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