FILM: Shattering the Myth of 'Agrarian America'

  • by Sherazad Hamit (new york)
  • Inter Press Service

Without question, since the rise of the fast food industry in the 1930s, the race to deliver food faster, fatter, bigger and cheaper has changed the food industry dramatically.

'When McDonald's is the largest purchaser of ground beef, potatoes, pork, chicken, tomatoes, lettuce and apples, they change how [this food] is produced,' says Eric Schlosser, author of the bestseller 'Fast Food Nation' and co-narrator of the film.

This in turn impacts the price of certain foods. Instead of small local farms and a diverse range of products at the supermarket, there are a handful of companies and factories that process animals and crops to resemble foods we love.

It is in this context that director Robert Kenner and narrators Pollan and Schlosser seek to unveil the truth about 'Agrarian America', a pastoral fantasy spun by the U.S. food industry.

The explicit point of the film is that the multinational-dominated industry has evolved into a dangerous animal. It is heavily subsidised and protected by the government and yet is barely accountable to any public food safety or regulatory body.

In fact, the industry itself is largely responsible for self-policing food safety and quality standards – a Supreme Court-sanctioned freedom that has allowed it to control farmers, minimise oversight and feed the U.S. appetite while simultaneously incurring significant human and environmental costs - costs hidden from the public by droves of corporate lawyers, the film argues.

In stepwise fashion, Schlosser and Pollan take us to the corn fields of middle America. We are told that in order to understand why foods like cheeseburgers are in fact cheaper than broccoli, we need to look at the impact of corn subsidisation and technology on the industry.

Subsidies make it possible for corn to be sold cheaply to multinationals which use it as feed for animals ill-equipped by evolution to properly digest it. In the case of cattle, the result is a mutated and virulent strain of bacteria - E.coli 0157:H7 - that when shed in manure, spreads from one animal to another.

High-tech industry, Pollan maintains, has compounded these circumstances. No longer is the food industry looking to better the conditions of feeding operations. It is looking for quick fixes.

'When approximately 400 animals are slaughtered each hour, and one meat patty consists of meat from thousands of animals, the odds of contamination increase exponentially,' says Pollan.

Kenner's inside footage of putrid chicken farms and ground beef being cleansed in ammonia packs a subversive punch. For those who dismiss the food debate as an issue dwelled on by the nutritionally and socially conscious, Kenner makes clear: anyone who eats three meals, whether you eat meat or not, is at risk.

It is this consistent reality check that causes even the most apathetic viewer to question the safety of our food and the existence of adequate laws.

To that effect, perhaps the most shocking revelation is the narrow scope of authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one of the main food safety bodies. Described as 'toothless', the USDA is given the blunt end of the sword – although perhaps even its critics are too kind.

Through the tireless work of featured food safety advocate Barbara Kowalcyk, we are made to understand the true extent of its impotence owed to the slew of officials ensconced in government regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and USDA who are now working to protect their former multinational employers.

While the notion of corporate cover-ups is unsettling, even more so is the responsibility of multinationals for a system of worker-slavery at food-processing factories. Through hidden-camera footage of factory working conditions and exchanges at border crossings, we are privy to part of the real human cost of producing food cheaply, an arrangement allegedly granted tacit approval by corporate higher-ups.

The remainder of that human cost is, of course incurred by consumers. Underscoring that fact is an encounter with a working-class family from Los Angeles struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table – a family for whom the food debate is truly a luxury, a pre-occupation of the wealthy.

The family's two adolescent daughters are living proof a generational endemic – obesity - the biggest predictor of which is income-level. One in three U.S. citizens born after 2000 will have early onset diabetes. That figure jumps to one in two amongst minorities. These are staggering statistics even to those who strongly believe obesity is a crisis of personal responsibility.

We have now come full circle to the cheeseburger and the broccoli, and are reminded that there are more forces at work than one's ability to resist fast food. There is a systemic skew towards cheaper, nutritionally deficient foods in our supermarkets. It is at this point that we are cued to ponder over nutritional alternatives and a plan of action to change the status quo.

We are presented with 'organic'. In an interesting 'us' vs. 'them' framework involving Stonyfield dairies and the Walmart super-store chain, respectively, we become proponents of the organic cause. The obvious downsides, namely price and availability, are immediately squared away and we are launched into a discussion on the profitability and sustainability of organic brands.

The conclusion is that organic brands can take down the giants if consumers leverage their purchasing powers.

'It is an easy decision to support organic. If it is clear that the customer wants it, it is easy to get behind it,' says Walmart executive Tony Arioso.

After much food for thought, the documentary closes with prescriptions ranging from buying produce in season and eating organic to changing school meals and writing to political representatives.

While good in intention, the list falls short of addressing the main problem of the working class: that of getting a head of broccoli on the dinner plate in an affordable way. In lacking this dimension it falls prey to the prevailing criticism it set out to defeat: that the food debate is open only to the better-off.

What is required is a list that includes more avenues for involvement at different economic levels and a marketing strategy that goes beyond limited release viewers. Overall, 'Food, Inc' is as enjoyable as it is informative.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service