The illusion of the traditional farmer has been very useful from a marketing perspective, as every imaginable food product will have a picture of happy animals and good, honest, hard-working farmers bringing sustenance to the world while handling the family business. Thanks to the great distance between the consumer and how their food is produced, this remains a quaint and accepted illusion. Upton Sinclair noted that he was aiming for America’s heart when he wrote The Jungle, and ended up hitting it in the stomach. His disgusting depiction of hog killing floors as dangerous places where the sausage was more likely to contain nutritionally blank potato flour, rats, and the occasional injured worker than any actual pork became a clarion call that resulted in legislation to ensure safe food and safer working conditions. Large businesses have been fighting such measures ever since, finding ways to increase efficiency and maximize profit, even if laws must be bent beyond the breaking point and traditional farmers must be squeezed out of their land and livelihood in order to do so. As the brilliant and entertaining new documentary Food, Inc. makes clear, the most important weapon that such corporations employ is the ignorance of the consumer. This is not necessarily the fault of the consumer, who enjoys deceptively low prices and must see through a fraudulent cloud of bullshit to figure out just where their food is coming from, who makes it, and what those business practices involve.
The film expertly redefines the new American farmer as “factory farming“, and that the independent traditional farmer is not only increasingly rare, but is being actively chased out of the business. Using genetically modified seeds, massive irrigation schemes, greenhouses (for plants out of season), vast shipping routes, industrial processing techniques, and psychological warfare in the form of marketing, incredible amounts of food can be processed annually in a fairly cheap fashion. Though this is touted as a success, there are many problems with the factory model. The food is cheap, but the giant farms receive subsidies ($25 billion annually), so in effect the food is already paid for. This functions to keep out food imports, but also serve to skew production toward the factory model. Apart from the unnecessary subsidies, the system is wasteful, with each food item traveling an average of 1500 miles before consumption. Food produced out of season requires enormous investment and resources, such as greenhouses and ethylene gas to ripen vegetables. Lastly, the system is a setup for epidemics as the food is handled in standardized fashion with contaminated machines, product being sent hundreds of miles away for more efficient spread. At the grocery checkout, the prices are affordable since those tax-funded subsidies have already been applied, so we are none the wiser. Organic farming does not benefit to the same degree, as these are usually smaller farms which receive the minority of subsides.
Vegetable farming has been unkind to traditional farmers, who have found their land becoming too expensive to lease, and the large companies to which they are contracted will demand constant upgrades that keep small farmers in debt (average debt of $500,000) and unable to negotiate or unionize. If a farmer does not wish to use genetically modified seeds, they may be in for a world of hurt. Monsanto, for example, has patented genetically modified soybeans that resist herbicides; thanks to a conservative Supreme Court ruling, if you attempt to clean the seeds for planting next year, you will be fined into bankruptcy. And if you do not use genetically modified seeds, Monsanto places you on a blacklist banning your ability to use their other products, harassing you with investigators (there is a team of 75 who prowl the fields across the United States), and if genetically modified plants spread to your field, then you just made Monsanto thousands of dollars richer. Not all of this is legal, but if you start or receive a legal suit, then the corporations simply outspend you. When the money is big enough, the law no longer matters.
Animal farming is even more ridiculous. Now that meat is a meal and a condiment, demand has skyrocketed, and companies like Tyson and Perdue occupy 80% of the meat market. They control the supply and set the rules for smaller meat farmers. The animals are genetically modified, live in tightly packed sheds in complete darkness, standing in a community pool of stool, and ingest antibiotics constantly. Chickens produce twice the meat they once did, and are killed twice as fast; with such a demand for breast meat, the chickens have breasts so big that the bones cannot hold them up, and they are unable to walk. The largest killing floor in the world is in Tar Heel, North Carolina, slaughtering 32,000 hogs per day. The amount of shit produced exceeds New York City’s output. Most of the labor is with illegal immigrants, with occasional raids on their company-sponsored sheds to give the appearance of adherence to labor laws. The meat is often contaminated despite the antibiotics, so a filler material has been designed that is made with ammonia that will make ground meat safe to eat despite the presence of E Coli 0157. Yes, they are adding ammonia to meat to make it edible.
Once the factory system showed the enormous profit margin of food production, there has been no looking back. Each problem with the model has inspired increasingly bizarre responses, such as use of antibiotics, ammonia, radiation, genetic modification, and bizarre feeding practices, but never a reevaluation of whether the system itself is a good idea in the larger picture. The system is expensive and wasteful to begin with, but there are additional hidden costs. For example, food is modified to maximize taste of salt, fat, and sugar; consequently diabetes and cardiovascular disease along with the attendant obesity have become epidemic, and the medications needed to treat these diseases are not considered part of the cheap grocery bill. They should be, since efficiency is useless if the costs are outsourced to taxpayers and pharmaceutical companies. Also, the cost of raising meat is cheap partly because the major food for livestock is corn. Cows, pigs, and chickens did not evolve to eat a corn-only diet, and so the animals become quite sick before they are killed. If a corn-fed cow is not slaughtered, they will actually die anyway within a few months of abscesses and other systemic infections. Also of note, corn-fed cows have overwhelming carriage of dysentery-causing organisms like hemorrhagic E Coli. If the cows start eating grass, the dysentery issues disappear.
The game is stacked heavily against not only the family farmer, but the consumer. Awareness of a company’s business practices is difficult, and so people have little understanding of how their food is made, and what the true cost is. They have no awareness of the cost of farm subsidies. The oversight has been gutted, with the FDA experiencing such staff and budget cuts that they have gone from 50,000 annual inspections in 1974 to 9,000 in 2006. The head of the FDA in the past decade has generally been a meatpacking CEO or some other goon who is the very picture of a conflict of interests. The USDA does not have the authority to shut down plants that repeatedly fail inspections, and apart from the occasional public outcry during an epidemic, there is little that can be done to companies that flout the laws.
Fortunately, Food, Inc. does have a glimmer of hope in how to approach the corporations that have achieved a stranglehold on the industry. To demonstrate the utility of knowledgeable buying power, Wal-Mart is presented as being part of the solution. I know, it confused the hell out of me too. Basically, the position of Wal-Mart is that only the money matters, and if the shoppers demonstrate that they want organic food produced in a sustainable fashion, then they will respond accordingly and stock their shelves with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of organic and sustainably grown food. This is in sharp contrast to the food producers who work to intimidate farmers and bribe legislators. Organic companies such as Stonyfield have become highly profitable. Small farmers such as the ones who have appeared in this documentary despite the likelihood that they will be sued and bankrupted for their efforts reveal what a true American hero is. Though venal politicians have been lobbied to emasculate regulatory agencies and appoint judges who side with Big Food on nearly every issue, they remain venal, and vulnerable to efforts to unseat them for their stupidity. Threatening your congressman and senator can be surprisingly helpful if you are persistent in your letters. The alternative is apathy, and that is why Big Food was able to successfully sue Oprah Winfrey for publicly insulting a food company. The work to fundamentally change the way food is made is considerable, but as long as one remembers that all of the power rests with the people who buy the food, everything else falls into place.
So, Food, Inc. is not only winning entertainment, but it will boil your blood from the first to last frame. Throughout, the director is careful to avoid giving the impression that we are completely fucked, and for once I share their hope. The green revolution, though not without its inconsistencies, has fundamentally changed how companies do business. Some companies are obstinate to these changes, but if Wal-Mart becomes a champion of organic foods, then just about anything is possible.