Food, Inc. Gets Rave Reviews, Big Ag Shudders

Today, Food, Inc. debuts, with more cities to follow in the coming weeks, and almost every major media outlet has weighed in: it is certainly not a film to miss, it offers a view into the food system you’ve never seen before, and you will leave the theater changed.

Big Ag realizes that the tide is turning on the corporate control of our food system, and that their message is in jeopardy. This is why most of the corporations and corporately supported groups from Monsanto to the National Chicken Council (now tainted in light of the newly-released CDC report about chicken as contamination’s numero uno) have created special sections of their websites dedicated to the film, in an attempt to mislead the public on the facts Food, Inc. is bringing to light for the first time.

Unfortunately agribusiness has chosen to try and turn the message on its head with falsehoods. Jill Richardson did a good job refuting some of these claims here.

One of the most seething attacks from Big Ag argues that Food, Inc. “demonizes family farmers,” to which Farm Aid, an organization that has been supporting family farmers for 23 years, has replied:

Food, Inc. is an indictment of the industrial system of agriculture and the policy that promotes it, putting many family farmers out of business, compromising rural communities, degrading soil, air and water, and creating a public health epidemic. Troy Roush, an Indiana corn farmer, said in the film, “People have got to start demanding good, wholesome food of us and we’ll deliver, I promise you.” That’s the epitome of the American family farmer: innovative, creative, adaptable. It’s not to say that every farmer is going to start growing vegetables and selling direct to consumers… that doesn’t represent the entirety of our agricultural system. But our food system is more nuanced than the dichotomies like ‘commodities versus local food’ or ‘conventional versus organic.’ The main point is there are better policies that can reward methods that benefit our farmers, our planet and our health. And if there’s a market for that food, family farmers stand ready to meet the demand.

The second claim many of these agribusiness interests are making is that the film somehow reinforces that the sustainable food movement is elitist. It is time to lay this one to rest, Big Ag, for right now it has never been more obvious that the system we have in place is a two-tiered system in which the poor are forced to eat fast food at their peril; where some corporate bottom line is more important than the right of all people to eat healthy food. That is elitist.

So why is Big Ag shuddering in light of Food, Inc.’s reception by the media? Because Big Ag benefits from the status quo. With mass awareness about the current realities of the inner workings of our food system comes public outrage, and with public outrage comes regulation and thus a minimized corporate profits. So what is the government going to do about a public who is aware of the realities of our food system, conditions that are making us sick?

Here is hoping that the eye-opening that ensues from this film will roll into policy decisions.

Already in Washington we have legislation in the works like the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which is the biggest reform of food safety since 1938. It’s a start. There is also the Waxman-Markey Climate Change bill, in which agriculture is largely left out, but agribusiness is trying to use to its favor. We know that agriculture, and especially Big Ag contribute heavily to climate change and should thus play a role in this bill. But according to Tom Philpott’s article, linked above:

If the ag giants get their way, they could seriously compromise the legislation’s ability to mitigate climate change… To move in that direction would require a tremendous shift in practices, [director of the School of the Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University, Rattan] Lal told me in an interview: a move to farming that explicitly seeks to build organic matter in soil. That means reduced tillage, extensive cover cropping, and “as much manure and compost as possible.”

Changing the way we view our relationship to the soil, however, requires us to get off our addiction to biotechnology. What Monsanto and other companies are proposing we “feed the world” is more potentially e. coli-ridden meat, cheap calories like high fructose corn syrup, and some feed for our cars: ethanol. That is what they are producing, not the leafy greens and grains we are told are so good for us. Yet we support these claims out of some unyielding dedication to technology as our big fix. Even the recently passed Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act slipped a cool 7.7 billion dollars that could be focused on research in genetically modified crops in to Big Ag coffers. (More here from the Ethicurean’s Elanor Starmer). But we have yet to see the yield increase, nor has it been explained how Monsanto and others propose to increase said yields. So what does all this portend for our future legislation around agriculture?

Yesterday on the Huffington Post, Secretary Hillary Clinton weighed in on government strategies around hunger. One of her head advisers, Nina Federoff, is a well-known proponent of genetically modified food as a means of dealing with the food crisis, so one wonders if by “quality seeds” Secretary Clinton is hinting at GMOs.

It is my hope that the administration consider the following when making international development policy in Africa and elsewhere: it would be irresponsible, when yields have yet to be proven to increase here at home, and when farmers from the first Green Revolution in India are committing suicide over unmanageable debts and a depleted water table, and six countries in Europe have banned GMOs from their fields, to impose a policy built on such shaky ground.

Let’s hope that Secretary Clinton and others in the administration see Food, Inc. (Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack already has, but has yet to comment) and get a broader image of our food system to draw on.

When Michael Pollan was recently asked whether this was a “pivotal time for food” in a Newsweek interview about the film, he responded:

I do. I think we are reaching a tipping point, to use a cliché. This is one of the most interesting social movements afoot right now. The politicians haven’t quite recognized it yet. There are a very small handful who realize that there are votes in these issues. Hopefully this movie will be part of the change. We are realizing that the way we are eating is making us sick. The phrase “health-care crisis” is in large part another term for the catastrophe of the American diet. More than half the money we spend on health care goes to treat preventable diseases linked to diet.

Agribusiness has continuously blocked the labeling of genetically modified meat and other food, because they argue that too much information is a bad thing. After Food, Inc., hopefully consumers will be empowered to fight back for the information they deserve to know about their food.

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