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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Food, Inc.

As with The Cove, fellow feature documentary Oscar nominee Food, Inc. is a call to action. But while The Cove focuses on the narrow subject of treatment of dolphins, Food, Inc.'s subject is far more reaching--the world's food supply. Despite being a far more troubling tale, relatively speaking, it's not as gripping a film as The Cove.

Directed by Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. also suffers from being a bit behind the curve, at least if you've read or are your familiar with two groundbreaking books on the subject: Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, and The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. Both of these authors serve as talking heads in the film, and they didn't tell me much I didn't already know--that we are pathetically ignorant of what is in and how our food is prepared. The pastoral notion of farming, which is prevalent in the packaging of food, is long out-dated, and that are food is grown, harvested, or manufactured as if it were any other kind of widget.

Many of the familiar themes are hit upon--the incredible ubiquity of corn (ninety percent of products in a supermarket, from diapers to Cheez-Its, have a corn byproduct in them), and in turn the wrong-headed feeding of corn to cattle (they should be eating grass) which has led to epidemics of E. coli; the evils of corporations (Tyson, Smithfield, and Monsanto get hammered here) in the way they treat their workers or contractors, and the way the factory-farming mentality has led to widespread obesity and diabetes. I was taken aback by this statistic: one in three children born after 2000 will experience early onset diabetes, and that number becomes one in two for minorities.

So what is the solution? It's tough to get too outraged when I would be hard-pressed to turn down a box of Ring Dings. One corporation that's treated levelly is Wal-Mart, who responded to consumer demand and has increased it's efforts to stock organic foods (though, as Pollan points in his book but not in the film, "organic" is a slippery definition). We learn that a hamburger is cheaper than a head of lettuce because the ingredients have been subsidized by the government, therefore encouraging the poor to eat horrible diets. All the while big agribusiness has lobbied the government to resist labeling laws or even inspections--for the last generation things have backslided toward the bad old "Jungle" days.

A short bit that really angered me, given my sensitivity to First Amendment issues, was on laws designed to keep people from criticizing the meat industry. You may remember Oprah doing a show where she said she would never eat another burger, and the cattlemen sued (they ultimately lost). A woman whose son died of E. coli, who has become an activist, was reluctant to openly criticize the beef-growers, for fear of lawsuit. Look, I'll eat a greasy burger, but I also have the right to say out loud that it's bad for me.

All of this is horrible, but it's hard to believe that things can change. A maverick organic farmer is showcased, who grows his food the good old-fashioned way, but I'm not sure I can buy that it can be done on a mass scale. Capitalism will out. Of course, it the consumer rebels and rejects Big Macs and fries, who knows?

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