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9 Feb 2010

Film Review: ‘Food Inc.’

food_incAt this year’s Soil Association conference I was chatting with Mike Small of the Fife Diet in Scotland.  He told a story about how a film crew from Sky News came up to Fife to do a news story about their work.  While they were filming, Mike chatted to the director and asked him what was the angle on the story.  “Well”, said the director, “it’s about a community eating local food”.  “Amazing to think that that’s now seen as news!” said Mike.  Of course, now such a thing is news, so bizarrely distorted has our food system (and our media, but that’s another story) become.  Unfortunately the sprawling monster that actually now feeds most of us isn’t news, but only because it is so well hidden, something that the excellent new film ‘Food Inc’ tries to change. Robert Kenner’s new film has already been nominated for an Oscar and described as being ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ about food.  The praise the film has recieved is very much justified. It is both ruthless and compassionate, investigative and poignant.  It prises away the screens that keep the system that manages to provide us with cheap food hidden, and lays it bare for all to see. No-one ever assumed that industrial farming was going to be pretty, but few realise how ugly it has become. As Eric Schlosser says in the film, “the food industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating, because if you knew you might know want to eat it”.

‘Food Inc’  is like suspecting that you might have a tiny patch of dry rot in the loft, and going up to find the whole roof about to collapse. ‘Out of sight and out of mind’  has clearly not been a good way to interact with our food system.   The years of rather enjoying £1.99 chickens and cheap burgers have allowed a food system to become entrenched that is corrupt, violent, about as short-term in its thinking as it is possible to get, and which has left us in a shockingly unresilient state at a time when a resilient food system is really what we need.

The film’s two main protagonists are Eric Schlosser (author of ‘Fast Food Nation’) and Michael Pollan (author of ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’).  Both are powerful and compelling presences on screen, and they hold the different stories told by the film together beautifully.  Among the tales told are how McDonalds became the giant it is today, how corn is now in virtually all convenience foods, how beef is now raised, never seeing even a blade of grass, the miserable life that is the lot of a chicken today and how GM is taking over US agriculture at a pace.  Many of these things will not be new to Transition Culture readers, but the thing that stayed in my mind the longest was the story of the man who is the last guy in his area with a seed cleaning machine.  Basically, if you want to save your seed and reuse them the following year, you need to have them ‘cleaned’ with this guy’s machine.  Monsanto don’t like people saving seeds, and if you reuse their seeds, it is illegal.

And here’s where it gets really grim.  If you grow non-GM soya, and your neighbours grow GM soya, and their GM soya cross pollinate with yours, they become the intellectual property of Monsanto.  Rather than you being able to sue them for polluting your soya which is what would happen in a right-thinking world, you are expected to treat your seeds as their intellectual property.  The film follows the seed cleaning guy through his court case brought by Monsanto, who claim he is aiding people to break their patent.  It is heart breaking, watching the treatment he gets as he is bullied out of his livelihood.

‘Food Inc.’ is very much a film about the US food system.  Watching it sat in the UK is somewhat similar to watching the ‘The End of Suburbia’; first you think “what a mad place!”, then you start transferring it to the UK, and find that much of it still applies.  For many UK viewers though, I think their response by the end of the film will be to think “well its not like that here”.  Of course some things aren’t like the US; the huge cattle lots, the broadscale GM, the Monsanto private detective harassing farmers on their own property, but many things are like that already.  Think of the huge poultry farms, the squalid practices that led to BSE, the less savoury practices of the meat processing industry, the fact that GM corn from the US now appears in many convenience foods we eat here, as well as in non-organic animal feed.  It would be too easy to say “it’s not like that here”.  In some ways it already is, and in others, the film acts as a stark warning of what’s to come if we allow the intensification and industrialisation of agriculture to continue.

