Food, Inc. may well be the most important, perspective-altering documentary you'll ever digest. Informed by author/activists Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), documentarian Robert Kenner exposes the evolution of food production from the venerable family farm to rapacious big agri-business.
To paraphrase Participant Media, the film’s producer, our food supply is a near-monopoly in the hands of just a few mighty agri-businesses that put profit ahead of consumer health, the health of the environment, the livelihood of the American farmer, or worker safety. We have chickens with overblown breasts, the “perfect” pork chop, indestructible soybeans, and tomatoes with unnaturally long shelf lives, but we also have virulent new strains of E. coli, the harmful bacteria that sickens an estimated 73,000 Americans each year, and sometimes kills them. Obesity is widespread, and what used to be called “adult-onset diabetes” is now common among children.
The film posits that the industry doesn’t want us to know the truth; Pollan states that there is even an effort afoot to make it illegal to publish photos of any industrial food operation. Yet despite the fact that the subject matter could easily lend itself to a grim, preachy or even alarmist attitude, Food, Inc. succeeds by engendering an uplifting spirit of hope in its audience.
The film documents how government agencies act in collusion with agri-business, and have gradually eroded the stringency applied to regulations and inspections. This comes as no surprise as we are shown a parade of individuals who graduated from big-ag lobbyists to government officials.
We learn that Monsanto has patented the genetic blueprint of soy, meaning that, for all intents and purposes, Monsanto holds the patent on the soybean. If a small farmer declines to use Monsanto’s methodology, and a breeze carries Monsanto’s soybean DNA to that farmer’s fields, the company can sue for patent infringement.
We see how corn and soy are distributed as cattle feed at prices contrived to be kept below the cost of production. The problem is that cows eat grass naturally, not corn; as a result of improper diet and inhumane treatment, many of them fall ill. In order to prevent illness, antibiotics are administered prophylactically in their feed. Hormones are added as well to artificially promote faster growth. Ultimately, we consume the meat from those animals. Similarly, Monsanto’s genetically engineered soybeans can thrive despite heavy applications of pesticides and herbicides, which ultimately wind up on our plates.
We are given a peek into the enormous, dark, overcrowded, inhumane chicken houses maintained by factory farms - a peek, because permission to photograph the operation is not granted, and Perdue declined to comment.
All is not doom and gloom, however. We meet Joel Salatin, sanguine patriarch of a family owned, local-market farm, who fills us with hope as he exhibits the evidence that sustainable farming is a viable alternative. Salatin raises beef, pork, and poultry according to nature’s guiding principles. Pasture-raised and free from antibiotics and hormones, his environmentally accountable, eco-minded philosophy sets an example for a new movement in holistic farming. An affable and engaging spokesman, he motivates us to weigh in with our wallets every time we shop for groceries.
A sequence near the conclusion of Food, Inc. appears to unquestioningly sing the praises of Walmart for responding to consumers' current clamor for organic options on their shopping trips. We can’t help but wonder if Walmart will ultimately warp the definition of organic standards as defined by the USDA in their abiding quest to keep prices low. After all, it is possible to maintain the letter of the law while skirting its intent. But maybe the “bad guys” really do wear white hats on occasion; it remains to be seen.
For anyone not yet conversant with the issues, the information in Food, Inc. is presented in a non-threatening and compelling manner; for those of us already attuned to those issues, it’s a satisfying review. But in linking all the pieces to form the big picture, the significant takeaway from this film is that food is a political issue. Americans may want to trust that we will be taken care of, but we have learned that the industries that purport to protect us cannot be trusted. This film demonstrates that we need to approach agri-business with exactly the same skepticism we extend to banking, insurance, housing and health care. Most of our food doesn’t come from a bucolic setting with a red barn on a green pasture surrounded by a white fence. They're gaming the system, and there is a high cost associated with low cost food. And unlike other big institutions, no one is excluded from the food supply.
Food, Inc. reminds us that we can make difference, however. The current state of Big Tobacco serves as a perfect model: by diminishing the demand for a product, we can effectively rout an entire industry. Our dollars are our ballots in this battle and, thanks to our actions, the tobacco industry is moribund. If you need inspiration to change the way you shop for food, go see this movie - then persuade everyone you know to see it as well.