Where does what we eat come from?
This seems like it ought to be an easy question to answer.
Not so, in this day and age, according to a new documentary film called Food, Inc.
“The way we eat has changed more in the past 50 years than in the last 10,000 years,” explains the film’s introduction, “but the image we see is still the image of agrarian America.”
Beyond the pretty but misleading pictures put forth by the corporate brand managers from Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill, ADM and Perdue– good-looking farmers, happy animals, clean and green landscapes– is a disturbing and largely untold story about the nature of the United States’ 21st century industrial factory food system. Director Robert Kenner has served up one of the most vital and provocative new documentaries of this year. In Food, Inc, he assembles an all-star cast – Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan (hero to localvores everywhere), and a variety of farm folks who are doing the hard work at ground zero of our modern “farming” system.
Uniformity, conformity, and cheapness are the 3 words that define our early 21st century food system, according to Schlosser.
And wheat, corn, and soybeans, Pollan tells us, are the three commodity crops that drive the 21st century U.S. farming system, producing food that is high in unhealthy fats and high fructose corn syrup, but very cheap at the pump, cash-wise, for the consumer.
But let’s not call it farming, oh no. To call it “farming” is to make a mockery of the term.
It is an industry.
Like any other factory, the goal of our 21st century industrial food system is simple: mass production to maximize profit at the cheapest consumer price per unit as possible, while externalizing all other social values – humane treatment of animals, equity for workers and farmers, and the health of both the land and the human body. “Our food is coming from enormous assembly lines,” Pollan observes, “and both the animals and the workers are being abused.”
Food Inc. is full of fascinating facts – “the modern American supermarket has on average 47,000 products” – as well as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser’s trademark well-researched wit and wisdom.
Pollan’s assessment of corn as the uber-element of your typical 21st century American’s diet, for example, is as fascinating as it is disturbing. “Cows are not evolutionarily designed to eat corn,” Pollan wryly observes. “The only reason we feed cows corn is because corn is really cheap, and it make cows fat quickly.” Lots of American cows. Millions, in fact. And, oh, by the way – only 13 slaughterhouses, according to Schlosser, process the majority of beef in the United States. Can you say “Let us render Mad Cow”?
And a high corn diet – think “fructose” and then check the ingredients in just about any packaged supermarket item – makes American people fat, too, as well as exposing them to E Coli and other pathogens that lead to national health scares, illness, and death. But the factory system has a “solution” – cleanse processed meat with ammonia to try and kill the E Coli. Um, genius.
And, as Schlosser explains, the USDA and other federal agencies, charged with looking out for Americans’ food safety, have become little more than “captive regulators,” run by individuals from the very industries these agencies are supposed to be watch dogging. “We put our faith in the government to protect us,” observes one tearful mother, who lost a son to a food outbreak and has since become a dedicated citizen activist working to pass Kevin’s Law, calling on the USDA to shut down meat factories who continually produce contaminated meat. “And the very agencies charged with doing so don’t help us.”
There are heroes in this film, too – notably farmer Joel Salatin of Virginia’s Polyface Farms, who runs a grass-fed farm operation that has become quite well-known in agricultural and foodie circles, thanks to Pollan’s writing and Salatin’s own combination of outspokenness and smarts, as a farmer, a businessman, an author and a citizen.
“Our system has been built on faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper, and we have allowed ourselves to become so disconnected and ignorant about something so important as the food we eat,” Salatin says while processing chickens in a tent on his farm. “The FDA tried to shut our open-air operation down because they claimed it was unsanitary. What is that about?”
So what’s a concerned American citizen to do? Grow your own food as you can. Buy local whenever possible. Get to know your food, and the farmer who produced it. Invest your money locally as often as you can. Educate yourself about your food choices. And throw yourself into the fight for a more humane food system.
For we are, quite literally, what we eat.