Food Inc. director on Monsanto, feeding the world, and elitism

Feed the world? How 'bout starting with feeding Americans well: In an interview by Jane Black, "Food Inc." director Robert Kenner answers several key points of criticism. He discusses his efforts to get Monsanto to participate in the film (the chemicals-and-GMO-seed Goliath claims it never said it wouldn't), and its argument that industrial food is necessary to "feed the world." Says Kenner: "People are starving now.…the system that exists now is a totally unsustainable system. It's based on gasoline and pollution and it cannot go on." And we love his answer to the "arugulance" charge, that SOLE food is elitist because it costs more: "It's elitist to think we can create a system where the food we feed a poor family makes them so sick that they need medicine for diabetes. There's something wrong with a system that makes food that makes them sick." (Washington Post)

20 Responsesto “Food Inc. director on Monsanto, feeding the world, and elitism”

  1. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    Pollan's defense of elitism charges may resonate in Berkley and NY but it's not especially compelling here in the Midwest.

    The anti-production farming movement and demonization of corn that comes out of the elite food movement has admittedly drawn its advocates. But that movement is journalism-based -- let me make that "creative writing based" -- and not science based.

    I can't speak for the meat industry, but there's not a farmer in America who would pay money for pesticides, gm traits or equipment if she or he felt is was a viable option not to.

    What's unfortunate is that two audiences see this movie so differently. Here, it illustrates the ignorance that movie makers raised in Long Island, Michael Pollan who is a journalist son of a self-help author raised in Long Island and Eric Schlosser another big city journalist have for agriculture.

    Elitist that a group of non agriculture big city people would condem farming? You betch your life (or those $150 Nikes that Alice Waters talks about.

    Perhaps theres a reason that rural California wants to secede from the state.

  2. Big Ag keeps saying that without them we can't feed the world. They're wrong. Our family can raise all of the food and heat energy we need on a few acres of steep poor quality northern mountain soils. If we can do it here then it can be done in most places. Back of the envelope calculations show there is plenty of good land even leaving most of it natural as we do here. We only homestead about 0.2% of our land to provide for our family and we only farm about 5% which provides quality pastured meat for thousands of others all with very, very little petroleum, no GMOs, no pesticides, no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no herbicides, etc that Big Ag claims are all necessary.

    There is plenty of food. There is more than enough food. A network of small farms can produce it more securely than the few big producers. The problem that is causing hunger is primarily distribution. Warlords, pirates and governments hold up shipments for political reasons and out of pure greed.

    The other big problem is that too many people have become concentrated into factory farms, er, I mean confinement living operations, er, that is to say cities.  Cities are a hold over from before we had good communications. Hopefully they'll die back, people will return to the land and once more most people will have gardens and grow a large portion of their own food gaining both the nutritional and the health benefits of the physical activity.

    I'm not saying everyone needs to move out and live a subsistence living, but cities with such high populations as we have now are acting as cess pools, black holes in the landscape polluting their environs and sucking up the resources for thousands of miles. All that transport and isolation from nature is causing mental illness and social illness.

  3. Hi Jim: It doesn't sound like you've actually seen the movie, and yet you're pretty defensive. Could that have anything to do with this spin campaign against the movie?

    Because I don't think it — or Pollan or Schlosser — condemn farming in any way. What it condemns is a system in which farmers "pay money for pesticides, gm traits or equipment" because they have no viable options to do otherwise. Because the margins are so thin, the demands of growing GM corn and soy so great, and let's face it, Monsanto's tactics so… persuasive. As for corn being demonized — well, can you agree that it's a resource hog, requiring more than its fair share of fertilizer and water? And that we might be better off if less of our land were devoted to it, and less of our food derived from it?

  4. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    "and yet you’re pretty defensive. Could that have anything to do with this spin campaign against the movie?"

    Less to do with a spin campaign and more to do with trust fund kids creating propaganda about which they have little to no expertise. King Corn, Food Inc., etc. which is stimulating poorly conceived policy.

