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‘The Last Pig’ Doesn’t Offer Easy Answers on Animal Farming
By Monica Stanton
When I sat down to watch The Last Pig, I did so with the slight trepidation of a seasoned environmental filmgoer. But my worries were unfounded. While films about factory farming are known for using gruesome exposé footage to proclaim an ardent animal rights message, director Allison Argo's picturesque, meditative documentary does the opposite. The film gives us idyllic scenes of the relationship between a small-scale pig farmer and his happy herd—and then it gradually unravels the logic of this utopia.
Argo is best known for her documentaries focusing on endangered animals and conservation. Her production company, ArgoFilms Ltd., has produced 19 films and won awards, including six national Emmys and the duPont-Columbia award for journalism. Argo has said that she was hoping to make a film about the ethics of eating animals for some time, and when she discovered pig farmer Bob Comis's reckonings with his vocation in Salon and HuffPost, she knew he was the right subject. Argo's team began filming Comis while he was still farming pigs for consumption, and they were there to capture the transition when he eventually decided to send his last pig to the market and give up animal farming for good.
With countless long landscape shots in upstate New York set against a lively orchestral score, the film first follows Comis on his mission to offer a more ethical alternative to factory-farmed meat. Much like proponents of peaceful parenting, Comis explains that he herds his pigs and retrieves attempted escapees through strategies that play to their higher faculties (such as their attachment to the rest of the herd) rather than through confinement or punitive measures. Strikingly, it seems that this loving care flows in both directions. We learn that Comis started raising pigs at a time when he was battling clinical depression, and his communion with the animals helped him cope.
I often wonder what motivates viewers to see activist films like this one when they know they'll encounter saddening scenes of animal death. Argo's film makes the payoff clear from the start: It's the cute pig footage. Reels and reels of almost painfully adorable pig footage. Yes, the shots of misty early morning farmland and autumnal forests in upstate New York are gorgeous, but they pale in comparison to the endless close-ups of these porcine beauties. In one of the film's most joyous scenes, we watch the pigs splash, stomp, nuzzle and roll around beneath a spewing fountain of water at mud bath time. Amidst the frenzied action, the camera focuses for a long moment on a sow blissfully lounging at the shore of the mud pit, nestling contentedly into the earth as she watches her family frolic.
In one of many sweeping landscape shots, farmer Bob Comis feeds his herd. The Last Pig
These stunning shots aren't the mere aesthetic flourishes of award-winning cinematographer Joseph Brunette. They are integral to conveying Comis's gradual reckoning with his obligation to, as he puts it, peddle in the death of the intelligent creatures he cares for. At one point, we watch a series of naptime close-ups on sleepy brown pig eyes, sparkling dust particles swirling around their lashes. Comis's voice-over comes in: "After 10 years of looking into pig eyes, I've come to understand that they're never vacant. There's always somebody looking back at me."
When the film transitions from these joyful pig bathers and content pig nappers to the inevitable slaughterhouse, we understand Comis's internal conflict. The camera doesn't linger on the gore, but the lifeless bodies of these once-lively friends are enough to give us pause. And when Comis finally decides he must transition to plant farming, we remain in that pause. It's not exactly a happy ending. Comis sends the titular last pig to slaughter, and we're left with quiet final scenes of his solitary vegetable harvesting. The crop shots are as beautiful as always, but Comis worries he won't be able to make a living, and it's hard not to imagine that he misses the pigs. I certainly do.
Unlike the clear message of a film like Eating Animals, The Last Pig doesn't give us an easy dichotomy between "good" small farms and "evil" factory farms. Instead, it invites us to linger in the discomforting space between our values and our practices. Why should pigs be commodities when dogs are companions? Does "happy pigs make happy meat" really make sense? While environmental degradation and urgent attempts at climate action are both hurtling forth at breakneck speed, Argo's film forces us to slow down and ask why, and for whom, we take action in the first place.
"The Last Pig" began filming in 2014 and was boosted by an Indiegogo campaign to wrap up in early 2017. It just finished its festival run this past fall, with 34 festivals and several awards. The film is slated for public release in autumn 2019. If you'd like to bring "The Last Pig" to your community, you can set up a screening to start a dialogue.
Monica Stanton is a news fellow at Stone Pier Press, an environmental publishing company with a food focus.
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Global Banks, Led by JPMorgan Chase, Invested $1.9 Trillion in Fossil Fuels Since Paris Climate Pact
By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.