Conversation with the director of What’s For Dinner?: be the change you want to see

Author: Roxie Xie; Translator: Riley Peng @Animal Dialogue

First published on Animal Dialogue, 06/28/2016

Interviewee profile:

Yi Jian, a Chinese independent film producer, cultural activist, 2009 Yale World Scholar, 2008 visiting artist to America funded by Asian Cultural Council, 2007 Cambridge University Visiting Scholar, 2008-2010 The New School Indian and Chinese Scholar. His documentaries and drama have won multiple awards, including Monterey International Film Festival’s Bronze Telly Award. His films have also been screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Venice Biennale, United Nation’s Climate Conference, etc. Born and raised in the small city Ji’an in Jiangxi, Yi Jian has stepped into the world and returned to home again, using documentaries and cultural charitable organizations to change people’s perception of the world.

Yi Jian giving a TED talk

I was lucky to have gotten to know Yi Jian through a screening of What’s For Dinner? at NYU. On the posters around campus, I noticed that the director of this documentary on industrialized agriculture and animal farming was Chinese, a rare scene. Out of curiosity, I attended the screening and asked Yi Jian a question through Skype during the screening. After that, I had the luck to cooperate with Yi Jian’s What’s For Dinner? team at Brighter Green.

What For Dinner? depicts the drastic change in China’s animal product consumption, as well as the environmental detriment of centralized feeding operations, brought forth by China’s fast-paced economic development. Industrialized farms use captive breeding for thousands of pigs and poultry, whose large quantities of feces have heavily polluted groundwater and rivers; nationwide famines had taken away the lives of tens of millions, but just two generations later, ¼ of Chinese adults and ⅕ of Chinese children are obese or overweight; in China, diet-induced chronic diseases have become its biggest cause of death.

You can buy What’s For Dinner? on Amazon!

Now, after viewing What’s For Dinner?’s sequel Six Years On: What’s For Dinner?, I had the honor to sit down with Yi Jian for an in-depth conversation, learning about his deep ruminations on animal protection, environmental conservation, civil society, and equal rights.

From being unable to live without meat to making cautious diet choices

1.Why did you want to make this documentary?

Jian: At first, when Brighter Green’s Action Think Tank was looking for directors to make documentaries in China, India, and Brazil, its producer found me. Before, I had never participated in the production of any advocacy documentaries. Because this genre departed from my usual style and topic, I initially wasn’t particularly interested in it. However, a while later, Brighter Green sent me some information, including its research report on China, part of which completed by HSI (Humane Society International)’s Peter Li. The information on industrialized agriculture’s environmental detriment shocked me. The report imparted realities about food, the environment, food safety, and public health, which affect all of us; these true facts, however, are often ignored by most people, even most environmentalists who profess to care about the environment.

I initially thought I really cared about environmental protection, as I always tried to avoiding driving my car and using plastic utensils. However, I’d never realized the destructive impacts that animal agriculture has on the environment. After reading these academic papers, owing to my shock and curiosity, I agreed to be the director of this documentary. My direct experience visiting farms during the production further informed me of the damages the meat and dairy industry has already done to our environment.

“I make documentaries to change others, but unexpectedly changed myself in the process.”

In China, the consumption of meat and other animal products is skyrocketing. 500 million pigs are killed for food each year, and animal agriculture has also become increasingly industrialized.

2.What does the Western audience think of industrialized animal agriculture?

Jian: What’s for Dinner? has been screened at many Western countries, including the United States, the U.K., South Africa, etc. Many related documentaries (that depict the cruelty of animal agriculture) in Western countries contain scenes of brutal slaughter and the squalid conditions the animals live in, most of which were captured by undercover investigators. However, What’s For Dinner? deliberately chose to adopt a different approach. The documentary didn’t rely on undercover shots; they openly captured scenes of the lives of animals on Chinese farms with permission, for some farms were happy to display their new breeding methods. This feels refreshing to the Western audience.

In the West, people have already formed a general consensus about the cons of animal agriculture, such as animal cruelty and health problems. However, they haven’t necessarily developed a thorough understanding of the pollution problem. In China, on the other hand, people are pretty unfamiliar with this topic in general, especially when it comes to animal abuse,  and have only just begun this discussion; some even think that others are reacting too sentimentally.

A lot Western viewers know only about the statistics regarding China’s animal farming industry, but neither what Chinese farms really look like, nor Chinese people’s general attitude. What’s For Dinner? has built a platform for the Western audience to learn more about China.

But of course, people who can independently think about this issue are in the minority, no matter where we are. It is just that in the West, more advocacy work has been done, and the general public knows much more about certain issues.

People featured in the documentary

3.What impacted you and made you choose to go vegetarian?