What elevates ‘Food Inc.’ above just being a rant about industrial farming is when it tells the other side of the story.  You hear from the farmers as to why they farm in such a way, you meet a Hispanic family struggling to feed themselves on a very small budget and who, in spite of the resultant ill-health, still see a nightly trip for burgers and fries at 99c a head as the only way they can afford to fill their bellies.  It becomes clear that this is only a short term investment, as in the long term, the father’s healthcare bills look set to far exceed what they have saved on food.  The point is well made; this is a food system in which we all lose, farmers, consumers, the soils we should be building for future generations, those working in the food processing industry.  It is not a happy system.  Those who win are usually shareholders and captains of industry, situated as they are at some considerable distance from the reality on the ground of what industrial agriculture is doing to people.

From a Transition perspective, it is interesting to muse on the insights the film offers about resilience.  What we see in ‘Food Inc.’ is a food system designed to extract the maximum profit and the maximum efficiency on the uphill side of the energy mountain.  It is a food system designed for just-in-time, yet only made possible by the huge amount of things that are not paid for, most notably the cheap oil that makes it all possible.  So it works now, while liquid fuels are still cheap, but will fail spectacularly in a world of volatile fuel prices and shortages, and the growth of this system has been accompanied by the dismantling of the more localised agriculture system that existed before.  What has been offered in the name of efficiency is highly vulnerable, greatly lacking in resilience and adaptability.

Ultimately though, this is a hopeful film.  Yes the food system is extremely powerful, but as the film says, so was the tobacco industry.  The movement of local, organic, unprocessed food continues to grow.  As one farmer interviewed in the film says “people have got to start demanding good wholesome food from us and we’ll deliver, I promise you”.  ‘Food Inc.’ lays bare the fact that our food system, the most basic thing for a society to get right, has been hijacked, and is making us and the planet very, very sick.  Hopefully this passionate, inspiring and powerful film will play a key role in the scaling back and replacing of industrial agriculture.  Highly recommended.

Here’s the trailer;

The film premiered in the UK last night in London, and is being shown in selected cinemas across the UK. Following that, it will be available for community screenings, I’ll keep you posted on that.

Categories: General

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This post was mentioned on Twitter by newforestfood: RT @robintransition: My review of #FoodInc. Well worth checking out, passionate, inspiring, informative, angry….

Chris Rowland
9 Feb 10:41am

For those interested in local woodland and crafts a friend of mine call Guy Mallinson sent me the following:

BBC Mastercrafts with Monty Don
The new TV series ‘Mastercrafts’, which includes an episode filmed in the Woodland Workshop, hits the screens on the 12th February at 9pm.

Chris Rowland
9 Feb 10:50am

You are what you eat! out soon.

I was at a ‘Forum for the Future’ seminar about ‘Prosperity Without Grouth’ last night given by Tim Jackson. Very relevant to the way in which we manufacture products and at the same time strive to reduce labour rather than increase employment!

For those interested in local woodland and crafts a friend of mine call Guy Mallinson sent me the following:

BBC Mastercrafts with Monty Don
The new TV series ‘Mastercrafts’, which includes an episode filmed in the Woodland Workshop, hits the screens on the 12th February at 9pm.

Peter Bralesford
9 Feb 2:44pm

“The movement of local, organic, unprocessed food continues to grow.”

As it should do.

The industrialisation of agriculture is one of the worst facets of a poorly designed and laissez-faire economic and political system. I fail to see how this particular form of capitalism can possibly do any good for most of the population of the planet. China’s brand of communism has many of the same problems.

My take on the situation is a sort of hybrid between modern capitalism, localism, and classical marxism, wich I call “Microcommunism”.

The gist of it is that it gives local communities a great deal of power over their collective land and wealth, while still maintaining a strong sense of freedom, and maintaining a working democratic system that does not favour the rich and powerful.

I haven’t finished it yet, but I soon will have.

