Who’s afraid of Big Bad Agribiz? Not “Food Inc.” — but eaters and farmers may be

foodinc1You’ve most likely heard about “Food, Inc.,” the new documentary about the U.S. industrial food system. (Watch trailer, embedded above right.) The buzz for the film is intense, amplified by an aggressive marketing campaign by Participant Media Productions (the people who midwifed “An Inconvenient Truth,” to which this is being compared). “Food Inc.” opens in limited release today, and more widely on June 19. It’s already been extensively, and favorably reviewed: Metacritic.com assigns the film an above-average critics’ score of 82/100, which doesn’t include recent thumbs-up from the New York Times and the Atlantic.

In reaction, the food industry has mounted a Rovean-strength, batten-down-the-hatches preëmptive defense. (I can just picture the discussions in corporate agribusiness headquarters: “Gentleman, we thought ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma‘ would never spread past the arugula set. We won’t make that mistake again.”) They’ve got a counter-propaganda website, SafeFoodInc.org, and are penning flurries of blog posts and press releases accusing the film of scaremongering and factual distortion. (Monsanto’s spin minions have handily collected all the film’s various rebuttals for you in one place.)

movie_poster-largeWhy are they scared? Well, “Food, Inc.” is being billed by its makers as the film that food industry titans don’t want you to see for the simple reason that “if you know the truth about what you’re eating…you might not want to eat it anymore,” as journalist Eric Schlosser says in the movie’s first five minutes. He might be right, although I’m not hopeful: I knew cigarettes were bad for me, and the tobacco companies I was financially supporting were essentially sociopathic, but I still smoked for 10 years.

What’s really worrisome about the industry’s multimillion-dollar anti-”Food, Inc.” campaign is that it could discourage a critical subset of people from seeing the movie: farmers.

Which would be a shame. Because even as our current food system has made Americans fatter and sicker than at any time in history, it’s driven more and more farmers out of business. The massive overproduction of cheap unhealthy food is not working for consumers, and it doesn’t seem to be working for farmers, either. “Food Inc.” persuasively confirms what the real “real food” movement has long held: the only beneficiaries of our current food system are giant agribusiness corporations such as Tyson, Smithfield, Monsanto, and others like them.

Which is exactly why Big Agribiz is trying to frame this film’s attack on industrial food’s health, safety, and hidden costs as an attack on “modern” farming itself. If your average Arkansas poultry farmer were to sit through “Food Inc.,” might they just want to stop raising cheap chicken for Tyson? Might my great-uncle who farms in Virginia question whether growing Monsanto’s jackboot-enforced triple-stack corn is such a good idea?

I wonder. And I’d really like to find out.

Participant Media has offered us (and other food-politics blogs) the chance to give away two matched sets of “Food Inc.,” a collection of essays and a guide to action released along with the movie, and “Fast Food Nation.” We’ll mail them to the first two commenters who promise to take a so-called conventional farmer to see “Food, Inc.” — and who are willing to discuss it with us.

The omnivore’s nation

Directed by Robert Kenner, “Food Inc.” is a cinematic mash-up of the best-selling investigative journalism books “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan. (Interesting note: these eight-year-old and three-year-old books are currently ranked No. 469 and No. 59, respectively, out of all books on Amazon.com. So maybe not all Americans think “food politics = boring,” as one New York Times commenter yawned recently.) Both authors were heavily involved with the production of “Food, Inc.,” and their voices underpin the film, which also owes a thematic debt  to the documentary “The Corporation.”

From “Fast Food Nation,” Kenner pulls segments showing how the fast-food industry and the meat industry both exploit unskilled, often immigrant workers; how chemists cook up new food additives; and how the food-safety failures of large-scale slaughterhouses can be traced back to the conditions of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The industry’s efforts to shut down discussion of these topics — the so-called “veggie libel laws” — are also drawn directly from Schlosser’s book.