    "Because I don’t think it — or Pollan or Schlosser — condemn farming in any way. What it condemns is a system in which farmers “pay money for pesticides, gm traits or equipment” because they have no viable options to do otherwise. Because the margins are so thin, the demands of growing GM corn and soy so great, and let’s face it, Monsanto’s tactics so… persuasive"

    Pray tell what should Illinois and Iowa farmers grow instead....during our three month growing season? Leafy lettuce? And what replaces those lost calories? (and what does gm corn, versus conventional corn, have to do with the price of bread in China).

    "As for corn being demonized — well, can you agree that it’s a resource hog, requiring more than its fair share of fertilizer and water? "

    Not a lot of irrigation here in the Midwest which constitutes what % of our country's total corn production? Unlike California, our water comes from the sky. Are you aware of how much less fertilizer we use today to grow corn? I'd like us to use no fertilizer at all because of the cost. An issue I have with the food elites is that they cherry pick their data. There's a reason why the people writing food blogs came out of journalism school and not agriculture school. Four years of ag science would be major hurdle in writing a lot of what you post and writers like Pollan and Schlosser (bless their NY souls) publish.

    "we might be better off if less of our land were devoted to it, and less of our food derived from it"

    You city folk have gobbled up about 50 million of our farm acres in the last 60 years so, so believe me, less land is devoted to it. Your food consumption (per capita and total) has also increased dramatically.

    How, exactly, should farmers meet increasing demand for food? Oh, that's right, switch to a far more expensive and less productive system that oh by the way has a far larger carbon footprint because some urbanites who suddenly realized that they don't know where their food comes from decided to start a blog and make a movie.

    "We don't actually farm....we just criticize people who do."

  5. Hmm... Trust Fund Kiddie Defense Argument. Classic avoidance. So, how do you deal with the fact that there are people who are not trust fund kiddies and are real farmers who disagree with you? Like me... A real farmer with trust fund.

    However, you and I do agree on the problems presented by too much urban area. Cities are the next big problem. They are solvable. The confinement of large numbers of people to small areas is an unfortunate left over from the past that is no longer necessary. Solving that will solve a lot of related issues.

  6. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    Walter,

    It's a nice and very romantic notion that someone with an operation like yours could be relied upon to feed others. And I know that Pollan wishes it were so.

    But the world is simply not -- and can't -- rely on operations like yours to feed itself.
    You suggest in your previous post a solution whereby urbanites -- in this country that's what...240 million people -- return to the country and grow their own food. Good luck with that and please post occassionally to how that works out.

  7. Jim, you are falling into a logic fallacy. You can't prove it can't be done. I have proved it can be done. You can deny as much as you want but to no avail. And yes, people would be better off if they got out of the mega-cities. By the way, your numbers are ancient. Our country has more like 306,676,860 according to the census bureau. You really need to get up to date.

  8. Bridget says:

    I don’t mean to fan any flames, but I thought perhaps people should know a little more about me before any more labels are hurled my way. I was born and raised in the midwest and lived my entire life there until moving to DC for law school two years ago, so I will concede the point that I’m probably one of only a handful of people I know in DC who have ever seen a grain elevator, much less know what one is. I spent over a decade working in various financial analysis roles in nearly every step of the conventional food supply chain, sitting in meetings talking about how we could make food cheaper with absolutely no discussion about how our “cost improvements” impacted the nutritional content of what we were selling. Over the course of my career, I was moved to think more and study more about what we do to food, and to our bodies, and I started writing about what I was learning because it helps me organize my thoughts.

    I’ve never set foot in a journalism school, although I have to admit being more than a little flattered that anyone would think my writing skills to be of that quality. I’m slowly working my way through law school for a career change because I wanted to do something I cared more about so, boy, a trust fund sure would come in handy right about now. I’m fine with people challenging my ideas, but there’s absolutely no need for labels.

  9. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    So it's about numbers, is it, my wee little farmer of wee little pigs?

