Food, Inc.: Food-related crimes against humanity

Last Monday I went out at 21:30 to party.

—Almost. Last Monday I went out at 21:30 to see Food, Inc., as an assignment for class. I probably would have gone out to see it anyway, but I like the incentive (particularly because I have yet to see the latest Star Trek or Harry Potter films (Shame on me, I know.)). If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably should. Here’s the trailer:

From the moment I bought my ticket, I was set to disagree with Food, Inc. I expected another documentary with some steadfast, exaggerated yet vaguely literal thesis that of course involved the end of the world as we know it. We’d go through interviews, statistics, and creepy music to prove some radical fault of ours—and we’d always put the enemy on the spot. Because, of course, there is always an enemy. I’m pretty sure I expected Religulous, but with more food and less atheism. Or maybe Supersize Me, but please with less vomiting. Either way, I was sure to be convinced of some terrible thing that—Goodness, why aren’t we doing anything about this atrocity? I really ought to tell you, and you, and my neighbor and his dog, and maybe hand out pamphlets.

Food, Inc., starts out by abasing modern farming. Like everything else in our modern world, food production has become a one-size-fits-all industry. Farms are now “factories,” complete with “assembly lines” of farmers who are now “slave[s] to the company.” “This isn’t farming, this is mass production.” And the goal of farming, like the goal of any mass production, is to “produce a lot of food, on a little land, at an affordable price.” And, to top it all off, there’s even a “curtain between us and where food comes from.”

The one part of Food, Inc., that really disgusted me—even more so than dead cows—was the us-versus-them mentality, the dramatization of an issue that, while it may be important, is not quite so one-sided. “They don’t want this story told”… “they’re gaining control”… “deliberately hidden from us”… “control the entire system”… “food companies this powerful”… “the industry doesn’t want you to know the truth”… Don’t get me wrong—I’m not exactly a proponent of the current system. But I generally don’t find arguments revolving around UFOs or conspiracy theories very credible, either.

Sure, pesticides are bad. But what about the stuff they’re getting rid of? Aflatoxins, for example, are some of the most potent carcinogens known. They are produced naturally by mold growing on peanuts and grains. Thank goodness, there are pesticides that kill this mold. I don’t know about you, but I like my peanut butter cancer-free.

I spent a big chuck of the film wondering how we’re supposed to feed a growing population if we revert back to the old Ma-and-Pa picture of farming, that traditional agrarian lifestyle that we advertise but, according to Food, Inc., no longer follow. “The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.” That’s true, but a lot more than food has changed. A few thousand years ago your worldview was limited to how far you could walk, or maybe how far you were willing to ride your donkey. Trains are only a few centuries old; telephones, about a century; computers, a few decades. The sad truth is that our population is nearing seven billion, but our Earth and our resources are not growing along with it. Food, Inc., says that our nation’s corn production has increased tenfold this past century, and that we’re demanding on average 200 pounds of meat per person per year. How should we die—diabetes and pesticides, or starvation? It seems like there’s no way out.

Luckily for all of us, Food, Inc, eventually addressed this point. (I felt a pang of recognition when our English textbook said, “You’ve no doubt had the experience of mentally saying to a writer in the course of your reading, ‘Yeah, but what about this other idea?’—only to have the writer address precisely this objection.”) We learn that not only is the current system riddled with toxicity, it’s also inefficient. And, thank goodness, local, organic farms are actually more efficient. This was the turning point in the movie, for me. If we can feed our population better than we do now, and make better food while we’re at it, why on Earth aren’t we? Maybe we don’t have to pick a poison.

Food, Inc., ended by lauding the capitalist system it initially blamed for the industrialization of food production. The capitalist economy revolves around an interaction between supply and demand in which, much in the spirit of democracy, we the people are ultimately in charge of what’s on the shelves. “When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we’re voting.” And so we end with a spirited call to action. We must “vote” for a better system by eating healthier foods! We can defeat the conspiracy! We can “lift the veil”! Hoorah, there is hope!

While I couldn’t say, “That was gross. I will never eat again,” like one lady who saw the film before me, I did leave with a short-lived determination to eat even more Stonyfield yogurt and blog about the ingredient list of every food product in Wal-Mart.

While I walked out of the theater determined to drastically change my life, I realized a few minutes later that there really isn’t much to change. Having grown up in a Russian immigrant family, I’m used to home-cooked foods with minimum factory processing. I rarely eat out because I’m not used to American food. Not to mention that because I’m not used to American food, I’m conveniently allergic to some preservative or artificially added vitamin in Hot Pockets, Oreos, frozen pizza, sugary cereals, and those small oatmeal packages with candy dinosaur eggs. Sure, “the modern supermarket has on average 47,000 products,” but I can’t eat 94% (That’s an estimate.) of them without turning red.