Dave Dann
9 Feb 11:16pm

Chris: for woodlands and crafts I recommend

Peter: here’s a form of ‘microcommunism’

9 Feb 11:29pm

Great reviwe Rob thanks. I also enjoyed the film, which covers a lot of the material in Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”- even paying a visit to Joe Salatin’s farm- but the film didnt really give much of an insight into how Salatin’s farm actually worked, with its intricate rotation of cows and chickens and grasses, which seems a missed opportunity as that was the best part of the book I thought.
For more on the same topic from a European perspective you might be interested in “Our Daily Bread”.

10 Feb 2:39am

It is absolutely astounding, really, that this film makes no mention of the many reasons why Americans simply need to consume less meat. Not a pure vegan diet, just a reduction from say 10 oz per capita daily of beef, chicken, pork, lamb, veal, and poultry to somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-4 oz daily (the Totnes food study level, right?) Less milk and cream, fewer eggs, and a lot less cheese would also help Americans lose weight, reduce chronic disease, and have more spending money for fresh fruits and vegetables. And more land for things like trees.

But what do the U.S. foodie luminaries in this film do? They glorify grass-fed beef and free-range chicken consumption, giving Salatin all the time he needs to show us how he feeds his cattle and slaughters his chickens (interesting they didn’t reverse that). For some reason, they can’t take even a few minutes to show us the John Jeavons side of the story, for example, or sell plant-based nutrition to that part of the film’s market that is presumably ready to look into the benefits of this alternative.

I hate to disagree, Rob, but while they certainly get some things right, on the whole I think Schlosser and Pollan are totally out to lunch. As I detail in this post, I don’t think their plan for grass-fed cattle is something that scales up well in the United States, let alone in more densely populated regions of the world.

10 Feb 3:31am

I really should be quick to add that if the above comment has an angry troll sound to it, I hope the reader will not take that as in any way directed at Rob or Transition. And it’s not really directed at Schlosser or Pollan, despite the appearance of my bad pun to the contrary. There is an overarching lack of scientific perspective in my country that is conformity masquerading as resistance to a perceived extremism that is in fact the center. The irony can be difficult hold sometimes.

James Samuel
10 Feb 9:04am

I never thought of the UK as reflecting such madness as is shown in this horrifying film – until I read “Not on the Label” by Felicity Lawrence – a writer for The Guardian and about the UK food system. If you want some insights it’s worth a look.

Mark Watson
10 Feb 1:25pm

Felicity Lawrence’s follow-up to “Not On The Label”, “Eat Your Heart Out – why the food business is bad for the planet and your health”, is also excellent.

Ted Howard
14 Feb 10:37am

Hi Rob
I didn’t really learn anything new, and like Graham would have liked to have seen more of the Polyface Farm system explained and reviewed.

To me, what was really sad, was the lack of collective/community responce. The US chicken farmers were being pushed to the wall, one at a time, picked off quietly, with no collective to fight the big corporate raiders. Same with the other farmers. Same with the meat workers, while the so-called union delegate stood by and wrung his hands and complied with the bosses over the daily quotas sent back to Mexico… There was no explanation of why those Mexicans were there, how they’d been pushed off their land, or even had it stolen from under them by corrupt government and the same food corporates!

The lack of political and collective organising against the evil corporate food system virtually guarantees business-as-usual and culture-as-usual, until this society (so-called ‘civilisation’) hits the wall.

Organising local neighbourhoods and communities to reverse this by supporting small local producers is a great way forward, and the TT movement could quietly push for the needed resistance movement to the global corporate take over, or at the very least support all attempts at resistance to the dominant insane culture we now wake up to find ourselves in.

If Permaculture is “a revolution disguised as gardening,” then TT could be the social version of it for towns and communities…I say could be…

But the need for urgency is great, time is short, and the 6th Mass Extinction is telling us, change now, or join the dieoff.

Welcome to the cultural crisis, where tipping points into The Great Unravelling may be the only way to push the sleepy consumer hords into re-owning their responsibilities as citizens and members of local communities.

Maybe check out Carolyn Baker’s book “Sacred Demise”.


Nelson, NZ