Jian: When I first came here to the U.S. to study at the University of Notre Dame in 1997, because of the incredibly low price of meat back then, I ate a crazy amount of meat, and literally couldn’t have a meal without meat. In 2005, I accidentally photographed the entire process of a chicken being slaughtered, which shook me profoundly. After that, I decided to go vegetarian for one year. But because my decision lacked deeper thought, I slowly slackened back into pescatarianism, which didn’t last long either.

Later in 2009 before the production of What’s For Dinner?, under the influence of an alumna from the University of Notre Dame, I decided to eat vegetarian again. This friend’s husband is also quite interesting: he acts in quite a mindful manner and cares a lot about environmental protection; when having his meals, he doesn’t even use napkins, and attends to every single detail, finishing every morsel on his plate to minimize waste. My wife and I both find this strict but self-disciplined way of living attractive, so we decided to start from vegetarianism, and try out this more mindful lifestyle.

I used to not be a vegan, because I thought eggs and milk don’t involve killing. Thus, I never really paid any attention to the living conditions of dairy cows and egg-laying hens. It is not until a few years ago when my wife got pregnant, that I recognized how immensely pregnancy changes a woman. As mammals, mother cows also need to be repeatedly impregnated in order to produce milk. After all the effort the mothers have invested into making milk, their babies don’t even get a drop of it, for humans have taken away their mother’s milk to please their own taste buds.Jianyi5

Jian shared a cute little story about chickens: One time when Jian and his Brazilian friend ate at a restaurant in New York, his friend exclaimed with excitement upon seeing a roasted chicken, “wow, the chicken is really good!” In this sentence, “chicken” denotes chicken meat, and he seems to compliment the taste of the meat. However, in English, the word “chicken” can also stand for the animal itself, so this sentence also sounds like “This chicken is really good (as a being)!” Just then, Jian suddenly felt a sharp pang in his heart; although he was still not a vegetarian back then, at that exact moment he suddenly thought, this chicken is a good chicken because of the taste of her flesh, but why is the meaning of the chicken’s existence not for her own sake, but for what meat she can supply humans with? To meat-eaters, the lives of living chickens are not valuable; they only value the meat produced after the chickens are slaughtered. This thought made even Jian, someone who still ate a huge amount of meat, quite uncomfortable.

4.Through What’s For Dinner? and similar films, we learned about the massive damages industrialized agriculture bring to our environment and food safety. From the perspective of animal protection, how would you define the relationship between veganism and animal protection?

Jian: Veganism is the most direct way of carrying out animal protection. Vegans care not only about wildlife, entertainment animals, companion animals, but also farm animals. Vegans demonstrate awareness in every detail of their lives. Their interest in animals is not limited to just a single group of animals. They care about all kinds of animals used in all industries. In short, vegans are both sensitive and thorough when it comes to animal protection.

Some will say in another way, if we don’t eat meat, these farm animals wouldn’t have even been born to experience this world. Likewise, humans also shouldn’t effectively control their population, but bring more lives onto earth to “experience life,” while ignoring hunger issues and overpopulation? Moreover, just because we have brought a living being into this world doesn’t mean we can treat it in whatever way we want.

Poster for What’s For Dinner?

5.What do you think should be the ideal relationship between animals, the natural environment, and humans?

Jian: People usually considers their own species as superior than other species and nature. But in fact, humans can’t avoid influences from nature and other species. Even if they dare to dream of overriding the entire system, they still end up confined in this dead cycle.

Although I don’t know a lot about economics, I thought of this common expression people in the modern society like to use: “win-win.” However, most people only use this to indicate a win-win interaction between humans, taking into consideration solely the costs to us, but not to nature and other beings. For instance, when Myanmar exchanges its timber for China’s daily essentials, both parties seem to acquire the products and money they want in this win-win situation. Nevertheless, though the humans have profited, who is really paying the price?

Wild animals have to sacrifice their habitats, and nature the environment…In the end, some party will have to suffer from loss. Is this really a win-win? The only winning party is mankind.

Some say that higher animals should control lower animals. But how are humans “more superior”? We don’t really expect other animals to be equal to humans, for humans have more consciousness, higher levels of wisdom, and more complex moral standards. However, human’s complexity is precisely what endows them with bigger responsibility to safeguard other beings’ dignity and integrity. Our sense of duty and conscience enables us to become higher and more special animals. Without these, humans will be inferior to other animals, as they cause the greatest destructions to other animals and nature, and can even be called the virus of this planet.

“Meat chicken” crammed inside an industrialized chicken farm

6.In the documentary, the industrialization of agriculture has impacted the livelihood of small farms. What do you think of this problem?

