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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Food, Inc.

Robert Kenner exposes a toxic chain of consumption

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Philip K. Dick, an author of unsettling science fiction, wrote of fearsome systems behind the placid surfaces of our world and mechanisms of control as invisible as ghosts. But even Dick, who died in 1982, never imagined the horror of agribusiness and its hidden influence across the globe. Since the '70s, the food we've been eating isn't the same as before, deceptively similar appearances aside, and the consequences are dire.

Food, Inc., Robert Kenner's visually dynamic and polemical documentary, examines the products in our supermarket aisles, tracing them to their sources. Interviews with authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) illuminate how a corporate cabal has forged the contemporary food chain. The agribusiness giants have masked themselves beneath bucolic images of contented cows and pastures of plenty, as if our food sprang from the nourishing soil of Jefferson's republic of yeomen farmers.

But in reality, modern agriculture resembles Blake's satanic mills, not "Green Acres." Food production is an industry unrelated to the cycles of nature and geared to mass production. Supermarket tomatoes, for one example, are often simulations under their hardy red skin. They don't taste as good and are less nutritious than the garden variety, but are easier to produce and ship. And the farmers themselves? Many have been reduced to virtual sharecropping. Deep in debt and bound to corporate behemoths, they are told how to raise their chickens and corn. Farmers are stalked by private investigators and hounded by lawsuits for planting seeds that aren't genetically modified. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that genes can be patented, corporations laying claim to the very substance of life have driven recalcitrant farmers out of business.

And that's not all. For generations Americans have assumed that food is safe, but we live with only an illusion of security. In 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 inspections of slaughterhouses and other facilities. In 2006, that number had shrunk below 9,200. Although George W. Bush's FDA chief was an agribusiness lobbyist, Democrats have no cause to feel superior. Bill Clinton was surrounded by agribusiness advisers and, through NAFTA, devastated Mexican farmers, sending thousands north to find work. Many of them, illegally employed by agribusiness, are ill treated, ill paid and subject to deportation.

The meat that reaches market is a "Soylent Green" story unto itself. Force-fed on steroids and government subsidized corn, cattle, pigs and chickens are sick, injected with antibiotics and sent down an assembly line of slaughter. Chickens never see sunlight and, genetically modified to unnatural size, can't stand on their own legs. The animals we eat often live in their own excrement and the runoff has contaminated spinach, apple juice and other products with E. coli.

Fortunately, Food, Inc. isn't without bright points. Stung by public opinion and perceiving a rise in consumer demand, Wal-Mart, one of America's biggest food retailers, is selling organic goods. By voting with our dollars, the documentary says, we can alter the course of corporate policy. Sadly, the lower classes, for lack of money and information, will remain more vulnerable than the well-off to diabetes, obesity and other health problems caused by bad agribusiness food. Below the surface of Food, Inc. lurks an idea even more disturbing. Corporations and their tame politicians maintain a vast web of exploitation, degrading animals, agricultural workers, consumers and the value of life itself.

Due to misinformation from Landmarks Theaters, the opening of Food, Inc. was listed in this week's Shepherd Express as July 24. It actually opens July 17 at the Downer Theater.
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