A number of people emailed me to insist that I see it. And, I wasn't too excited about it. I've still not read Pollan's books, nor have I read Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Both authors are featured prominently in this documentary film.
Here's the official website. Well, we saw the film last weekend, and, I'd wanted to get this review written and published sooner. It's the unfortunate reality, however, that it's often when I have the most to say that saying anything at all is the most difficult. That's where I find myself, and why getting this done has taken longer than I'd have liked. In the end, it's going to only slightly convey my thoughts on this, so let me just tell you up front: see this film. See it now.
The reason I wasn't too enamored of seeing it, at first, is that I figured it would mostly rub me the wrong way. I guessed it would mostly be about how "big bad business" ought to be even more tightly regulated than ever (since the mountains of regulations to which they are already subject have worked out so well, I suppose).
While one "sub-plot" of the film was indeed about this aspect of "food politics," it wasn't nearly at all the theme nor major element of the film. And, in fact, to large extent in my view, the rest of the film undercut the calls for more regulation.
I'll go a step further. The film was pretty pro-business (on "practical" rather than principled grounds, i.e., freedom and property ownership), and even so for larger corporations. One notable scene was that of a long-time environmentalist who founded an organic yogurt company and has now succeeded in getting his product into Wal-Mart. The rational was, of course, obvious to anyone who knows anything about free-market economics: 1) Wal-Mart will sell what people want to buy, and 2) to the extent that Wal-Mart displaces non-organic, unhealthful products with true organic and healthful ones, it represents a tremendous positive impact in terms of things conservationists, environmentalists, and others worry about: pesticides, chemicals, transportation footprints, etc.
Now, maybe I'm seeing what I want to see here, but this film is more an indictment of government than anything else, and rightly so. After all, how would Monsanto be able to corner the corn and soybean seed markets, if government hadn't been for sale and Monsanto came forward with the cash (various euphemisms get used, of course)? And Monsanto isn't the only one. The film makes the point, if I recall numbers correctly, that four mega-companies control over 70% of the food supply in America (in the early 70s, it was under 20%).
Now how could that be? Did they hire private armies and conquer that market share by force? No, they influenced and bought it, and in no small measure due to the important numbers of former corporate players in these firms who now hold appointments and positions all over the FDA and the USDA. And it wasn't just in the Bush administration. This goes back to Clinton and beyond.
The result is that small farmers either tow the line or face losing contracts with the big boys, and all manner of regulation and court precedent is in place to ensure that the big boys get their way. You see, big corporations love big government and they love regulation. The reason ought to be obvious. On the scale at which they operate, they enjoy economies that allow them to spread regulatory costs over sales in the billions. What's another few million in regulatory costs for them, when it represents a fraction of one cent for every unit they produce, ship, and sell? On the other hand, how many small guys will be prevented from even getting in the game when the minimum entry-level regulatory cost is in the millions per year?
I'll make this brief, because readers of this blog know the score: the "food" is crap. Virtually all of it; top to bottom and wall to wall. Even the things us paleos like to eat (meat). In one sense, it's a fabulous affirmation of the productive power of quasi-"capitalism" (genuine ownership and the freedom to produce would be even better, and small guys could play too, without artificial barriers to entry). These companies are masters at lowering their costs, passing some of those savings on to you for lower prices, and reaping some of the difference for themselves in higher profits.
Jolly, I say: for shoes and automobiles. Food? Nope, I don't think that anymore. Where in the world did we come to the place where we try to spend the least amount possible for what we ingest into our own bodies? Why do we want to go cheap for something so important?
You can see the film in order to see what is so awful and bad about virtually everything in the local supermarket. What I want to do to wrap this up is to focus in on one of my new heros: Joel Salatin. Joel is the proprietor of Polyface Farms, "the farm of many faces."
By including so much of Joel in the film, the core message becomes clear: you are responsible for what you eat, not the government, and the only real way for good and wholesome food to become ubiquitous and less costly is to get the government out of it.
But what about food safety? Here's what Bill Marler, a Seattle trial lawyer, has to say:
In 16 years of handling nearly every major food-borne illness outbreak in America, I can tell you I've never had a case where it's been linked to a farmers' market.
Let me frame it a different way. Suppose there were calls for USDA and FDA regulations for anyone who served food to their guests, in their own homes? Would that make you feel safer, or, do you suppose that it would mostly serve to keep people from serving food to guests altogether (just like the small farmers who don't want to bother)? Yet, who is best situated to judge the safety and wholesomeness of such food? Is is not you yourself, and is it not by means of having a personal relationship with those serving that food?
So, the reason small local farmers are never implicated in food-borne illness outbreaks is many faceted. First, while they are certainly earning a living, they are typically doing it through means they care a great deal about. They also have personal relationships with many of their customers. You can go to the farmers' market and talk personally to these people. They can become your friends. You can utilize the best safety system around: your own judgment. When you see hordes of people cheerfully picking through the fruits and veggies, chatting up the farmer and his workers, do you not have a far greater sense of safety and propriety than with the notion that some bureaubot in DC is looking out for you?
Well, if you don't, then that's a big part of the reason it has all come to this. Know your food. Know where it comes from. Know who's producing it.
I fist became aware of Joel Salatin a couple of years ago when someone linked to his essay, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. I recommend you read that. An excerpt:
I want to dress my beef and pork on the farm where I’ve coddled and raised it. But zoning laws prohibit slaughterhouses on agricultural land. For crying out loud, what makes more holistic sense than to put abattoirs where the animals are? But no, in the wisdom of Western disconnected thinking, abattoirs are massive centralized facilities visited daily by a steady stream of tractor trailers and illegal alien workers.
But what about dressing a couple of animals a year in the backyard? How can that be compared to a ConAgra or Tyson facility? In the eyes of the government, the two are one and the same. Every T-bone steak has to be wrapped in a half-million dollar facility so that it can be sold to your neighbor. The fact that I can do it on my own farm more cleanly, more responsibly, more humanely, more efficiently, and in a more environmentally friendly manner doesn’t matter to the government agents who walk around with big badges on their jackets and wheelbarrow-sized regulations tucked under their arms.
OK, so I take my animals and load them onto a trailer for the first time in their life to send them up the already clogged interstate to the abattoir to await their appointed hour with a shed full of animals of dubious extraction. They are dressed by people wearing long coats with deep pockets with whom I cannot even communicate. The carcasses hang in a cooler alongside others that were not similarly cared for in life. After the animals are processed, I return to the facility hoping to retrieve my meat.
When I return home to sell these delectable packages, the county zoning ordinance says that this is a manufactured product because it exited the farm and was reimported as a value-added product, thereby throwing our farm into the Wal-Mart category, another prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so you understand this, remember that an on-farm abattoir was illegal, so I took the animals to a legal abattoir, but now the selling of said products in an on-farm store is illegal.
Here, now, take a look at Joel -- and see and hear how a farm ought to operate. See and hear about the sorts of people you ought to take the time to get to know in your local area, and to support. I know I'm going to make that effort. (I recommend clicking on the HD button once the video starts.)
One of my favorite scenes in Food, Inc. is of Joel sitting in the grass with his free ranging hogs nearby, eating from a feeder.
All of those pigs tails are wagging, just like a happy dog's. You're not likely to see that in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).