Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Food, Inc.: An Agrarian Movie Review (Part One)

Because I have been involved in the raising and selling of food,a couple of people have asked me my opinion about the movie Food,inc, which is now available from Netflix as a streaming video. I watched the movie recently, or most of it. I got bored once and left it stream for a few minutes and got annoyed once and left again. At the same time, I have been reading some excellent posts by Pastor Douglas Wilson on food, which can be accessed at his site.

I do not dispute many of the facts in the Movie. A few big multinational corporations have a stranglehold on large parts of the food system. I enjoy the fact that the film scared those large companies enough that they feel the need to spend money responding. I believe that genetic modification of food is genuinely dangerous to human and animal health.

My dislike of the film is a profound disagreement with every one of the "solutions" offered, which included (1)more regulations and inspections,(2)Joel Salatin, and(3) consumers demanding more organic food choices.

There was a very telling statistic at one point in the film that alluded to the decline in USDA inspections. I have a suspicion that this decline is due in part to a decline in facilities to inspect. Twenty years ago, there was a small slaughterhouse and meat cutter 4 miles from here. Thirty years ago, there were 3 slaughterhouses in the same radius. At least one went out of business rather than spend the money and annoyance in keeping up with ever changing regulations. These regulations were not a necessary guarantee for the safety and health of meat. The only guarantee of that is the honor of the butcher.

I once sold a lamb to a man from Lebanon. He arrived on a July day to kill and cut it up on the farm. July is not normal Pennsylvania butchering season, due to the warm weather. He used a sharp knife and cut the lamb's throat. After it bled out, I hoisted with a crane from the tractor. He cut it up in about 40 minutes. Some parts would be eaten raw as "kibbi nayeef", definately not USDA approved cooking. He worked carefully and quickly without any of the stainless steel surfaces, cooling or other paraphernalia required for USDA slaughter. The meat was safe and clean. It had to be, as his family depended on it.

The local meat cutters once knew their customers nearly as intimately as that man. If they made anyone sick, they actually had to face his family. Most were also craftsmen, and took pride in what they did. Many of the increased regulations were developed by the revolving door corporate agribusiness/government officials. Whther by purpose or design, the effect of the regulations was to drive out the local option.

I have never met Joel Salatin. I did read several of his books. The first ones I read were borrowed from a farmer who adopted many of his approaches and lost his farm. Mr. Salatin is a bright guy and has developed some interesting innovations.I find most compelling his book and earlier essay "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal" which touches on the point above and was NOT adequately addressed in the movie. As compelling a character as he is, his particular location and circumstances are not automatically transferable to every region of the country. They work great for farmers within a couple hours of drive a very large and wealthy metro area. Mr. Salatin is also an entrepreneurial huckster (I use this term with genuine affection), and I suspect his promotion of books, videos, paid farm tours, and speaking engagement fees helps make the mortgage. My wife once correctly remarked that he is a modern version of Frank Perdue (another likeable huckster).

Finally, consumers making demands to Walmart or Whole Foods is not a long term solution to the nation's food safety problems. The revolving door corporate government bureaucrats of the emerging servile state have the ability to control the definitions and parameters of "safe". For example,the definition of "organic", is now a legal term, and changes with the needs of business. Advertising can also create powerful subliminal messages, which the movie began with. Beyond this legal/regulatory/sales talk jungle, it is also no real assurance of safety or "cruelty free food". Some large feed lots have adopted the revolutionary humane handling systems of Dr. Temple Grandin (as a means of economic self interest). Some of the cruelest, most genuinely wicked livestock handlers I have ever seen are family scale Amish farmers.

