Friday, August 14, 2009

Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008) (Park Lane) The basic premise of Food, Inc. is that the way that a society treats its food - plants and animals - mirrors the way that it treats its people. But that can't be true, because if it were, the film would be saying that North Americans are selfish, materialistic, gluttons who value instant gratification, a chemical high, and social isolation over true connection to and communication with each other and the world of wonders that we live in.

Oh. OK ... he may actually have something there.

The Food Factory
Food, Inc. is divided into chapters, each discussing one aspect of the highly mechanized path that food - corn, wheat, fruit, vegetable, chicken, red meat, etc - travels from the expansive factory farms of middle America to the warehouse grocery stores where Americans and Canadian shop. Kenner paints a picture of a food supply chain that has sacrificed nutrition, hygiene, and humane practices (towards workers and livestock) in favour of calories, shelf life, cost cutting, and market share.

Highly disturbing images are de rigeur as the film progresses, ranging from dark, high-density coops housing chickens that cannot even stand under the weight of their enormous breasts to the appalling conditions in which migrant workers risk their lives on slaughterhouse floors. These images do not stand alone, however, as facts and figures accompany at a frenzied rate - like many documentaries with one axe to grind, the facts come so fast and furiously that it is hard to actually "learn" anything specific. Among the scariest bits are the fact that:

  • One of every three children and one of every two minority children born after 2000 will develop type II diabetes;
  • Middle American farms portrayed on butter and pork chop packages that grace supermarket shelves have long given way to highly automated high-intensity feedlots, nation-state-sized corn fields, and genetically modified crops;
  • While five American slaughterhouses controlled 20% of the US market in the 80s, four control about 90% of that market today (not sure I remember the exact figures, that this is the idea).

Phew...and its almost lunch time.

Light on the Horizon
But Food, Inc. is not only about the lamentable state of America's current food supply. It also takes the time to visit and document the efforts of small-scale farmers and food producers who are working to counter these disturbing trends: a rootsy farmer in Virginia who is grass feeding cattle and letting chickens run free and eat worms; farmers that are engaged in life-or-death courtroom struggles to resist the advances of Monsanto and its frankencrops; and the multitude of smaller food processors that are driving and organic revolution, which even Walmart is acknowledging with its decision to provide organic produce in response to customer demand.

But for me, Walmart's shift to providing organic produce also undercuts the hope that Kenner sees in the organic revolution. The very companies that he portrays as having ripped the heart out of North America's food supply are even now co-opting the revolution: Walmart jumping on the organic bandwagon (he does not address the problematic issue of what USDA "organic" actually means) and the myriad of smaller-scale organic producers that are rapidly being bought up by the same conglomerates that he vilifies so thoroughly (Kashi, for example, is now owned by Kraft).

Unfortunately, this leads me to the point where I must note my exceptions to this overall laudable film. With the organic revolution not serving as a solidly positive note to end on, Kenner flails around a bit for a ray of light to end with. I take issue with the fact that he ultimately concludes with an inappropriate comparison between the tobacco companies and food suppliers: he argues that the "fact" that tobacco companies have been brought to heel proves that food producers can also be brought into line. In the first place, I would argue that the assumption that tobacco companies have been brought to heel is just plain mistaken (they remain highly profitable multi-national corporations peddling sickness and decay). I would further suggest that if they had been, it would still be irrelevant - when government "took on" the tobacco companies in the 80s and 90s, corporations were but a shadow of the multi-headed hydras they now are, and they were not nearly as deeply embedded into the fabric of society and the government itself (as Kenner himself points out, most government regulatory agencies are run by former executives of food conglomerates).

Not a "Fun" Film
Ultimately, Food, Inc. is a compelling film that is sure to spark debate among friends and family, but is not a film that you "enjoy" watching - however, as I have said before, respectable films usually raise issues that are pertinent and important but ultimately disturbing. In this sense, I greatly enjoyed Food, Inc. and recommend it highly - not much of what you hear will be new information, but the impact of hearing it together in a more-or-less coherent narrative is worthwhile experience.

That being said, this is not a film that needs to be seen in a theater. The full effect will be conveyed on your home theater system, and, as a bonus, you will be able to pause it and discuss individual points, and/or launch into discussion at the end instead of having to file out of the cinema and drive home while gesticulating and pontificating. Actually, I think that a student union building would be the natural setting in which to watch the film and then hold a panel discussion.

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