    Perhaps you were yelling sooeeee when you were reading my post. The 240 million is the number of urbanites....the 306 million is the number total number of human sapiens. But why let details or facts get in the way of a creative thesis.
    Do this math for us.....how many total calories do you produce each year on your wee little farmette? Pigs, carrots, grass en toto. Ok. Now, how many acres do you use for production? Ok, got it. Now, come up with the average per acre caloric production (for those of you in the Vermont militia, that means divide the large calorie number by the little land number) of your farm.

    Cooleo.

    Next, dust off your abacus and divide that puppy by 800,000 (number of calories the average american consumes in a year, not including waste). You now have the total number of people your operation feeds in a year. (We're not bringing  up the fact that pork production of any kind is the least efficient and most environmentally unsustainable form of food production. See, we didn't bring it up.)

    You were kind enough to provide a current figure for the total U.S. population. How many acres at your production level are required to feed the U.S. population in a year.

    We're waiiitttttiiiiinnnnnggggg. (tick, tick, tick) Write Bonnie for help, she's all over the food production statistics.

     

  10. Wow, Jim. You certainly are working hard to be unpleasant. I've explained all this elsewhere and I'm not going to go out of my way to repeat it for you given your attitude. Keep jumping up and down and screaming. It's good exercise.

  11. Jim: You're about to be in violation of the comment policy requiring civility. Please moderate your tone. Walter, don't sink to this level please.

    re: your previous, on-topic comments:
    "Pray tell what should Illinois and Iowa farmers grow instead….during our three month growing season?": I wouldn't presume to tell you, as I am not a farmer. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute has some interesting ideas about prairie perennials.

    "Not a lot of irrigation here in the Midwest which constitutes what % of our country’s total corn production? Unlike California, our water comes from the sky": Funnily enough, I was aware of that, as the vast acres devoted to growing corn have been implicated in the weather patterns that created the storms that caused the floods. Link to follow, can't find it at the moment.

    "You city folk have gobbled up about 50 million of our farm acres in the last 60 years so, so believe me, less land is devoted to it. Your food consumption (per capita and total) has also increased dramatically": No argument there. I think we should be protecting farmland and figuring out ways to discourage overconsumption.

    "How, exactly, should farmers meet increasing demand for food?": I think this is a fallacy. There is no increasing demand for food in this country. What we have is a nutrition and a distribution problem. I'd love to see policy that worked on feeding hungry children at home, and helping farmers around the world do the same, instead of destabilizing economies by dumping subsidized commodity grains.

    “We don’t actually farm….we just criticize people who do": I suspect you enjoy criticizing the government, yet you are presumably not a politician. If the agriculture industry persists in saying no one who doesn't farm can't point out current problems with our food system, you're going to curtail your ability to comment on anything other than farming.

    And now I'm going to get outside and plant some lettuce, because I'm too broke to buy any at the farmers market.

  12. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    Bridgett,

    You seem like a really nice person and the fact that you have chosen a law degree versus....say....an agriculture degree through which to wax prophetically about food production doesn't exactly blow up my argument.

    When you were getting your undergrad did you per chance take any history and stumble upon the famous quote, "let them eat cake." I believe that the person who said this soon after was separated from her head.

    Here's a 2009 version of that quote from someone who will remain anonymous.....

    "If food was more expensive, people would consume less, and obesity rates (as well as rates of diseases that result from being obese) would decline. When food is what it's supposed to be, people will change their consumption habits by changing what they eat, growing their own food, and forgoing unnecessary purchases to get the food they need"

    In a world in which more than a billion people spend the day looking for their food, isn't it nice that the richest, best educated people in the most affluent country in the world argue that we should produce less and more expensive food?

    There's no stopping progress.
    Seriously though, good luck with law degree. Are you at Georgetown?

  13. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    Bonnie,

    Pull off the post if it's the least bit offensive or uncivil.

    I was going for humor, not insult. If it's viewed as the latter I apologize to you and Walter for my rough Midwester edges.

    (also, stop replying so I can get some work done!)

  14. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    Walter:

    "You can’t prove it can’t be done. I have proved it can be done."

    and

    "I’ve explained all this elsewhere and I’m not going to go out of my way to repeat it ."

    I rest my case.