Jian: If we continue to consume animal products without constraint, this is inevitable. China has a huge population and a very limited amount of resources to sustain its population. Because of its large demand, China has to accelerate the production process of its animal products with minimal space and cost. It has to meet the demand under the shortest time, abusing antibiotics, hormones, and other drugs to barely keep alive animals who already suffer from poor health. Farmers only need to ensure that the livestock remain alive before being slaughtered. More and more owners of small farms are replaced by centralized feeding operations. They can’t compete with larger-scale factory farms, as the former has a higher cost than the latter.

Thus, it is our bottomless greed for animal products that enables industrialized agriculture to exist and expand, simultaneously challenging the bottom line of our health, the environment, and human nature.

The government heavily subsidizes larger scale farms; oftentimes, many farmers with “close relations” in the higher-up positions expand their scale on purpose in order to win the subsidy. On the one hand, we see how industrialized agriculture threatens the environment. On the other hand, the government is also using taxpayers (including vegetarians and vegans)’ money to subsidize factory farms.

Large scale industrialized pig farms

7.Your Six Years On: What’s For Dinner? recounts your experience revisiting the farms you visited six years earlier. What is this film mostly about? During the production process, what changes have your attitude undergone?

Jian: I want to learn about the changes that had taken place after six years, as well as what the farmers we talked to when making What’s For Dinner? are doing now. Thus, I decided to produce a sequel to the earlier documentary. One of the small farmers can’t compete with larger farmers and thus stopped farming pigs.

Personally, I noticed quite an interesting transformation: no one can escape globalization. Although meat from America and Denmark has to travel thousands of miles to arrive in China, its exported price is still lower than that of meat produced domestically. Why is this? Because industrialized agriculture is much more common in America and Denmark than we can imagine, and their governments’ also offer high subsidies to larger centralized factory farms.

I ended the film with a heavy heart, but I need to get a hold of myself.

Jian and his assistant interviewing a farmer

8.In China, many animal protection workers and environmentalists clash with each other, and both often demonstrate a lack of knowledge and understanding of veganism. What do you think of this?

Jian: Yes, I get it. We have visited many animal protection and environmental protection agencies when producing What’s For Dinner?. Many organizations keep a blind eye to animal agriculture, whether intentionally or unintentionally: unintentionally because the potential lacks sufficient development, and intentionally because in China, many people associate the “素” in “素食” (vegetarianism) with Buddhism and don’t desire this religious association. Other intentional ones might find the topic of farm animals too difficult, as it involves dietary changes on a societal level.

On the other hand, culturally, eating is a very personal choice, as our taste buds have developed dependence on many flavors, and we associate many foods with our childhood memories. People find it very hard to alter their diet because they need to combat their own habits and memories. Many times, eating has even become part our physical identity, making it even more difficult for us to change. Altering our eating habits differs from choosing energy-efficient lightbulbs and cars, as the latter has smaller opportunity costs.

Animal and environmental protectionists also suffer from the same dilemma. Because they can’t alter their own dietary habits yet, they would intentionally avoid the topic of animal agriculture. I find this understandable. If we inform the public of the negative impacts of the production and consumption of animal products to the environment and animals, while we ourselves can’t even cut off or reduce our own consumption of animal products to decrease their demand, others (including ourselves) will consider us “hypocrites.” Thus, in order to avoid this ethical dilemma, animal and environmental protectionists opt to refrain from discussing this issue.

My advice for this is, you don’t have to be a vegetarian or vegan to care about farm animals and animal agriculture. All who care about the environment or living conditions of animals don’t necessarily have to advocate for vegetarianism. They can still learn more about how industrialized farms mistreat animals, pollute the environment, threaten our health, and impact food security. These problems are so severe, that every one of us, including our children, suffers from their consequences. We don’t have to wait until the world goes vegan or vegetarian to care. Of course, when attending to these problems, though completely eliminating animal products is not absolutely necessary, we should still at least decrease our consumption of these foods. We have to keep in mind that our unrestrained demand is what allows industrialized agriculture to persist.

The Amazon forest has been cleared for livestock grazing

From a small city to the world, from the world back to home again

1.You have a very international educational background. Can you please summarize your intellectual voyage?

Jian: I was born in Ji’an, Jiangxi in the 70s. Small cities hugely differ from big ones. Although when in a small town, I didn’t get good grades, my English was really good, and I was interested in international affairs. In the late-80s, I was infatuated with European soccer. Once, when listening to the radio, I heard voices from an Italian independent radio station. The world suddenly appeared magical to me, a boy who grew up in a small town. Thus, I aspired to travel abroad to see the world.

