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Friday, June 19, 2009

FOOD, INC: the politics of food on the big screen

By now you've probably heard about Food, Inc, a new film that's co-directed by Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation fame. Filmmaker Robert Kenner offers a highly developed expose-type examination of the food industry, government regulatory agencies such as the USDA and FDA, corporate greed, and unsustainable markets. While none of this will be new to sustainability or green adherents, the new film provides a big public forum for the return of food politics as a social movement that is relevant to people of all socio-economic and cultural viewpoints. Starting in your local grocery aisle and ending on your table, it's the middle that will turn your stomach no matter how much you already know: slaughterhouses and factory farms are undeniably undigestable for a green planet and a healthy population.
The film is a must-see in the genre of An Inconvenient Truth or Bowling for Columbine, and like other message-based non-fiction films (the word "documentary" isn't quite accurate, although the officials at Monsanto, Perdue, and Tyson were unwilling to offer a counter-argument on screen), there are reams of educational and promotional materials designed to help change the larger food system. Still at it, despite personal attacks by corporate spokespeople, Marion Nestle, who is a public policy expert, food industry critic , and scientist-at-large and a strong voice in food advocacy for decades, offers a whole host of film-related resources on her Food Politics website and blog. The book-that-goes-with-the movie is a terrific overview of the problems inherent in the agricultural-food system -- and more importantly, a great tool for action. Consider that an anti-Food, Inc website is already in place, sponsored mainly by meat industry folks attempting to counterspin the film's message. The defensive posture is not surprising: these companies are among the worst violators of farm workers' rights, they engage in countless lawsuits designed to advance business over consumers, and they've allowed some of the worst food safety violations of the last three decades to happen in a supposedly regulated marketplace. It's unfortunate that the current problems with food production are generally presented by vitriolic opponents, especially since the solutions are most likely to come from a middle ground. However, the film does highlight commercial producers (Stonyfield Farms among the strongest) who demonstrate that large-scale production does not have to entail environmentally damaging methods.
Stock up on your local (or home grown) veggies before you head to the theaters, though: as more than one reviewer has pointed out, this film is not for the squeamish. Better yet, find a local group screening such as this "Pack the Theater" Slow Food Sponsored Event in Portland, Oregon, and then eat out at your favorite sustainable restaurant!

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