    Bonnie:

    "I wouldn’t presume to tell you, as I am not a farmer. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute has some interesting ideas about prairie perennials."

    God Bless Wes Jackson. Production typically follows demand and we'll be right on planting prairie perennials en masse at competitive prices once the market signals sufficient demand.

    "vast acres devoted to growing corn "

    I'm going to take it not faith that corn fields cause floods (and the other six plagues) so no need to post a link. Would you agree that if zero corn is planted next year that 95% of those same acres would be planted with another food crop? And the non corn crop would have virtually the same environmental profile as its predecessor crop (thereby causing flooding and other plagues)? Or, am I missing something?

    "There is no increasing demand for food in this country."

    Really? Perhaps this chart from treehugger.com will convince you otherwise:

    http://i.treehugger.com/files/population-density-us2.jpg

    Add to the exponential growth in population the per capita increase in consumption referenced in this NYT article....

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/06/us/study-details-30-year-increase-in-calorie-consumption.html

    ....and you've got some serious demand increase.

    "If the agriculture industry persists in saying no one who doesn’t farm can’t point out current problems with our food system, you’re going to curtail your ability to comment on anything other than farming"

    Much is wrong with agriculture, the U.S. food system, etc., etc. And I welcome good hearty debate. But that debate should be well informed and supported by fact. You suggested early on that I was defensive.....well.....I've responded with a good, hard argument (sorry about the failed attempt at levity) and....well.....still waiting.

    Suggest (honestly and humbly) proponets of rhetoric like Food Inc. spend a little time looking at the conceptual math problem that I gave Walter.

  15. Bridget says:

    It's definitely more my years of experience working in the food industry than anything I'm learning in law school that informs my opinions on this particular topic.   The healthcare law stuff (standard of care, due process, individual rights, etc.) I talk about is more related to my JD.  But, I do believe they are all connected, and I'd like to think I didn't stop learning back when I graduated from college.

    I would assume that anyone with a basic understand of economics (required for many different lines of work, including farming) understands that when prices go up, consumption goes down.  In this country, that is not a bad thing.  We (I mean we collectively) eat too much.  And what we eat makes us sick.  And when people in other countries adopt our food habits, they start eating too much and getting sick too. 

    When someone is malnourished, it does them absolutely no good to hand them a nutritionally void, chemical-laden, impersonation of food and tell them it will solve their problems, nor does increasing the amount of nutritionally void, chemical-laden imitation food they are able to consume.  It does even less good to hurl labels at anyone who points that out.

    (oh, and thanks for the well wishes!)

  16. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    Bridget,

    When someone is malnourished, they're not going to be asking the cracker if the cracker is organic.

    But, if there's something wrong with your honey cherrios, let's not make movies about how bad the farmers are for growing the grains that are used to make the product. Let's start with someone a little closer to home. For buying the hell out of the crappy product or for making a crappy product. Or, for conspiring with retailers to dump shelf stable crappy products on underserved communities. How, in god's name, are my neighbors responsible for the preponderance of pop tarts in inner city markets.

    I know that your thinking is well intentioned and god bless you even if you didn't get into Georgetown. But, suggesting that a solution lies in only having available food priced for the richest 5% of the world -- and that's what Whole Foods and the silly stuff they sell is -- is, I don't know, more detached from reality than a law permitting handguns in national parks.

  17. Bridget says:

    I am in fact at Georgetown, but I'm sure you'll find some other personal attack to make on me for absolutely no reason.  If condescension, misdirection, name calling and sarcasm are the only tools the industry has left, then I hope that means we are close to the day when everyone has access to food that nourishes.

  18. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    Bridget, wonderful for you to be attending Georgetown and the law will be better with more good-hearted people like you in it.

    If the only take away from my posts is misdirection (and the other not so nice descriptors) then my tactics have failed. Which is unfortunate since my posts had the building blocks of a rather strong argument.

    The arguing is good, I think, as long as its constructive. What I've seen with Food Inc., this blog and others is less argument and more religion.

    What do I mean by that?

