At this year’s Soil Association conference I was chatting with Mike Small of the Fife Diet in Scotland. He told a story about how a film crew from Sky News came up to Fife to do a news story about their work. While they were filming, Mike chatted to the director and asked him what was the angle on the story. “Well”, said the director, “it’s about a community eating local food”. “Amazing to think that that’s now seen as news!” said Mike. Of course, now such a thing is news, so bizarrely distorted has our food system (and our media, but that’s another story) become. Unfortunately the sprawling monster that actually now feeds most of us isn’t news, but only because it is so well hidden, something that the excellent new film ‘Food Inc’ tries to change. Robert Kenner’s new film has already been nominated for an Oscar and described as being ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ about food. The praise the film has recieved is very much justified. It is both ruthless and compassionate, investigative and poignant. It prises away the screens that keep the system that manages to provide us with cheap food hidden, and lays it bare for all to see. No-one ever assumed that industrial farming was going to be pretty, but few realise how ugly it has become. As Eric Schlosser says in the film, “the food industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating, because if you knew you might know want to eat it”.
‘Food Inc’ is like suspecting that you might have a tiny patch of dry rot in the loft, and going up to find the whole roof about to collapse. ‘Out of sight and out of mind’ has clearly not been a good way to interact with our food system. The years of rather enjoying £1.99 chickens and cheap burgers have allowed a food system to become entrenched that is corrupt, violent, about as short-term in its thinking as it is possible to get, and which has left us in a shockingly unresilient state at a time when a resilient food system is really what we need.
The film’s two main protagonists are Eric Schlosser (author of ‘Fast Food Nation’) and Michael Pollan (author of ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’). Both are powerful and compelling presences on screen, and they hold the different stories told by the film together beautifully. Among the tales told are how McDonalds became the giant it is today, how corn is now in virtually all convenience foods, how beef is now raised, never seeing even a blade of grass, the miserable life that is the lot of a chicken today and how GM is taking over US agriculture at a pace. Many of these things will not be new to Transition Culture readers, but the thing that stayed in my mind the longest was the story of the man who is the last guy in his area with a seed cleaning machine. Basically, if you want to save your seed and reuse them the following year, you need to have them ‘cleaned’ with this guy’s machine. Monsanto don’t like people saving seeds, and if you reuse their seeds, it is illegal.
And here’s where it gets really grim. If you grow non-GM soya, and your neighbours grow GM soya, and their GM soya cross pollinate with yours, they become the intellectual property of Monsanto. Rather than you being able to sue them for polluting your soya which is what would happen in a right-thinking world, you are expected to treat your seeds as their intellectual property. The film follows the seed cleaning guy through his court case brought by Monsanto, who claim he is aiding people to break their patent. It is heart breaking, watching the treatment he gets as he is bullied out of his livelihood.
‘Food Inc.’ is very much a film about the US food system. Watching it sat in the UK is somewhat similar to watching the ‘The End of Suburbia’; first you think “what a mad place!”, then you start transferring it to the UK, and find that much of it still applies. For many UK viewers though, I think their response by the end of the film will be to think “well its not like that here”. Of course some things aren’t like the US; the huge cattle lots, the broadscale GM, the Monsanto private detective harassing farmers on their own property, but many things are like that already. Think of the huge poultry farms, the squalid practices that led to BSE, the less savoury practices of the meat processing industry, the fact that GM corn from the US now appears in many convenience foods we eat here, as well as in non-organic animal feed. It would be too easy to say “it’s not like that here”. In some ways it already is, and in others, the film acts as a stark warning of what’s to come if we allow the intensification and industrialisation of agriculture to continue.
What elevates ‘Food Inc.’ above just being a rant about industrial farming is when it tells the other side of the story. You hear from the farmers as to why they farm in such a way, you meet a Hispanic family struggling to feed themselves on a very small budget and who, in spite of the resultant ill-health, still see a nightly trip for burgers and fries at 99c a head as the only way they can afford to fill their bellies. It becomes clear that this is only a short term investment, as in the long term, the father’s healthcare bills look set to far exceed what they have saved on food. The point is well made; this is a food system in which we all lose, farmers, consumers, the soils we should be building for future generations, those working in the food processing industry. It is not a happy system. Those who win are usually shareholders and captains of industry, situated as they are at some considerable distance from the reality on the ground of what industrial agriculture is doing to people.
From a Transition perspective, it is interesting to muse on the insights the film offers about resilience. What we see in ‘Food Inc.’ is a food system designed to extract the maximum profit and the maximum efficiency on the uphill side of the energy mountain. It is a food system designed for just-in-time, yet only made possible by the huge amount of things that are not paid for, most notably the cheap oil that makes it all possible. So it works now, while liquid fuels are still cheap, but will fail spectacularly in a world of volatile fuel prices and shortages, and the growth of this system has been accompanied by the dismantling of the more localised agriculture system that existed before. What has been offered in the name of efficiency is highly vulnerable, greatly lacking in resilience and adaptability.
Ultimately though, this is a hopeful film. Yes the food system is extremely powerful, but as the film says, so was the tobacco industry. The movement of local, organic, unprocessed food continues to grow. As one farmer interviewed in the film says “people have got to start demanding good wholesome food from us and we’ll deliver, I promise you”. ‘Food Inc.’ lays bare the fact that our food system, the most basic thing for a society to get right, has been hijacked, and is making us and the planet very, very sick. Hopefully this passionate, inspiring and powerful film will play a key role in the scaling back and replacing of industrial agriculture. Highly recommended.
The film premiered in the UK last night in London, and is being shown in selected cinemas across the UK. Following that, it will be available for community screenings, I’ll keep you posted on that.