From the “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” we get the cornification of America depicted in compelling visuals — how the thousands of items in the supermarket only represent the illusion of choice for shoppers: 90% are just clever rearrangements of corn. Joel Salatin, the outspoken alternative farmer who had such a memorable starring role in “Omnivore,” here must once again singlehandedly shoulder the burden of showing how farmers can make a much better living via small-scale but intensive pasture-based agriculture. Gary Hirschberg from Stonyfield yogurt defends Big Organic as the only way to effect large-scale change in the world’s food systems. And Pollan’s discussion in his “Omnivore” followup, “In Defense of Food,” of why healthy fresh foods are more expensive than fast foods is given heartbreaking flesh by a diabetes-plagued Latino family that has to choose between spending $1 on a fast-food hamburger or on two supermarket pears.


Playing chicken with the big boys

While “Food, Inc.” may tread some of the same soil as those books, it does so in an entertaining way that safely skirts the edge of stridence. It also gives us plenty of real, human victims of the various broken links of the food system. The farming faces are particularly haunting: chief among them the resigned, regretful Maryland poultry farmer Carole Morison, who is about to terminate her contract with Purdue. She lets the crew film her inside her poultry house, where the chickens can barely walk, thanks to their overdeveloped breasts and brittle bones. Despite the antibiotics in their feed — which have made Morison allergic to all antibiotics, she says — a dozen or so die every day from the crowded living conditions.

“This isn’t farming,” Morison says. “This is mass production, like an assembly line in a factory.” In a Q&A with Kenner after a screening I saw in April, Kenner says that Morison’s poultry houses were later burned to the ground, possibly in retaliation for her participation in the film. (July 2, 2009 update: Local news reports about fallout from Morison’s involvement with the film do not mention any such fire.)

Modern chicken “houses,” the film tells us, cost about $280,000 per hangar-size shed. The average chicken farmer has borrowed over $500,000 and is earning $18,000 per year. (Which means that when Tyson or Pilgrim’s Pride drops their contract, as the Wall Street Journal reports many are doing, they’re done for.) Tyson’s 2008 gross revenues were $28.1 billion. For more about how the industrial meat system screws farmers, read this Ethicurean post, “The blame frame, part one: On corn, meat, and farmers.”

The last third of the film is devoted to Monsanto’s dominance of the commodity corn and soy seed markets, one topic that neither Pollan or Schlosser has covered in their books. It’s chilling, even for viewers aware of the company’s reprehensible tactics, which include legal and personal intimidation of any farmers it suspects of saving its patented, genetically modified seeds (so as to avoid re-buying them every year).

Another face that audiences won’t soon forget is that of Moe Parr, a seed cleaner in Indiana who Monsanto sued for allegedly helping farmers “brown bag” its seeds. Parr’s kindly visage grows increasingly withdrawn and frightened during a deposition in which Monsanto goes through 10 years of his personal banking records. Parr settled within a few months, because he couldn’t afford the legal fees; Monsanto has basically ruined his business as well. (This Greenpeace video tells his story.) And of course the fewer seed cleaners left, the fewer farmers who can save their own seeds.

“How can a farmer defend himself against a multi-national like Monsanto?” asks farmer Troy Roush, vice president of the Corn Growers Association. How, indeed. According to a Center for Food Safety statistic in the film, the company has a staff of 75 devoted to pursuing farmers it suspects of violating its intellectual-property agreements — or perhaps those it merely wishes to harass so as to scare others into compliance.

It’s depressing stuff. “Food, Inc.” closes with a text list, a la “Inconvenient Truth,” of what agitated audiences can do to address the ills portrayed in the film. Most of the suggestions are of the painless “vote with your fork” variety, such as “buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect.” (To be fair, the film’s website has an extensive list of issue areas and resources about how to get more fully involved, as does the “Food, Inc.” book that’s been released in tandem with the film.)

But it’s not consumers who buy from Monsanto: it’s farmers. Farmers who think they have no other choice, if they want to compete in today’s marketplace of cheap food.

