— by BEV QUESTAD, Ph.D., in conversation with ROBERT YUEN, M.D.,
related to the documentary “Food, Inc.” —
Some things are just important to know. So declare a monthly Family Smart Night. Fix a wholesome meal, let the kids lead 15 minutes of exercise and then pop in the DVD “Food, Inc.”
This finalist for the 2009 documentary Oscar depicts the American food industry as a dangerous force to be reckoned with.
Subversive, manipulative, controlling, unethical, mean-spirited – the burgeoning American agribusiness is presented as a force on a destiny to control a significant spectrum of American politics and culture.
“Food, Inc.” begins with the story of a happy little 2-year-old boy playing on vacation with his two doting parents. Twelve days later, he’s dead in a hospital after eating a fast food hamburger.
Kevin probably died because the hamburger he ate came from a corn-fed cow that was crammed into a pen that did not allow roaming or a grass diet. Here, cows, shot up with antibiotics, end up wading in their own manure eating an unhealthy fattening diet of corn.
These are the circumstances that lead to a situation where meat becomes contaminated with feces, the leading cause of E. coli deaths resistant to medical intervention.
To help me grapple with the scope of the food problem presented in this documentary I spoke with Dr. Robert Yuen, a medical practitioner who has long been interested in subjects related to food and health.
Dr. Yuen raises his own chickens, has a bee hive and cultivates a large organic garden. He bikes to the hospital where he works and the free clinic where he volunteers. He’s dedicated to healthy living and has made it his business to research many facets of the American food industry.
What follows are our exchanges on three questions I had related to assertions made in this documentary.
No. 1: Are the Film’s Concerns Alarmist or Realistic?
Question: “Food, Inc.” condemns the US food industry for endemic health problems, inhumane treatment of animals, oppression of a workforce and the globalized patenting of seeds. Do you think the filmmakers are presenting the situation accurately?
Yuen: I think the narrators are well recognized from their previous work in trying to promote a safer and healthier food industry. One of the major spokespeople interviewed was Eric Schlosser, writer of “Fast Food Nation,” which was an investigative look at the global effect of the U.S. food industry. Another was Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for the Food section of the New York Times Magazine and author of several books on nutrition and agribusiness, who has a distinguished and exhaustive record on food research.
So I believe the filmmakers are trying to provide a public service. They are trying to influence us to pursue change to a smaller more organic approach to food production. Of course, such change would come at a cost and would require a major shift in how we think about food.
Question: Do you think their point is justified — that the present food industry, managed primarily by four to five conglomerates, is generally unhealthy for us?
Yuen: The film suggests that the emergence of megafood corporations and the way they produce food has contributed to significant health consequences. The widespread use of antibiotics in meat production has led to the emergence of pathogenic bacteria such E. Coli O17 and the increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria which has direct implications in human illness. This was probably the primary issue in the death of the 2 year old that began this film.
But this film also suggests that the disturbing trends in diabetes and obesity are fed by the unhealthy dietary preferences fostered by the current food industry. Predictably, government regulations to address these public health concerns are limited by the powerful lobbies of these huge corporations.
No. 2: Is Big Business to Blame?
Question: So, is the magnitude of the food industry the source of American problems with healthy products?
Yuen: I’m asking myself that question, too. Is there something wrong with the emergence of three to four dominant food companies and their effects on our food culture?
Are the same dangers of contamination, the use of genetically mutated seeds and the ubiquitous use of corn in everything from batteries to ketchup just as likely if we had smaller farms or a greater diversity of competing food companies?
Isn’t the growth of huge conglomerates in the food industry a result of success? Aren’t these huge corporations just what we would expect in our market system? Is this not what we see in any other business, such as Toyota’s success in the auto industry, Microsoft’s near monopoly in software and Chase’s worldwide chain in banking?
Question: But Toyota isn’t patenting the car. This film shows that big industries like Monsanto are developing monopolies by taking out patents on the seeds that they develop. Then they require their respective farmers to purchase these seeds and then they investigate, harass and sue those neighboring farmers where their seed culture is found and perhaps inadvertently (you know about winds, birds and run-off) intermixed with crops from seeds in the public domain.
Yuen: Yes. This was something I hadn’t been so aware of before seeing this film.
Plus, surprisingly not documented in the film, Monsanto is coincidentally part of a consortium financing the Doomsday Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. In this underground cavern there is an on-going project to collect and store all the seeds in the world.
In total, this is a very scary scenario: monopolistic practices by mega corporations and a Noah’s ark for seeds. Stranger than fiction.