    One example would be the assertion made earlier that U.S. food demand is not increasing. It's almost impossible for a farmer to respond to that. There are 100 million more people in the U.S. today than in 1960. The U.S. population is projected to double from 2000 to 2100 (most of that immigrants). And, unfortunately, caloric consumption has increased steadily which is like adding another 20 million mouths to feed since 1960. And we waste more food than anywhere else in the world.

    It takes a religious-like zealotry to look past these statistics.

    An assertion was made that animal production in the U.S. could be modeled after a small scale hog farm (perhaps its an integrated food crop and animal protein operation). My response and challenge to that, while unfortunately flip, provides the preliminary basis for an argument. Whether it's Salatin's farm or the poster on this thread, each food operation has output and can be measured. (Using terms like "input" and "output" has been deeply criticized as "factory like." Well, we use those terms and I'd welcome you to join one of our morning coffees to explain why they are so offensive. We can't choose what words we use when we speak to one another?)

    When offering up alternative forms of food production, it would be a good start to root the argument in some sort of data. Especially if you are going to make the claim that your alternative form of production can adequately feed the population. Saying that you have that data but not offering it in response to a request speaks volumes.  If one knows that they don't have compelling data but continues to prosletize that their production is adequate to meet food demand, well, that's religious-like zealotry again.

    Food Inc. characterizes production farmers as lemmings (and occassionally stupid hicks) who have been svengali'd by mulit-nationals. Some say that a cabal is poisoning undernourished people. A few powerful interests have hijacked our food system.

    Good sources to support allegations such as these and make your thesis might include the food companies themselves and the retailers. How do they choose to create the foods they create and how do they choose to stock their shelves with the product they do? And what input, EXACTLY, do farmers have? And, as the distribution channel for 98% of our food, how would they respond to farmers telling then that they'd be producing prairie perennials from here forward?

    Do you really think, all things being equal, a farmer would care about growing prairie perennials versus corn and soybeans if there was a market to be had? Famers meet demand. End of story.

    The elite food movement is detached from reality. To rejoin reality and engage in a meaningful discussion it would need to abandon its reliance on atmospherics and provide something meaningful to the discussion. And confront reality, as farmers do every day. Criticism of a system can be constructive, but it can also be misguided and taken too far. Having poor people pay more for less food, well, that's beyond my intellectual capabilities. Wish that upon yourself before you wish it upon others.

    It's unfortunate that the gap between us is so wide. Since the subject is farming, I'd like to recommend that everyone who reads this blog visit a farm this year. And not one in your comfort zone. Visit a conventional farm (they'd love to see you), ask how they farm, what they are doing for the environment, etc., etc. Maybe listen a little bit before you judge.

  19. Jim:

    The population is growing, but there is not a shortage of calories being produced in this country. That is what I meant by demand not being a factor — I misspoke, meaning that *supply* is not the issue, except for the supply of actual food. Your insistence that growing ever more GM corn and soy is about feeding growing numbers of hungry people really doesn't sound very sincere to me, considering that as much as 20% of corn grown in this country goes to ethanol, and god knows how much more goes to feed animals in a very inefficient conversion of energy to protein.

    What the makers of "Food, Inc" are saying, I believe, is that farmers need to grow more actual food, and we need to make that food affordable for everyone. Since you asked for more stats, here's an interesting one for you that I just got via American Farmland Trust:  "According to new data released in the Census of Agriculture, most of the food we eat is grown on farmland in America’s most metropolitan counties: 91 percent of fruit and nuts, 78 percent of vegetables, 67 percent of dairy and 54 percent of poultry and eggs." Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee is generating $200,000 worth of food and other products (worms, compost) per acre. The people actually growing the food in this country are inventive, and I think they can scale — as small and medium sized nodes in a more robust network, to keep feeding a growing population.

    "Farmers meet demand. End of story.": It's not a level growing field. The "demand" for cheap corn and soy (for use in processed food and animal feed) and for biofuels is being artificially inflated by government subsidies and incentives. Take away those price supports, add the rising cost of fertilizer and fuel, and do you think that "demand" is going to continue? Sorry, but I think it's people like you who are detached from reality.