Do they? It’s a real question. For this nascent food movement to gain critical mass, its proponents probably need to start reaching across the aisle to conventional farmers, not just small organic ones. Because despite what Big Bad Agribiz would like you to think, this fight is not about elitist urbanites vs. farmers. Nor is it about whether food is “safe” (meaning sterile), efficient (machines are efficient, people and plants, not so much), or affordable (its production subsidized and its costs externalized).

It’s a fight about food that nourishes both the people who eat and who grow it, that doesn’t poison our land and water, and that comes from animals given a chance to live before they end up meat. So sorry, Smithfield, Tyson, Monsanto, et. al — that kinda means it’s most of us against you.

Reminder: First two commenters who commit to taking a conventional farmer to see the film — a farmer who will be willing to discuss the movie with us — will win two free copies each of “Food, Inc.” (review to follow) and “Fast Food Nation.” Make sure you leave your email address along with the comment.”

24 Responsesto “Who’s afraid of Big Bad Agribiz? Not “Food Inc.” — but eaters and farmers may be”

  1. PFA says:

    I’m in!  I go to church with a farmer who would be very open to see this movie!  Only catch — I live in Prince Edward Island (Canada) and, as of now, there are no venues hosting screenings.  (I am trying to change that!)  If you can get a copy of the movie either a) into my hands or b) onto the Island (exactly how much influence do you have!?!) then I will get as many farmers as I can round up into see the movie.

    BTW:  Awesome blog — love the twitter feed!

  2. Sophy says:

    Great summary of Food, Inc. We have been trying to promote it on our blog as well and hope that every will get out there and see it! It’s a great idea to bring a farmer, but just about everyone who sees it will be shocked by what the movie says. I brought two friends who are basically un-versed in sustainable food issues and I watched their jaws drop throughout. I also didn’t know that Carole Morison’s farm got burned down,  but she was very brave in standing up to Tyson in showing the world her “farm”.

  3. Rob Smart says:

    My guess is that most of my farmer friends in Vermont will not require much of a push to see Food, Inc., since most are not part of conventional food system. So I will try to virtually get at least a handful of the farmers I know via Twitter and my blog that have talked with me “in the middle” to go see the documentary.  Assuming they do, I will let you know so they can be part of any follow up you do with regard to this excellent post.

  4. Ellie Bastian says:

    I would love to help your quest.  I am a college student in Des Moines, Iowa and frequently wonder whether the myriad corn farmers care about this revolutionary shift in food systems.  I took a class on environmental history last semester and toured Pioneer (2nd to Monsanto in production of chemicals.)  Please email me if I have been selected and I will promptly send my address.  

  5. This is a fabulous post. I tend to agree with Rob.  Farmers are smart as heck and most of the ones I’ve talked to would love to be in a position to sell their products more directly.  They’re trying to earn  living doing what they do.  If we can collectively find ways to better reward people for raising fabulous tasting food while using low-stress techniques then we will have created a win for all. Sorry if that sounds simplistic, happy to fill in specifics any time.

  6. @PFA: Cool! Don’t have that much pull, but I’ll see what I can do about a screener.
    @Rob: Hi @jambutter! We need to strategize offline. I’ll email you.
    @Ellie: You got it. Email to follow.
    @Carrie: Thanks! You’re doing a nice job on that reward front with the Artisan Beef Institute.

  7. I object to your depiction of my review of FOOD, INC., which is included in Monsanto’s round-up of “What Others Are Saying,” as being a “rebuttal” of the film. It is not. To the contrary, I recommend that people see the movie. Readers can judge for themselves at bit.ly/1bye77. If you believe that anyone who raises legitimate questions about FOOD, INC.’s content is a corporate shill, you’ve lost the perspective necessary to engage in honest, constructive debate.

  8. Hi Grumpy: You’re right. I didn’t read all the reviews (just several) before tarring them all with the “rebuttal” brush. Have read your thoughtful one now, and indeed, you do raise legitimate questions. And no, I don’t think all critics must be shills.

