By Andrew Kimbrell

As with other Americans of the boomer generation, I was brought up inundated with such corporate bromides as "better living through chemistry," "progress is our middle name," and even "DDT is good for me." As for food, the future was clear. It was epitomized by the culinary habits of TV's futuristic Jetson family, who met their daily nutritional requirements by eating various tablets rather than food. And emulating the astronauts, our future beverage of choice would be the orangey-tinged Tang. Behind all the jingles, ads, and media mantras of that time was the unquestioned message that the more artificial and industrialized our food the more "modern" and desirable it was.  Any and all technologies used for food production were said to represent inevitable progress.

Within a few years after World War II, the majority of U.S food production was increasingly dependent on massive chemical inputs, including pesticides and fertilizers, huge monocultures, and factory-like farms. This resulted in unprecedented profits for the agriculture companies. In the process, the "culture" in agriculture was removed and "business" was substituted. Predictably, "agribusiness" became a massive and institutionalized lobbying and media force foisting this industrial food model on us by strong-arming our elected officials and government agencies, buying out our educational institutions, suing recalcitrant farmers and, of course, flooding the media.

For several decades, our indoctrination into this industrial food mind-set went without widespread challenge. Our highly urbanized society became increasingly removed from the sources of its daily bread. Over the last century we have been transformed from a nation of farmers, with our hands and minds linked to the soil, to consumers lined up in supermarkets to buy an array of food products about which we know very little. This great physical and psychological distance between consumer and food production creates a tragic disconnect between the general public and the social and environmental consequences of the food being grown and eaten. This disconnect between us and our agricultural system was, and remains, the essential "cover" that allows the corporations to hide the real and terrible impacts of the industrialization of our food supply. 

Fortunately there are an increasing number of writers and filmmakers who are blowing agribusinesses' cover these days.  We have exposé reports on food issues by major NGO's, books by the likes of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Barbara Kingsolver, Claire Cummings and Eric Schlosser.  We have some ground breaking documentaries such as "The Future of Food " and "The World According to Monsanto." Two recent movies, Food, Inc. and Fresh, continue to expose the horrific reality of industrial food production. Full disclosure requires this reviewer to mention that he and his organization the Center for Food Safety provided significant input to Food, Inc. and that he makes a couple of brief appearances in Fresh.

For those schooled in the ways of agribusiness, many of the revelations in these movies will be only too familiar. To summarize: industrial agriculture is dramatically increasing the incidence of cancers and myriad other human diseases; creating new bacteria, viruses, and other disease agents that poison our food; contaminating our rivers, lakes, and oceans with pesticides, chemicals, and the wastes from our factory farms;  exhausting and eroding our topsoil; decimating our forests through clear cutting for industrial-scale agriculture; costing us most of our genetic diversity through mono-culturing and now genetic engineering; has already led to the loss of around ten  million farmer jobs and five million farms; threatens our food security as the patented-crop monocultures become ever more susceptible to disease and insect infestation; has already been responsible for the threat to the majority of species on our endangered species list; and imperils  the entire biosphere as a significant contributor to global warming gases. 

Food, Inc. presents this material in compelling fashion with top notch production values.  The movie has the advantage of informed and engaging commentary by Michal Pollan and Eric Schlosser as we are led through the industrial food  litany of horribles. Especially welcome and perhaps of greatest interest to readers of GeneWatch is the portrayal of farmers and seed cleaners who are being persecuted and prosecuted by Monsanto for purported patent violations.  Starting in 1985, and buoyed by a 2002 Supreme Court opinion written by former Monsanto lawyer Clarence Thomas, the US Patent and Trademark Office has allowed the utility patenting of seeds and plant genes and cells. This patenting policy includes not only genetically engineered seeds but conventional hybrid seeds as well. Unlike the plant breeding rights granted by Congress, these patents forbid farmers to save, exchange, or do small scale sale of their seeds. 

Under this misguided patenting regime, Monsanto and other companies have sued farmers that save or exchange their seeds. The compelling stories of the thousands of US farmers who have been threatened by Monsanto and the hundreds of farmers and farm businesses that have been sued has not been available to the larger public.  It is certainly to be hoped that this movie with its wide commercial dissemination wakes up policy makers to the plight of famers, and to the larger monopolistic threat of Monsanto and four other companies owning almost 50% of all world's commercial seeds. Unfortunately neither Food Inc. nor Fresh delves deeper into the issue of genetically engineered foods.  Few people know that around 85 percent of all genetically engineered crops in the US and globally are designed not to increase yield or nutrition (which they don't) but rather to withstand massive spraying of weed killing chemicals.  That is why the leading genetic engineers of plants are all chemical companies.  Plenty of material here for a future documentary.

Fresh has few of the production values of Food, Inc. and sometimes its audio and video editing failures are downright disturbing.  What it has is heart.  Somehow its portrayal of the plight of the ten billion animals abused in our factory farms is far more poignant than that in Food, Inc.  And it's hard not to start cheering for the parade of food hero's presented in this movie.  Farmers who have transformed their hog farms from industrial to humane, entrepreneurs who have started whole new sustainable and local food distribution systems, urban farmers educating their neighbors in impoverished "food deserts" how to eat and think about sustainable food. The movie forcefully reminds us that something happened on the way to the corporate-planned industrialized food future -something that the agribusiness proponents did not see coming. Millions of Americans have decided to vote day after day with the food dollars for a different vision of agriculture. Through their food choices they have begun to demonstrate new attitudes about maintaining their health, healing the earth, and protecting farm communities and animal welfare. As a result, more of us are eating organic than ever before, and organic food production, though still small, is the fastest growing segment in U.S. agriculture today. And as this movie shows, myriad, ambitious projects are underway for "beyond organic" farming that is local, in appropriate scale, humane, biodiverse, socially just, and that comports with wilderness protection.

Ultimately what the current wave of movies and books demonstrate is that we find ourselves in the midst of a historical battle over two very different visions of our food future in the 21st century. An exponentially expanding movement for organic, local, ecological, humane and just food is challenging the decades-long hegemony of the corporate industrial model. Food, Inc. and Fresh urge us to be "creators' rather than consumers. They help us understand that every action we make in deciding what foods to buy, grow, or eat creates a very different future for ourselves and the earth.              


Andrew Kimbrell is Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, editor of Fatal Harvest: the Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, and author of Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food.

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