Factory food

By MIKE MILIARD  |  June 25, 2009

LOW INCOME, HIGH FAT It’s no accident that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level. According to Robert Kenner’s new documentary, Food, Inc., the government is effectively subsidizing “bad calories.”

A failed promise
The mass industrialization of food production that happened so quickly in the middle of last century promised more choice at cheaper prices — a better way to feed the world. But agribusiness, factory farms, and other forms of corporate food manufacturing didn't quite deliver on that promise.

"It was accepted that there was going to be a decline in food quality," says Kurlansky. "In exchange, it was supposed to end world hunger, and food was supposed to be produced more efficiently. Well, it hasn't made a dent in world hunger, and it's completely inefficient: it wastes energy, it pollutes, it's harmful to the landscape, it destroys cultures. It turns out not to be an advantageous way to produce food in any way."

This is put on vivid display in Kenner's disturbingly dystopian film, a whirlwind tour through the genetic laboratories, industrialized charnel houses, and chemical-sprayed crop fields filled with illegal immigrants that have come to characterize modern American food production.

Kenner says he didn't intend Food, Inc. to be a piece of muckraking — even though, in one scene showing an overcrowded cattle pen in which the animals wallow knee-deep in their own feces, it almost literally is.

"I'm not Michael Moore looking to prove a point," he says. "Really, I had hoped simply to do an exploration of how we eat. I was thinking I could talk to all the food producers, be they organic farmers or agribusiness. I knew they might not let me into their plants, but I thought they would talk."

They didn't. In fact, many corporations went so far as to threaten the ranchers and farmers with retribution if they talked. Thanks in part to those zipped lips, the film took six years to make.

"I realized these guys do not want you thinking about it," says Kenner. "They don't want you to crack this veil, to think about this food. They want [to perpetuate] the myth of the farm with the white picket fence and the red barn."

But it's not like that anymore: "In reality, this food has been fundamentally transformed."

One of Food, Inc.'s most viscerally disturbing scenes is a peek inside a chicken house. The farmer featured, Maryland-based Perdue grower Carole Morison, was the only one, out of dozens asked, to allow cameras, thanks to widespread fears of corporate reprisals. "It's just gotten to the point where it's not right what's going on," she sighs. "I've just made up my mind, I'm gonna say what I have to say."

The coop is overcrowded, the floor a vast carpet of weakly squawking chickens, overbred to grow twice the size in half the time, too heavy to even stand. Here and there, birds lay dying, collapsed under their own weight. Morison scoops them up and tosses them with dull thuds into a pile. "This isn't farming," she says. "This is just mass production."

"Somehow that scene reverberates a lot for people, but it's not just the chicken," says Kenner. "It's as much the tomato, or the lettuce. Everything has been transformed. The tomato" — ripened in a warehouse with ethylene gas — "has no taste and no nutrition. But it looks red!"

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Related: Go Gourmet, Hog wild on the farm, Eco-friendly, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Mark Kurlansky, Mark Kurlansky, U.S. Department of Agriculture,  More more >
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