Food, Inc. (So very full of spoilers.)

My problem with Food, Inc. (and Inconvenient Truth, with which it shares some pedigree) isn’t with its negatives. It’s with its positives. The portrayal of agri-business is possibly even too charitable at points, overlooking some issues, admittedly my pet peeves, about land use, soil erosion, the nitrogen cycle, and water and air safety. But for the most part it is honest and I think not overly gruesome look at factory farming. The the cow with a window into its stomach served no real purpose and was a bit of a gross out, but you can kind of see the producers saying “We have to put that bit in! Have to have to have to!” It has a kind of Baron Harkonnen’s pet cow feel to it, but it doesn’t really tell you anything.

My problem is the lack of examination into the heros of the story. Many of its suggestions are likely to be ineffective, and in same cases so easy to game they are likely to make the situation worse. Most of their answers require a middle class or better income, which also attracts corruption. We are told to buy organic. We are never told why organic is better, or what the organic standard is. In fact, it’s not always better, and you can slide in under the wire with the standard while violating the spirit utterly. Free range chickens and eggs can basically mean there’s a catdoor-like thing the chickens never use. Organic farming can be more destructive in some cases than conventional farming, but it varies by crop, location, climate conditions… etc. It’s nuanced and complex and doesn’t fit into a sound bite or slogan.

We are told to buy local. This is a tremendously dubious claim. Economies of scale can be better for the environment and our health, when food is produced where it wants to grow and then shipped. I once found a grown in California banana – whatever you have to do to grow a banana in California cannot be good for anyone. Buying local is something that should go with buying in season- you have to know the foods, and do it when it makes sense to do it. Again, nuanced, and not a general prescription for saving anything.

While Food, Inc. didn’t come out and say GMO = bad it certainly implied it. GMO, once again, equals complex. Not all genetic modifications are equal, and Round Up Ready soy beans is a far cry from Golden Rice- a strain engineered with enhanced vitamin A and iron for poor populations where deficiencies are a blight. GMO crops are something that should be examined rather than accepted wholesale or rejected outright. They may have the greatest potential to save the environment in the end. Is that the way current genetic engineering in food is going? Hell no. It’s largely being misused in ways that abuse human rights as well as potentially make food more poisonous. But it’s a technology, and technologies are inherently neutral. We figure out what to make of them.

We are shown meat washed with ammonia, but not told why that is bad. We are shown terrible labor conditions for undocumented workers in meat packing, but not the terrible conditions for fruit pickers, whether the farms are organic or not. We are introduced to Stonyfield Farms as an organic business that proves better methods can make money, but we’re never told what those better methods are, or what makes them better. We are simply left to trust CEO Gary Hirshberg while he goes on at length about how great their product is, and how responsible you are for buying it, even at Walmart.

It gets to be a bit of an ad for a while, but like most ads, it’s largely free of substance. But it’s great exposure, so much that Stonyfield is marketing the movie heavily on their own.

Food, Inc. lacks journalistic investigations of its own answers- it doesn’t ask those questions. Perhaps this is because when you do, the simple actions you can take listed at the end of the movie stop being so simple. None of them are wholly wrong, but none of them are wholly right either, with the possible exception of telling your congress person to pay more attention to food safety legislation. I can’t really see a problem with that. As for Kevin’s law, I hate laws named for dead children. They make me suspicious that someone is trying to short circuit my ability to reason. And that doesn’t entirely fail to work on me only makes me more suspicious.

Nevertheless, I do want to show this movie to a lot of people. Despite its flaws and omissions it at least opens a conversation about food people aren’t having. We do need to understand our foods better and make more informed choices- and this is a first step. At the very least I could use this to explain part of why I am vegetarian. I dislike its easy answers, but I love to hear people talking about the subject. While possibly sinfully incomplete, it doesn’t seem to be actually wrong very much.

One more pet peeve: the film claimed it was carbon neutral because of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are generally an indulgence sold to people to let them feel better about doing things they are going to do anyway. It’s a system totally without certification based on things like planting monocultures of trees- not exactly helpful. We don’t know how much the trees will sequester, we don’t know how much they will put back into the environment when they die. Alternate energy production as a carbon offset is also plagued with problems. It needs to hit a market and take the place of carbon based fuel, which is not as straight forward as you might think.

Mostly I am just being the bearer of the bad news that the world is complex. Food, Inc. is a movie with very discrete good guys and bad guys and a list of simple things you can do to save [insert cause here]. Most of the easy things in this world have been done, and good guys and bad guys almost never turn out to stay safely in their black and white boxes when you look closer. Go see Food, Inc. But caveat spectator.