Saturday, June 20, 2009

Food, Inc.

Robert Kenner's new documentary, Food, Inc., hits hard by picking its fights carefully.

It could have criticized biotechnology broadly, winning a mix of agreement and disagreement from scientists, activists, and farmers in the audience. Instead, the movie nails its indictment of Monsanto's lawsuits against farmers and local seed processors. It skewers the patent laws that give a chemical company control of 90% of the U.S. soybean crop. "Monsanto did not agree to be interviewed." Whether scientist, activist, or farmer, pretty much everybody in the audience has to be outraged.

It could have promoted a vegetarian or animal rights case against modern meat production, again winning a mix of agreement and disagreement from a diverse audience. Instead, the movie tears into the economic abuse of contract farmers and slaughterhouse workers, while letting the powerful visuals of a high-tech poultry factory, a beef slaughterhouse, and industrial chicken farming operations deliver any additional lessons that the viewer wants to entertain and receive. "Smithfield did not agree to be interviewed." Whether low-wage worker or high-income gourmet, farmer or city person, anybody in the audience is compelled to at least acknowledge the filmmaker's viewpoint.

It could have sounded the alarm about any number of food safety concerns, some of which divide public health officials from the good food movement believers. Instead, it chose microbial contamination in meat, an issue that is entirely mainstream. The story of two-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk, who died from eating a hamburger, leaves the audience with little room for computations of nontrivial risk levels that we should just accept without complaint in the name of economic efficiency and low meat prices.

A running theme discussed how different sectors of the food industry try to keep information from consumers. "Tyson refused to be interviewed." The third or fourth such refusal finally generated a chuckle from the audience. A clip of an industry official trying lamely to explain why cloned meat could not be labeled, because consumers cannot be trusted to interpret this information favorably, is infuriating.

In a Twitter conversation yesterday, before I saw the film last night, Kenner suggested the politics of information as a key focus for a viewer.
@usfoodpolicy: Looking forward to #foodinc tonight in MA. What scene will be most surprising to a farmer in the audience? nutrition prof? ag economist?

@RobertKenner: that we are not allowed to know what is in our food, we r denied info to know what we are eating, laws make it hard
That would be my recommendation to you also, as you see the film. Is it true, as some of the ag folks in the Twitter conversation claimed, that consumers are willfully or foolishly ignorant of the facts of food production? Or, are the consumers sovereign, here, while the food industry is trying to keep them in the dark about what is really going on in the kingdom?

The film is highly indebted to participants Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Joel Salatin and a number of people who have written about the biotechnology industry. If you have already read those writers, don't expect new information, but you may enjoy the film anyway.

Update: I enjoyed Nicholas Kristof's review and blog post.


Anastasia said...

The message of this movie (along with lots of other similar books and films) seems to me to be more a commentary on capitalism and regulation of capitalism than of any one particular aspect of the food system. As you said in this post, all the big corporations declined to be interviewed. And yet, you sandwich this whole great post summarizing the issues of the modern food system as described by the movie with two comments about biotechnology.

I remain confused about this selective viewpoint. There is an entire forest of corporations that have what most of us would say is a negative impact on our food, but I guess the Monsanto tree gets in the way.

usfoodpolicy said...

One of the things I liked best about the movie was its mainstream pro-market perspective. It goes light on criticism of capitalism and the only call for government intervention was a mild pitch for better food safety rules.

The thing about biotechnology is how inimical it is to the market economy. Monsanto doesn't want to compete in producing seeds at low cost, it wants a government enforced monopoly (a patent), giving it the right to put out of business any farmers who save their Monsanto seeds or local entrepreneurs who clean them.

Laura said...

We just interviewed Food, Inc. director Elise Pearlstein on our KBOO Food Show:

Adain said...

I will read from time to time for that.