I find it strange how many people on Facebook have declared how much they loved Food, Inc. I’ve even received emails about the movie, imploring me to go see it right now. But we watched it a couple of nights ago, and honestly, it was just kind of meh. I realize that not everyone is as educated in the broad array of issues our country faces in regards to our food supply as we might be, but here’s the thing: have you read Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation? Then don’t waste your time with this movie.
I do think that the film would be a great starting point for those who are new to sustainability issues. It shows some basic info about several issues like CAFOs, chicken farming, unfair labor practices, environmental impact, etc. while telling stories that accompany those issues for illustration’s sake. The movie does this decently well. But I had one HUGE problem with the film, and it was this: the options presented as solutions are sorely, sorely lacking.
The only alternatives to the conventional food system presented in the film were farmer’s markets (or traveling to the actual farm) and Wal-Mart. Great. Way to discount the thousands of great community markets and co-ops in this country, not to mention Whole Foods and other alternative supermarkets. There is a large selection of alternatives in today’s marketplace, and the movie skipped over them entirely. Let’s say you’re brand new to the idea of voting with your dollars at the grocery store; does Food, Inc. really present any viable alternatives for you? Yeah, shopping at farmer’s markets is great, but frankly, it can be much more expensive than shopping at Whole Foods. And usually farmers are upfront with consumers at these markets, but I’ve been lied to before by representatives of farms, people who will tell me what I want to hear so I’ll buy their produce. I acknowledge that Whole Foods and other stores may not be a perfect solution, but these companies have the time and money to go visit these farms and make sure they’re doing what they say they’re doing.
And I think it was completely irresponsible of the filmmakers to suggest Wal-Mart as the only other alternative mentioned in the film. Sure, it’s great that organics have gained so much momentum that Wal-Mart customers have created enough demand for them that the company’s buyers are putting those products in their stores. But the only reason Wal-Mart has done this is because there’s a demand. Wal-Mart has no ethical interest in carrying these products, their only motives are financial. I certainly don’t blame them for that, but this point was skipped over in the film. The truth is that without Whole Foods and the hundreds of visionaries who have worked for decades to build organic companies out of hopes and dreams, there wouldn’t be any demand for organics.
I think it’s odd how much of a dirty word “Whole Foods” has become. (Yes, I do have family ties to the company, and I’ve disclosed that in this site’s FAQ section. Don’t let that convince you that I’m letting that sway me, because I have also been critical of the company in the past.) If you’re a conventional farmer who wants to make the switch to growing food organically, Whole Foods can be a god-send. There are programs in place within the company to help farmers make this change, and honestly, without being able to make big sales to Whole Foods, many farmers wouldn’t have the customer base necessary to support the costs associated with changing production methods. Sure, having a nation-wide chain of stores does necessitate a lot of shipping, which definitely has a cost in fossil fuels. But the incredible reduction in pesticides and other petrochemicals caused by the organic movement has more than balanced that out. Way more. In fact, there have been studies showing that shipping organic produce from foreign countries has a significantly lower carbon footprint than growing them conventionally here in the U.S. because of the massive environmental impact of agricultural petrochemicals. But this point is never made in the film, and in spite of all of the great options that Whole Foods provides to consumers with time and financial constraints who want to shop according to their consciences, the company doesn’t get a single mention throughout the film. Not one. And yet Wal-Mart has an entire section of the film devoted to its decision to carry Stonyfield yogurt. Well, really it’s a section devoted to Stonyfield and the idea behind big organics, but Wal-Mart plays a huge role in telling the tale of how large certain organic companies have become. The potential ethical implications of what the growing and selling of these companies to corporations like Hersheys and Dannon are very, very briefly mentioned in the film, with no real point being made. So Wal-Mart is a place to buy certain organic products, sure, but this segmet of the film doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what that might mean for the future of organics.
Also, the film repeatedly made the point that our government is so in bed with Big Ag, with deep ties to companies like Monsanto and Tyson, that basically there’s nothing we can do about it. Then, at the end, the film is like, Buy Food at Farmer’s Markets! Write Your Congressman! After two hours of the crushing message that our country is in too deep to allow us to enact any real change, the three-minute graphic montage at the end is supposed to somehow give us hope that we can change something. The message I got wasn’t hope, it was complete and utter despair. Not a great message for those starting out in their quest to learn about our broken food system, is it?
Yes, shopping at farmer’s markets is great, if you’re sure of where the food is coming from and if you can afford the extra time and money involved. And writing letters to politicians is at least a step in the right direction. But the only thing that will truly make a difference in our food supply is voting with our dollars every single day. You guys already know this, and so many of you have inspired me by the things you do to promote sustainability in your own lives. I think that most of you are so far beyond what this film has to say, and I’m really proud of you for that. So who is this film for? If it’s for people who are just starting to learn about sustainability, then why is it so depressing? Why is the message so hopeless? And, for crap’s sake, why are farmer’s markets and Wal-Mart so favored as options, to the exclusion of all other alternatives so widely available to today’s consumers? I’m not sure, really. I say, save your $10, and put it toward purchasing Fast Food Nation and Omnivore’s Dilemma, if you haven’t already read them, and learn a thousand times more than you could in this film. Or, use that ten bucks to go see Up instead. It’s a lot more uplifting.