up their own minds or ask questions about the meat they were purchasing.

I went in with an open mind. As expected spending time with these farmers caused me to question my own ideology and challenged me to think beyond myself and my group of friends – to look at the larger picture. I was inspired by the presence of these farmers and the situations I was in and the conversations I was having at the coalface of meat production. I learnt very quickly that food isn't simple. In fact food is so complex that I had to reject the preconceived ideas I had about how free range was altogether better for everyone, and had to reconsider just how 'green' my practices were overall.

I would feel saddened and mad when told by Tony, my chicken farmer, that as a world we certainly create enough food to solve world hunger. That people are starving is more the result of economics and distribution than production. We as a society have simply decided that some countries should not have food because they don't have the monetary payment we deem necessary. That in my mind means we have simply decided people should starve.

MEAT aims to give viewers an insight into meat production without telling them what to think. Photo / Supplied
MEAT aims to give viewers an insight into meat production without telling them what to think. Photo / Supplied

We see the economics of food distribution within our own first-world country. As a simple example, New Zealand Lamb is a valued commodity overseas, however, because of the large supermarket chains' buying power, I have on more than on occasion noticed New Zealand lamb cheaper in England than in our own backyard. We could then ask if our two chain supermarkets are really giving consumers a fair deal (but that is an article for another time).

Then there was the complexity of waste and the ecological effect that I personally, even with all my green habits, was having on the planet. Before filming I had gone through my fridge and thrown my flatmate's well-past-it pork sausages into our commercial compost heap (my flatmate owns several restaurants). I mentioned I had done this to Ian, the pig farmer who features in Meat. He was appalled. But I recycle, I buy bio dish-washing liquid, I compost and I understood that an animal had to die for me to throw it out, I say. But he started to talk about not just the animal but all the energy involved for me to have any food at home. He started listing. From the tractor power used in sowing the grain, the harvesting, the drying, and the carting, through to the energy used to break up the grain, then the power used to get the grain to the pigs, the petrol it takes to run the water pump, the energy for the lights, the truck carting the pigs, the people driving their cars to the slaughterhouse, the resealing of the road because of more weight in the trucks… The list goes on all the way through to my fridge using power to keep my sausages cold before I chuck them out.

All these things are part of the food system, and part of the larger picture. The environmental impact of me throwing out any food (even if I compost), even though incremental, would accumulate to quite a large amount over my lifetime – involving all of these networks as outlined above. 'We as farmers are over-producing so you can waste,' he said. It hit me like a tonne of bricks.

But the most challenging thing for me was when we started to talk about how Lotto impacts people's meat buying habits and the choices they were making at the supermarket or butcher.

Pig farms have a weekly cycle. We create about 13,000 pigs in New Zealand each week. Because production is cyclical we can see patterns in what people buy. At Christmas, sales of pig would go up because of hams. At Easter pork buying and consumption goes down because people have taken their children away on holiday and are not eating as much pork (people tend to opt for easier food options on holiday). So over many years the NZ Pork board was able to create a map of buying habits for pork. However, there were abnormalities in the data: on different weeks in different years pork sales slowed considerably. Sometimes these declines would happen for one week, at others for two or sometimes three or more. It made little sense until someone made the connection between that and Lotto jackpotting.

It turned out people were buying lesser quality protein so they could afford more Lotto tickets. That idea was incredibly confronting to me. I live in a world where neither I nor most of my friends need to make certain choices about what we buy at the supermarket in order to save money to gamble. It was if I was in a cartoon and the light bulb was going off above my head.

It wasn't that these consumers even had a choice of buying free range or not. The difference in price of those two items was actually the difference between having protein or not. But more than that, they saw the way out of their situation was to forgo proper protein for something cheaper and worse for them, such as pies or cheerios. For them food was the variable spend in their life.

I started to really understand the true complexity of farming and meat production. I started to see that for many people meat purchasing wasn't as simple as choosing something because it is ethically or nutritionally better. I realised that we needed to start educating and talking to people about meat production. Most of the time the arguments about the different types of farming come from people who have a choice, or are educated enough to understand the choice they are making. But in my opinion it is not as simple as trying to get rid of all mass-produced non-free-range meat. Because if we do that, at a certain price point people will not understand what they can do to combat that price hike. Subsequently they will not buy protein.

Yes, we need to talk about the environmental impact of farming. Yes, conversations should be had about what is better for animals and what is better for humans and for the health of both. But we also need to make sure that when we have these conversations we keep in mind the people who are not buying books about food and where it comes from. We need to acknowledge that education around food is not great, and while having these discussions and implementing different practices we need to be careful that we don't create a situation where we cultivate hunger in our own backyard. We know that we can make enough food to feed every New Zealander properly, but we also know if people can't afford to buy food we don't give it to them.

I think as a nation we need to look at our most vulnerable. If they are using Lotto as their way out, and if not buying mass-produced meat means a family can have some hope, then we should be looking at how we can create a better situation for them and their eating habits. We need to take into account the whole picture (which includes education) as we move forward in order to make sure that everyone has access to wholesome, healthy food for their whole family.

So with all of this mind and after my two years of meat I don't think my journey has finished. I achieved one small thing for myself, which is I learnt a lot about pig and chicken meat and the complexity of issues and systems involved with their production. The choices all of us have to make, and the changes I personally need to implement so I can leave less of an impact. But I am still looking to the future, my journey has not finished. Food is an amazing thing to grow, cook and eat. I will forever be curious about it and I hope to be challenged by many more things over my lifetime. From eating bugs through to lab grown protein – what we eat and why, and who gets to eat it has a lot to tell us about our society as a whole.

But as I continue to strive to learn more I do know that I must remember to not always live in my bubble. We must look beyond our echo chambers to the whole country. And we – as the people who are most interested and passionate about this topic – need to take the bull by the horns and work out solutions that will work for everyone.

- This article first appeared in Kai and Culture: Food Stories from Aotearoa, published by the Freerange Press.