The implications of all this are hard to comprehend. However, on a grand scale, genetically modified seeds with their limited or non-existent capacity for reproduction could have potentially devastating consequences for our future agricultural and ecological systems.
There is little wonder that the European Union has placed such strict regulations on genetically modified food in their markets.
Question: The Svalbard Doomsday Vault is also represented by interests from the Gates Foundation and the country of Norway. Maybe conspiracy theorists would warn that controlling the world’s seeds could possibly result in controlling the world’s agriculture as well as its population.
On the other hand, as we move towards developing seeds that can produce a higher yield to feed more people, it sounds as if companies like Monsanto are being wise and altruistic in their growth and influence.
Yuen: But can we trust the food industry to make decisions that help safeguard our health and our future when, clearly, their primary motive and all their efforts are geared towards profit?
Question: Isn’t that what a free-enterprise economy is all about – adjusting to the demands of its consumers? Theoretically the marketplace has its own checks and balances – along with government regulations. If a product proves unsafe or unhealthy, as in the recent Toyota recall, producers work to correct the situation before the lawsuits run them bankrupt.
No. 3: Are we the problem?
Question: So even though the film raps modern agribusiness, don’t you think it really all comes back to consumers? We are the drivers in a free economy. We buy the chips, the fries and the hamburgers made from cows stuck in their own manure. Isn’t the consumer simply getting what s/he asks for?
Yuen: I’m not sure. Let me bounce this off you. Have you ever heard of the term “food insecurity?”
Question: No. What is it?
Yuen: It describes people with limited food choices because of their low social economic status. Their choices are limited because they can only afford less expensive foods, like those high in starch or processed with distant expiration dates. A fast food order of fries, hamburgers and soft drinks for a family of four generally costs less than a healthier meal cooked at home.
I don’t think the health problem is with the companies but with the limited resources that people can afford. As a matter of fact, in the poorer communities, grocery stores simply carry fewer healthy choices because their consumers find them unaffordable.
When this problem was identified in the Bronx, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to increase the value of food coupons so that recipients could buy food in their local public markets where there was a greater diversity of healthy foods available.
If you are educated and have the time and the money then there will always be choices for people like you and me. But if you move to the opposite extreme, the choices are few. If you are sick, hungry or hopeless, your choices are limited and you may be out of luck.
There is no simple solution here. However, “Food, Inc.” does unveil the food industry, showing many aspects that are new to us, including problems that are not limited to agribusiness. However, the solutions are not ready and extend beyond the industry.
What “Food, Inc.” does is shed light on how one of the essentials of life has been made into a business that shapes our behavior, society and culture.
“Food, Inc.” is fairly realistic. But big business is only a part of the problem. We should never become complacent about anything. As George Orwell has warned, a naïve, uneducated public is the first contributor to and victim of its own suffering and oppression.
A limitation to “Food, Inc. is that it’s one sequence after another of alarming information. Dr. Yuen tempered its news by explaining that what has to do with food also has to do with culture, and we always have choices. There is hope.
We are in a moment in time where we have less control in many aspects of our lives, from food choices to health care, from investment services to our governance. From Yuen’s perspective, getting bigger may simply be a result of success. Yet, conversely, we note from the film, the bigger the business the greater the potential for loss of quality control and the basic sense of what’s good for people, animals and the environment.
Whatever the case may be, food choice awareness, a campaign first popularized in 1971 by Francis Moore Lappé, who politicized eating choices in “Diet for a Small Planet,” is back with political clout. Bill Clinton started the political ball rolling in 2005 with his Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Surgeon General’s office, under Obama, instituted the Childhood Overweight and Obesity Prevention Initiative. Currently, Michelle Obama has inaugurated Let’s Move, a program devoted to getting more healthy food choices into school and family meals.
Before closing, it’s important to mention the follow-up to 2-year-old Kevin’s sad story. His mother, Barbara Kowalcyk, became a food safety advocate, “fighting to give the USDA the power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meats” (foodincmovie.com). She is a principal spokesperson in “Food, Inc.” and it is her story and the parallel story of the trust in our food supply, that moves this film forward. Her personal and valid concern provides a compelling reason for being vigilant and educated about our food choices, as well as, when possible, reliant on local, organic, humanely produced food.”
Produced by: Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein
Directed by: Robert Kenner
Written by: Robert Kenner, Elise Pearlstein and Kim Roberts
Release Date UK: Feb. 12, 2010
Release Date USA: June 19, 2009
Rating UK: PG
MPAA RATING USA: PG-13 for some thematic material and disturbing images
Runtime: 94 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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