  9. I knew cigarettes were bad for me, and the tobacco companies I was financially supporting were essentially sociopathic, but I still smoked for 10 years.

    I’m shocked, just shocked. Bonnie, it was the addiction. We know now that cigs are addictive. Imagine, someday we’ll discover that food is addictive… :)

    I can’t enter the contest as I don’t think I know any conventional farmers I could convince to go see it. Since I don’t do theaters I’ll have to wait for the DVD version. Very interesting review.

  10. Ellie Bastian says:

    Thanks Bonnie!  I’m very excited to help!  I’ll also be in Colorado and South Dakota later this summer and would gladly show the film to farmers in those states as well.

  11. PFA says:

    @GrumpyGlutton I am confused.  You call your depiction of Food, Inc. a criticism, yet all I found was a well written critique, empathy for a cause, and open discussion.  All in all, I think that you took a very level approach to the arguement at hand.

    @Bonnie : If you can get your hands on a screener copy that’d be amazing.  I’d love to host a open screening (if approved!) in PEI along with a panel discussion.  A local blogger (http://smartpei.typepad.com/) often writes about the importance of food independence in the overall stability of a community.  He has an excellent following on the Island — a screening and panel discussion would be well attended for sure!

  12. @Bonnie, thanks for the response.

    @PFA, not sure where I used the word “criticism” but I suspect that I used it in the sense of playing film critic for a day rather in the negative sense. And, thanks for the kind words.

  13. Danakinz says:

    What upsets me the most is that this movie is so amazing and so eye opening (just saw it on Saturday), but yet it is so difficult for the “average consumer” to see.  In California, it’s only playing for 2 weekends (not the weekdays) at two super small theaters and then it’s gone.  How are we going to make a change if we can’t even mainstream the information? Frustrated, Danakinz

  14. Internet, web, GoogleVideo/YouTube, NetFlix, BlockBuster, etc.
    I never go to the theater anyways – I don’t like theaters to begin with, too many people in too small a space, too expensive, awful experience, no rewind, no discussion…
    If the producers want to get their message out there are ways.

  15. My name is Edward Sylvia and I am the Chef/Owner of Cer té Cafe and Catering. I am also opening NYC’s first ‘green’ pizzeria this fall. I recently saw Food Inc. and I am now one hundred and fifty percent committed to you, my client, customer and employees to make sure the food I present to you is fresh, affordable, and most of all humane. Please read more of my reaction on my blog, http://www.certenyc.com/blog/One-Stomach-At-A-Time-101.html

    I would love to engage in discuss with you,
    Chef Edward

  16. @Danakinz et al, it’s actually playing at far more theaters than you say. See the complete listing at http://www.magpictures.com/dates.aspx?id=3e3938d1-b785-4286-9ae0-8eb5952f1480. I’m sure more screens will be added if the film does well in the theaters where it initially plays.

    @Walter Jeffries, the DVD can be pre-ordered on Amazon if you like. When I interviewed Robert Kenner as part of a blogger group, he assured us that a lot of good scenes that didn’t make the final cut for the movie will we included on the DVD.

  17. Samuel Steinmetz says:

    Well, I just got back from Food, Inc. I really enjoyed the film, but looking around the theatre, and even hearing the chatter afterwards, I couldn’t help but feel like it was preaching to the choir, at least at my theatre here in Bethesda, MD. I didn’t sense much persuasion as to why we need to go organic, or abandon conventional farming techniques.
    I thought there were two areas the filmmakers could have focused on a little more. One was the obesity factor related to our current diet, and the second was actually showing the environmental effects of conventional farming. They mention these problems throughout the film, but don’t really go in depth into them. I understand that this film was the beginning of trying to get this message to the masses, and thus was almost like an introduction to modern farming, but if we expect people to walk out of the movie and start making decisions with their pocket book, I think we will be disappointed. Now, if people walk out, and say I need to look into this further, then I would call the film a success. In the end, I would like to see a list of resources provided on the website that will go further into depth on the areas the film was broken down by.
    Looking back, it took me a drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco that made me aware of CAFO’s and conventional farming practices. Once that veil was lifted, I began doing more and more research, and started reading to find out what exactly was going on with the “farm” today. I can only hope that this film will do the same to the masses, if only it reaches them.

