Yesterday, I accomplished two important tasks: I planted a small patch of long grain rice on our farm and I read Food, Inc., the companion book to the new film that is just now opening in theaters across the U.S. As a vegan organic farmer who has read just about every book out there on solving our national food crisis, I feel I can bring an informed perspective to this book review that may be of assistance to others for whom the contents of the Food, Inc. movie or book will come as an eye-opening shock. If you inhabit our planet or eat (and of course, you do) do not miss the desperately-needed message Food, Inc. is sending to you. It’s vitally important.
The Basic Premise of Food, Inc., The Book
The essays that make up the book present you with what may be a whole new view of your food and your world. Walk into the nearest supermarket and what you see there may look like food, but it’s actually more of the notion of food. Industrial agriculture and biotechnology (genetic engineering) have taken our heritage staple crops and so altered their naturalness that they have lost most of their relationship to the real foods grown on small organic farms. If you are eating conventional foods, your dinner has almost no resemblance to what your grandmother set on her table 60 years ago, despite the fact that we’re still calling the foods by the same names.
The pastoral-themed packaging of the foods most Americans eat trades on the vague idea of fresh foods being grown on old-time farms, but the reality of industrial food production couldn’t be less wholesome and industry uses legislation, marketing and intimidation to keep Americans utterly in the dark about where their food actually comes from and how it is produced. Food, Inc. breaks the code of silence and shows you the story of your food that industry never wanted you to read.
It was several months ago that I first heard about this project that would be combining the work and talents of such people as Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation.
I thought Fast Food Nation’s depiction of the rise of fast food and the brutalization of both animals and workers in the fast food industry was important, truthful and relevant. Michael Pollan’s previous work stood out to me because it answered a question I have long asked myself as to whether a modern person could see the truth of industrial food production and still go on eating meat and animal products. Though I felt sorry that Pollan’s ultimate decision was that he was prepared to kill animals himself in order to eat, I truly respected that he faced this challenge which never even occurs to most modern Americans. Pollan went to factory feedlots, killed chickens and hunted in order to eat. As a vegan, needless to say, I don’t support these choices but I absolutely do support a human getting in touch with the all-too-hidden reality of what he eats and I found Pollan’s work to be true to his own conscience and ethical journey, and very relevant to today’s world.
When I heard that these men and other thoughtful people were getting together to make a major movie about the truth of America’s food system I was, quite frankly, blown away. I could hardly believe that this story was going to be told to so many people in living color.
My own questions about ethical eating date all the way back to reading John Robbins’ seminal book Diet For A New America when I was still a child. That was the book that made me go vegan and organic some 20 years ago, but it was also the book that put a strange new distance between myself and most of the people in my day-to-day life. All of my adult life, I have spent time with, worked with and cared for friends, colleagues and family members who had no share in the dark secrets I knew about America’s industrial food base, and having never been the kind of person who wants to make others uncomfortable or alarmed, I have lived with this hurtful knowledge of the suffering of people and animals without ever being able to truly speak about it to the people who matter to me most. Food, Inc. is being delivered in the giant movie format that points to a mainstream audience rather than a fringe one and I am staggered by the thought that, simply by dint of being movie-goers, a big portion of my neighbors may all be about to take a share in the secret, sorrowful truth that has shaped so much of my personal life. In point of fact, Food, Inc. has the power to make the secret no secret any more.
I would like the people involved in the project to know how amazing this is to me. I, myself, am not a movie-goer, but I am electrifyingly aware of just how big of a step it is to take the true story of food onto the big screen. My mind has been full of the potential outcomes of this movie release since I first learned of it and I want everyone involved on the project to know that their work has made at least one American jump up and shout, HOORAY! at the top of her usually soft voice.
The Shining Parts Of The Book
All of the essays contributed to the book by such an interesting array of thoughtful authors are absolutely worth reading, but the two that delighted me the most were those written by Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin.
