Food, Inc., a documentary about where our food comes from and the business that drives it, is relatively late to the table. Documentaries like Our Daily Bread and King Corn arrived earlier and told many of the same stories.
Those other two documentaries did individually what Food, Inc.does in aggregate. Our Daily Bread shows where our food comes from. King Corn explains the modern business model for American agriculture. Given my choice, I’d choose those two over Food, Inc., but I suppose there’s room in the cupboard for all three.
David and Goliath
Food, Inc.is a pedantic documentary with a couple of points it wants to make. “Food is big business” seems to be the lesson it most wants to impart. There is enough acknowledgement of the benefits of cheap and plentiful food that the documentary doesn’t feel too one-sided. But it definitely wants you to be troubled by the food industry. It would be really happy if you would do your part to effect change.
And that’s okay by me. The current system is very hard to defend. Cows are fed corn because it’s cheap, even though cows are built to eat grass; to compensate they are given drugs as a matter of routine. Chickens are raised without sunlight in stuffed coops. Evil Monsanto sues little-guy farmers into oblivion.
Perhaps the best scenes in Food, Inc.illustrate how it’s still possible to be a small farmer or rancher and still be profitable. Polyface Farms in Virginia feeds its cows grass. The man who raises the chickens is the man who slaughters them. He’s the kind of person I wish I could buy all my groceries from, assuming I could afford his prices, except that he lives across the country from me.
The scene of him butchering chickens is a little off-putting at first. He and his team carry on an interview with the cameras as they casually cut the heads off, pluck feathers, and finally butcher the meat. The topic at hand is contamination. He recalls that the FDA tried to shut him down because he was slaughtering birds in the open air (the camera shows blue sky and green grass under his shady tent). Then he reminds us that what is considered “sanitary” by the FDA is a giant factory with overcrowded conditions and lots of disinfectant. He drops some numbers that show he’s cleaner than the factory birds by an order of magnitude. This scene segues into one with an amateur engineer who works at one of those gigantic processing plants. He came up with a way to blend — my notes fail me but it was something like bleach or ammonia — with meat, thus rendering the product “sanitary.”
I still like Our Daily Bread better because, first of all, it’s more artful; its cinematographer found the beauty in even weird industrial situations. The shot of the small tractor unfolding its long arms in Food, Inc.was borrowed almost directly. I also like Our Daily Bread better because it is not so pedantic — it lets you react on your own terms. Food, Inc.has an ax to grind. And whether or not you agree, the movie starts to sound like it’s preaching.
And as Michael Pollan says in Food, Inc., when he set out to find where our food comes from, he kept coming back to one crop: corn. So the documentary King Corn gets closer to the heart of the matter with less tangents than Food, Inc.
Food Inc.seems to imply that you will be shocked by the assembly-line nature of our food production system. I do feel it’s my responsibility to know where my food comes from, so I’m glad for these documentaries. But I can’t honestly be alarmed at the current system, which is set up to be as efficient and inexpensive as possible. I am not surprised that those benefits come at the expense of wholesomeness, humaneness, or cleanliness.
I’d be happy to have a better food system, one that addresses the problems that Food, Inc.raises. I could probably even afford it. But Food, Inc.feels like it wants me to panic, to be horrified, and to devote my life to changing the system.
That’s something I’ll decide for myself, thanks.