  18. Heather says:

    I was shocked to read that Carole Morison’s poultry houses were burned to the ground, possibly in retaliation for participating in the film.   Many farmers declined to participate for fear of retaliation, so I believe this fire deserves some more attention.   I haven’t been able to locate any news sources to support the claim, and am wondering if you have any more details or sources so we can follow that story.   Thanks. — @heatherontwit

  19. Joya Parsons says:

    There is an article on Carole Morison in our local paper dated June 12 that makes no mention of a fire. http://www.delmarvanow.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2009906120302

    You can contact Laura D’Alessandro, the reporter who did the story, at the Salisbury Daily Times 410-749-7171 x237

  20. Hi Heather, Joya: I have a recording of Robert Kenner saying, in a Q&A following a preview screening, “…Carole Morison, who’s no longer a farmer. Actually her chicken houses were burned to the ground. We don’t know—could be a crazy neighbor, could be a crazy neighbor trying to ingratiate himself with Purdue, we don’t know.” I cannot post the video as I got in trouble with taking it in the first place, not having obtained permission. Kenner is obviously really busy right now promoting the film, but I will try to get confirmation from him about how he heard this.

  21. Hi again Heather & Joya: I have tracked down Carole Morison’s phone number but not yet reached her. (No answering machine.) It does appear from this and other recent local news reports on her involvement with the film  (Lancaster Farming has an interesting one) that Kenner erred in saying her poultry houses had been burned down. Thanks for prompting me to check it. I have amended the post.

  22. Heather says:

    Hi Bonnie — Thank you for following up on the fire claim.  It certainly seems that a fire would be bigger and more interesting news than a contract dispute.  I am very curious to hear what Carole Morison and/or Robert Kenner have to say about the matter.  I look forward to any more updates you can provide!

  23. I could not find a way to respond to your article about Hellman’s but if you could include this post, I’d appreciate it. It is quite devious what they are doing.

    They are using the “Dove strategy” of a brand taking on a challenging social or environmental issue in order to benefit from the good-intention (and associated PR). In fact, wasn’t it even called REAL BEAUTY? Wait, and isn’t Hellman’s owned by BestFoods, which is owned by Unilever, which owns Dove which uses O&M? So, perhaps we should laud the creative director for recycling an idea. Wow, this is shameful, O&M.

    What is ironic and sad here is that Hellman’s is in no way local to Canada–it is imported from a large scale manufacturing facility in the US! (Yes, that’s right, in the same fashion and practice that they are calling into question in this video, whereby the dollars from your Hellman’s purchase go right back to the owners of Best Foods, or Unllever. 

    While I am in no way against big brands taking on issues–they have to–this just feels like greenwashing to me. And yes, the art is beautiful, but that shouldn’t cloak the issues behind the art here. At the very least, they could direct a portion of sales to some kind of local cause, or ag fund. There isn’t even a cause element here. It is just selling mayonnaise on the backs of a serious social and environmental issue. Shame on you.

  24. Joe America says:

    Corporate “Capital” isms!  Power at the top, profit over people. Americans are fed compromised unhealthy unnatural food, the medical industry cohorting with health care insurance and pharmaceutical companies all cashing in on unhealthy nation, getting rich in the process.  In other words, it’s not profitable for biggies to have a healthy consumer.  Y’all need to stop debating and loooooook at the big picture here………a healthy consumer is as profitable for the food corporations as lack of war is for arms companies.  Bottom line is, this is an economic war against consumers and the only way the consumer can be healthy is to have enough money to buy healthy food…….problem is there isn’t enough healthy food anyway.  Too many people and too much money to be made.