Food, Inc.: The Silence of the Yams

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Robbie Kenner didn't mean to make a horror film when he started working on Food, Inc.. But you can't shine a light on our food chain without exposing some ugly truths. As Michael Pollan says in the opening of Food, Inc.:

The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000, but the image that's used to sell the food...you go into the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers. The picket fence and the silo and the 1930s farmhouse and the green grass. The reality is, it's not a farm, it's a factory.

Whether we're ready to have that pastoral veneer peeled away is the question. Pollan and his fellow investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, the Fast Food Nation author who co-produced Food, Inc., with Kenner, are determined to fling open the doors to those rank, cavernous CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and force us to confront the nasty consequences of our addiction to cheap processed convenience foods.

America the Beautiful? Um, not so much, these days. Let's do an inventory:

Amber waves of grain: sure, we've still got 'em. But the corn we subsidize now isn't even edible. It's only good for three things:

1. Fattening up cows--although, as Food Inc. reveals, their digestive tracts aren't equipped to digest corn, so it makes them sick and creates a breeding ground for the potentially lethal E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria, which sickened 73,000 people in the U.S. in 2007.

Do statistics like that make your eyes glaze over? Food, Inc. will make you weep at the story of Kevin Kowalcyk, a healthy, beautiful two and a half year-old boy who died after eating a hamburger contaminated with E.coli. The tragedy turned his mother Barbara into a food safety advocate lobbying to give the USDA the power to crack down on producers of tainted meat, with a bill named after her son. After seven years of lobbying, "Kevin's Law" has yet to pass.

2. Fattening us up on HFCS-filled soda and processed convenience foods, which makes us sick. One in three Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes, as Food, Inc. points out--unless you're a minority, in which case, the rate will be one in two.

And who knows what all those GMOs (genetically modified organisms) lurking in 70% of our processed foods are doing to our bodies and our environment? Not to mention the pesticides, bisphenol A and phlalates that permeate our food chain. Studies suggest these contaminants may be linked to dozens of diseases.

3. Ethanol, the bogus alternative fuel that's more boondoggle than boon. Not only is it not a solution to our energy needs, it may actually be worse than gas when it comes to global warming. And speaking of our energy-intenstive way of life...

Purple mountain majesties: If our mountains are purple these days, it's 'cause they've been bruised and battered by mountaintop mining removal, a practice which entails blasting the tops off mountains and dumping the resulting rubble into creeks and streams. Jim Hightower calls the mountaintop mining removal that's destroying the Appalachians "ecocide,...the total annihilation of a priceless ecosystem that is older than the Himalayas."

We could do an awful lot to conserve energy if we shifted to a diet dominated by local, seasonal produce, and bypassed factory farm animal products in favor of grass-fed meat and poultry from farmers like Food, Inc.'s Joel Salatin, the wry, quotable contrarian who's become the poster boy for sustainable agriculture. Such a change would dramatically reduce the amount of fossil fuels we use to grow and transport our food. But that would require agricultural policies that actually encouraged American farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables, and less feed corn, which brings us to...

The fruited plain: The USDA tells us to consume five to nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables even as it marginalizes the farmers who grow these so-called "specialty crops". The fruit and vegetable farmers aren't powerful enough to buy themselves favorable legislation, as the corn and livestock lobbyists do. Michael Pollan calls it "the silence of the yams," and until the USDA decides to put our money where it keeps telling us to put our mouths, you'll be able to get four burgers for the price of one salad at McDonalds.

With all the resources it takes to produce a pound of beef, shouldn't a salad cost less than a burger? Not to mention the hidden costs of industrial livestock production, like the contamination of our waterways from...

Sea to shining sea: excess fertilizer runoff feeds the algae blooms that create dead zones along our shores and dull our oceans' gleam, along with all that discarded plastic from our disposable consumer culture. There's so much junk floating around in the ocean now that it's impeding the search for the remains of Air France Flight 447.

We've been heading down this polluted path for decades. George Carlin provided us with his own satirical ode to catastrophic consumption back in 1972:

Oh beautiful, for smoggy skies, insecticided grain

For strip-mined mountain's majesty above the asphalt plain.

America, America, man sheds his waste on thee

And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea!

Maybe we're finally ready to change course, 37 years later. Food, Inc. exposes the dark side of the American diet in a compelling--and surprisingly entertaining--way. Will you lose your appetite for factory farmed foods after you've seen it? I hope so. But its stated goal is to leave you "hungry for change," the kind of change that's transforming the way we think about how--and where--our food is grown.

Yes, Food, Inc. is a horror story, of sorts, but it's no scarier than the tall tales that Agribiz and Big Food have been spinning in their efforts to ensnare you in their monoculture myths of efficiency, convenience and affordability. They'd have you believe that the folks behind Food, Inc. are technology-hating luddites and arugula-eating elitists who want the world to subsist on wormy apples.

They'd also love it if you'd take their word for it that their methods of farming are super sustainable. And our food supply's plenty safe, thank you very much. More frequent inspections and stringent regulations? That will just drive up the price of food.

But as Food, Inc. clearly shows, industrial agriculture's cutting corners in some lethal and inhumane ways, and our cheap food supply is poisoning Americans on a scale that Al Qaeda could only dream of.

It's all well and good to espouse shopping at farmers markets and growing our own food wherever possible. We can also demand better from our corporations and our government. But the fact remains that fruits and vegetables are unavailable--or unaffordable--to many low-income Americans.

Industrial agriculture's got the cheap part down. Sustainable agriculture's got the fresh, healthy part of the equation covered. The burning question we need to ask was raised by Grist blogger Tom Laskawy in a recent email to some colleagues pondering this issue of access: Do all Americans have the right to affordable, fresh, healthy food?

Big Ag and Big Food insist that their food chain is doing a perfectly swell job of meeting all our needs. Oh, beautiful, for specious lies. Food, Inc.'s implied answer to Laskawy's question is yes, we all have that right, but we'll have to fight for it.

Industrial agriculture's got

Industrial agriculture's got the cheap part down. Sustainable agriculture's got the fresh, healthy part of the equation covered. The burning question we need to ask was raised by Grist blogger Tom Laskawy in a recent email to some colleagues pondering this issue of access: Do all Americans have the right to affordable, fresh, healthy food?