Monday, May 3, 2010

Food, Inc.

I recently watched the documentary, Food, Inc., by Robert Kenner, and I recommend that every person who is brave enough to know about the food he/she eats in America go out today and rent it, order it from Netflix, or get it from your local library (where I got mine; though I saw it first on my local PBS station). Now I, like many of you, have read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation; have read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (both of whom star in Food, Inc.); have read many other books on food and genetic engineering. But this documentary packs a more powerful visual and emotional punch than any single book could. That’s because you can read about the horrors of industrial agriculture, of chicken/hog/cattle ‘food operations’ (CAFOs), but until you see one, you can’t really imagine the sheer filth, cruelty and torture imposed on creatures whose health cannot help but be related to our own. Indeed, at one point in the section on chicken farming (one cannot really call it “farming” any more; it is industrialized mass slaughter of the most brutal kind), where a chicken farmer named Carole Morrison, masked to keep from breathing in the dust and feces pervading the place, was culling dead birds from her barn floor (after explaining that because of the large breasts demanded by American fast food, modern chickens have become so top-heavy that their internal organs and bones can’t hold them up and they flop to the floor after a few steps)—I began to weep. My guess is that each person will be moved in this way by a different segment of the film, but my hope is that you’ll stick with it long enough to become outraged. For as the film points out, this story isn’t just about what we’re eating. It’s about what anyone can say about it. And that’s what everyone needs to know: the stranglehold that a few American corporations have over the production and distribution of food (and how that production is, or is not, regulated) in these United States is increasing daily.

It has not always been so. When I was growing up, we bought our chickens from a chicken store in our neighborhood that had live chickens in wooden cages. You selected one, the butcher would slaughter it right there, and you would bring it home to remove the tiny feather quills still in the chicken, clean out the guts, and cook it. You knew what you were eating. But since the beginning of industrial agriculture—which began in the 1930s with fast food drive-ins, and then really exploded when the McDonald brothers brought the factory system into the back of their drive-in restaurant (making each worker do one thing over and over, so unskilled workers could be hired more cheaply and the servers could be dispensed with completely), not just fast food but ALL food grown in America has changed utterly. That’s because of the gargantuan volume of meat and all else that fast-food chains buy. McDonald’s, for instance, is the largest purchaser of ground beef, potatoes and tomatoes in the United States. What they demand is uniformity: all ground beef the same, all potatoes the same variety. And all grown the same way, on a massive scale. The result: in the 1970s, the top five beef packers controlled only 25% of the market; today, the top four control 80% of the market. So virtually all meat is grown (corn-fed) and processed in the same way, and the hamburger that results comes from hugely varied places (and countries), all mixed together into ground beef that has a far higher chance of being contaminated with E. coli than when you were getting your hamburger from one steer part ground right in front of you at your local meat market. Of course, the meat packers know there’s this little problem (more about that later), so rather than change the way beef is fed and medicated and slaughtered, they try technological fixes. One such fix involves washing the beef with ammonia (ammonium hydroxide) in a gleaming stainless steel plant. As the documentary notes in print: “The finished product. Hamburger meat filler that’s been cleansed with ammonia to kill E. coli.” We see this stuff (mashed-up everything-left-over) being packed in plastic-lined boxes, but it doesn’t look like meat at all; it looks like a huge rectangle of white, pasty stuff that resembles glue. And the owner of this plant brags: “Our meat is 70% of the hamburger in the country and soon will be 100%.”

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching part of the film relates to this E. coli problem. Barbara Kowalcyk, a registered Republican, tells the story of her son Kevin, who at age 2 ½ ate some fast-food hamburger in Colorado. Poisoned by E. coli 157H7 (which never grew in the naturally acidic cow rumen before the feedlot revolution, which forces corn into an animal evolved to eat grass), he died in twelve days of kidney failure, begging for water he was not allowed to drink more than a few drops of due to his condition. Since then, Kowalcyk, with her mother, have been haunting the halls of Congress to get legislation passed to implement rules for meat contamination that would allow the USDA, once again, to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meat (in 1998, the courts ruled that the USDA did NOT have this authority). As of the time the documentary was produced, Kevin’s Law still had not passed the Congress. Kowalcyk is shown testifying:

“It has been seven years since my son died. All I wanted the company to do was say ‘we’re sorry we produced this defective product that killed your child and this is what we’re going to do to be sure it wouldn’t happen again.’ That’s all we wanted. And they couldn’t give me that.”

Moreover, later in the film Barbara Kowalcyk is asked about a specific product that is problematic, and she declines to answer, saying “they have made it against the law to criticize their products.” She cited the Oprah case, wherein a comment about not eating hamburger resulted in a lawsuit that cost the TV star over a million dollars to fight off, as well as a Colorado law making it a “felony under veggie libel law to criticize a product, so you could go to prison…” This sequence ends by noting that the food industry is now proposing laws to make it a crime to photograph a food-processing operation like a feedlot or chicken factory—a law which would have made Food, Inc. an illegal film.

