Film Review: Food, Inc.

If you're an omnivore, Food, Inc. is your "must-see" documentary this year.

There’s a town in Arizona called Arivaca. It’s got an artists’ co-op, a free-trade coffee retailer, and a gas station/general store where t-shirts are sold emblazoned with: “You know you’re lost when you find Arivaca.” On occasion, tourists wander into Arivaca and when they do, they’re likely to be driving—slowly. Arivaca’s cows are open-range, which means they go wherever there’s grass. The setting is bucolic and Old West, but it is unlikely that Arivaca’s cows or any open-range, grass-fed cows end up at your local butcher shop. The beef we eat is from cows who are mostly grain-fed, fattened up and butchered at a slaughterhouse. Cows are not natural consumers of grain, but the mass-marketers that control the U.S. beef market are driven by profit, not nature.

Grain-fed cows are only part of the story: There are overweight chickens unable to breathe who die before they leave the chicken coop, which is now a windowless airplane hangar. Mass production and corporate control of our food is the frightening reality that led Robert Kenner to make Food, Inc., a cleverly written and well-produced documentary that illustrates the fast-food model—based on Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s archetype—for growing cows, chickens, pigs and legumes. Kenner anchors the film’s reporting with two authors, Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Schlosser and Pollan are the analysts for the information Kenner garners from his interviews with farmers, ranchers and chicken farmers, some of whom are contractors for the corporations who dominate the U.S. market.

Food, Inc. isn’t a mindless Big Brother alert, nor is it a blatant advocacy campaign like the documentary Flow, about multinationals who control the world’s water. Kenner crafts an intelligent, visually compelling argument grounded in old-fashioned investigative research and journalism. For instance, the filmmaker points to the appalling dearth of government regulation and the resulting lack of government testing, citing the fact that in 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food inspections, and in 2006, it conducted less than 9,200. The consolidation of food production in the hands of a few corporations is another major focus of the documentary, as is the number of people from corporate America who end up in government jobs overseeing the very industries that spawned them.

Kenner names Monsanto in particular: The inventor of Agent Orange is now an agribusiness company that employs a shadowy group of “investigators” that threaten farmers who violate their patents. In 2001, the Supreme Court heard the case of J.E.M. Ag Supply v. Pioneer Hi Bred International, which was decided in favor of Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont company. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, formerly a lawyer for Monsanto, wrote the majority opinion in a 6-2 vote which granted DuPont and other biotechnology companies such as Monsanto unprecedented protection of their seed patents.

Statistics and facts—and the odd snide comment about a company that refused an interview request—roll across the screen in intertitles, but the high points are Kenner’s conversations with ordinary farmers, some of whom have been bankrupted by their battles with corporate food giants. Like Marc and Nick Francis, the directors of Black Gold, a recent documentary about coffee, Kenner mixes the bad news about the consolidation and mechanization of food production with the options consumers can exercise to avoid heavily processed foods. A Virginia farmer illustrates that it’s still possible to raise farm animals the traditional way and, at the retail level, Kenner shows that even the union-busting Wal-Mart is figuring out how to get more organic products onto the shelves. Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farm, says in the documentary, “When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we’re voting.” Hirshberg has been criticized for selling his company to multinational Group Danone.

One unforgettable interview will haunt everyone who sees Food, Inc. It’s with Moe Parr, who has one of the last remaining seed cleaners in the United States. Seed cleaners garner seed from whatever has been grown so that farmers can use it for their next planting. Parr was forced out of business by Monsanto who brought suit against him, charging that he helped a farmer harvest their Round-Up Ready soybean seed, a product that dominates its market, and which requires farmers to sign a contract with Monsanto that prevents them from seed harvesting. Apart from the David-and-Goliath dimensions of Moe Parr’s story, there is the nightmare scenario of a chemical company altering the way people have been farming for millennia. Stay tuned for Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Seed Snatchers.