We avoid processed foods. We stick to organic fruits and veggies, even when they’re more expensive. We buy organic meat when it’s sold. We go to the local farmers’ market every week. And we’re proud supporters of Meyer Dairy, a local family-run dairy farm where we buy the skim milk that comprises about half of my diet; and of Stonyfield plain, nonfat, organic yogurt which comprises the other half (not quite, but we do eat several quarts a week).

My family has also always been acutely aware of the dangers of eating things that our ancestors weren’t used to eating. Yellow 5, for example, a food coloring used in cotton candy, Mountain Dew, Doritos, Nachos, chewing gum, corn flakes, honey, noodles, and many other products, has been found to generate behavioral problems. Yellow 5 is synthetic, and is not found in nature. Unlike foods which the human body has adapted to over many generations, Yellow 5 is not a tried-and-true food. Actually, I wouldn’t call Yellow 5 a food at all.

Not only bizarre chemicals, but also our everyday ingredients can harm us if consumed in outlandish quantities. For thousands of years, the human body has adapted to a lifestyle with a lot less food and a lot more exercise than we’re getting today. I have overweight friends who complain about how some chemical is making them fat, all as they sip their third soda of the day. A 12-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew has 47 grams of sugar. When my family buys white sugar we buy the big 2,268-gram package that can usually last us the winter. If you drink three 12-ounce bottles of Mountain Dew a day, you’re essentially going through that entire package of sugar, by yourself, in two weeks—from soda alone. Not everything can be blamed on corporations. A lot of our biggest mistakes happen right at home.

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~ by science cow on August 31, 2009.

4 Responses to “Food, Inc.: Food-related crimes against humanity”

  1. I am inclined to agree with your overall disappointment in Food, Inc. It’s presentation coupled with it’s lack of supporting evidence (the plural of anecdote is not data), made it unbearable to watch and actually made me laugh at points. I think though that you must take into account their reasoning behind this. The first consideration of any piece of rhetoric is audience. The movie had the overwhelming charge of appealing to the entire American and Canadian public, an audience of unfathomable diversity and questionable enmity. An us-vs-them mentality is necessary in cases where you presume your audience to be hostile and can easily force them into a small concession, which the film was required at times to do. In this particular case, it used the dialect of the most friendly audience (which is at times ambiguous) in order to maintain that particular connection. If we are part of a population that considers a war on terror valid, I think some credence must be put into the movies excessively emotional approach.

    You came very close to my greatest problem with the movie: that it did not include, in its statement of the problem, the American consumerist mindset. “We are what we eat” is the cliche. While Food, Inc. did say that what we are eating is terrible for us, it did not say why or what could be done to resolve the issue, but rather focussed on where the food is coming from. This oversight was delivered, once again, with hopes against demonizing their audience. No one wants to hear why they are unhealthy. We need someone to blame. Food, Inc. successfully pins the food industry as a scape goat.

    I maintain that this was a clever, if backhanded, idea, and that it was necessary to the message of the movie as a whole. For my own part, the movie was disgusting (not because of the cow guts; I found those fascinating).

    ~astex

    • Unlike you, I am not awesome enough to respond to comments within a minute (or even a day) of receiving them. I’ll work on that. Anyways, here goes:

      You’re probably right about the necessity of an us-vs-them mentality and avoiding potentially offensive truths. Hopefully there will be a movie, someday, that will at least whisper those. But at least Food, Inc., gets the point across without scaring away too much of its audience, and the drama seems to wind down after the beginning so it’s not too awful.

      I hope the food industry was more than just a scapegoat, though, since it was the movie’s primary focus. Though the problems with our habits is more significant, there are also problems with the industry.

      You’re wrong, however, in saying I was overall disappointed. While I do not agree with everything in Food, Inc., it was a good movie as far as the-world-is-ending documentaries go. The music was good, the filming was good, the special effects were good (and that’s all we care about, judging by the latest James Bond movie). Not an amazing movie like Little Miss Sunshine or Everything’s Illuminated, but it was okay.

      The cow guts reminded me of dissecting cats. (That’s not a bad thing.)

    • By the way (I know I mentioned this in class, but I’ll say it again for emphasis) you are awesome and thank you for leaving such a thorough comment. ❤

  2. I thought your response to the movie itself was very thoughtful and well-written, but what caught my attention the most was when you added personal information into it. After you say, “I’m not used to American food,” I became very curious to know how long you or your family have been in the United States. I’m almost fascinated by the fact that you have avoided assimilation into the American food industry so successfully! My main topic to discuss, however, would have to be – how do you advise COLLEGE students to change to the lifestyle that you already live, that helps fight the “Food Industry?” As I am writing this, I am eating oreos and tostitos chips – both very dependent upon corn products. Why? Because they are cheap and come in large quantities! I am in college, and as so many college students will attest to, money is tight. I don’t have the option of homecooking because I live a little bit over two hours away. I rely upon the university food facilities and “snacks” for my energy. With this in mind, in your opinion, how do I do my part to fight the food industry?

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