Monday, August 3, 2009

I Don't Ever Want to Eat Again: Review of Food, Inc.

I went to see Food, Inc. last night at the Historic Normal Theater. I suspected the movie would be good based upon what I've heard so far and seen in the trailers and interview clips; I didn't have an inkling how powerful it would be.

I'm disappointed that the movie isn't showing in more theaters. It was only a three-day engagement at this theater, the only theater in the area that has carried the documentary so far. I'm not sure whether it is only showing in select theaters because that's how the movie makers wanted to release it, or because those are the only theaters who are interested. If the former, shame on the movie makers, who should want to get this documentary in front of every consumer in the nation. If the latter, shame on the theaters--this movie would gather quite an audience after a mere showing or two.

I was pleased that, in keeping with the theme of the documentary, the theater served locally grown organic popcorn, donated by The Common Ground Natural Food Store, and Pepsi Throwback, which is made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup but, unfortunately, only a limited-time product.

I was also heartened to see that a significant portion of the audience was composed of college-age students; the remaining audience members ranged from mid-30s to 70s, with one mother bring along two young boys, approximately 5- and 6-years-old. I could hear them asking her questions throughout the film, but unfortunately, couldn't make out the questions they were asking, nor her whispered responses.

Now, on to the movie: O.M.G.

The overriding theme of this documentary, narrated primarily by Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, is that the food industry is deliberately keeping consumers in the dark about where their food comes from and how it is processed. And based upon the information provided in the documentary, I can see why--our food system is definitely FUBAR, and I use the term food very loosely here. As one of the narrators notes, most of the ingredients in our food today is really only "cleverly rearranged corn"; even non-food items such as batteries and diapers are connected to corn. The movie showed a list of ingredients and additives that often appear in our processed foods that are corn-derived. The list disappeared faster than I could write, so visit the article "Corn Aliases: How the King Crop Hides in Everything You Eat" for a list of the most common corn-derived additives and compare to your pantry's canned and boxed goods' ingredient labels.

The scenes depicting industrialized animal farms--which the narrators indicate should truly be called factories rather than farms--are deeply disturbing. A not-dead-but-clearly-ill cow is moved around by a forklift; chicken catchers kick chickens toward the crates; chickens are manhandled on assembly lines like mechanical parts; cows stand knee-deep in their own manure (which, by the way, gets into our food), and chicken carcasses are buried in a compost pile. The animals shown were packed so closely that in many cases, they could barely move except to extend their necks a little bit to reach food or water. According to the film, these animals are fed mixes of animal parts (including feces), corn silage, and chicken litter. The chickens, as one chicken farmer indicates, never even see the light--they are kept completely in the dark. He tells viewers that today's chickens are designed to grow in 49 days (instead of nearly 3 months); this overly quick growth has serious consequences for the chicken, says another chicken farmer, whose bones and organs cannot keep up with the growth, and many of the birds can only take a step or two before collapsing. Is it any wonder that disease is rampant among these animals?

To offset the diseases and to speed animal growth, the animals are fed a regular diet of antibiotics and other antimicrobials. In fact, as the Food, Inc.: Participant Guide discusses that about 80% of today's antimicrobials used are used on these animals; only about 20% are actually used for human health. Unfortunately, this rampant use of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance, creating superbug E. coli and other diseases; in fact, one chicken farmer indicates that she is now allergic to all antibiotics as a result of being exposed to so many of them. As consumers ingest the meat that was administered these antibiotics, resistance develops to the antibiotics currently used to fight off diseases in humans.

