Behind the food industry's iron curtain

Michael Pollan and director Robert Kenner talk about "Food, Inc.," the movie agribusiness doesn't want you to see.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 12, 2009 10:25AM (EDT)

Soybeans being harvested.
Soybeans being harvested.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Listen to the interview with Robert Kenner

Two warring conceptions of the American food and agriculture business collide in the gripping agitprop documentary "Food, Inc.," the result of a collaboration between filmmaker Robert Kenner and writers Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan. I'm using "agitprop" as a descriptor, not a pejorative, since I personally agree with nearly all the arguments made in the film. Furthermore, if "Food Inc." comes off as a one-sided project, it's easy to know where to point the finger, since the biggest meat-processing companies and agribusiness firms profiled in the film -- Smithfield, Tyson, Perdue, Monsanto -- universally declined to provide any access or on-camera interviews.

On one hand, we've got the fact that, as Pollan puts it, the production of food has changed more in the last 50 years than it did in the previous 10,000. With the massive application of fertilizers, pesticides and economies of scale after World War II, raising crops and animals for food ceased to be a rural lifestyle based on many small farmers and ranchers, and rapidly became a heavily mechanized (and lightly regulated) industry dominated by a handful of big companies who run on low-wage labor. "Food, Inc." attempts to lift the veil of secrecy from this process. In one remarkable example Pollan provides, the meat in a single fast-food burger might have come from 400 different cows.

This change has had obvious benefits for consumers, a point that leftists, foodies and environmentalists sometimes overlook but that Kenner's film takes pains to notice. While chronic food shortages threaten the poor of Africa and South Asia with starvation, food in America is plentiful, various and exceptionally cheap. (Expressed as a proportion of the average family's budget, food prices have fallen by half in 30 years.) In the movie, Kenner spends some time with a working-class Latino family who say they simply don't spend enough time at home together to shop or cook. While dropping the kids at school and then driving themselves to work, Mom and Dad can feed the whole family at Burger King -- for about $11.

Locavores and organic mavens like Pollan (author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food") or pioneering chef Alice Waters have long argued that the American diet is unhealthy, wasteful of resources and ecologically destructive. But for the vast majority of working Americans, the low prices achieved by the mass-market food industry outweigh their arguments. As anyone knows who has made the switch, organic and locally produced food comes with sticker shock. Although the organic sector of the market is growing rapidly, it only represents about 3 percent of the total food market. If you surmise that that 3 percent correlates strongly with upper-middle-class, college-educated folks in coastal cities and college towns, you're probably right.

Although "Food, Inc." will inevitably be compared to "An Inconvenient Truth" (and there are undeniable similarities), it actually represents an earlier stage in the activist process. The latter film used a well-known public figure to galvanize widespread opinion on an issue that was becoming mainstream. In my conversation with Michael Pollan, he said the food-activism movement in 2009 is roughly where the environmental movement was in 1970, at the time of the first Earth Day. "Food Inc." is meant to be an opening salvo that gets people's attention, not the battle that wins the war.

An engaging and often wrenching film, "Food, Inc." covers a wide range of material, including the horrific, the humorous and the exemplary. Kenner explores cases of E. coli poisoning (from tainted ground beef); the factory farming methods that have produced more, fatter and faster-growing farm animals; and Monsanto's genetically patented, pesticide-proof corn and soybeans that have given them monopoly power over those crops. But he also shows us how far the organic-corporate rapprochement has come, introduces us to a western Virginia rancher who produces natural, grass-fed livestock (the movie's most appealing character) and rides along as Walmart buyers visit a Stonyfield Farms organic dairy.

The agitprop line of attack in "Food, Inc." is twofold. First, the film seeks to cast doubt on the low price of American food, and suggest that a food production system that is so destructive to human health, the lives of captive animals, its own workers and the environment is far more expensive than it seems to be. Secondly, Kenner and his collaborators want to argue that consumer choice -- often derided by social-change activists as passive and ineffective -- can be a powerful instrument in this case.

When Walmart decided to stop selling dairy products from cows treated with bovine growth hormone, the market for such hormones went south, and most farmers stopped using it. When McDonald's decided to phase out genetically modified potatoes, the same thing happened, and odds are there are no GM potatoes in your local store either. A few lefty locavores signing petitions at the health-food store can't do much to change the industrial production methods behind supermarket chicken, beef and pork. But a few million people demanding grass-fed beef at Safeway, Giant Food and Food Lion could transform the system virtually overnight.

I sat down with director Robert Kenner at the New York offices of Magnolia Pictures, the film's distributor. (You can also watch my shorter interview with Michael Pollan and Robert Kenner here.

You didn't come to this project with any particular knowledge about the industrial production of food, isn't that right?

Yeah, I came in as a filmmaker. I was looking to figure out how our food gets to our plate. On one hand, I think it's kind of a miracle. We spend less of our paycheck on this food than any point in history, and I think that’s a great thing. But at the same time, this inexpensive food is coming to us at a high cost. I thought that would be an interesting subject for an investigation on this food. I didn't realize when I started it that ultimately agribusiness does not want us to look behind the veil to see where our food comes from. I think I could have been making a film about nuclear terrorism and have gotten greater access.

Well, I gather you tried to get many people from the food industry to talk to you on the record, but it didn't really work, did it? 

