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Continuing in the theme of “knowing your food” this week, I’ve been considering and pondering the movie “Food, Inc.” for several months.  What follows is both praise and a deconstruction of the ideas presented in the movie.  Part 1 of this post appeared yesterday.  Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

Continuing in the GMO=bad vein, a good portion of the corn that is produced (mass-produced, thanks to corn subsidies from the federal government) goes to CAFOs, the feedlots where cows are fattened up and oftentimes become so ill.  Corn (GMO or otherwise) was not designed to be a cattle feed, and in it lies the root of e coli 0157:H7, the deadly bacterium that has sickened hundreds and killed many.  E Coli is a naturally-occurring bacterium in our gut; the mutation of 0157:H7 came from feeding corn to cattle and ending up with infections that would not (did not) occur in nature when they were grass-fed.  When you combine the feeding of corn and the existence of CAFOs, it’s not really surprising that E Coli 0157:H7 has shown up in so much meat in the last ten years.

“Food, Inc.” goes on in the movie to discuss the problem of plentiful dollar menus at fast-food restaurants and how it’s brought down the diet of the average American.  They then allow us to meet this “average family,” but one thing becomes clear very quickly:  this is not the “average American family.”  This family spends nearly all of its grocery money on fast food.  The husband has diabetes which is controlled with medication, the girls and mother are aware of nutritional information, but profess to “lack time.”  This lack of time in turn leads them to choose the “cheaper” soda over fruit, neglecting what they know is better and healthier.  The movie makers attempt to make the connection and say that if fast food was more expensive, this family’s health would be better.  I think that’s a bogus connection; people make time for the things they value.  Being “busy” doesn’t preclude the use of slow cookers or pressure cookers to prepare food, and traditional food (dried beans, whole grains, etc.) can easily be FAR cheaper than soda and be cooked with these appliances, even while the family relaxes or sleeps.  The mother in the family says that the husband’s medications take up a great amount of their income, but if it’s a high percentage, there are social safety nets in place to get assistance for the medication costs.  If the cost of medication was alleviated in part for them, it suggests that healthier food could be purchased – but what’s ignored is the total spent on fast food DAILY which could otherwise be converted in to traditional, healthy foods that would improve the family’s overall health, even without inexpensive access to fresh fruits & vegetables.  If a family is spending $36 per DAY on fast food (what could be extrapolated from what they spend on one meal), that’s $252 per WEEK.  I don’t know about you, but I can do a LOT with that sort of grocery budget on a weekly basis – I don’t spend even a fraction of that and am able to feed my family well and still be nutritionally sound.

Another part of the movie where I believe the filmmakers tried to do too much with too little is the question of illegal immigration.  They indicate that Smithfield (pork processing) in Tar Heel, NC, is a haven for illegal immigrants and that Smithfield has a “deal” with the INS to turn over 15 illegal immigrant employees per day (purportedly with no penalties to Smithfield).  I’m not saying there isn’t a deal, but there is no concrete evidence of this “deal,” just the words of a labour activist in the area.  Additionally, none of the employees they show Smithfield trucking in to work in Tar Heel are Latino – at all.  I simply cannot comprehend that there would be a ‘deal’ like this and a) it wouldn’t be picked up by the national media (remember, this movie was made during the Bush administration) and b) the government would let Smithfield off scot-free, especially in a time of economic downturn, when the government is printing money because it’s run out and has runaway spenders in charge.  They easily could have left this section out and strengthened the other sections of the movie and done well.

Several things I think the filmmakers did right include spending a great deal of time with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, in Shenandoah, VA.  Salatin is an old-fashioned farmer with good business savvy.  He’s got a sustainable farm and is cashing in on the awareness of those who are interested in buying sustainably-grown food.  He’s also become a bit of a spokesman for sustainable agriculture and although he doesn’t elaborate greatly in the movie, he does support my earlier thought that the argument about “feeding the world” through industrial ag is specious.  What I find even more interesting is that friends of mine have actually worked with Salatin on his farm. Salatin and Polyface are part of something called WWOoF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  WWOoF is a group of volunteer laborers who travel from organic farm to organic farm (within the network), offering work in exchange for a place to stay and chance to learn organic farming practices.

Another part of the movie that I thought was particularly well-done was the interview with Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Farms, the organic yogurt maker.  Hirshberg talks at length about how big businesses are buying up small, “natural” or “organic” businesses, most of the time without the public’s awareness.  For example, Kashi is owned by Kellogg; Stacy’s Pita Chips is owned by Kraft; Tom’s Toothpaste is now owned by Colgate.  And for the sake of transparency, Stonyfield Farms is owned by Dannon.  But Hirshberg remains in charge of Stonyfield and found a business model that works, which I applaud.  As opposed to vilifying WalMart and other big retail outlets, he embraces them – and recognizes that for every order of yogurt from WalMart, he is not putting tons of pesticides in the soil, pollutants in the air, etc. – that it’s a win-win for the people who shop at WalMart out of economic necessity and for those who champion organic and green causes.  Too many environmentalists throw out the baby with the bathwater and eschew all forms of retail business with large companies that they hold with disdain.  It’s truly unfortunate, but I think Hirshberg has a great model and it was worth a segment of the movie’s time.

Part three (the final installment) in this series will run tomorrow.