Because I was extraordinary at English in college, I transferred to Jiangxi Normal University. My undergraduate thesis focused on homosexuality, as a homosexual population existed almost invisibly alongside me. Back then, I considered homosexuality a fascinating “psychological problem.” I even sent a mail (I hadn’t seen the internet yet in 1995) to a psychology professor at Cornell University, who not only replied but also generously gave me some books. However, even though I wrote an excellent thesis, my university couldn’t give me an A, for my topic was too daring and thus couldn’t be discussed publicly. For graduate school I attended the Communication University of China because I was interested in international journalism. I didn’t forgo my dream to study abroad, so I applied to study peaces studies at the University of Notre Dame.

University of Notre Dame’s peace studies major is quite interesting. I got to live and study with classmates from more than ten different countries. During my time there, I dived deeper into issues related to civic society, NGO human rights, refugee, the environment, and world peace. I felt like I learned so much. After I graduated, I received a great job offer from an American company. But because I still wanted to continue learning about peace and civil rights, I chose to return home to teach at Communication University of China, while waiting for a better opportunity.

Afterwards, I encountered Wenguang Wu, “China’s father of documentaries,” with whom I cooperated in many projects related to Chinese villages. I traversed many villages and first tried producing documentaries. Later, I also produced dramas and documentaries on my own. After that, I won fellowships from various top universities. I chose Yale and stayed there for a semester as a Yale World Scholar to converse with the world leaders of different industries.

University of Notre Dame’s peace studies program

2.How would you define your identity? A documentary director, a vegan influencer, or others?

Jian: I don’t really like to put a label over myself. I’m quite interested in social change and life education. The medium can be diverse, and documentaries is just one of many, consciousness towards food another. Both strive to raise awareness and awaken the people’s conscience. If I have to define, I will call myself a thinker and doer.

3.Your academic background contains many titles from international higher institutions’ humanities department. What’s your understanding of humanities education? Do you think this is what the current Chinese youths lack?

Jian: Although I once wanted to become an English major, and later also wanted to study education, I didn’t really get to receive a true humanities education in college. Studying abroad helped considerably, but doing so only expanded my horizon and encouraged me to think critically and ask questions. Under China’s education system, children are often deprived of the chance to ask questions, thus making them lose the ability to ask questions. The first step of thinking is genuinely harboring a doubt.

I stayed in a temple in Lushan, a very traditionally Chinese Buddhist one, for two years. I deemed whether or not I was a Buddhist unimportant. However, living in that kind of environment, I would reflect during my daily life on what the intrinsic value of a person’s existence is. I see this as the most crucial value of a humanities education. The education of values can’t be carried out like a relay race, which simply involves passing the baton from one person to the next; instead, it requires us to gather knowledge from our actions. Too many “educational institutions” can’t even educate people, not to mention edify them.

A scene from What’s For Dinner?

4.What advice do you have for the Chinese youths active in the fields of animal protection, environmental protection, and equal rights?

Jian: I have three points to share.

First, sometimes it’s easier to change others than it is to change ourselves. Sometimes we too hastily desire to effect change in our society, but our society is not a vacuum laboratory, and thus cannot instantly react to our wish. As an organism, the society is influenced by too many different kinds of variables, which means that we need to be very patient when trying to change it. But we need to first lead the change, and, as Ghandi says, be the change.

Second, public service differs from the spirit of public service. Sometimes after I introduced myself, some will instantly say, “wow, you are so nole for engaging in public service.” This is actually a misunderstanding, for public service doesn’t mean sacrificing ourselves for the greater good. In our modern society, public service is a professional specialization, and has its own professional principles and requirements. It’s not really nobler than jobs in the government or enterprises.

I think that what people really admire is the spirit of public service. The spirit of public service is an attitude and value. People’s admiration of the spirit of public service is similar to when someone gives you a thumbs-up for persisting in your vegetarianism for such a long time. But vegetarianism is an attitude, which doesn’t require “persistence.” Likewise, you can bring your spirit of public service into any workplace, whether for-profit or non-profit. You can even maintain your spirit of public service as an entrepreneur or politician. Real entrepreneurs are also solving the world’s problems. It’s just that they use their financial resources to benefit the society. Thus, we shouldn’t pit public service and other types of work against each other.

Lastly, whether you’re religious or not, you should believe in the existence of sacredness. For instance, belief in equality and justice forms the basis of the establishment of a legal system and enables occupations like judges to exist. Thus, a legal worker who doesn’t consider equality and justice sacred can’t be a good one, even if one has fulfilled all one’s professional duties. Likewise, it is precisely because we harbor the sacred ideals of helping and educating others, that we need medical workers and teachers. This also applies to activists in the humanitarian field. We all need to hold this sense of sacredness when pursuing our dream of creating a better society and home.

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