It’s been a day and a half since I’ve seen this movie, but I didn’t review it Saturday morning because we went tubing all day yesterday (and boy are my arms tired!). But I’d be falling down on my blogger duties if I didn’t review this movie for you, because I think that this is going to be an important documentary. Or it should be, anyway. Even if you’ve read the two books it’s basically based on—Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma—you should see this movie, and more importantly, you should bring someone who has not read those books. As they demonstrate in short part in the movie, people educating themselves and making different choices about their food does make a difference. And let’s face it, even if you’ve read about our fucked up food industry and intellectually understand the ramifications, there’s an emotional impact to seeing the various ways real human beings are hurt by the system.
And I mean human beings. Taking off the political pragmatism of the two books that Food, Inc. is based off, the focus is mostly on the human costs, even though the temptation is often to focus strongly on how animals suffer tremendously from CAFOs and breeding techniques that make their short lives even more miserable. Animal suffering isn’t completely ignored, but it’s not dwelt upon at the expense of looking at human suffering. You don’t need extensive shots of chickens falling over because they’re breasts are too big for their bodies or the horror of live animals being tossed around brutally by machinery (including bulldozers) to get the picture—the brief use of these images is plenty, and unforgettable.
But what was so effective in this movie is that the cruelty to animals is put in the larger context of how the system fucks everyone, animal or human, for the almighty dollar. When you see cows being pushed around by bulldozers or chicks being marked and flung into a chute as if these were apples being sorted, you have to wonder what kind of toll it takes on the people who have to dispense that kind of cruelty to keep their jobs. Actually, you don’t have to wonder at all, since one farmer they speak to who is sick of it talks about the emotional toll that raising a bunch of mutant, miserable chickens takes on her. To make it worse, she basically makes no money, because the meat companies are forever requiring their producers to upgrade their equipment (not to make the meat healthier or to reduce cruelty, but to grow more faster and cheaper), which requires the producers to take out a bunch of loans that they pretty much never can pay back. This constant debt cycle keeps producers beholden to companies like Tyson, and so even if they wanted to use healthier, more humane practices, they can’t.
The focus for a lot of people who are concerned about the unethical food industry is on the consumer side—how is our food making us sick? And sometimes that focus ignores the labor abuses that drive the food industry, and what this movie really excelled at was showing how the food industry’s mistreatment of workers is entangled with the food safety issues and trade/pricing issues. You see, for instance, how corn subsidies in the U.S. drove a lot of Mexican corn farmers out of business, and how then many of them move to the U.S. to work illegally in meat packing plants, and how the plants “give” the U.S. government a dozen or so immigrants a week to deport in exchange for the government looking the other way on their hiring practices. So the same thing—corn subsidies—that provides Americans with escalating heart disease and diabetes problems is also the thing that creates this horrific cycle of abusie for Mexican immigrants. You also see how the big agriculture corporations act like they’re a tyrannical government and farmers are their cowed citizens. Monsanto’s strategy of suing farmers for not using their soybean seeds is lovingly detailed. The two strategies to make use of their seeds mandatory is this—they’ll sue you if your crop is accidentally fertilized by a neighbor using Monsanto seeds, and they sue farmers who they suspect are saving and reusing seed, a money-saving strategy that Monsanto has banned, and one that’s hard to prove or disprove, so basically you have to settle even if you’re not guilty.
They attacked the consumer side of the issue, too, of course. We’re subjected to a heart-wrenching story of a woman whose young son died a horrific death (she describes him begging for forbidden water) after eating E. coli contaminated hamburger and having a massive organ shutdown. She’s now a food safety advocate, and boy do they have some hair-curling statistics about how basic food safety regulation has slipped under decades of anti-government ideology emanating from the Republican party. We’re also introduced to hard-working but poor couple with two daughters who are facing a world of health problems because they can’t afford to eat right, though they really want to. Their logic is straightforward and shows that this complicated issue is fundamentally not when people are making the basic decisions of what to eat. It’s simply cheaper in terms of time and money to feed a family of 4 on McDonald’s hamburgers than to feed them fresh fruit and vegetables served with low-fat complex carbs and lean proteins. You can know the long term costs in terms of diabetes and heart disease, but that doesn’t make the immediate problem of how to eat healthy and cheaply go away.
The producers did prioritize covering issues that have scientific evidence firmly behind them, and they largely avoided some of the more marginal and controversial issues, such as how dangerous it is to eat foods that have been treated with pesticides. (Mostly—we’re treated a humorous digression about how the problem of E. coli that could largely be solved by feeding cows grass has been tackled by the meat industry instead by washing meat with ammonia.) Heart disease and diabetes are major health problems in the U.S. because of how we eat (and our sedentary lifestyles, another issue for another documentary), and these are the focus, particularly diabetes, which has become a common problem for younger and younger people. E. coli poisoning is obviously real, and the way that E. coli is getting into people’s food isn’t especially controversial. (CAFOs creates mountains of shit that gets into water, and is used to irrigate crops like spinach, covering them with E. coli.) Kudos to the producers for making the case without opening themselves up to charges of arguing from speculation.
That said, my one quibble with the movie is that it reinforces anti-science prejudice. GMOs are listed as a point of concern without much explanation, which could lead under-educated viewers to freak out about the healthiness of “Frankenfood”, even though genetically modifying food is pretty safe and not all that different from the old-fashioned way of genetic modification, which is selective breeding. (In one case, you change the DNA by splicing, in another, you do so by applying human-based natural selection.) The main problem I have with GMOs is that they’re being used to abuse farmers—GMO seed is copyrighted mainly so that Monsanto can endlessly sue farmers for copyright violation in order to cow the entire farming community into growing how Monsanto says, which is by using Monsanto seeds that you buy fresh every year (no saving!). Or the focus of the development is fucked up—it’s a good thing to develop a plant that resists pests, making pesticide unnecessary. It’s another thing to make a plant that resists pesticide, so that you can sell more pesticide. But these distinctions are not dwelt upon, even though the specific GMO example they use is problematic, but not for health reasons, but for labor reasons. In another part of the movie, they interview a scientist about his work in developing various corn-based products, and then they imply that this is wrong because it’s “unnatural”. Nature is simply not an argument in my book. There’s specific instances, such as pointing out that feeding animals things they didn’t evolve to eat fucks them up, that makes sense. But just sweeping claims that nature is better than science drives me nuts. Give me the polio vaccine over polio any day. If we could create a fertilizer that worked as well as fossil-fuel based fertilizers, but it didn’t use up a nonrenewable resource or caused pollution, then bring it on! The problem isn’t science, but the valuing of profit over health of people or the environment. Unfortunately, the trailer really relies on this kind of panic that presumes that old is better than new, or “nature” is better than science. But in reality, they do hang onto scientifically sound arguments for their actual stories.