Since I’m always going on and on about The Omnivore’s Dilemma to anyone who will listen, I had no choice but to see Food Inc., Robert Kenner’s new documentary about the food industry. It’s not that I thought I would learn something new — after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, all these critiques of the industrialized food system start to sound the same. But I desperately wanted to be “in the know” with fellow Michael Pollen fans, so off I went to E Street Cinemas last Saturday.
If you are a food policy junkie, then most of Food Inc.’s critiques of the food industry will sound familiar. The film’s thesis — that most of our food is grown industrially on factory farms, which sacrifice nutrition, safety, and worker’s rights to produce the cheapest food possible — has been covered in books like Food Politics, Fast Food Nation, and, of course, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
But while most of the movie was familiar territory, there were some individual stories and moments that I found really haunting. The story of Moe Parr, a “seed cleaner” who is driven out of business by Monsanto, is particularly moving. So is the image of an industrially-produced chicken whose breast is so big (to feed America’s hunger for breast meat) it can barely stand. And the interview with Joel Salatin, the gregarious small-time farmer of Polyface Farms, steals the movie.
It was also interesting to see where Food Inc. differed from other critiques of the food industry. For instance, the movie took an optimistic view of industrial organic farming, and has an entire segment devoted to Gary Hirshber, chairman of Stonyfield Farm Organic Yogurt, and his efforts to take organic food mainstream. Michael Pollen, on the other hand, is a critic of “Big Organic,” as he calls it, and questions if producing food industrially, even if it is organically grown, actually solves any problems.
But while I liked many of the individual stories in Food Inc., as the film went on I found myself increasingly annoyed and a little bored. The movie is so obviously and relentlessly critical of the food industry that it felt one-note. And by the end of the movie, I was peeved that the film kept on portraying the food industry as “evil,” without ever trying to show the other side.
Now don’t get me wrong, big food companies like Tyson and Monsanto are powerful and aggressive, and small farmers will never have the money or resources to challenge them. But Food Inc. implies that because these companies are following a profit motive, they must be “evil,” as though wanting to make money is an inherently evil act. I don’t think it is. I don’t think that following the profit motive has necessarily worked for food—it’s given us cheap, overly processed food of dubious nutritive value that’s negatively affecting the health of this country. But that’s different than saying that all food companies are “evil.” To me, the much more interesting question is: since we live in a quasi-capitalist society, how do we work with system we have to improve the nutrition of our food?
Apparently, that’s a question for another film – and one that I hope another filmmaker will take on someday.
So would I recommend Food Inc? Yes, but tepidly. If you’re not a food policy dork, then definitely see it – I think it will open your eyes. You should also see it if you’re a Michael Pollen junkie, just so you can talk to your foodie friends about what you think of the film.
But if you’re really interested in learning more about food policy and production, I suggest you stick to the written word. The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes the same points as Food Inc. in a much more eloquent and engaging manner. And for a critique of modern food policy, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics can’t be beat. And if you just want an entertaining movie for a Saturday night? I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but Angels and Demons was surprisingly entertaining. Just don’t tell your food obsessed friends you heard it here.