I procrastinated mightily about seeing Food, Inc., the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentary by Robert Kenner. I expected it to be, at best, a rehash of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food and The Future of Food and King Corn and Food Fight. And I’m like a part-time, self-hating member of the choir that all those books and films are preaching to: I am part of the flock of the food reform faithful, but instead of inspiring me to sing Hallelujah, most of the preaching about it just makes me sort of itchy. Still, I felt like I should see the film, especially after it was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, and a couple of weeks ago, a golden opportunity presented itself in the form of a free showing at the UM School of Social Work followed by a panel discussion and (vegetarian) dinner.
First, two caveats: 1) it’s probably impossible to tackle the industrial food production and distribution systems in with 100% accuracy or examine the all the relevant causes and consequences of both those systems and the many proposals for reform in a 90-min documentary and 2) lots of people are praising Food, Inc. for raising awareness or calling attention to the problems in the food industry, and to whatever extent that it has done that, I applaud it.
But that doesn’t excuse the un-attributed voice-overs, the slew of un-cited and un-interrogated “facts,” the manipulative soundtrack choices, or the excess of dopey graphics. The list of suggestions at the end of the film for viewers who have been convinced that Something Needs To Be Done drives me so Bats it’s going to have to be a separate entry (I know I keep starting series I can never finish…there’s always too much to say, too little time to say it). But of course, it’s not at all surprising that I’d take issue with the “solution” when I disagree so profoundly with the way they’ve framed and portrayed the “problem.”
The Claim: In the meat aisle, there are no bones anymore
Well, for one, that’s demonstrably false.
Moreover, the principle the documentary seems to be getting at—that Americans only eat the way they do because they are systematically and deliberately distanced from the reality of food production, and particularly the treatment of the animals they eat—is highly questionable. Pollan makes the same claim in Omnivore’s:
Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating meat, and in the process begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to simply pass a law requiring all the sheet-metal walls of all the CAFOs, and even the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses, to be replaced with glass. If there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one: the right, I mean, to look.
It may actually be Pollan’s voice that tells you there are no bones in supermarkets. Throughout the film, and particularly at critical framing moments (i.e., the opening sequence, the introduction and conclusion of each segment), Food, Inc., uses the voices of select interviewees as voiceovers without making it clear who’s speaking. That effectively turns them into omniscient narrators and denies the audience the opportunity to consider their credentials and biases and evaluate their pronouncements accordingly.
Pollan runs with this idea of “the glass abattoir,” turning a vague speculation about the importance of looking into one of the central battle cries of the “food revolution.” But the assumption that looking would necessarily change the system is based on the same error many religious evangelists make—the assumption that if someone disagrees with you, it’s not because your belief is silly or lacks firm grounding in observable facts, but because they simply haven’t been enlightened. Pollan et al posit that if people really had to reckon with the fact that their food came from creatures who experience pain and misery as a result of industrial-scale agriculture, they would stop eating meat or at least seriously re-consider whether their personal enjoyment of meat outweighs the moral costs. Factor in the social and environmental and nutritional costs, and no ethical person would ever eat industrially-produced bacon again, right?
Of course that, too, is demonstrably false. There are plenty of farmers and slaughterhouse workers, people who’ve read Fast Food Nation and seen videos of downer cattle and the killing floor, and lots of other people who have reckoned or may be engaged in a long, personal process of reckoning with the complicated ethics of animal agriculture who continue to eat industrially-produced meat. And unless you’re willing to declare them all ethically bankrupt or eternally damned food sinners, you have to accept the possibility that they may have valid reasons for doing so—even if you disagree with those reasons.
Some people see CAFOs and corn subsidies as the means of producing highly desirable animal protein with minimal labor and space and perhaps some unfortunate side effects that we can try to deal with without dismantling the whole system. Others see even Polyface Farms, which both Omnivore’s and Food, Inc. portray as a sort of livestock paradise, as another Treblinka.
Looking, or simply becoming aware of how food is produced doesn’t guarantee any particular response, and it’s extraordinarily patronizing to assume that people who disagree with you are simply ignorant.
Okay, in an attempt to keep these entries shorter and more digestible, I’ll end there. Still to come in this series—an examination of the documentary’s claims that “the food has become much more dangerous,” that $1.29 broccoli is too expensive, and that fast food is cheaper than cooking. Also, a glorious example of the unintended consequences of corn-phobia, or The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig, courtesy of Emeritus Professor of Social Work Brett Seabury, who was one of the speaker/moderators in the conversation after the film showing. And of course, why the suggestions at the end of the film make me crazy.