No. We went to one corporation after another, and spent months trying to bring them in. There was very little interest in having us go into the kitchen. I can understand why companies don’t want you to go onto a slaughterhouse floor, or whatever, because Americans are very disconnected from the way their food is made. But they also didn't even want to go on camera and talk about it, and I think that was a mistake. Now that we’re finished making the film, they're very anxious to have their voices heard.

I’m sure they are. We’re talking about mainly the large producers of beef, poultry and pork. Companies like Perdue and Tyson and Smithfield, and of course Monsanto, the chemical manufacturer. One of the things this movie is really about is the tremendous amount of power they have over our food supply.

Well, really the film is about food, and how our food has become less healthy, and about the high cost of this low-cost food. But it goes beyond that. It’s about the concentration of power, it’s about the relationship of these powerful corporations to government, and the lack of transparency in the system. And it could probably be about a number of other subjects, but what makes it all the more powerful is that you have to eat this stuff.

With Monsanto, we spent months trying to bring them in. We had about 11, 12, 13 e-mail correspondences and multiple telephone conversations. They asked us numerous questions about what we were doing, who were we talking with, what we were talking about. They asked if they could talk to our characters. We ended up sending phone numbers of people. I think we went so far above and beyond in trying to bring them in. Finally we sent them a letter -- I think, like, our 13th letter -- saying, "We need you to respond. A lack of response at this point will be taken as a no." Well, now they've put up a Web site about the film, and they say they never declined to be in our film. I feel -- I’m using this word carefully, because my lawyer explained it to me -- I feel that it's a misleading statement to say they never declined. Because they were asked at least a dozen times. Technically they never responded, never said no. They were never going to say no.

You told me earlier that some foodies and environmentalists are disappointed with the film, because they say it's stuff they already know. But you're aiming at a wider and more general audience here, aren't you? 

I'm really trying to reach out and bring as many people into this movement, which is an incredibly expanding, fast-growing movement. You don’t have to be a Democrat or a Republican to not want to eat meat with fecal matter on it. We all want to feed our children healthy food. So it's not about ideology at that point. There are some right-wing religious groups who are very active on the matters of food. It's an issue that can unite people. At the same time, we're up against very powerful corporations, and we've grown to love very cheap food. It’s wonderful how little it costs, but we’re starting to see the real damage it does.

You can see the parallels with tobacco. These are powerful corporations that have tons of money, that have great connections with government. They spend fortunes on advertising, and as with tobacco, put out a lot of misleading information on the health of their product. I think we're beginning to see the dangers of this inexpensive food that these big agribusinesses are producing. And the more we can see the cracks in this system, the faster it’s going to fall apart. I'm hoping that this film can help people to start to think about it. 

You know, I told my mother-in-law about this film, and that I really thought she should see it. She lives in the South and she's a Republican. She was like, "Is it just going to make me feel bad?" Which strikes me as a good question. I said, "Actually, no, I don’t think it will."

Andrew's mother-in-law: Go see this film! I think that's the big thing. I hope this is a very empowering film. One of the messages is that we as consumers have a lot more power than we think we do. Ultimately these corporations are scared of us. And ultimately, if there’s a movement, the government wants to follow us. So there are a number of empowering points that we try to make, even though it’s a difficult subject. I think if people see it, they’ll feel empowered. But sometimes people are scared and don't want to know where our food comes from. 

You have those interesting scenes with the Walmart buyers visiting a Stonyfield Farms facility. I mean, they're not selling organic yogurt out of ideological commitment, right? If Walmart is selling it, it's because people who shop there are buying it.

They’re buying that yogurt. Organic is the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. There are many good things about that. We’re taking chemicals out of the land. There’s some organic food -- I mean, organic Coca-Cola might be coming one of these days. It might not be great for us. But we're having growth in this organic field. And we’re having growth in farmer’s markets, and hopefully that will empower smaller farmers as well. People are becoming much more conscious of their food, and the more we think about it, the more good food we’re going to get. 

Do people have to get their heads around the idea that food really shouldn't be as cheap as it is now? Because that could be tough.

I was talking with Michael Pollan this morning, and he was saying that when he was a kid, food cost about 18 percent of the average American's income. Today that food costs 9.7 percent of our income. Basically it’s been cut in half over a 40- to 50-year period. But medical costs have gone from 5 percent to 18 percent, so in aggregate, we’re spending more money for medicine and for food today than we used to. We love cheap food and we love quantity, like a chicken in every pot. Chicken used to be a very special thing. Now we can get it all the time, and it’s very inexpensive.

But it's coming at a cost, and that’s one of the things that we try to point out. They're invisible costs; you might not see them at the checkout counter. One-third of all Americans born after the year 2000 are going to have early-onset diabetes. That's going to bankrupt the healthcare system. Environmentally, we’re going to have tremendously high costs. Ultimately a large part of our carbon footprint is due to this food system. This food is grown in an unsustainable way, it's based on gasoline and it’s based on pollution. When gasoline prices spike, it's going to make this food very expensive. We can no longer drink the water in some farm states. Our topsoil has become totally depleted. And this food that we’re eating has far less nutritional value than the food we used to eat, so we have to eat more and more food to get that nutrition. All these invisible high costs of our food system are starting to become more and more obvious.

"Food, Inc." is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with wider national release to follow. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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