Another discussion taken up in the movie is the impact of industrialized farming on the environment. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms discusses how industrialized farming has moved away from natural cycles. As he speaks, he nonchalantly guts a chicken that the audience has just seen bled and beheaded. He talks about the killing and processing of the chicken as an intimate activity for the local organic farmer who processes his own meat as opposed to the distant, objective, mechanized kind of processing that occurs in an industrialized setting. Salatin clearly cares about his product, and points out that if a farmer loses his focus, he will end up viewing his animals differently, his clients differently and ultimately, the consumer differently--which Salatin sees as a bad thing. It was disturbing to see the chicken killed; and yet, as the movie points out in the opening, the industrialized producers of the food we buy package food that looks far removed from its origins. For example, Schlosser points out that today's meat often has no bones and doesn't look like the animal it comes from. Such distancing makes it easy for the consumer to give no thought to how the animal the meat is derived from was treated.

The movie also discusses the condition of farm workers, pointing out that our government has often turned a blind eye to immigrants entering the country illegally because they make up a large percentage of our farm workers. (The Participant Guide discusses in greater detail just how this happens and how farm workers are subject to different labor laws than workers in most other fields.) The movie explains that now that the country is on "immigrant alert," the government makes a show of arresting and deporting a certain number of illegal immigrant farm workers each day without actually conducting any serious full-fledged immigration raids. Additionally, because many farm workers are in the country illegally, they are abused by the industry, subject to dangerous--and in some cases, lethal--heat and pesticides; the EPA, which regulates pesticide use on farms, has acknowledged the problem and yet has done nothing to solve it. The Participant Guide goes into greater detail of the problems encountered by farm workers, painting a very bleak picture. And yet, do we as consumers ever really give a thought to the workers who process our food?

Another theme addressed in the film is the idea that a multinational corporation like Monsanto can now own life; as an example, the film mentions that Monsanto has patented its Roundup-Ready soybeans and thus has complete control of the distribution and sale of this product. What this means for farmers, according to the documentary, is that they can no longer save their own seeds and must buy seeds from Monsanto each year. If a farmer is found to have saved seeds that carry Monsanto's Roundup-ready genetic trait, whether deliberately or accidentally (cross-breeding can occur between one farmer's crops and his neighbor's), the farmer can be sued by the company. (For more information about Monsanto's past, take a look at this material from the documentary The World According to Monsanto by filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin. The clip runs about 6 minutes and 43 seconds.) Food, Inc. shows a seed cleaner--an individual who goes to farms and, using a seed-cleaning machine, separates a farmer's seeds from other material so the seeds can be replanted the next year. The seed cleaner interviewed in the documentary is sued by Monsanto for essentially encouraging farmers to save Monsanto genetically altered soybean seeds. Lest the reader think this is an unusual case, think again: according to an article at, author Linn Cohen-Cole indicates that

Monsanto is picking off seed cleaners across the Midwest. In Pilot Grove, Missouri, in Indiana (Maurice Parr), and now in southern Illinois (Steve Hixon). And they are using US marshals and state troopers and county police to show up in three cars to serve the poor farmers who had used Hixon as their seed cleaner, telling them that he or their neighbors turned them in, so across that 6 county areas, no one talking to neighbors and people are living in fear and those farming communities are falling apart from the suspicion Monsanto sowed. Hixon’s office got broken into and he thinks someone put a GPS tracking device on his equipment and that’s how Monsanto found between 200-400 customers in very scattered and remote areas, and threatened them all and destroyed his business within 2 days.

An implication in the documentary is that consumers should perhaps be questioning the motives of such practices, which can be easily construed as intimidating. Should multinational corporations such as Monsanto be allowed to patent and control our food? The film leaves the implied question in viewers' hands.

There is so much more to this movie, and frankly, one viewing isn't enough. If you get the opportunity to see this documentary, please go see it. And then let's have a conversation about it.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

You've sold me on it. I am gonna have to take my dad. He took me to see "Who Killed the Electric Car" so I guess it's my turn to treat him.

We've started raising our own food to get away from all of the "crap" the stuff at the store is laced with. I have been able to tell a huge difference since we've cut back on the processed foods.

I am in the process of seeking admission to a PhD program in Plant Science to focus on sustainable vegetable production. I'd like to say that is doing my part, but really, what can I do?

Spread the word, and educate the masses - that's my best answer.