Published: 11 February 2010
by DAN CARRIER
This haunting film turns a spotlight on the state of food and farming industry today, but there is an element that director Robert Kenner’s worthy efforts are going along an already ploughed furrow.
In 1939, John Steinbeck recognised how the mechanisation of food production had devastating effects on health, workers’ livelihoods and the economy in The Grapes of Wrath, his seminal consideration of America in the 1930s.
This is a cinematic updating of his book nearly 70 years later, and the targets are the same – namely big bully companies who are mucking with the environment, enslaving farmers, and producing food of such dubious quality it is estimated that one in three Americans born after 2000 will have early onset diabetes.
The targets this film eyes up are vast. We start off with a consideration of the images we are given by food producers to convince us that the food we pick up has been grown or reared in some kind of Happy Valley-style farmyard, an agricultural utopia. Of course, this is nonsense.
Facts come flying at you in a barrage of grotesque soundbites. We learn how meat production has nothing to do with farming as you’d know it anymore and are treated to the distressing sights at what’s known as a “CAFO” – a concentrated animal feeding operation – where millions of cows are fed horrible stuff and then minced together in a factory for burgers.
We learn that the seed industry has been taken over completely by the like of GM experts Monsanto, who patent various strains of grain and persecute farmers who don’t want to use their products.
We are taken graphically through a gamut of bad practices, such as feeding cows corn instead of grass – it makes them fatter quicker, but an unpleasant side-effect is they develop the deadly e-coli in their guts.
One sequence shows a family whose two-year-old son was killed by e-coli poisoning, and are now campaigning to stop this practice – listening to the mother describe how her healthy boy quickly fell ill is awful.
Other characters include a Kentucky chicken farmer explaining how “we grow a chicken in 49 days and that’s more money in our pockets” in a wonderful Southern drawl.
But it’s not all grim: we meet a brilliant farmer in blue dungarees, a pig-nik redneck who likens our behaviour and disrespect to animals with “how we treat other people in the community of nations”.
Food, Inc. follows recent documentaries such as Black Gold, about the exploitation of coffee growers, the eco-doc Age of Stupid and fishing tale End of the Line. All have worked to highlight complicated political and economic issues in straightforward terms. This has attracted criticism, which is unfounded – what is wrong with distilling issues into powerful arguments?
While much of this may be preaching to the converted, it will only enthuse you to consider what you are buying and where.
And Food, Inc. also isn’t scared to hit the organic industry – we are shown fascinating interviews with the head of Stoneyfield, an organic dairy producer who now supplies Wal-Mart, to the chagrin of his hippie friends.