Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Food, Inc.

By Elise Nakhnikian

Food, Inc. ought to come with a warning label: This movie may change your life.

Michael Pollan, one of the main talking heads and sources for this brisk documentary, changed mine 10 years ago. His vivid, detailed descriptions of the mechanistic, inhumane, and ecologically unsound ways in which we raise, slaughter, and process cows and chickens made a vegetarian of me after the New York Times Magazine published excerpts from The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Much as I love movies, they are not my favorite way to get this kind of information. I’d rather absorb the facts in depth than watch the highlights, especially when some of those border on torture porn, animal-style. And I prefer movies that are more subtle or entertaining than Food, Inc., whose title cards and well-polished speeches feel at times like a Power Point lecture by a tag team of college professors.

Granted, these are the kinds of professors I would have loved to have had in college. Pollan and Eric Schlossberg, the film’s other principal source, are investigative reporters with a mission. Both are gifted at illuminating industrial processes and the political systems behind them. They’re also great at explaining what’s wrong with our food chain in a clear, compelling way that makes you want to do something about it. Food, Inc. is studded with memorable statistics, quotes, stories, and guest lecturers, like Joel Salatin of the idyllic-looking Polyface Farms, whose rap about the need to go back to agricultural basics has been honed to a fine edge.

Like any adaptation, though, Food, Inc. has to leave a lot out. And though its streamlined running time feels right – you can only sit so long in a lecture hall – just over 90 minutes isn’t much to cover the nine meaty issues the film touches on.

Director Robert Kenner and editor Kim Roberts rarely take time to explain anything in depth. They don’t even always stop to explain why something matters in the first place. We’re never really told, for instance, why Stonyfield yogurt, whose self-satisfied owner gets a lot of air time, is better for us or for the environment than any of its competitors.

We never hear why we should fear the genetically modified foods the film warns against, either, though it would have been easy enough to have listed the suspected risks. But we do get a good look at the dark cloud spread over the American family farm by Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans.

One of the more poignant stories in Food, Inc. is that of Moe Parr, a mild-mannered man who made a modest living cleaning seeds for farmers, so they could plant what they salvaged from last year’s plants rather than investing in a whole field’s worth at the start of each season. Farmers have been doing this for generations – Parr’s seed-cleaning machine was over 100 years old – but Monsanto forbade the practice, asserting that planting seeds would be property theft, since the compay owns the patent on the seed strain. The conglomerate went on the warpath, blacklisting many of Parr’s customers (and lifelong friends) and suing him until he ran out of money, driving him out of work.

That lawsuit could never have happened, the movie points out, if the U.S. Supreme Court had not made it legal to patent life forms in the 1980s. That’s a connection the movie keeps making, as it weaves in two closely intertwined threads: the power of a handful of conglomerates over what we eat and how our government helps them amass that power.

Perhaps the main culprit is the federal subsidy of corn, which has made it the nation’s most popular crop. Artificially cheap corn has changed what we consume, as manufacturers find ways to use this adaptable plant in everything from peanut butter to diapers – not to mention the high fructose corn syrup that sweetens far too much of what we eat and drink. Most of our foods, the movie says, are just “a clever rearrangement of corn.”

Subsidized corn makes fast food like sodas, chips, and hamburgers much cheaper than fruits and vegetables, making it impossible for low-income families to eat well and difficult for everyone to resist snacking on empty calories. And that leads straight to our skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes.

But I’m beginning to sound like a professor myself.

If you want to know more about how we’re choking ourselves with our own fouled-up food chain, I’d recommend reading Pollan’s and Schlossberg’s books. But if you just want the Cliff Notes version, go see Food, Inc. Maybe it will whet your appetite to learn more – or to rage against the machine.

1 comment:

  1. I was also struck by the scene in which a family of four were torn between eating the healthier, but more expensive food as opposed to the much cheaper and unhealthy junk food...a sad commentary on what families living on or close to minimum wage often produces.