June 10, 2009
“We put faith in our government to protect us, and we’re not being protected at the most basic level,” strong words from a mother whose two-and-a-half-year-old son died just days after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli O157:H7. Barbara Kowalcyk’s personal fight to ensure that the food we feed our children will not endanger their health or their lives, was just one of the many powerful stories told in the soon to be released documentary Food Inc. The hard-hitting film takes a critical look at the industrial food production system and the many risks it poses on society from public health threats and environmental degradation to social injustice.
Food, Inc. begins with a brilliant opening-credits sequence which takes us through a grocery story with the names and titles creatively placed on food products and aisle placards, while Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan narrates the premise of the film. The premise, as described on Food, Inc.’s press packet:
“Food, Inc. … lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that’s hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies. Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment.”
The filmmakers achieved an almost impossible task, by compressing an incredibly complex issue into a highly produced and balanced 93-minute film. A quick disclaimer: Two years ago, during my tenure as the communications director for the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, Robert Kenner and Co-producer Elise Pearlstein asked me for research and background assistance for the film. I was impressed by their doggedness in trying to accurately and fairly portray the issues.
There is so much to say about this movie and the issues surrounding it, that it is diffuclt to keep this blog entry brief. In the upcoming few days I will focus on some key points that were somewhat new and of great interest to me.
Patenting Seeds of Discontent
The stories surrounding Monsanto and the accusations of farmer intimidation and monopolization of the nation’s crop seeds by the “agricultural company” were surprising. The movie’s press kit says 90 percent of the nation’s soybeans contain Monsanto’s patented gene designed to resist the weed killer “Roundup.” Like many seed companies, Monsanto refuses to allow its customers to save or sell its patented seeds from their harvest, forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every year. Monsanto employs a team of investigators to enforce their seed patents, and according to Food, Inc., “spends millions of dollars to investigate, intimidate and sue farmers – many of whom are financially unable to fight the corporation.” The movie claims Monsanto will pursue non-customers for patent violations even if the seeds accidentally germinate on their property. Three farmers interviewed in the movie, one in silhouette to protect his identity, described their legal battles with the corporate giant, all of whom said they were forced to settle due to astronomical legal fees. Despite the fact that Monsanto would not agree to be interviewed by the Food, Inc. producers, the company posted a website page to respond to movie’s claims.
In the coming days I will discuss: a truly eye-opening and sad portion of the film which included footage of federal agents raiding trailer homes of presumably illegal immigrants hired to work in a Smithfield meat packing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina; a series of scenes of a struggling Mexican-American couple living in California, who explained that despite the health risks the high cost of fresh foods forces them to rely on industrially produced fast and processed foods to feed themselves and their two young daughters; and the federal agriculture and food safety policies that have and continue to promote the corn based production system which the film links to many of the nation’s serious health problems including obesity and diabetes.
Fellow blogger Rebecca Klein offers some great insight on the food safety angle brought up in Food, Inc. Read her blog post here.
If you’re looking for some great reviews of the Food Inc. check out these links:
Food Inc. opens in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco on Friday.