Posted by: Hil | November 12, 2009

Thoughts on Food, Inc.

I finally watched Food, Inc. last night.  I’ve been dying to see it since it first came out in theaters, but I was advised that the movie didn’t contain much information that wasn’t already in Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, so I decided to wait for the video release.  If you’ve never heard of the movie, it is basically a far ranging documentary about where food comes from and why that should scare you.  Topics covered include corn subsidies, animal welfare, foodborne illness, treatment of undocumented workers in plants, monoculture, seed patents, and the link between poverty and obesity. 

There are many other great reviews about this movie, so I will just stick with some of my thoughts and reactions.  Overall, I thought the movie was very well made and my expectations were exceeded.  It came across as somewhat one sided, although that was likely because most corporate food companies refused to be interviewed for the movie.  It managed to be moving without coming across as overly manipulative, which is a hard thing to do with this subject matter.  The movie’s main point is one that I whole heartedly agree with:  consumers have a right to know what is in their food and where it comes from.

I was no fan of the farm bill going into this movie, but the movie made me even more convinced that corn subsidies are a terrible idea.  One new thing I hadn’t quite put together before was how corn subsidies + NAFTA = lots of unemployed Mexican corn farmers, many of whom end up coming to work in the US slaughtering animals that we are feeding all of our cheap corn to.  Wow.

Any movie on a topic I care this much about is going to irk me on some level.  While I still recommend the movie overall, especially for those who haven’t read Fast Food Nation  and The Omnivore’s Dilemma , I feel a need to briefly outline some of my complaints about the movie.

1.  The treatment of “big organic.” This was my single biggest objection to the movie.  Michael Pollan drives me crazy, but I really give him credit for taking on Big Organic in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Pollan did a fantastic job of explaining the way that large scale organic farming often looks pretty indistinguishable from conventional farming.  I am not opposed to Big Organic–the movie’s points about pesticides and increased customer choice are well taken–but I really, really wish that the movie had bothered to explain what labels like “organic,” “natural” and “free range” actually mean.  They most certainly do not mean “raised on a farm like Joel Salatin’s.”  I know the movie couldn’t cover everything, but I highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a supplement on this point.

2.  Good guys v. bad guys mentality.  I know that the movie is only so long, but as someone who grew up in an agricultural area, it always bothers me when people present this black and white distinction between the nice family farmers and Big Agriculture.  “Who knows a farmer?” scoffs Pollan at one point in the film.  Um, I do.  I also know lots of people who work in agribusiness.   Most farms and agribusinesses fall somewhere in between Polyface Farms and IBP.  There are plenty of large agribusinesses that started out small and remain family owned.  All businesses are profit driven, but in my experience, many people in the agriculture industry genuinely care about providing a quality product to their customers.  On the flip side, there are plenty of small farms that mistreat migrant workers and use farming techniques that are bad for the environment.

It isn’t enough to simply reject food produced by the big guys or trust in some feel good labeling.  We have to start asking questions of individual vendors and farms and companies.  When we ask questions, we’ll probably find a lot of gray areas–companies that treat their workers extremely well but use intensive farming methods, farms that are local but not organic, companies that produce a great quality product but are known for union-busting.  There are few easy answers.  We don’t have to be purists in order to impact the market, but there is a huge danger that if we don’t do our research, we will convince more companies to invest in PR than to invest in change.

3.  Treatment of technology as scary.  There were a few moments in the movie where the camera slowly pans across food processing machinery with ominous music playing in the background.  I know these visuals were supposed to be scary, but I had to suppress the urge to laugh.  Seeing food and machinery together is normal to me and not particularly disturbing.  Footage of workers performing dangerous tasks in a hasty manner?  Disturbing.  Footage of live animals being herded by machine?  Disturbing.  Footage of the machines themselves?  Not so disturbing.  Machines perform a wide range of extremely useful food related tasks–everything from rolling oats to pitting olives–and I really don’t think that the advancement of technology is the problem with the food system. 

Overall, if you haven’t seen the movie, I would recommend renting it.  If you’re interested learning more, I highly recommend Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma for further reading.  I hope that the movie inspires people to learn more about food production and make their choices accordingly.  The more that we know, and the more that we let our knowledge influence our shopping, the more change we are going to see in our food production system.

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