What happens when companies become more powerful than their regulators and inspectors? What happens when people no longer know what is in the food they buy? What happens when children believe advertising over science?
The documentary Food, Inc is a critical look at the food industry and how industrialisation has transformed the food we eat into something that is doing us harm.
Filmmaker Robert Kenner, with the expertise of journalists Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, demonstrates how far removed modern farming is from the pastoral images used to sell the product. They ask not, how do we feed the world, but, what are we being fed?
Food, Inc draws on Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, which documented the excesses of the fast food industry and its effects on industry workers, animals and consumers, and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a study of the same meal as produced by alternative agricultural systems; intensive, large- and small-scale organic and food foraged for ourselves.
Like those books, the film reveals the unpleasant reality behind industrial farming of animals and crops. Half a dozen corporate behemoths produce the vast majority of chicken, pork and beef, corn, and soy available in the US – for example, Monsanto sells around 90 per cent of soybean seed and 80 per cent of corn seed, Tyson, Cargill, Swift and National Beef Packing Company control more than 80 per cent of beef production, and Smithfield, Tyson, Swift and Cargill control 66 per cent of the pork industry. The charge sheet – lagoons of pigs’ effluent filling the air with choking fumes and poisoning rivers, animals cruelly crammed into barns and sheds, migrant workers suffering in silence and injury, and bullying corporate tactics – is probably also familiar. As these companies now turn their eyes towards Eastern Europe and the UK, the filmmakers urge an alternative approach to sourcing our food.
“In many parts of the US you can’t drink the water because the topsoil is poisoned by pesticides and chemicals,” says Kenner, a short, burly, talkative man who speaks with his hands, when The Big Issue caught up with he and Schlosser after they had spoken to school children in Hackney. “For me the real reason to eat organic is that rural communities are being poisoned,” adds the taller, more quietly spoken Schlosser. “Farmers, workers, the water table are all being poisoned. It’s more a concern for an environmental catastrophe than it is me thinking I’m going to die if I eat that apple.”
E.coli poisoning and other food-borne illnesses are on the rise, found not only in meat but in spinach, lettuce, even peanut butter. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention 73,000 people get E.coli poisoning every year. In one memorable scene, we see meat pushed along conveyors into tanks where it is blasted with ammonia – bleach – to kill the bacteria. The bleached, pink meat is folded into cartons to be used as “hamburger filler”. This is a complex solution to a problem that could have been solved easily: cows fed grass shed 90 per cent of the e.coli in their gut in a few days, but are more expensive than cows in concentrated feedlots where they are fed corn.
Free range pig farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, whose methods are shown in contrast, points out that the harm extends beyond that done to the creatures: “A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasm to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect.”
And it is perhaps exactly that disdain that can be seen in the behaviour of the large agribusinesses, whose substantial economic clout is felt by the farmers contracted to them. Farmers are warned off from speaking to the filmmakers, pursued by legal threats and court cases, and refuse entry to chicken farms for fear of retribution from the huge companies on whom their livelihoods depend.
That clout is also felt in government, where industry representatives form a powerful lobby. For example, although foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be labelled in Britain, there are no such requirements in the States. Kenner says: “I think for me the most frightening scene in the film is when Eric goes to Sacramento to talk about how we should label products better, and a meat industry representative says ‘it’s not in the consumers’ interest to know that information’.”
About 70 per cent of supermarket items in the States contain GMOs, but most Americans don’t know they’re eating them, or even what they are.
“I wanted to make a film about the science, but they’re not willing to talk about it,” he adds. There’s a lack of resilience to the system because it’s designed for only one thing: profit.”
Schlosser agrees: “The companies say that they’re good for you, but they’ll do everything possible to stop that information coming out. The justification for GMOs was this rice with vitamin A that was going to cure blindness, or be drought resistant, or give better yields. But all they’ve been proven to do is to allow greater application of pesticide and fertilizer, which is very good for the companies that make pesticides and fertilizer which, surprise, surprise, are the same companies that make the seed.”
What does come as a surprise is the all-pervading nature of subsidised corn: a bewildering array of derivatives are found in foods, from corn starch and corn sugar additives, corn syrup, to malt extracts, vegetable oils, and thickeners, in everything from Coke to batteries. It is also fed to cattle, pigs and chickens, and turned into a huge number of ‘value-added’ or processed products which Pollan calls “the tangible material formerly known as food”. The fact that so little of this food has any nutritious value other than carbohydrates have led to criticisms that the government is essentially subsidising huge agribusinesses to feed people food that is bad for them – and is making them ill.
In one scene, a class of children are asked who knows someone who is diabetic, and practically all of them raise a hand. Two people? The hands stay up. Three? Most are still there.
The diabetes and obesity epidemic that has already swept across the US, where one in three Americans develops early onset diabetes, is in danger of reaching British shores too. Certainly the methods used in British farming are little different to those in the US.
But despite the mounting evidence of the harm “conventional” agriculture – itself only 50 years old – is doing us and the environment, and despite the un-sustainability of agriculture based on intensely petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, there remains a substantial backlash against “unconventional” farming.
Schlosser warns against the idea that organic or alternative farming is elitist: “If you look at obesity and diabetes rates, it very neatly correlates with levels of poverty and education.”
“It remains to be seen whether the tabloids particularly can get past the fact that many of the early adopters are trendy or healthy or media types. Because the truly elitist system is the system in which the wealthy get good food while ordinary working people eat shit food that makes them ill.”
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, February 2010]