“Food, Inc.” the book: Picking up where the documentary left off

By Joshua J. Biggley

Summer blockbusters are often contrived, schlocky representations of the books on which they are based. But the documentary “Food, Inc.,” which drew heavily on the nonfiction bestsellers “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” for its subject matter, has produced an accompanying book, “Food Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer — And What You Can Do About It,” that does far more than just rehash the film. This is no “one-two punch” marketing ploy by the folks at Participant Media, but rather a well-conceived, thoughtful follow-up to the overview offered up on the big screen. Perhaps it is the weighty subject matter-the industrialization and externalization of our food supply-or the all-star cast of creators and real-life participants, but in this case the combination of movie and book offers ample education and inspiration for even the most discerning consumer. Happily, the book is doing almost as well as the movie, which is the year’s top-grossing documentary: it is currently No. 325 on Amazon.com.

Robert Kenner, the director of “Food, Inc.,” acknowledges that the movie’s 94 minutes couldn’t possibly detail all the complexities of the multinational food industry. The book’s editor, Karl Weber, writes that its goal was to reflect “the lively ongoing debates among the ‘food community’ about the best directions for the future-debates that, we believe, embody the best American traditions and hope for a better tomorrow shaped by the contributions of all of us.”

“Food, Inc.” is divided into three sections. First, coproducer Eric Schlosser and director Robert Kenner give an inside look at the “how” and “why” behind the film. They humanize the travails of the creative process, telling how their journey began and the point at which they realized they were walking the thin line of “being iconoclastic or being nuts.” Their status as iconoclasts is assured, but it’s also true that only the truly crazy would take on the industrial machine that is our global food chain.  While Kenner might not view himself as a crusader, his ideas are radical and his attacks on industrial food systems are long overdue.

The second section, “Inside the Food Wars,” is an answer to the compassionate critics who scolded the movie for offering “nothing new” to the industrial food debate. In it, the biggest challenges facing the food system — from the food-for-fuel debate to the exploitation of immigrant and indigenous labourers — are outlined in a series of essays by thought leaders including Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt (who is featured favorably in the film as the representative of “Big Organic”); Peter Pringle, author of several books on biotechnology; energy journalist Robert Bryce; Anna Lappé, author of a forthcoming book on climate change and food; United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez; and Muhammad Yunus, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his innovations in microlending.

Each opinion is balanced (and sometimes rebutted) by a viewpoint on the same or a similar theme from representatives of organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States and the Pesticide Action Network North America. These pieces, called “Another Take,” contain more concrete suggestions for taking action, and while some drift dangerously close to the realm of propaganda, they generally avoid the proverbial soapbox and add significantly to the practical information offered. One criticism, however: many of these and other pieces in “Food, Inc.” are far too crammed full of statistics.  As former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Statistics, used sparingly, reinforce an opinion or set the stage for a critique; however, used in such abundance they overwhelm, numb, and can create an aura of doubt. In offering a deluge of statistics, some of the authors appear to be trying to prove that their opinions are sound instead of simply letting them stand on their own merit.

Weber warns early on that “[A]lthough all of the distinguished individuals and organizations that contributed to this book share a concern about the problems with our industrial food system and a desire to reform it, they don’t always agree.” And indeed, the views offered up in the 12 segments of this section can seem a little contradictory and off-key. Hirshberg’s insistence that the “Big O” organic movement has not betrayed many of the movement’s original agroecological principles, but has instead been legitimized by the additional government oversight and regulation, cannot help but be shaped by his company’s impressive financial success.  Many would argue that the organic label has in the end done little to help lift the veil on our nation’s food industry and does not guarantee good farming practices, only less harmful ones than conventional agriculture.

But elsewhere I found myself nodding in agreement with these talented and dedicated activists. The Humane Society’s piece, “The Dirty Six,” covers the abuses of among other things, battery cages, gestation crates, and foie gras.  In spite of my own recent immersion into SOLE (sustainable, organic, local and/or ethical) food, this article had me asking “Why didn’t I know this?”

Yunus’s article on the link between the global financial crisis and world hunger is a soft, even-handed monologue often missing from this polarizing debate. Reading it, there is a point at which you realize how we interconnected we all are: how your North American family chooses to spend your food dollars reverberates around the world with the same intensity as the proverbial butterfly of chaos theory. Yunus offers both criticism and hope, without playing the martyr, and in his career he has truly lived Mahatma Gandhi’s command that “We must become the change we want to see.”

The third, and final, section gives a detailed answer to the question that the movie could only begin to answer: “What can you do about it?” Essays by author and “Food, Inc.” coproducer Michael Pollan; sustainable agriculture celebrity Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (ever his “say-it-like-it-is” self); nutritionist Marion Nestle; and Kaiser Permanente physician Preston Maring are paired with calls to action by groups such as Sustainable Table and the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. This section transforms the book from being just another lecture on the evils of the industrial food monster to a handbook of instructions, a true reference manual, for the changes we can make today, tomorrow, and beyond. (The “Hungry for Change” section of the official website for “Food, Inc.” has some of these recommendations along with many other avenues for taking action.

Pollan asks the question we all ask, “Why bother?” then argues that planting a garden, no matter the size, is the most radical change we can make in our lives and in the lives of our neighbors. (This essay first appeared in the New York Times Magazine.) Small changes can trigger momentous societal shifts, he says, invoking Schelling’s theory of the tipping point.  Never before has a simple and humble balcony herb garden or plot of summer squash been endowed with such power.

Joel Salatin in Food, Inc

Joel Salatin in "Food, Inc"

Salatin is equally pragmatic, offering a veritable checklist of to-do items for the average reader, such as the simple admonition to “rediscover your kitchen” — invoking images of home-cooked meals with good food binding together family and friends in cohesive social experiences, and a little social rebellion to boot. Salatin encourages us to “opt out of the industrial food system” by following four simple steps: Learn to cook again, buy local, buy what’s in season, and plant a garden. Ever the food renegade, he spins the “knowledge that was once the natural inheritance of every human being” into all-out warfare on our industrial captors. Salatin is impassioned, perhaps even frantic, in his plea to recapture our food system but, as “Food, Inc.” the movie illustrated, his apocalyptic utterings may not be too far off.

Fighting against the industrial food machine is a heavy burden, and can often be discouraging, as evidenced by the fatalism of some of the chosen authors. But “Food, Inc.,” the book, is a true Participant Guide. Students, professionals, stay-at-home-moms and retirees — everyone can find a way to transform our food system and reassert our control over the food we eat and, ultimately, our lives. If “Food, Inc.,” the movie, is the rich compost added to the well-tended garden of international debate over the food system, then “Food, Inc.” the book is the hand-selected heirloom seeds that, if planted and cared for, will produce a bounty of rich ideas, thoughtful actions, and hearty rewards for all involved.

Joshua J. Biggley was one of the winners of the Ethicurean’s “Food, Inc.”and “Fast Food Nation” giveaway contest that accompanied our review of the film. He lives in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, with his wife, Angela, and his four children, and is still hoping Participant Media will let him put together a special “Food, Inc.” screening on the island.  An IT consultant by day, he masquerades as a social advocate by night.  He has written extensively for scaledown.ca, and was recently covered by CBC news after adding eight heritage hens to his urban backyard.

3 Responsesto ““Food, Inc.” the book: Picking up where the documentary left off”

  1. Amanda says:

    This looks like a great book.  Thanks for writing about it.

  2. Vera D. says:

    I recently received Food Inc. in the mail from Amazon.com and I couldn’t put it down! I missed seeing the movie and I can’t wait for it to come out on video; the book is wonderfully balanced.