Monday, November 16, 2009

Of Food, Inc.

After a long, impatient wait- during which our curiosity was only allayed by 3-minute trailers and reviews by real-food lovers- our family has finally seen the documentary Food, Inc. I have been extremely excited that a movie taking the industrial food system head-on was receiving such publicity, and my hopes were very high. I was fully pleased by the movie's presentation of the industrial food process, from chickens to corn to lettuce; the chilling message reminded me of why I feel called to produce good food. On the other hand, the positive side of the film, which presented our alternatives to factory food, did not meet my expectations.

I knew that Food, Inc. would thoroughly expose the industrial system, simply by the fact that Eric Schlosser, Joel Salatin, and Michael Pollan all contributed to the film. I prefer a slightly more rational, and less emotional, presentation of even scary facts, so the horror music and emotional appeal weren't my favorite parts. On the other hand, it is important to take food safety to a personal level, and I believe that the story of the death of Kevin Kowalcyk (caused by E. Coli-contaminated hamburger) made the situation seem much more real and personal. The images of conventional poultry, pork, and cattle production were well contrasted by the Edenic appearance of Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm.

The scenes of poultry, pork, and beef processing were an honest representation and quite appalling. I was glad to see how broad a range of issues the film covered, from contamination of the meat to worker safety. I imagine that the average American consumer seeing this film would be very surprised to see how their meat is processed. The film also reveals just how secretive the food industry is. As Joel Salatin said in the film, (I paraphrase) "If all of the slaughterhouses in the United States were built with glass walls, people would change the way they eat in a heartbeat."

Food, Inc. does not stop by exposing the meat industry; no, that is mere child's play compared to the control of farmers by seed companies the seed company, Monsanto. This "axis of evil" in the agricultural world has not only cornered the seed market, but claims complete ownership of seeds which have been genetically modified to resist Monsanto herbicides and pesticides. The farmers interviewed in the film reveal the legal tactics that Monsanto uses to control their customers, such as filing lawsuits (on grounds of the slightest evidence) against farmers suspected of saving Monsanto seed, even in circumstances when Monsanto knows that they can't win. In one case, Monsanto filed suit against the owner of a seed cleaning business, claiming that he was encouraging farmers to violate patent laws.

The revelation that most of our food comes from corn is surprising for the average eater, I'm sure. The nutritional impact of such a monoculture in food is not discussed in detail in the film, but Michael Pollan goes into greater detail in Omnivore's Dilemma, for those who wish to learn more. In Defense of Food, another of Pollan's books, is also well worth reading; it presents a view of eating that is profound in its simplicity.

This negative information about our food was a very thorough exposé of industrial food processing and factory farms. The other half of the movie presents the positive side of food, the alternative. This is where I was disappointed in the film, as this message of hope is delivered in two very different ways, without ever reconciling them. The first alternative system is espoused and explained by Joel Salatin, who advocates the idea of a food system that is decentralized and comprised of thousands of small farms across the nation. These small farms serve their community with food grown in a sustainable fashion that is humane to both the animals and the farmer, beneficial for the soil, and much more transparent for the sake of the consumer.

The second alternative presented is actually quite different, though someone new to the world of organic food may not have noticed, and the film seemed to blend the two as if they are harmonious. This alternative is what Michael Pollan refers to as "Big Organic", or simply an indutrial system producing food organically. This is certainly superior to conventional industrial food, but if you have a disease, is it better to control the symptoms or remove the problem? The Big Organic side is presented by Gary Hirshbeg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, who has a passion for organics, but believes that the food solution lies in business. His factories are run in the most environmentally conscious way possible, and his viewpoint is that every dollar in organic yogurt that Stonyfield sells is benefiting the earth. Stonyfield Farm yogurt is marketed to Wal-Mart, which Hirshberg sees as a breakthrough for organic food.

Thus, two views are presented: one advocates buying from local farmers and farmers' markets, while the other supports an organic reform of the industrial system. I had hoped that Joel Salatin's vision of a country filled with small farmers who could feed their communities- which, by the way, is also far more economically stable- would dominate the positive message of the film. "Industrial organic" is a compromise that will inevitably reduce quality and transparency, the two great goals of farmers such as Joel Salatin. The Big Organic industry may offer a solution which seems more probable, but it still sacrifices the food independence which farmers and activists are fighting for, it maintains the possibility of mass contamination, it is still highly centralized, and requires a great deal of energy (in the form of petroleum) for the processing and shipping of food.

Despite my disappointment with parts of the presentation, I think this film is a breakthrough in many ways. I highly recommend it to the consideration of a candid world.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

"Happy Birthday!"

Neglected blogs populate the digital graveyards of the internet. Perhaps this is a beneficial problem; there are more than enough well written and edifying blogs to compensate for the failed experiments cluttering the world wide web, now orphaned and dusty. I can understand the reasons that the owners of these blogs might have used to convince themselves that quietly abandoning their sites was the most humane option; there is a certain point at which the embarrassment of reviving the blog outweighs any disappointment that the death of said blog may bring.

Not being easily embarrassed, however, I'm going to bring this blog back to life. I apologize for the long silence, and I hope to have some interesting posts rolling soon. If you are reading this, give yourself a pat on the back for being such a faithful reader. However, you must have been waiting for an update, and you probably need to find a hobby. ;)