- Posted on January 26, 2010 Updated on April 16, 2010
American agriculture has in many respects been the envy of the world. U.S. agri-business consistently produces more food on less land and at cheaper cost than the farmers of any other nation. What could possibly be wrong with that? According to the growing ranks of organic farmers, “slow food” activists and concerned consumers cited in the new documentary Food, Inc., the answer is “plenty.” As recounted in this sweeping, shockingly informative documentary, sick animals, environmental degradation, tainted and unhealthy food and obesity, diabetes and other health issues are only the more obvious problems with a highly mechanized and centralized system that touts efficiency — and the low costs and high profits that result from it — as the supreme value in food production.
Less obvious, according to Food, Inc., is the entrenchment of a powerful group of food producers, that sets the conditions under which today’s farmers and food workers operate, in order to maximize profits. The industry also maintains a revolving door of employment for government regulators and legislators to protect its power to set those conditions. Then there is “the veil,” a strange disconnect — propagated in good part by millions of dollars poured into marketing and lobbying by the industry — between the average American and the food he or she eats. As one chicken industry representative puts it, “In a way we’re not producing chickens; we’re producing food.”
Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. has its American broadcast premiere as a special broadcast on Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 9 p.m. on PBS as part of the 23rd season of POV (Point of View), American television’s longest-running independent documentary series. POV is the recipient of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking.
For all the dazzling technological innovations of American food production, there are many people who would ask, “But is it food?” In addition to graphically detailing animal cruelty, environmental despoliation and economic monopolization, the film Food, Inc. also questions whether the industrial system produces the nutritious, health- and life-sustaining stuff we call food.
To discover the answer, filmmaker Kenner marshals mountains of data, vérité visits to production sites and footage of meat-packing operations secretly shot by workers, plus eye-opening testimony from farmers, workers, consumer advocates and the few industry people willing to speak in their own defense. Food, Inc. also features the on- and off-screen guidance of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and such practitioners of organic, sustainable farming as Joel Salatin of Virginia’s Polyface Farms, to warn that the nutritional value of American food products is increasingly in doubt. More alarmingly, many of these products, including processed foods, fresh meat and produce, pose real dangers to public health and safety. “The average consumer does not feel very powerful,” says Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farms, the third largest yogurt provider in the country.
Maryland chicken farmer Carole Morison risks potential retaliation from the company to show the filmmakers what no other Perdue farmer would — what antibiotics, high-tech breeding and overcrowding are doing to the nation’s chickens.
The Monsanto, Tyson, Perdue and Smithfield companies — whose business practices are examined in Food, Inc. — all declined to tell their side of the story to the filmmakers. These companies also use their economic clout to discourage farmers and workers from showing their operations or speaking about their experiences with corporate farming. These four companies, as a result of corporate consolidation, constitute a huge share of the “seed-to-fork” American food production market. (In the 1970s, the top five beef packers controlled just 25 percent of the market; today, the top four control more than 80 percent. Smithfield’s Tar Heel, N.C., plant is now the largest slaughterhouse in the world.)
Once Food, Inc. begins penetrating the industry’s marketing — family farm images, hyper-perfect food photos, health claims and bewildering brand arrays (that all lead back to the same few producers and, in the case of processed foods, to the same few ingredients) — its food-gone-bad tales are so numerous that they threaten to overwhelm. But the filmmakers carefully craft a fast-paced narrative that is informative and moving, as well as infuriating. Colorful, easy-to-grasp graphics support on-screen testimony, and despite the often grim toll of animal cruelty, human sickness and economic pressures unflinchingly recounted by Food, Inc., the film is driven by the brighter visions of the activists and alternative businesses that are leading the movement to make American food reliably safe and nutritious.
The film includes interviews not only with Schlosser, Pollan and Salatin, but also with people like Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2 1/2-year-old son, Kevin, ate a hamburger and died 12 days later from E. coli. She then investigated the facts of a beef industry whose drive for efficiency and profit has increased the incidence of E. coli, and she has since become a food safety advocate, fighting to restore to the USDA its power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meats.
Maryland chicken farmer Carole Morison is disgusted enough with the animal-raising practices forced on people like her by corporations like Perdue that she risks potential retaliation from the company to show the filmmakers what no other Perdue farmer would — what antibiotics, high-tech breeding and overcrowding are doing to the nation’s chickens. Morison subsequently lost her contract when she refused the company’s demand that she completely enclose her chicken houses, leaving her with few economic alternatives. She is left considering the worst-case scenario: selling the family farm.
Kentucky chicken-raiser Vince Edwards, a Tyson contractor, approves of the corporate method. “The chicken industry came in here and it’s helped this whole community out,” he says, “and it’s all a science. They got it figured out… If you could grow a chicken in 49 days, why would you want one you gotta grow in three months? More money in your pocket.” But many farmers are forced to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet corporate requirements for efficient facilities while ending up earning as little as $18,000 a year.
Seed cleaner Moe Parr explains how, after 25 years of practicing a trade that goes back to the origins of farming, he found himself one of the few seed cleaners left in Indiana — and squarely in the sights of the giant agribusiness company Monsanto. The company sued Parr for offering a service that might help a farmer save seeds, in possible violation of the contract a farmer must sign when he buys the company’s patented seeds and herbicide system. Parr ultimately could not afford to defend himself against Monsanto’s deep pockets and was driven out of business.
From a large, working family, struggling to keep their kids fed while plagued by the health costs incurred by the father’s diabetes, we learn that a McDonald’s double cheeseburger — made from cows fed government-subsidized and E. coli-prone corn diets — costs less than a head of broccoli. Says Troy Roush, vice president of the American Corn Growers Association. “In the United States today, 30 percent of our land base is being planted to corn. That’s largely driven by government policy, government policy that, in effect, allows us to produce corn below the cost of production. The truth of the matter is, we’re paid to overproduce and it was caused by these large multinational interests… And the only reason we feed [cows] corn is because corn is really cheap and corn makes them fat quickly.”
Food, Inc. is a powerful, startling indictment of industrial food production, revealing truths about what we eat, how it’s produced, who we have become as a nation and where we are going from here.
“Eric Schlosser and I had been wanting to do a documentary version of his book Fast Food Nation, says director Kenner, “and, for one reason or another, it didn’t happen. By the time Food, Inc. started to come together, we realized that most of the food in the supermarket had become industrialized just like fast food. Then we realized there’s something going on out there that supersedes foods. Our rights are being denied in ways that I had never imagined. And it was scary and shocking.
“But things can change in this country,” he adds. “It changed against the big tobacco companies. We have to influence the government and readjust these scales back into the interests of the consumer. We did it before, and we can do it again.”
Food, Inc. is a production of Participant Media and River Road Entertainment, distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
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