Food, Inc. (movie review)

I finally saw Food, Inc. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I expected a one-sided, misleading anti-corporate tirade, along the lines of The Corporation. I was only partly correct. The main message really does seem to be that big companies are ruining everything, and that things would be better if we all just realized that we should be buying directly from the kindly farmer/sage down the road. But in spite of that slant, the movie does contain some useful stuff. So, my conclusion: a grudging endorsement. I think the film is flawed, but worth seeing.

First, I’ll note a couple of worthwhile take-away lessons, points that are made by the film and that seem well-justified.

Number one is that the meat industry is pretty disgusting. Most of the people who might be tempted to see Food, Inc. likely already knew that. But it’s a rotten industry. Injury rates for workers are high. Animals are treated badly. And quality control can be dodgy. The causes are pretty clear. Competition drives companies in all industries to cut corners in order to attract and keep customers. Sometimes that has undesirable effects. In the food industry, those effects can be pretty bad. Food, Inc. doesn’t tell us much that’s new, here, but it’s a useful reminder.

Number two: the corn subsidies in the U.S. are apparently insane. Those subsidies result in overproduction of corn (and hence of High-Fructose Corn Syrup). The result is that crappy food can be more affordable than nutritious food. Politically-powerful food companies like the subsidies (since they keep the price of ingredients down) so the food-buying public is likely to go on being subject to all the wrong incentives.
(For more on that topic, see the excellent 2007 documentary, King Corn.)

But in several ways the movie is less than satisfying.

My first worry has to do with the film-makers’ decision not to bring relevant expertise to bear. With the possible exception of journalist/authors Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) and Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation), both of whom are knowledgeable guys, the movie’s cast of characters is seriously lacking in experts. Instead, it uses regular folks — people knowledgeable about their own experiences, to be sure — to talk about matters regarding which, as far as the audience can tell, they have no particular expertise. A bereaved mom (with no apparent legal training) explains legal issues. A farmer explains food economics. And so on. Now I’m not just worshipping at the altar of expertise, here. The experiences of the “regular folks” interviewed for the film are powerful and important and I’m glad they were included in this film. But food is (as is increasingly apparent) a complicated topic. So why not, in addition, feature interviews with experts in the relevant issues? Why not a food economist? Or a policy analyst with expertise in agricultural policy? Why not a lawyer or two?

My second concern (not unrelated to the previous one) has to do with factual accuracy. I kept wondering: could an organization with the journalistic standards of, say, the New York Times have made this movie? Would all the claims made in Food, Inc. stand if they had to be verified by two independent sources? Maybe they were carefully verified. Who knows? The audience can’t tell. Part of that has to do with the format: a film format occasionally requires that documentation be sacrificed in favour of drama, and there’s no easy way to provide footnotes in a documentary. In one segment, for example, a union official claims — in so many words — that law enforcement officials were conspiring with a meat packing company to make sure that just enough of its illegal-immigrant workers were arrested to keep up appearances without interfering with production. If that were verifiable, it would be cause for legal action.

Finally, the movie is also lamentably short on solutions. The movie’s complaint is clear: industrial-scale food production is the problem. But there are no serious suggestions about a different way to produce this much food, without the efficiencies of scale that come from factory farms, massive tracts of corn, and the huge corporations that are required to turn those inputs into dinner. So, we’re left with simplistic stuff like “buy local” and “buy organic”, neither of which is really much of a solution. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of ‘voting with your fork’; but it would help to know what we should be voting for. I suppose a film like this isn’t obligated to propose solutions: it’s goal is to raise awareness. But still. By now, we know many of the problems. Without viable, large-scale alternatives, we’re left with the vague feeling that the bad stuff Food, Inc. talks about might just be the lamentable side-effects (hopefully some of which are remediable) of an imperfect-but-generally-useful system.

Now to be fair, Food, Inc.’s shortcomings are pretty clearly part of the film-makers’ rhetorical strategy. It’s not an accident that they relied on the voices of real folks instead of experts, and that they point to problems but not solutions. The film is trying to raise awareness, pointing out problems in an enormous industry with potent political allies. In going for the gut, in not bothering to seek out experts, in leaving out important truths, the documentary fights dirty. But when your opponents are companies like Monsanto and Tyson, it’s hard not to admit that the film makers are fighting dirty in what is undeniably bound to be a dirty fight.

p.s. I liked this review of Food, Inc. by Marc Gunther: Food Inc: tasty but unsatisfying.

9 comments so far

  1. DarryleHuffman on

    I live a rural area where you either work in the mines or you farm. One of the leading agriculture schools is near me.People whom I associate with have graduated from Virginia Tech. Tech does extensive research 15 min from where I live in Abingdon Virginia. One of the graduates told me they have to hold livestock for 30 days after they have finished their research to make sure thier healthy for consumption or whatever use they eventually have. He said he would not buy one of their livestock.

    I do know the Obama Admin. is going into the midwest armed with antitrust to help the farmers there because they have complianed that the bigger companies are trying to choke them out.

  2. Jason Garner on

    Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farms, is not just a farmer. He’s also an author and lecturer and is considered an expert in sustainable agriculture. I think he helps balance out the film along with Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. I agree it would have been nice to have more experts, such as Marion Nestle. Considering how even-handed the film was (yes they had their agenda but they didn’t rely too much on shock-tactics like, say, Peta would) I’m surprised more people didn’t take part.

    Although not the focus of the film, I don’t think it’s fair to say it didn’t try to present solutions at all. The film also directs viewers to a website (takepart.com) and there was also a montage of solutions presented near the end of the film, some arguably more effective than others but all of them valid nonetheless.

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Jason:

    Thanks for your comment, and for the info about Salatin.
    And of course I hadn’t assumed he was supposed to be a randomly-selected “average farmer.” He’s clearly a thoughtful & knowledgeable guy. But having him lecture the audience on agricultural economics is a bit of a stretch.

    And as far as I can tell, the cluster of bits of advice (buy organic, local, etc.) don’t add up to a solution: they’re not a replacement for the large-scale farms & factories, any more than “buy from your local corner store” adds up to a replacement for Walmart.

    Chris.

  4. Mark on

    I like your comments about the solutions. Too often, people/organizations attack (whether rightly or wrongly) without proposing any viable solutions. The only real problem I have with your article is….The New York Times?? Are you kidding? I suggest you start reading some critical analysis of our corporate media my friend!

    Peace!!

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    Mark:

    The NYT — and other “corporate” media — surely has its critics, but it has well-established publicly-available journalistic standards related to things like fact-checking that raise its reliability very significantly.

    If you know of a news organization with a better system of journalistic ethics and a better track record, please give it as an example.

    Chris

  6. […] most recent of my top 5 is already a couple of years old. And while Food, Inc. isn’t about business per se, it is about the production of food, something that is […]

  7. Thomas on

    I had some “WHAT!?” moments, such as learning about a company using ammonia to clean its “meat product” for hamburger filling.

  8. Jacob on

    Actually, those authors compromise any pretense of objectivity the movie had. Because they are introduced as authors of certain books, not only are they shown to have a stake in this, but they also clearly have a certain view they want to project, and not necessarily a right one. Food, Inc. is a persuasive documentary, which are typically the least factual, and is borderline propaganda.

    The film actually contains a lot of half-truths, errors, and other mistakes. Not to mention it purports pseudo-science regarding GMOs. http://corncommentary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Food-Inc-Analysis.pdf Food, Inc. went beyond fighting dirty.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: