Thursday, August 20, 2009

Food for Thought

By Rajeev Ravisankar, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

Recently I saw the documentary Food Inc. which depicts the disturbing realities around modern food production. It unmasks the marketing myth used to sell food, the notion that food is produced in an idyllic landscape with “the picket fence and the silo and the 1930s farmhouse and the green grass.”

“The reality is…it’s not a farm, it’s a factory,” according to Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and one of the film’s interviewees. “That meat is being processed by huge multi-national corporations that have very little to do with ranches and farmers.”

The film shows how food is increasingly becoming a flashpoint where labor rights, racism, immigration, ecology, and trade policy intersect. For example, US domestic farm subsidies for corn help make unhealthy corn-based snacks cheaper. Simultaneously, the subsidies negatively impact farmers in developing countries because they cannot compete against artificially cheap US food imports. (See Dumping Without Borders: How US agricultural policies are destroying the livelihoods of Mexican corn farmers)

In addition, Food Inc. humanizes complex sociopolitical issues. It touches upon the exploitation of undocumented migrants who work on farms and in meat processing facilities, and shows footage of an immigration raid against these workers.

Also, the film introduces class dynamics and income levels by following a Latino family who can mostly only afford cheap fast food. This story complicates a simplistic understanding of choice as the father has diabetes and the family knows the food is unhealthy, yet there are real material constraints that shape their consumption.

Perhaps the most critical point, as farmer Joel Salatin points out in the film, is that the way our food is produced says a lot about how we relate to society and the rest of the world. “A culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic, inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures within the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling-type mentality.”

Quick facts:
· “The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000…”
– Michael Pollan
· The modern supermarket has an average of 47,000 products, the majority of which are produced by only a handful of companies
· 1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes; among minorities, the rate will be 1 in 2
(Source: Food Inc. Press Notes)

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