what i'm watching: food, inc.

We watched "Food, Inc." last night, Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser's documentary based on ideas popularized by Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma) and the local food movement. I was skeptical that a 90-minute film could faithfully explore enough of these issues, but I was very impressed with the outcome. If you haven't seen Food, Inc., I highly recommend it. I think I'll add it to our small film collection, along with the companion book, so I can lend it out to interested folks.

I've written several times about Michael Pollan, and my own efforts to change our buying and eating habits. (See the "food issues" category.) We made a complicated and expensive switch to eating only locally-produced meat products. But more recently we haven't been able to continue that, because we simply can't afford it.

Then last night, watching footage of chickens, pigs and cows trapped in factory farms, I thought, that's it, I'll go back to being a vegetarian rather than be complicit in this exploitation. I need to remove myself from this system, just like we removed ourselves from the US war machine. I can't go back. We'll eat the more expensive, locally-produced meat, we'll just eat it less.

I woke up in the middle of night thinking about chickens, pigs and cows. This is not a voice I can ignore.

"Food, Inc." has a slightly different accent than Omnivore's Dilemma. Where Pollan focuses more on the connection between the industrial food chain and environmental destruction, Food, Inc. focuses more on the connection between exploited animals and exploited workers. All three are intimately intertwined, of course (and Pollan, Schlosser and Kenner all make that clear), but Food, Inc. puts a sharp emphasis on labour.

We see the deplorable conditions that industrial food workers endure as a reflection of the deplorable conditions the animals suffer for their entire lives. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm - the hero of Omnivore's Dilemma - says (paraphrased), "A company that treats the earth and food and animals with contempt and disdain, in turn has disdain for the people of the community, and further, disdain for other peoples in the community of nations." Thus we see the connection between the stewardship of our planet, our health, our labour - and peace.

It was great to see Salatin - to see what he looks like and hear him speak. Although I know he and I would disagree on many issues, he is a true radical, living his ideals and blazing a righteous trail. I admire him so much. (And I want eggs from his farm!)

The connection between the industrial food chain and exploited labour is more direct than you might think. After NAFTA, cheap (government subsidized) US corn flooded Mexican markets, and thousands of Mexican traditional corn farmers were ruined. Meat packing companies then went to Mexico to recruit workers, bringing busloads of undocumented workers into the country. Obviously this could only happen by arrangement with governmental authorities.

In an excellent segment with a Latino labour organizer (another hero), we see how the anti-immigrant political climate plays out in this world. Smithfield workers who have been toiling under horrendous conditions for 10, 15 years, are arrested and hauled off like criminals. But there are no large-scale raids. A dozen or so workers are taken away each week - scapegoating the workers, but leaving the company's production untouched. Also obviously by prior arrangement.

The workers are used up and thrown back, not unlike the animals. The producers under contract to Tyson and Smithfield don't fare much better. Deeply in debt and slaves to the company's production methods, they are little more than sharecroppers. A producer who speaks out because she can no longer live with the horror of her job - and refuses to take the next step in the ever-worsening conditions for the chickens - soon has her contract cancelled.

And if you think it's "only" chickens and unskilled workers I'm crying for, watch this film, and tell me you want to eat chickens raised this way.

Four or five giant corporations control the entire industrial food chain - and not one of them consented to an interview for this movie.

The film includes some very dark, scary segments about the power these companies have over people's lives - investigating, harassing, threatening and suing farmers for practices farmers have used for generations. Monsanto, Cargill and ADM are suing ordinary people for speaking, but working to re-write laws so they cannot be sued. These giants can invest unlimited resources in a lawsuit against an ordinary farmer, who will exhaust all his savings and credit before he even gets to court. All it takes is one or two such examples to terrorize an entire community into silence.

And how can this happen? Because of the revolving door between industry and the so-called regulatory system - which is no longer a regulatory system at all, but an inside-government track for industry. This isn't a Republican or Democrat issue. It began under Reagan and the first Bush, didn't miss a beat under Clinton, and naturally continues to this day.

Meanwhile, a woman who lost a child to E. coli poisoning - in meat that was recalled only days later - has since become a food safety advocate. She says, "All we wanted was the company to say, 'We produced this defective food that killed your son, and we're sorry.' That's all we wanted. And they couldn't give that to us." "Kevin's Law" still has not been passed.

Do you know why there is E. coli in the food system? (Read Omnivore's Dilemma.) Cows are meant to eat grass. But cows who eat corn get fatter faster, so forced corn feeding allows more beef to produced. And guess what, there just happens to be a mountain - a mountain range - of surplus corn, thanks to US government subsidies.

Cows that live in feed lots eating corn are beset by a host of problems, one of which is that they stand up to their shins in manure all day. By the time they get to the killing floor, they are covered in shit.

Rather than fix the cause of the problem, and feed the cows their natural diet of grass, the industry shoots them full of antibiotics (which live on in the food chain, leading to antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli), then douses the beef with ammonia.

The beef from Joel Salatin's farm is never contaminated by E. coli. It is never treated with ammonia. No one gets sick from eating it. Workers don't get sick processing it. And in my estimation, cows don't suffer during their lifetimes. They live like cows.

At the end of Food, Inc., Michael Pollan says, We need to spend more money for food. But many people simply can't do that, and that's why we need change at the policy level. So that carrots are a better deal than chips.

He evokes the battle over tobacco as a model for how consumers, activists and legislators can force an an industry to change.

Meanwhile, I have to go back to Beretta Farms. For me, it's the only way.

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