Thursday night saw a good turnout of twenty or so people at the Northfield Eco Centre for a screening of Food Inc. The documentary rampages through the American food industry like a bull in a china shop, systematically exposing big-business dodgy dealings in beef production, meat packing, chicken rearing, corn growing, and GMO soya beans. It wasn’t a simple 90 minute activists’ rant through, in particular the film took a sympathetic approach to the farmers and producers who often appeared distressed, frustrated, depressed, broken, and ultimately under the total control of the major agro-corporations, whom the film vehemently attacked. One such chicken farmer willing to speak to the documentarists revealed that his hi-spec chicken sheds cost $280,000 each, which food firm Tyson insist on him regularly upgrading (at his own expense), yet he only earns $18,000 a year from his businesses. A fellow chicken farmer who refused to upgrade her sheds at the request of Purdue, subsequently lost her contract and livelihood, but revealed that farmers are persuaded to take on massive loans to fund their first shed, and once they’re in the grip of the company, they enter a spiral of expansion, upgrades, and ultimately crippling debt. The film revealed the American industrial food system is chronically sick, and it’s making us sick too as cases of fatal E-coli outbreaks soar, and cheap excess American corn gets dumped on developing countries, putting native farmers out of business as local prices plummet.
There were some glimmers of hope in the film (though not enough in my opinion) such as the story of Joel Salatin, farmer at Polyface farm, who is a straight talking old-fashioned farmer with a sharp mind and great awareness of the impact of what he’s doing and the challenges that face him the future. Joel farms old-style with all the animals out in the fields, plenty of natural habitats, frequent movement of animals around the farm (he moves his cows and chickens every day!) to help make the farm self-sustainable, and with an old colonial farmhouse to boot! Joel has no intentions of expanding though, instead he stands out in the film as a model of how things could be done differently – Interestingly though, during a scene featuring Salatin’s open-air slaughterhouse where chickens were being traditionally slaughtered (put upside down into a metal cone and their throats cut by hand) the audience at the eco centre winced more than when seeing the shocking scenes from industrial slaughterhouses where live cattle are swept around the killing floor by giant machinery, and hacked apart with little care for health and hygiene. Perhaps we prefer not to see the truth behind eating meat, perhaps that’s precisely why these mass slaughterhouses have arisen, because we don’t want to witness death, we’d rather it went underground?
For me the film was a good exposition of the industrial food chain that we all rely on to some extent to feed us, and explained the issues clearly and powerfully, but failed to really demonstrate how changes can be made, especially with regards to those on low incomes – It would have been a great conclusion to have seen a regular family managing to find an alternative way of feeding themselves on a low income, but perhaps even that is not possible any more?
Check out the trailer below: