Sunday, November 22, 2009

Food Documentaries

The documentarians have finally turned their lenses toward the food system in America. In the last five years, there have been over a dozen well distributed documentaries about our complex food industry. In 2004, two films hit the theaters addressing different portions of today's agricultural system. "The Future of Food" focused on genetically modified crops, and the power of corporations over farmers, while the film "Super Size Me" focused on the consumer end, how the nutritional content of processed foods makes people sick, which is good for the economy! In 2007, a small independent film "King Corn," focused on subsidized corn, and the empires that have been built around this virtually free (through heavy subsidies), shelf-stable commodity. This year, three more films have been released, building the momentum of consumer awareness, but how much does the audience want to see?

Food, Inc. hits the Box Office Mainstream

Of all the food related documentaries, this year's "Food, Inc." directed by Robert Kenner is the most ambitious project of it's kind to date. The film reached more theaters and had a more far-reaching message than it's predecessors. It was greatly indebted to contributors like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, whose work has made them celebrity spokespeople for food reform. When I saw the film on Labor Day (several months after it's release), the theater was still packed! Robert Kenner set out to interview the powerful companies that run America's agricultural industry, only to discover an airtight lid of secrecy and intimidation covering up the details of how and why we spend less on food, but more on health care, than any other nation on Earth.

The film starts with marketing, showing how todays large companies advertise their food products using a pastoral brand image, the farmer with a red barn and animals outside, when this is not at all the scene of the massive factories where these foods are produced. Then we move toward the chicken industry, where some of the best questions in the movie are asked. A spokesperson for the National Chicken Council describes the origin of these enormous facilities, which is to grow a lot of food on a small amount of land, at a low price. "Now can somebody tell me what's wrong with that?"

Indeed, that is the question explored throughout this film. A Kentucky chicken producer named Vince Edwards has a small part in the film. He seems like a good-ole boy, everyday American, as he describes how Tyson has the process all figured out. "If you could have a chicken in 49 days, why would you want one that takes three months?" he asks. That's a good question. What he doesn't say is that these chickens live and grow in a place so unhealthy, many of them die of suffocation or stess, and if they didn't slaughter the chickens in 49 days, they would die soon anyway. Because they've been specially bred for large breast size and rapid weight gain, they have become mutants both physically and genetically, that eventually can't even stand on their own two feet.

It is amazing what science has done for the efficiency of growing chickens. In 1935, the average chicken at the market weighed 2.8 pounds (versus 4.9 pounds today), and took 112 days to raise (instead of 49), but how do we achieve that, and at what cost? Later in the movie, we hear from Joel Salatin in Virginia. As he butchers chickens in his open air processing facility, he tells the story of how the USDA tried to close his plant because it was unsanitary. After lab analysis, Joel's chickens had 133 CFU (colony forming units), while the USDA approved processing plant had 3,600 CFU, and that was after their chlorine bath!!!

The film talks about crops like corn and soybeans. Corn is another scientific success story. Back in the early 1900's, a farm could grow 20 bushels of corn per acre. Today, a farmer expects 200 bushels, and being so heavily subsidized, we have a lot of corn to sell. It ends up being used for things God never intended. We feed corn to animals like cows and farmed fish, who need certain cocktails of antibiotics and hormones to digest this food. We convert the sugars in corn to sweeteners that the body can not process in large quantities. One of every three children born in America today will develop type 2 diabetes!

Another portion of the film talks about the exploitation of labor, focusing on the world's largest pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. This enormous facility is owned by Smithfield, butchering and processing 32,000 pigs every day!! Smithfield also operates the enormous plants in Veracruz, Mexico, where the swine flu epidemic outbreak began this year. For a closer look at how Smithfield emerged to control more pigs than its nearest eight competitors combined, read Jeff Tietz' article in Rolling Stone from 2006, entitled "Boss Hog," in which Mr. Tietz welcomes you to see the dark side of the other white meat. Food, Inc. focuses instead on the workers at these plants, many of whom are illegal immigrants, or workers shuttled from great distances to work here. The reasons are obvious. These are low wage, very dangerous jobs with high risks of illness. People simply can't work here for long.

For me, the most distressing part of the documentary is the exposition on politics. You really feel like the foxes are guarding the henhouse when you learn that many of the government agencies regulating these large companies are run by employees of the same companies they regulate. The film asks how Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice, could be objective in writing his decision to prevent farmers from saving their own seed, when prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1991, he had been a former attorney for Monsanto, who stood to gain millions of dollars by this ruling. Another Monsanto attorney, Michael Taylor, advised his company on GMO labelling before being appointed as FDA Deputy Commissioner for Policy. He now works for Monsanto again as a Vice President. These are far from isolated incidents, these companies have infiltrated every level of government. For a great article on Obama's appointments, read this.

The refreshing portion of the film doesn't take place on Capitol Hill, or Tar Heel, North Carolina. It takes place at Wal-Mart. One of the few large corporations to participate in the documentary, Wal-Mart realizes that public opinion matters. Their chief dairy purchaser decided to purchase rBGH free dairy products because the market demand was there. Gary Hirschberg tells the story of his company, Stonyfield Farm (organic yogurt), and his realization that he couldn't change the world by preaching to the choir. Wal-Mart is now one of the largest buyers of organic yogurt in America. How you spend your money may be more powerful than the vote you cast at the ballot box.