Continuing in the theme of “knowing your food” this week, I’ve been considering and pondering the movie “Food, Inc.” for several months.  What follows is both praise and a deconstruction of the ideas presented in the movie.  Part 2 of this post will appear tomorrow.

“Food, Inc.” is an independent movie that is based in part on the book An Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  Pollan and Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) narrate the movie, as well.

The movie is eye-opening and consciousness-raising, and has honestly changed the way we approach our family’s nutrition.  Mark & I watched this while in the midst of a “back to basics”-change in which I ceased buying canned beans and boxes of pasta and began buying bulk, dried goods, building a food storage at the same time.  But for as many excellent points as the movie makes, there are flaws as well.

The movie is broken down in to 4 segments (purportedly three, but there are four main topics covered):  1)  the industrial production of meat; 2) the industrial production of grains and vegetables; 3) the legal and economic power of the companies who control our food production; and 4) how these companies control and affect labour practices (legal and illegal).  The fourth category is one that I find peppered throughout the movie and one that I believe becomes problematic as the movie goes on, but more on that later.

I’ve written a bit about CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and how I believe they are an unhealthy means to produce food, specifically beef.  “Food, Inc.” goes further and examines the raising of beef, pork, and chicken in an industrial setting.  They accuse McDonald’s of being the chief troublemaker in this scenario, saying that McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of meat today and that the farming practices that produce a certain “taste” in the finished product is why CAFOs are needed.  I do find it a bit odd that McDonald’s is always sourced as The Problem in movies like this (think of “SuperSize Me,” as well).  McDonald’s is big and they ARE a major consumer of beef, chicken, and pork.  But McDonald’s just didn’t go to the farms and say, “We want the meat to taste THIS way and THAT is how you must produce it”; the meat began to change in taste with the introduction of grain-feeding (and corn-feeding), and the McDonald’s burgers began to take on that taste.  McDonald’s didn’t force anyone to begin grain-feeding their cattle; if the production levels had stayed lower (as is the case with grass-fed beef), chances are good the price of the menu at fast food places would have increased and sales would not have been as brisk as they are now (it’s called supply and demand economics for a reason!).  So to blame McDonald’s for everything is neither fair nor honest.  At some point, the chicken had to exist before the egg did….

Another issue I take with the movie is the demonization of McDonald’s in introducing the assembly line in to fast food stores.  The McDonald brothers didn’t invent the assembly line – they merely introduced it to their operation.  Henry Ford invented the assembly line between 1908 and 1915.  It far predates McDonald’s use of the efficiency-model, and while it did change the face of labour in our society, efficiency isn’t a bad thing.  Efficiency in this model allows many more young people to cut their teeth on being part of a team, earning money in a summer (or school-year) job, all while allowing a store to operate smoothly and produce a profit.

One area which I thought the movie hit hard and well on was the production of industrial grains, specifically GMO.  If you’re unsure what GMO is or haven’t done much research on your own, here it is in a nutshell:  when companies take the DNA of a food product, such as corn, cottonseed, soybean, or sugar beets and modify the DNA, you end up with something that nature never intended.  The DNA of any given thing on earth is set and passed down from generation to generation, be it humans, corn plants, baby seals, or flowers.  It’s the reason why an infant human in utero will never become a fetal pig – the DNA is that of a human.  It’s the reason you can save seeds to plant pansies year after year – and pansies come up, not daisies.  The DNA is set in the seed.  So when science begins mucking with the DNA in seeds to create something different than what nature intended, it’s very serious business, indeed.

GMO corn is one of the many reasons high-fructose corn syrup is so dangerous – beyond the chemical nature of the sweetener, the fact that tumors grow like crazy in a medium of HFCS, and beyond the mercury found in products sweetened with it:  its DNA has been changed to withstand the application of Roundup, a broad-spectrum weed killer.   So now farms don’t have to be careful to just spray weeds, they can broadcast Roundup all over and not have the corn plant affected by it.  Sounds efficient, doesn’t it?  But what happens when your body is sensitive and doesn’t know what to do with the changed DNA of the corn?  Allergies happen – and sometimes they are life-threatening.  As a real-life example, I recently met a woman whose infant daughter was so desperately allergic to milk that not even removing all dairy from the mom’s diet was enough to soothe this tiny one’s tummy issues.  The doctors prescribed acid-reflux medication and the parents tried every formula under the sun, including soy.  The baby threw each of them up and tested positive for a soy allergy as well as a cow’s milk allergy.  In desperation, the mom researched and read about goat’s milk – the milk proteins in goat’s milk are the closest to human milk and tend to be very hypoallergenic.  She cautiously tried some goat’s milk and for the first time EVER, her baby didn’t burp, throw up, scream, have acid burning her tiny esophagus, etc.  It was a miraculous turn-around!  But as we discussed it, the mom revealed that her husband had a milk allergy as an infant (and outgrew it) – so his parents gave him soy formula.  He is fine, had no soy allergies, etc., and she was puzzled.  The key, I believe, is the GMO nature of soy – the soy her husband consumed in the 70s was not GMO; the soy her daughter consumed in 2010 is GMO.  Her daughter’s body, having half of the DNA of her papa, was most likely able to receive a non-GMO soy and be fine – but didn’t know what to do with the modified DNA in the GMO soy, hence her allergic reaction.

continued in tomorrow’s post, “Thoughts on “Food, Inc.,” part 2″

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