    I agree, it is unfortunate that the gap between us is so wide. Your blind adherence to business as usual is no different than any other zealotry, as is the refusal to accept any criticism that comes from outside your own Church of Cheap Food. See Jim, if you are a farmer — I notice you've never actually said what you grow or where you farm — can you really tell me with a straight face that everything's hunky-dory in farmland, if us pesky critics would just quit our bellyaching? If it's such a great business model, why are we losing farms every year? Do you really think it's OK that the government makes it possible for a Burger King Whopper to cost less than two ripe pears?

    Because if you can't see anything wrong with the current system we have, we definitely have no common ground on which to discuss anything.

  20. Jim (Illinois Farming) says:

    Bonnie, thanks for you interest in my comments.

    "The population is growing, but there is not a shortage of calories being produced in this country."

    That's because farmers every year do a better job. And they'll need to continue to do a better job because U.S. population will increase by another 120 million people in the next 40 years. Which is faster growth than the last fourty.

    "feeding growing numbers of hungry people really doesn’t sound very sincere to me"

    Already clear from the content of this blog.

    "Your insistence that growing ever more GM corn and soy is about feeding growing numbers of hungry people really doesn’t sound very sincere to me, considering that as much as 20% of corn grown in this country goes to ethanol, and god knows how much more goes to feed animals in a very inefficient conversion of energy to protein. "

    1. Don't pull me into the gm debate;
    2. If there's no food shortage, why do care that some corn goes to ethanol (oops, padora's box);
    3. In complete agreement that animal protein is our least efficient source of calories. Stop eating meat completely. I have no problem with that.

    "farmers need to grow more actual food, and we need to make that food affordable for everyone"

    I know that you don't mean to offend by the former and that you genuinely believe it to be so. Food has never cheaper and what retail has done in regards to availability and access cannot be solved by farmers.

    "According to new data released in the Census of Agriculture, most of the food we eat is grown on farmland in America’s most metropolitan counties"

    I hope its not news to the followers of this board that America's cities were built in geographies where food production was plentiful.

    "Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee is generating $200,000 worth of food and other products (worms, compost) per acre."

    So row crops should be replaced with worms and compost. Not sure I get this one. Let me ask, how many people (and what other inputs) are required to farm the Milwaukee operation? How many calories are produced per acre, ,etc. etc. Same basic questions. Do you get that smaller inefficient operations have much larger carbon footprints? And that in every society people aspire to leave the farm and go to the city where they can find higher-paying jobs. And, they don't return.

    "Take away those price supports, add the rising cost of fertilizer and fuel, and do you think that “demand” is going to continue?"

    Demand is an attribute of population. I don't care if the crops change. I'd rather farm than take gov't dollars not to.

    "If it’s such a great business model, why are we losing farms every year"

    Read the Census of Agriculture that you sited. The actual census and not the press release. And you'll see that the number of U.S. farms has increased.

    "refusal to accept any criticism that comes from outside your own Church of Cheap Food"

    You've got me. I believe cheap food is important. If I've not made it clear, there's a lot that can improved in farming....and in food manufacturing. I just don't think that you know much about either.

    "Do you really think it’s OK that the government makes it possible for a Burger King Whopper to cost less than two ripe pears"

    I don't think government policy should be used to impact domestic food prices at all. I think the market should decide what it wants and doesn't want, and farmers can make their own decisions.
    Bonnie, I've answered all your questions to the best of my ability. Take a look at this thread and ask yourself if my argument has been countered with facts or not.
    My suggestion of farm visits is a sincere one. We've become a society enabled by technology whereby we're overloaded with information. Oftentimes we cherry pick the information that suits our purpose ("why are we losing farms each year") without spending a whole lot of time on the facts. You feel perfectly comfortable advocating for an entirely new form of agriculture production. You don't have to be an expert to do this, but your facts have to be expert.

    There's really been no substantive reply to any of the arguments I've raised. I'm pretty sure that I could make a better case (and often do) without much effort.

    I'll sign off and wish everyone well.