Which is exactly the point. Industrial food corporations do not want American consumers to know where their food comes from (or rather, they want to maintain the illusion of pastoral farms with happy cows). If they did know, if every American watched Food, Inc., the whole sick structure would collapse. Corporate America, therefore, spends billions of dollars lobbying members of Congress for ever-more draconian laws to allow them to do whatever they want, and to restrict investigations into their evil practices. Monsanto (I have just noticed that this pesticidal, genetic-engineering monster now has a website devoted to answering questions about the issues raised by Food, Inc.—indicating that these bastards have been hit hard by the film and will stop at nothing to propagandize against it. See, for example, used to employ Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as one of its lawyers (they have legions of them). Instead of recusing himself (as Stephen Breyer did), Thomas is preparing to hear the latest case against Monsanto, currently making its third appeal in its genetically-engineered alfalfa case. Without Breyer, and with Thomas already in their pockets (he has written key decisions in previous cases favoring his former employer), a decision for Monsanto could end up giving them ownership over the fourth largest crop in the United States (along with their monopoly on soybeans.) For this compassionate purveyor of Agent Orange (the toxic Monsanto herbicide the U.S. Military used 72 million liters of, spraying it over 1 million Vietnamese civilians and 100,000 U.S. troops), it will be business as usual. This means that more and more farmers trying to grow conventional crops, saving seeds as farmers have always done, will be sued by Monsanto for “patent infringement.” Food, Inc., essentially ends with a Monsanto segment about this, interviewing desperate farmers who have been driven out of business by this techno-devil.

The trouble began in 1990, when Monsanto began selling Roundup Ready soybeans (a genetically-altered soybean seed that is able to survive spraying with the Monsanto pesticide, Roundup, while everything else dies). At the time, only 2% of soybeans in the United States contained Monsanto’s patented gene. By 2008, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contained it. Worse, Monsanto began sending out its team of 75 thugs to investigate (and intimidate) farmers suspected of saving their seeds. If Monsanto finds the farmer’s field contaminated with its seed (farmers hate such contamination, but are helpless to prevent it), these farmers can then be sued for patent infringement. Most farmers, faced with the grueling prospect of an expensive court fight wherein they have to prove they have not violated Monsanto’s patents (i.e. by intentionally stealing their seed), have quietly given up and succumbed to Roundup Ready seeds. But a few holdouts have been sticking to the old way, using seed cleaners to prepare their saved seeds for planting. Moe Parr, a seed cleaner who depends on traditional farmers who save seed, testifies that his is one of only six seed cleaners left in Indiana (there used to be three in every county, he asserts). He also reminds us that land grant colleges (most state universities) were in part founded to develop seed for their farmers, but “public breeding is a thing of the past.” Because of his alleged role in helping farmers to save seed (and resist Monsanto), Moe Parr was sued by Monsanto “on the basis that I’m encouraging farmers to break the patent by cleaning their own seed.”

Like other farmers, Parr tried to defend himself in a David vs. Goliath fight. The downward spiral progressed from farmers not wanting to be seen with him, to more and more of his money vanishing into court costs and lawyers. Parr is shown answering questions in court after Monsanto subpoenaed all of his financial records. Revealing each farmer who paid him, the records, if elaborated on, would force him to betray his friends. “This essentially puts me out of business,” he says. And in print we read: “Four months later, Moe Parr settles with Monsanto because he can no longer pay his legal bills.” The same scenario is repeated everywhere. Monsanto sues a farmer not because it has a legitimate case, but because it knows it can sustain endless legal costs while its victims cannot. The upshot is clear: Monsanto now owns the soybean, owns corn, and will soon own alfalfa.

There is far more in Food, Inc., but I think you get the idea. A few agribusiness giants now own all food production in this country, and their use of pesticides and other industrial processes is poisoning the crops, the animals, the waterways, the soil, and us. Since agribusiness also owns the Congress and other sectors of government (Anne Veneman, Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture, was on the Board of Directors of Monsanto’s Calgene Corp.), the likelihood of better regulation seems remote.

What can be done? Food, Inc. ends with some useful recommendations, all of which come down to this: know what you’re buying, and signal by your food choices that you reject corporatized industrial agriculture and all it stands for. Buy local if possible. And get involved through websites like the one produced by Organic Consumers: It can’t hurt, and just might push the corporations hard enough to modify and eventually break up their cash cows. Meantime, if you happen to run into one of the CEOs of Monsanto, or Cargill, or Smithfield Corp (they slaughter 32,000 hogs per day in their Tar Heel, NC plant)., or Tyson Foods (they hire ‘farmers’ to raise those breast-heavy ‘chickens’ in dark windowless sheds that hold 300,000 birds; typical salary, $18,000; typical debt, $500,000.) , or McDonald’s, you have my permission and encouragement to give them a piece of your….mind, of course.

Lawrence DiStasi

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