Food, Inc. reviewed by Lee Burdett, July, 2009

     In thinking about what to say in order to review this movie the typical words used to praise movies just seem awkward to apply.  I want everyone possible to see this movie. I think it has an immediate and urgent message for every person in this country.  Everyone needs to know the information presented in this move.  But it is not a pleasant message to hear. 

     Food, Inc.  is a movie that asks the question, “Exactly where does our food come from?”  The answers may surprise you.  However you may not be surprised to discover that the fast food giants started it all.  Today fast food is still the driving force behind much of what is wrong with this nation’s food chain.

     Food, Inc. tells us that McDonald’s is our country’s largest purchaser of ground beef, potatoes, pork, tomatoes and lettuce.  They say it is McDonald’s appetite for nationwide uniformity in its menu items (a hamburger purchased in Florida will taste exactly like one purchased in Oregon) that began the, frankly, frightening changes in farming.  On the surface these changes appear positive.  We are producing a lot of food on a small amount of land at an affordable price.  But the investigative reporters for Food, Inc. took a deeper look and they show us that it isn’t the small family farmer with the picturesque red barn that’s raising this food.  It is three or four multi-national companies in control of it all. It isn’t farming; it’s mass production, exactly like a factory.  The employee farmers aren’t all happy, but they’re so trapped by massive debt they can’t quit while the CEOs get richer and richer. 

    “Much of the diversity of foods we see on supermarket shelves is really not diversity at all but rather just a clever rearrangement of corn.”  This statement segues Food, Inc. into a candid look at factory farming.  We grow so much corn in the U.S. that fully 30% of our nation’s land is planted in corn.  In the previous century a corn farmer could grow about 20 lbs. of corn per acre.  Now it is 200 lbs. of corn on that same acre.  This glut of corn has led to chemists experimenting with a multitude of uses for corn.  Big companies like Cargill, A.D.M, and Tyson employ modern-day George Washington Carvers who have developed thousands upon thousands of ways to use this excess corn.  [The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is a good place to read more about this.] Their goal? To engineer foods that don’t stale. 

    Americans consume about 200 lbs of meat per person per year.  That breaks down to slightly more than a half a pound for every man, woman and child per day. This is about twice the average meat consumption for the rest of the world. In order to keep up with that enormous appetite the industrial farms feed corn to the chickens, cows, pigs and even now are teaching farmed fish to eat corn. This is despite the fact that none of these animals were created to exist, much less thrive, on this kind of diet.  It does, however, make them grow fat very quickly.  These operations are called CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – do a quick Google search on that and see what you find!).

    But there are side effects, unintended consequences if you will, of this practice.  Obvious consequences are seen in the alarming treatment of these animals who give their lives to feed us. Other consequences are less obvious. Some show up on the national news headlines in the form of food recalls due to lethal strains of E.coli that kill our children and elderly.  Others show up at the doctor’s office with Type II diabetes reaching epidemic proportions.  Even more show up in the form of families leaving their home countries recruited with the promise of steady jobs in meat packing plants only to find themselves arrested by immigration police and their families torn apart. 

    Regulatory agencies set up to protect the consumer are now run largely by former industry heads.  Giant seed companies have their special interests protected by Supreme Court justices who are also former employees.  (Soon 90% of the world’s food crop seeds will be owned, patented, by one company who legally forbids anyone from saving the seeds from their own gardens to plant again the next year.)

    Lest you think Food, Inc. is entirely doom and gloom there are definite bright spots throughout. Movie watchers are treated to stirring interviews with Polyface Farm owner Joel Salatin. (Visit their website at http://www.polyfacefarms.com ) Joel’s dedication to sustainable, pasture-based farming is a beacon of hope showing us that there is another way, an alternative to the industrial feedlots scarring our nation.  The Polyface philosophy is to show respect to the animals and healing to the land.  In stark contrast to the Tyson, Perdue, Smithfield and other industrial farms that declined any interview and fired farmers who allowed the movie cameras to film their farms, Polyface has an open door policy that allows anyone to visit anytime. “No trade secrets, no locked doors, every corner is camera-accessible” is boldly announced on their website.

    Another bright spot shows Gary Hirshberg, chairman, president and CEO of Stoneyfield Farms.  A trained biologist, Hirshberg has spent his career dedicated to organic farming practices.  His Stoneyfield Farms brand of organically produced products has become so wildly successful that they are now found in mass merchandising stores throughout the U.S.

    Food, Inc. shows retail giant Wal-Mart responding to its customers by offering more organic and sustainable choices on its store shelves. (A very funny moment in the movie comes when Wal-Mart executives travel to a dairy farm that is part of the Stoneyfield co-operative.) Wal-Mart does not do this because they want to be a model company; they do it because it is profitable.  Consumers use their purchasing power to effect change in these retail stores by making it profitable for them to make these changes.

    The success of Food, Inc. in my opinion is not going to be determined by the box office dollars it earns.  In fact they really ought to open the theaters and show it for free over and over and over until everyone in every town has viewed it.  The success of this movie will be determined by the response its viewers give through their subsequent actions.  How many people will write letters to their state and national officials demanding changes in business, farming and regulatory agency practices?  How many people will change their spending habits to favor farms and businesses that promote organic methods, humane treatment of animals and good stewardship of the earth and its resources?  How many people will look for local sources for their food choosing farmer’s markets, co-ops and Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions over national chain grocery stores?  How many people will plant a garden, even a small one?  The answers to these questions will ultimately determine the success of Food, Inc.

    What can we do right now, even without seeing the movie? (Although I wish you would just to support this kind of dissemination of information.)  We can read labels and choose foods without questionable ingredients.  We can vote with our dollars when we shop for our groceries.  We can cook and eat at home instead of relying on restaurants and convenience foods.  We can get food stamps to be accepted at farmer’s markets so that even the poorest of our citizens can have access to fresh, local food. We can write our politicians. We can spread the word.   

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