"The industry doesn't want you to know the truth about what you are eating, because if you knew you might not want to eat it " - Food, Inc.
I recently headed out to a sold-out showing of the documentary Food, Inc. at Austin's own Alamo Drafthouse. Generally, getting dinner and drinks along with my movie is my favorite "night out" activity, but in watching a film which critically examines our industrial food system, it was a bit strange. Granted, all around me I heard orders for veggie burgers and the local organic veggie platter, and there wasn't a high fructose corn syrup soda to be seen, but I was glad to have finished my (veggie) burger by the time the previews ended. Although I have sought to inform myself about the injustices in our modern food system, Food, Inc. presents the most comprehensive and disturbing summary of that system I have seen yet. It is a necessary film for basically anyone who eats food.
A film which took three years to make with a large part of its budget going to pay the legal fees defending itself against lawsuits from the industrial food companies, Food, Inc. takes a hard look at how corporations now control the production of our food, resulting in generally unhealthy, environmentally hazardous, and completely unsustainable food that in truth threatens the very well-being of our country. From the animals that are confined in inhumane cages, left to stand in their own mire, fed unnatural diets and cocktails of drugs and hormones to the impoverished workers who are treated with the same disrespect, this system has sacrificed the respect and well-being of living creatures and people for the sake of profit. But Food Inc. doesn't just stop with detailing those atrocities; it delves into the problems with government subsidies and the ways the fearmongering enforcement of genetically modified food copyrights are destroying the small farmer. People are being hurt by this industrial food system that dumps chemicals into our environment with reckless abandon and produces unnatural and unhealthy food for our consumption.
I appreciated though how Food, Inc. didn't simply present the issues with industrial food as a clear cut, good vs. evil scenario. It acknowledged that poor workers have no choice but to take jobs on the factory farms, and that farmers have no choice but to give into the pressure to work with the huge industries. Those industries have so altered our nation's laws, and have so many lawyers working for them, that any farmer who resists joining their ranks finds themselves out of work at best, and sued penniless for simply encouraging people to not buy the big company's products. The farmers and workers are desperate for a better system where real freedom and healthy standards exist, but for now they have to work with what they've got.
Food, Inc. also explores why for the average working class family in America, buying healthy food isn't an option. It is far cheaper to buy the cheeseburger from the drive-thru dollar menu than it is to buy fruit or vegetables. That is because everything in that cheeseburger comes from corn, which our government subsidizes so much that farmers can sell it below the cost of production. So the poor American eats the extremely unhealthy food because it is cheaper. But the rising epidemic of type 2 diabetes shows the hidden cost of that value meal. The poor in our country -- those with no health or job insurance -- are getting sick at alarming rates due to the unhealthy, cheap food they eat. This is injustice of the highest extreme -- but it's all part of our industrial food system. It's a complicated system that gives us unhealthy, unsustainable food that disrespects the earth, animals, and people all in the name of making the greatest profit for a handful of corporations. This is the story of the food we eat every day.
But in truth, I have a lot of friends who don't want to know anything about their food. They shelter their kids from knowing the whole "circle of life" stuff, but also tell me point blank that they don't want to know the story behind their food. In their mind, what they don't know won't hurt them. Unfortunately, as Food Inc. shows, that isn't always the case. I wasn't expecting this film to be a tear-jerker, but hearing a mom talk about how her toddler son ate a hamburger and was dead in 12 days had me weeping. This mom was the typical middle-American Republican mom on vacation, but the hamburger they bought their son on the way home was tainted with E. coli 0157:H7, a deadly antibiotic resistant bacteria common in factory farmed cows. These cows, fed unnatural diets of corn, develop diseases (like E. coli) and are treated regularly with antibiotics, which leads to drug-resistant strains like this one. This mom has become the unlikely activist for food safety. The meat company who sent out the tainted meat knew it was tainted and didn't issue a recall until two weeks after her son was dead. As she puts it, all she wants is an apology from the company and a guarantee that they are doing everything possible to prevent it from ever happening again. Instead she finds the companies fighting for more lax food safety laws and herself under threat of a lawsuit under the "veggie libel" laws for discouraging people to buy meat products. Yeah, look up these laws -- express fears about the safety of your food and you could be sued for causing these companies loss of revenue. So much for free speech, much less safe food. It's hard to know the truth if you are not allowed to talk about it.
But for all the doom and gloom that Food, Inc. rightly covers, I was grateful that it didn't end the story there. Instead of throwing up its arms and admitting defeat or even insisting that we all go join some intentional community/hippie commune immediately, Food, Inc. details the practical ways we can start changing the system from within. It profiles the organic dairy farmers who although they had boycotted Wal-Mart all their lives, were now selling their product to them. Some may call them sell-outs, and they are under no illusion that Wal-Mart jumped on the organic bandwagon out of the goodness of their hearts, but to get a store with a distribution as huge as Wal-Mart's means significant amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics are kept from polluting our ecosystem. That's a really big deal, and one of the main reason to buy organic. Working within the system, even if it is with Wal-Mart, makes progress happen faster and on a much larger scale. Similarly, the movie concludes with the reminder that we can each make a difference every time we go to the store. The point isn't to abandon the food system, or stop buying food, but to simply demand healthier, sustainable food. We can choose to vote with our pocketbooks for the type of food we want to support. Do we want to support the food that oppresses animals, workers, and the environment or the food that does its best to care for all those things? We have that choice; we just have to be willing to make it.
Food, Inc. opens across the U.S. during summer 2009. Check the Food, Inc. Web site to see if it is playing near you.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.