Pollan’s essay Why Bother? won my heart with with its mention of an issue I have often discussed with my husband but have never heard anyone else assert. Pollan asks why the term virtue has come to be an epithet of derision rather than the glowing ideal of Western World Man that it once was. Pollan writes of the overwhelming nature of climate change and the apathy it can leave us with. Why bother doing anything when it’s all so confusing and huge? Pollan suggests that we make real changes in our personal lives in a manner that will re-embrace the worth of personal virtue, and best of all, the one thing he would most like his readers to do as a virtuous and climate-healing act happens to be my personal favorite, too: plant a garden.
Did you know that America’s Victory Gardens of the 1940′s produced 40% of the produce people ate in that era? We can do this again and we can go one better by becoming consciously present to the way in which our gardens and farms connect us to the truths about being alive on Earth and needing to find something to eat. As Pollan writes:
Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another – our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to environmentalists, political action to the politician.
When we grow even part of our own food, we take back our own authority and gain a beautiful new understanding of our place in the world. I was simply overjoyed to encounter these truths in Pollan’s book and VeganReader readers will readily understand how affirming these words must have been for me. Our family has been working very hard to become as self-sufficient as we can and to re-skill ourselves in as many areas as we can so that we can be more like our ancestors who knew how to do literally everything they needed to in order to survive. By next year, we are hoping to be able to produce, on our own land, the majority of the grain crops we eat – corn and rice – in addition to our green veggies and fruits. Once we’ve got that down, we’ll be looking for a way to grow cotton so that our simple clothing needs can be seen to by ourselves. It’s the best work in the world I know of for a loving married couple to undertake together. As we feed and care for one another, with the labor of our own hearts, minds and hands, we love life more.
Pollan’s essay was exceptionally inspirational and I believe it will give many Americans a positive, actionable answer to the question, Why Bother?
Joel Salatin’s essay, Declare Your Independence, got to me in a completely different way. It made me fall back on my couch and laugh long and loud. Its irreverent, truth-telling style was incredibly funny and also, so thought-provoking.
If you have read The Ominvore’s Dilemma you will remember Joel Salatin as the rancher who has a grass-based system of meat production and who slaughters animals in the open air in front of his neighbors and customers – practices that are the polar opposite of the industrial feedlot and high-walled slaughterhouse combination that produces most of the meat on America’s tables. As a vegan, I couldn’t possibly disagree more with Joel Salatin’s homo-centric view of the rights of animals, but as an American, I found myself standing in great solidarity with Salatin’s views of simply opting out of the system in any way you can.
We’re certainly doing that here, in our own way, but Salatin’s suggestions are rather fresh and new. They include keeping chickens in your apartment for your daily eggs and breaking the absurd laws that keep food sovereignity in the hands of government agencies rather that the cleaner and more knowledgeable hands of farmers. The fact that these laws trade on the idea that factory slaughterhouse products are somehow safer than home produced ones is simply absurd. All previous generations of Americans gave, traded and sold their products to their neighbors and it’s the centralization of the food system that is the very real danger to public health – not some farmer’s wife selling pies to her church group. Honestly! But, we needn’t worry about these corrupt, self-interested laws, according to Salatin:
The secret reality is that the government is out of money and can’t hire enough bureaucrats to check up on everybody anyway. So we all need to just begin opting out and it will be like five lanes of speeders on the beltway – who do you stop?
Though my own conscience dictates that I have no right to kill or use animals to support my own life, I can’t help but see the vast environmental and public health disasters that might begin to heal if people went back to the time-honored process of buying meat and animal products from their neighbors. Salatin is absolutely right that our country’s food safety laws are targeting the wrong people (small ranchers instead of corporate ones) and I stood up and cheered for his 4 suggested steps to opting out:
- Learn to cook again
- Buy Local
- Buy what’s in season
- Plant a garden
Yes, yes, yes and yes! Salatin’s essay is just right when it comes to this and I have really enjoyed getting to learn more about this unique man as a result of Pollan’s work bringing him into the spotlight. He has something to say, he says it well and readers should take away a sense of purpose and power from reading his essay.
Criticism of the Food, Inc. Book
I have now watched several interviews with the makers of the Food, Inc. movie which detail the journey they went on trying to get agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Tyson to contribute their voices to the film to present a fair picture. The makers of the phenomenal small film, The World According To Monsanto could have warned them that secrecy is company policy with these powerful multinationals, but I would hazard a guess that Food, Inc’s creators’ story must have taken shape out of the very fact that none of these businesses would speak to them or let them see their facilities. If you set out to draft a balanced story and one whole side of that story refuses to communicate with you because keeping their business practices inside a black box makes business possible for them, that’s saying an awful lot about the nature of their work, isn’t it?
