Food Inc., the documentary about how corporations have industrialized our food system, is a film every American should watch. Too bad most of them won’t, simply because this is not the kind of movie that gets wide distribution. And if you’ve read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, there’s not much in Food Inc. that will be new to you. In fact, they both play prominent roles in the film. Yet there is something powerful about seeing the written word come to life on the big screen, especially when the pictures detail the horrors of where our modern food comes from.
It’s Upton Sinclair and The Jungle all over again, except that only 90 minutes of your attention are required.
To recap: the bucolic images of red barns, happy cows and white picket fences you see on supermarket labels are a fiction. Most of our food now comes from factories where the cows are standing knee-deep in their own feces, where illegal aliens are recruited to butcher our pigs and where industrial methods provide the ideal environment for new killer strains of e-coli bacteria that take the lives of 3-year-olds foolish enough to bite into a modern hamburger (while the FDA and USDA do little or nothing about it.)
We see an immigrant family buying dollar meals at McDonald’s because the produce in the grocery store is too expensive. Poultry farmers are reduced to indentured servitude at the hands of giant agribusiness. Hamburger meat gets treated with ammonia to make it somewhat safer to eat. And Monsanto, in it’s quest to rule our food crops, sues farmers into bankruptcy for the crime of saving seeds.
There’s lots of blame in Food Inc. for big corporations, none of whom would agree to be interviewed for the film. What’s missing is the government half of this bastard equation. Briefly we are told that not just Republicans but Democrats as well have fostered a kind of revolving door between corporate food and influential government postings. But really, this behemouth of a freak that is now our food system could not have been spawned without the complicity and active involvement of our own Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and myriad state legislators, governors and regulatory agencies across the country.
Voters, we’ve been played for chumps. That’s the real message behind our sorry food. And you don’t hear a lot about it from the Obama administration either, other than the feel-good messages on gardening coming out of the First Lady’s office. Neither food nor agriculture rank a spot on the official White House agenda. Why is that? Why are the Obama’s being so coy about actual food policy, or even a vision for where new policies might take the nation’s agriculture? Surely, the food we eat has a great deal to do with the sorry health of this nation, and bears directly on the health care initiative that President Obama is so ardently pursuing.
While the president ponders that, and since I know he doesn’t have enough to do, I’ll suggest a few things he might undertake right away:
Break up the big food companies. Just a handful–Tyson’s, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Smithfield, etc.–control the lion’s share of the nation’s food production. Corporate food has become much too powerful. We need to cut it down to size. If rampant capitalism has taught us anything, it’s that too much consolidation leads to excesses. We need to restore competition and diversity–even a little inefficiency–to the food industry.
End subsidies for commodity crops. A glut of cheap carbohydrates subsidized with taxpayer dollars is responsible for cheap junk food and the rise of a cluster of modern diseases–obesity, diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis. Cheap processed food makes real food–like the fruits and vegetables in the produce section–look expensive by comparison. It’s time for corn, soybeans and wheat to find their own level in the marketplace. If we subsidize anything, it should be healthy food, such as fresh produce, sustainable aquaculture, meat raised on grass.
Remove patent protection for genetically modified seeds. It is a scandal that our elected officials stand by and watch a mutant chemical company–Monsanto–hound and prosecute farmers who, in some cases, are guilty of nothing more than owning land where patented seed from a neighbor’s plot has taken root. No company should be allowed to corner the market on food production. Remove patent rights and return seed development to land-grant universities where it belongs.
Abolish political appointments for Big Ag executives. Too many acolytes of corporate food find their way into the White House or other positions of power and oversight. We need a firewall. There should be a minimum five-year wait between corporate food employment and any related government job.
Create tax breaks for home gardens. I proposed this once, tongue-in-cheek, and it caught on like wild fire. There are tax breaks for just about everything else. Why not food gardens? Once we discontinue subsidies for commodity crops, there should be plenty of money to help everyone start their own garden and grow their own food. What could be healthier than that?