Food Inc Gives Food for Thought

I decided to watch the documentary Food Inc. about two weeks ago; I was shocked by the cruelty and degradation which we show to meat producing farm animals so much so that I have decided to become a vegetarian again (well pescetarian – I was a vegetarian for a year when I was fifteen). While I do have some criticisms of the documentary, I do think it had some worthwhile things to say and that we are better off as a global society with it than without it.

The documentary is aimed at a US audience, but I think that there are certain elements which would probably hold true (or come to hold true) for many countries around the world. The premise of the film was to show how farming has changed tremendously since even fifty years ago; the process of farming and slaughtering has become large and automated, the chickens have been selectively bred to produce much more breast meat in a shorter space of time to the detriment of their health, and workers are exploited, all in the goal of producing cheap meat for the supermarket shelf. The documentary also explores the role of large corporations on public health; unhealthy food is so much cheaper than fruit and vegetables in large part because of all the subsidies it receives (corn, whose derivatives is used to produce junk food, can be bought by food manufactures below the cost of production), thereby creating food with addictive properties which fuels the rise of health complications – diabetes and heart disease among them – from such a bad diet. Needless to say the poor are among the worst affected by such policies; they also receive the added stigma of a narrative which promotes the view that their health complications are due to “choice”.

The film does acknowledge that much of these developments in agriculture have improved its efficiency so that greater numbers of people can be fed, though it maligns the by-products of such efficiency (as noted above). While I am grateful that the film criticises the practices of Monsanto without demonizing GMOs (Neil deGrasse Tyson gives a succinct reason why we shouldn’t here), I did think that it set up a false dichotomy whereby we seem forced to choose between modern agriculture as we know it (with all its bad side-effects) and organic, pastoral agriculture. I had no illusions about what a modern farm looks like, yet knowing what modern agriculture entails and seeing what it looks like are two different things. We can, and should, change how we farm and treat animals but I don’t think that necessarily means we have to bow down to the inefficiencies of organic agriculture (which, if we are talking about vested interests, must surely have some of its own). Let’s face it: economic and social realities will always mean that we will farm differently to how our ancestors did and that fact should not turn us into Luddites. Organic agriculture uses more land and has some pretty sloppy evidence despite its bold claims; for example, organic farms do use pesticides – that’s the reality of pest control – and it seems as if the “natural” ones they use are more harmful than the synthetic equivalents (read about it here).

Now, I think it was quite disingenuous for the documentary to almost solely place the blame for the bad side of farming on large corporations (especially the food manufacturers).  Modern agriculture is the result of a growing economy; searching for ways of increasing productivity is how economies grow and farming is not exempt. The terrible side-effects, including the tendency towards monopoly (why do you think we require anti-trust laws), are the products of capitalism. While I have little love for Corporations – with a capital C – I did think that the documentary overlooked these important points in its pursuit of shining a golden halo around organic farming. Sure, there were moments when it showed that many organic businesses were being bought by corporations such as Wal-Mart, it seemed to imply that the reason was because of consumer pressure rather than opportunistic hedging on the part of the corporation.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the idea of having better agriculture, I am just more cynical about how it can be done. Although I understand that the film was constrained in terms of time, nothing was mentioned about skyrocketing meat consumption (read about it here) which contributes significantly to environmental destruction and green-house gas emission. Suggesting that people should eat more organic food, including meat, would mean that far more resources are spent doing this considering that organically produced meat would, by definition, use more land. What was also lacking was any discussion about the global poor. Whilst American consumers could feasibly eat more organic produce even if it was more inefficient, the bottom billion could not. The ultimate organic (in the sense of little interference) farmer is the poor rural farmer in the developing world; poverty is a significant contributor to world hunger.

All in all, I did appreciate the documentary, and as I wrote before we are better off with it than without it. There are larger issues at work than just ‘this is wrong, we should fix it’; current democratic systems, such as the US lobbying system, favours the wealthy and the powerful while leaving the poor and voiceless at the margins of society. This reflects public policy whereby the poor are blamed for eating bad food which is cheaper than the healthy food (as mentioned before), while the lobbyists who proposed legislation which make it possible for such an outcome to take place are allowed to profit. You have to admit that is a messed up system; first, in that the US government is effectively charged twice – once in subsiding corn production (introduced to actually help Depression Era farmers) and again in footing the health care bill when people get sick – and secondly, in that the poor are criticised for contributing to government debt through sickness and disability (or even unemployment) due to a system which promotes profit over people. Such a system which tends towards nepotism (very noticeable in campaign contributions) is unlikely to be changed through public pressure on governments to alter policy as the documentary suggests.

For all its flaws, Food Inc. does allow for conversation to be started on how to improve agriculture for ourselves and our future. There are serious challenges in attempting to farm not only more efficiently in order to feed the next 9 billion people, but also more ethically (such as by eating less meat or even lab-grown meat) and in consideration of preserving what is left of the environment. Reducing these problems to essentially consumer choice not only skirts around the underlying structure of these problems but also oversimplifies the solution. Indeed, we do not want to overload the public with despair, though nor do we want to lull them into a false sense of complacency.

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