Ingredients puts roots into Local Soil

Ingredients, a well made film based here in Portland, examines the fifteen year resurgence of the farmer's market in America, and the re-establishment of direct relationships between restaurants and farms to increase the awareness and demand for quality ingredients. There are a lot of personal stories here, and the tone of this film stays refreshingly positive. Rather than scare the audience with horror stories of business-as-usual, it shows how courageous, intelligent people have overcome the obstacles of corporate economies-of-scale. There are stories from our recent past, when chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin and Alice Waters approached their farmers with new demands twenty five years ago. They wanted higher quality instead of lower price, and they were willing to pay the difference.

The film struggled a little over what to include and what material was simply too much. The food supply is an incredibly complex topic, and often hard to humanize. We have the good fortune of having a relatively healthy local agriculture. Oregon is recognized for its strong organic agriculture and farmer's markets, but even here the laws favor large scale industry that is lobbied for by a handful of powerful companies. One of the most personal themes is summed up by local chef Greg Higgins, "You can pay the farmer now, or you can pay the doctor later." As long as we have no common regulation between health and the food supply, the U.S. government and its agencies will never be able to keep the market healthy.

Let's not forget the Ocean's, though it seems everyone else has!

I saw "The End of the Line" during its opening week, the first major documentary on the depletion of the world's seafood. My girlfriend and I went to the only theater showing it in town, and we were the only two people there, a sad indication of awareness on this, the most vital front-line in the global war for resources. It was based on the book of the same title, by Charles Clover. This is the story of the globalization of fishing, and how technology that was developed since the Second World War has made the global seafood industry "a race to catch the last fish and name it's price." It is a heartbreaking indictment of wreckless capitalism across international waters and with complete disregard for legal catch limits.

The film opens with the collapse of the cod industry in Newfoundland, 1992. From there, it examines Professor Daniel Pauly's research about the decline of the global seafood catch. Most studies indicate that the complete collapse of global seafood is a mere 40 years away at our current rate of consumption. The inevitable extinction of the Atlantic bluefin tuna is another large part of the film. It covers the same material as the National Geographic special report, April 2007 "Saving the Sea's Bounty." As in their story, Mr. Clover interviews courageous whistle blowers who give their testimonies about corruption, secrecy and greed.

Some of the fishing techniques used to catch our seafood are brutally exposed. The destruction of bottom trawling, the enormous gill nets and purse seiners. "We are really too good at killing, " says biologist Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University. Unfortunately, we aren't very good at using what we kill. This picture shows a Mexican shrimp trawler dumping eighty percent of its dead by-catch back into the ocean. Only the shrimp will come to port.

Since I moved to Portland eight years ago, I wondered why the variety in the seafood market was so limited. I thought being on the west coast would bring the bounty of the Pacific Ocean within reach. I've come to learn that the leading cause is a lack of interest among consumers. Here in the Northwest, people love salmon. Most consumers are buying salmon, whether fresh or farmed, halibut and tuna. People think they are still buying local salmon, though our local habitat has been destroyed. The halibut is from Alaska, and no one cares where the tuna comes from. The price is still relatively low on Oregon's only sustainably harvested fish, black cod and albacore tuna.

In 2007, I gave an interview in Portland Monthly promoting anchovies. I always try to promote seafood that is underutilized. Education is very critical at the restaurant level, which Mr. Clover points out in both the film and the book. Throughout this year, I have struggled to buy anchovies for Park Kitchen. It is not because anchovies aren't being caught, it is because they are worth more as fish food than they are as anchovies. That is one reason why all the anchovies caught on the American coastline are sold to salmon hatcheries and tuna feeding pens in the Mediterranean and South America. If anchovies are worth $2 a pound, why sell them? They can be fed to farmed salmon and tuna which can be worth $15 per pound or $60 per pound respectively. Even though you must feed wild seafood to farmed fish, and it takes about five pounds of wild fish to get one pound of farmed fish, the market demand for these species is so high that these economies are actually possible.

Is there a Happy Ending?

Although these stories and images are often disturbing (probably because we realize that we have somehow participated, perhaps unknowingly, in a crime), this year's documentaries all point out that we have the power to change the system. However powerful the companies are, however large the system, profits can only be made when people choose to buy. As in the case of Wal-Mart and it's dairy purchasing, corporations are making decisions based on what you want to buy. McDonalds is one of the leading buyers of Marine Stewardship Council seafood, and they have increased their standards of sourcing humanely raised meats (much to the dismay of large scale American pork and beef producers, who rarely meet the standards). The FDA is even preparing to set limits on "nontherapeutic use of medically valuable antibiotics in agriculture." Seventy percent of the nation's antibiotics and related drugs are used on animals, to promote growth and prevent diseases caused by overcrowding conditions in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The Obama administration would be reversing decades of agency policy, and would change the way animals are raised for consumption.

These are decisions that come from awareness and demand for change. Secrecy helps prevent the awareness, and low cost helps prevent change. People often say that they can't afford to make responsible purchases. The truth is that the cheap alternatives are an illusion that is making very few people very rich. Responsible purchases aren't making anyone rich except perhaps Mother Earth. They reflect the real cost of food, health and happiness.

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