The idea of "consumer action" strikes at the heart of the flaw in Food, Inc. The consumer is by necessity a victim. He must buy what he wants to eat. He has chosen freedom from toil in exchange for control of his own food safety. The lower the consumer's skill level; the greater the victimhood. Increasingly in American society dinner means food that has already been cooked, or made as ready to cook as possible. Every step in the chain from the cow to the hamburger, or the grain of wheat to the noodle in the Hamburger Helper package increase the danger through complexity of development. The consumer can only avoid this by becoming a producer. This does not mean that everyone need raise all their own food. Production can start in the kitchen (learning to actually cook, rather than "heat and eat"), move to the pantry (learning to can,freeze,dry and otherwise preserve), then the garden. For some, it might then move to the barnyard, even if the barnyard is only three chickens and a meat rabbit pen in a suburban backyard. While this takes skills and represents hard work, it is also satisfying. Were this to happen, it would also solve many dangers to the food system by reducing the systems current complexity.

Part Two will follow soon, unless I have a heart attack from the GMO corn chips and cheese whiz I ate tonight.


Canon Tallis said...

I grew up in a family that had a garden and chickens in the back yard. We read Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine and did our best to follow it, but as papa grew up on a farm mostly we did things his parents way - which were very close to Rodale.

Later I read Louis Bromfield's Malabar Farm and Pleasant Valley. His Ohio Farm is still in existence in Ohio as a museum and demonstration project. It ran in much the same way that Rodale suggested only on a slightly larger scale.

When it comes to food, I believe that as much as possible you shoul buy directly from the producers so I shop at Farmer's Markets where they exist. But I also follow my own second rule which is to grow some of my own food. Just learning how to do it plus the doing of it will make you a much more human human.

The same thing applies to meat. I no longer keep chickens, but I believe that it helps to know what that entails and the difference between really fresh eggs of your own and what you will find at the store. It also makes a difference when you have to kill and prepare one of your own animals for the table. It helps to make a realist of you.

And I was lucky enough for a number of years to have one of those really fabulous real butcher shops where you could go in and order any special cut of meat right up to the whole animal. The butchers were great.

A great post which makes me look forward to the second one.

Anonymous said...

Great post. In our effort to become more self-sufficient we are finding just that - no butchers around that will bucher a chicken, a rabbit, a goat, pig etc. for the little guy that just wants a few done. Their answer is that their meat comes already killed (from who knows where)& they just cut it up & deliver it to the grocery stores.
We have chickens & taught ourselves how to bucher by youtube videos & good information on the internet - so short of learing in the same manner to butcher other things, we seem to be at the mercy of the grocer. I am in a rural area but can't seem to find a farm that is selling directly to the public. We used to get fresh milk right down the road but all of the sudden they said that they can no longer sell to the public. Guess we have to get a dairy cow, too.
While I would love to just go ahead & learn these skills, it also takes time to care for all these animals and time is something that is limited what with me & my husband both having full time jobs. Farming is a time consumer & I think that is part of what keeps alot of people like me dependent on the big guys even though we don't want to be.
We will continue gardening, canning as much as we can. We have 13 chickens that lay & we decided that we will get some meat birds this spring (we liked butchering & we did a pretty good job) and as time goes on maybe we will be able to do more, but as for now, unfortunately, we are at the mercy of the big guys.


Nicholas said...

Really interesting.

I've heard of one farmer in Cumbria who has refused to go organic, because she regards the required feed as artificial. It shows that there's "Organic" and organic.

I agree about government, too. Over here in the UK, much of the problem for British agriculture is the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.

Lona said...

Thanks for the review of Food, Inc. Several folks have asked if I've seen it. I resist, knowing it will more likely bring on a heart attack than the GMO corn chips and cheez whiz you just ate...

I had to LOL at your astute assessment of Joel Salatin. I *loved* his essay Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. But I think you are spot-on in guessing how he pays his mortgage--free labor and speaking engagements.

I, too, look forward to part II.

The Midland Agrarian said...

Thank you all for the kind words. Please pardon my delay in both response and part two.

Canon Tallis,having read many of your astute comments on Anglican blogs, I am honored your read this. I have read Bromfield with enjoyment.

I used to be able to by milk form the bulk tank at several farms around here. Now a raw milk license is required, and it is some trouble. However, Pa is better than some states with this.

We also declined to go certified organic years ago for a number of reasons. That story might be another blog post sometime!

Forget the movie...go read some Bromfield. :-)