Nevertheless, I have to assume that the inclusion of Peter Pringle’s pro-biotechnology essay, Food, Science and the Challenge of World Hunger – Who Will Control The Future? in the book must have been an attempt to present an opposing view of genetic modification. It wasn’t really clear in the book that this was what Pringle’s essay was meant to achieve, but I found its contents and conclusion so discordant with most of the rest of the book that I didn’t know what else to suppose.
Pringle’s essay makes the typical biotech industry claim that the prevention of world hunger is reliant on developing new crops. This is simply not true. All countries have native crops capable of creating a balanced diet where indigenous knowledge has weathered the devestation of conquest, and where that knowledge has been lost, local people can become re-skilled at creating bio-diverse, nutritious farming environments. This is happening right now in Mexico, where farmers are rediscovering the immeasurable nutritional benefits of growing the mix of crops that provide a superior, traditional diet, rather than accepting the suicidal advice of monocropping that has been forced upon them by the modern conquest of the global trade system. Our world has literally thousands and thousands of edible plants. No new plants need to be invented. All that is needed is for local people to find the right crops, already in existence, and find a way to care for the soil. In many cases this is a huge challenge, but it is a healthy challenge with the end goal of sustainability. The end goal, by contrast, of biotechnology, is the control of the food supply of the world’s poor.
As I heard an African man describe it, and I am paraphrasing:
First, they came and took my people and made them slaves growing their crops on their foreign lands. Now they have come to my land and want me to be a slave again, growing their crops on my own land.
The ‘they’ in this case are the agribusiness giants like Monsanto and as the inventors of agent orange, DDT and rBGH, their position as the savior of our world’s hungry humanity ill befits them. World hunger is a result, not of food scarcity, but of lost knowledge and broken food distribution systems. Solutions lie right in nature to solve all this – Monsanto need not assist.
Pringle’s essay also makes the rather bizarre statement that traditional farming ruins people’s health whereas growing herbicide-dependent crops…will be healthier? I’m sorry, but as a person whose family has been irrevocably damaged by exposure to herbicides, I’ll take bending and stooping to harvest my potatoes any time.
It’s the final conclusion of Pringle’s essay that I found totally impossible to swallow, though. He suggests that the real problem with GMOs is that the genes and technology are owned by a few corporations and that the reason people are anti-GMO is because they have some vague mistrust of big corporations. His solution for the future is that we will all have free access to the tools of genetic modification and can run around the planet creating new life forms!
Does he really mean this?
If my neighbor has free access to biotechnology and can cross his grandmother’s genes with those of his cat and a dandelion, this will be a good thing? Did I read this essay wrong? I was so stunned by it, I read it twice just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood that Pringle sees the glowing future of man lying in the power of all of us to freely cause mutations to existent life forms, regardless of the fact that this could end food on earth and create a nightmare of never-before-seen species that nature never intended. What utter madness.
Just to set the record straight, nobody I know is opposed to GMOs because they are the property of corporations. That is certainly a terrifying part of the scenario because this means that they are patenting the food all creatures eat, but it is not the reason I or anyone else I know wants a global moratorium on GMOs. I’ll speak only for myself here and say that my objection to biotechnology is that it’s a gross perversion of nature’s slow and careful processes. Nature creates hybrids and indigenous man can be part of that process without offending natural law, but ‘scientists’ who are splicing cross-species genes are doing something hideous and abhorrent. Nature has reasons for not mixing the genes of a human with the genes of a plant. We don’t fully understand these reasons; we are as children in the world’s garden and we have absolutely no businesses tinkering with these basic building blocks of earthly life. The few test results of genetic modification point to mutation, sickness and death for those who consume its outputs and I, for one, don’t care who owns these demonic tools. I want them banned before they further contaminate our food supply.
