Should You See Food Inc? Eh. I Guess So.

by moderndomestic on June 22, 2009

foodinc

Food Inc. It was okay.

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.

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Dominic Cosmano June 22, 2009 at 9:14 am

Hey Jenna,
Abigail tuned me in here. Nice article. I am about one third in on the Omnivore’s Dilemma and am riveted. I just went pescatarian about 2 months ago, and reading Pollen has reaffirmed my decision. I’m new to the whole food politics thing, but from what I have gleaned thus far agribusiness is “evil” at least in terms of the treatment of the animals.

Thanks for the insights and I’ll tune in again.

Reply

moderndomestic June 22, 2009 at 9:50 am

Glad you like the blog, and thanks for the comment!

It’s not that I don’t think that the food industry is problematic, or that its practices aren’t inhumane (especially to animals and workers). It’s just that I hate it when activists paint the other side as “evil,” without trying to understand their point of view or why they do what they do. It seems like if we want to change the food system, the food industry is going to be involved, and calling the other side names doesn’t really facilitate dialogue. Plus it just means that Monsanto and their like going to come back with their own version of “name calling” (like this site: http://www.monsanto.com/foodinc/default.asp). I also think that it doesn’t make for great documentaries – by the end of the movie I was just like “Dude, I get it. They’re evil. Can you say something else, please?”

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Kayanna June 22, 2009 at 1:22 pm

GREAT entry. I haven’t seen the film, but I feel that this is a balanced critique and am confident taking this criticism into mind when deciding whether to go see it. And if I don’t go see it, I feel like I got the major points already. Thanks!

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Amelia June 23, 2009 at 10:50 am

I’ve also been wavering about whether or not to see this movie. I’ve read all those same books, so I don’t think I’d get any new information out of seeing the film. And it does drive me bonkers when things are painted in overly moralistic black and white terms. I’ve even been attacked in comments on other blogs for suggesting that incremental changes towards better food production practices are better than no change at all. Criticizing every aspect of our food system makes it hard to distinguish the bigger problems from the smaller problems, and also makes it impossible to have a real dialogue with the people in a position to effect change.

That said, in some ways it’s good for people to be out there agitating so stridently, because it makes moderate positions seem palatable by comparison.

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moderndomestic June 23, 2009 at 1:25 pm

That’s a good point – that we need people on fringe to make the point so people in the center can change the policy.

I think that part of my dislike of a black/white debate (besides that entirely overhauling the food system is just unrealistic) is from growing up in the Pacific Northwest, where I felt like everyone was SO liberal that they couldn’t ever admit that any other viewpoint could possibly be valid. Now that type of thinking just drives me nuts!

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catdaddio42 June 27, 2009 at 9:24 am

Why don’t you just eat your version of “healthy” and leave the rest of us alone? Anti-technology activism is vile, cynical, racist propaganda. Unwarranted, excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation, and imposes costs that are passed along to the consumer and are a disproportionate burden on the poor. The actions of irresponsible activists like the promoters of the Food, Inc. franchise are most damaging to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Flawed public policy that prevents the diffusion and availability of critical technologies and products can be lethal: remember the fight for anti-HIV cocktail back in the Reagan era?

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meaghin July 1, 2009 at 10:15 am

I enjoyed your review of Food Inc. I found the movie worthwhile because of the visual images of the shocking size of industrial food farms (and of course the animals) and the interviews with the helpless middle men: the small town farmers.

I do agree that much of what the movie said was one sided–I also found myself thinking ‘yes, producing cheap, fast food is ultimately hurting our nation’s health and our small farmers, but because we live in such a large country, what do we do from here?’. I went into the movie expecting some suggestions besides ‘buy local’.

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Amanda July 20, 2009 at 2:13 pm

I enjoyed reading your blog. I recently saw Food Inc and it has made me increasingly interested in supporting organic farms and the like.

I agree that it would be nice to have an opposing view in the documentary, however, it states that none of these companies wanted to be interviewed for the movie. In failing to participate, I feel that those companies had something to hide or didn’t have a very good argument. What are your thoughts on this?

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Clinton December 12, 2009 at 11:53 am

I think you missed the parts in the film where it said “Smithfield declined to be interviewed”, or “Perdue would not let us enter the chicken enclosure”. It’s rather difficult to give voice to two sides of an argument when one side operates with as little transparency as possible. Yes, Food Inc. is a critique of modern industrialized farming; an expose. And as a film exposing what is in fact a very serious problem, the other side needs to step up with some counter-arguments. Otherwise the public should assume that something isn’t quite right. If they had nothing to hide, they’d open their doors for the consumer to see. I think they hit the nail on the head, and could have even been more critical, as is J.S. Foer in his latest effort, Eating Animals.

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