While I can certainly appreciate that the creators of Food, Inc. may have wanted to present two sides to the GMO story, I could wish that they had made it clearer that this is what they were doing by including Peter Pringle’s peculiar essay. I hope that people who are just beginning to learn about food safety will not be confused by it into thinking that GMOs are anything but a curse to our world. Happily, Pringle’s essay is followed up by a far more truthful contribution by the Organic Consumers Association about the very real perils of biotechnology. OCA is one of the groups leading the fight against the contamination of our food supply and, I am proud to disclose, they have linked to several Vegan Reader articles from their website.
Other than the rather bewildering essay from Peter Pringle, there is one other area of the Food, Inc., book that doesn’t sit well with me. The book goes to considerable lengths to explain that the production of meat and animal products is our country’s top offender when it comes to ecological pollution, public health disasters and climate change. Keeping Americans in meat and milk is harming our planet more than our car driving habits. The book makes this quite clear.
However, the book then goes on to describe the apparently positive aspects of an organic dairy corporation (Stonyfield owned by Dannon) and eating cheese (recipes at the end of the book from a Kaiser doctor). Organic cows belch methane, produce vast wastes and destroy local ecology just as conventional ones do, and I fear that the inclusion of these elements significantly waters down the strong message Food, Inc. needs to make linking our consumption of animals (and certainly, processed foods) to the destruction of our environment. Yes, it’s certainly better for people not to eat diseased, antibiotic filled, hormone-stuffed meat, milk, cheese and eggs, but the real truth is that it’s the very production and consumption of these products that is causing our problems and the solution to the problems is a real change of our eating habits, period.
What Food, Inc. Does
Food, Inc. is deserved of arias and choruses of praise for turning on the light for a gigantic audience with both the movie and the book. It provides the hidden facts, starts the conversation and empowers Americans to begin making informed choices about what they are choosing to eat. Americans have been prohibited from making an informed choice about the majority of their actions because the information has been intentionally kept out of their hands. With a major movie like this, the truths are now in the open and each person who encounters Food, Inc. also encounters the classic moment of reckoning in which they confront an ethical problem and must decide within themselves how to respond. I am fervently…nay, feverishly…praying that the sky-wide distribution of these once-whispered facts will inspire more Americans to begin making ethical food choices.
What Food, Inc. Doesn’t Do
In the anecdotes about Salatin’s grass-based ranch, the story of the organic dairy corporation and the doctor’s recipes sprinkled with cheese, what is totally absent from the picture is the innate rights of animals to live their lives not in the control of human beings. To put it in a historical perspective, Food Inc., gets us to Thomas Jefferson’s literary debates about the ethics, harms and effects of the slavery system. It does not call us to stand up and view the slaves as autonomous beings with their own purposes, with the inherent birthrights of living a free life that does not have to show any profit to man whatsoever. In a word, Food, Inc. is not a vegan book and ethical people will hopefully turn to the works of authors like John Robbins to take the next moral step after they’ve gone local, forsworn GMOs, protected farm workers, opted out and started growing their own food. Food, Inc. is, as I see it, a terrific start for potentially millions of people on the path all of us in the Western World need to start walking if we are to save the very things that make our Earth a living planet.
After the election of Barack Obama, our family went around in a kind of blissful daze for a few days, hardly able to fully grasp that America, with it’s history of bigotry, had actually made the symbolically powerful gesture of electing an African-American man president. Maybe you felt like this, too, and had to pinch yourself a few times a day to be sure it wasn’t all a dream. Well, the release of the Food, Inc., movie and book is affecting me a bit like this. As I leave the farm and go into town on errands, I am looking at the people around me and wondering if they’ve seen the movie or read the book…wondering if I went up to them and asked them what they think of Monsanto, of industrial agriculture, of corn subsidies, if they might now know what I’m talking about. Might I see, at last, shared understanding in my neighbors’ eyes? It honestly never occurred to me before that I might live to see the day when this could be possible.
Food, Inc. has made this possibility exist, and I simply can’t find words to express my wonder and thanks for this. The advent of this project marks what I believe will be a great day and a turning point in the history of the Western World, and I hope that isn’t an overstatement. I hope Food, Inc. changes the world.
Please, see the movie or read the book and come back and let me know what it meant to you.
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