Saturday, February 20, 2010

Food Inc, An Agrarian Movie Review Part Two

Much of Food, inc, created a climate of fear about the nations' food safety, and I do not dispute many of these facts. However, not adequately addressed by the film was how fragile the food system really is. Last week, my 77 year old mother made her weekly trip from our farm to her favorite discount grocery store. She was mildly surprised to find them closed. On the door, a sign was posted that they would reopen after they could re-stock. As she peered in the windows, she confirmed that the shelves were indeed bare. Apparently, the Winter storms had prevented the supply trucks from making it.

I am struck that if a relatively minor stress such as a snowstorm in the northwest Pa. snow belt can close a national chain store, the American food system failed. My grandfather was a country store keeper. His store was only 1 miles from where I am writing this, and was one of two stores once within easy walking distance of our farm. My mother reminisced to me about the many times our road used to be closed from heavy snow. Her father or one of her brothers would actually live at the store in times of bad weather, in case a customer needed something. She summed up the situation pretty adeptly, “You know, I did not really need anything because I always stock up, but I think we were a lot better off when we had all them country stores around”. The scariest thing about the centralization depicted in Food, inc, is not necessarily the dangers of the food, it lies in whether the system can reliably supply any food at all.

I am profoundly grateful that at least one of those small country stores remains in our community. In fact, it was the source of those naughty GMO corn chips I recently enjoyed. I do a lot of business there because I like the owner and want to keep such a store handy. The store tends to specialize in tasty, rather than healthy. I find it no sacrifice at all to patronize it for those things we do not grow or make ourselves.

In doing so, there is a certain risk, GMO's being among them. I recognize this, having lived my life in a community that produces more food than it consumes. In general, I believe that when the consumer becomes an abstraction to the farmer or the manufacturer, danger is more likely to lurk in dinner. The area behind the store is a dairy cow pasture.
When those girls get too old to produce much milk, they get sold at the stockyards as “breakers, boners, shells, or thins”. They become meat for burgers, canned meats, and I suspect some become the pepperoni on one of the store's homemade pizzas. I am not sure what happens in between the stage of cow and pizza, but I take the risk, thanking God for the life of the animal, and my neighbor who made the food. I also cannot help but wonders why the old girls' travels are so necessary. There were old Italian people in the mining communities and bigger towns near here who used to make their own pepperoni. Could somebody take a local cow, butcher in here, spice it up and sell it back to the store? At some point, the so-called economy of scale must begin to dissipate;especially if the law did not prevent this activity.

Perhaps the most grievous shortcoming of Food, inc. was in its portrait of the American farmer. He is shown as another victim, like the consumers. The real story is far different. In spite of small numbers, the American corn belt farmer exerts enormous control on public policy related to food. This control began in the Twentieth Century era of mechanization. The corn belt supplied the feed for the nations' horses. In addition to supplying farm power, horses were common in American cities for milk delivery, rag pickers, and beer wagons. These nags were fueled on Iowa corn. By the end of the Second World War, there was a sort of mini crisis in the corn belt. The market was disappearing, Farm organizations went to the land grant colleges and set the researchers to work finding new uses for their main crop. The initial results were re-grading of beef carcasses to favor corn fattening. Sheep Breeding was changed as well, increasing size to create an animal that thrives on a high grain diet. Here is an English Suffolk Sheep, which is pretty much what a Suffolk looked like in America around 1950.

Here is an American Suffolk sheep of today.

After livestock, the land grant colleges began fiddling with new uses for Corn. Corn became used for starch, sweeteners, latex paint, and disposable diapers. We are now a culture as dependent upon corn as the Plains Indians were upon the Buffalo.

The Corn Belt also is responsible for the truly bizarre system of farm subsidies. The subsidies were a work of a very strange and powerful coalition of urban Democrats and farm state Republicans. The former supported farm subsidies for the latter in exchange for such programs as food stamps in the inner cities. Thus, we have now reached the very strange circumstance where we are paying an Iowa farmer handsomely to grow a product that is made into unhealthy food we then buy for poor single moms in big cities.

The changes in farm culture wrought by this are as disastrous as the decline in the American City. The idea of the farm as the center of family food production has disappeared. While most farmers around here are excellent mechanics and equipment operators, they have forgotten as many basic households skills as the rest of us. I actually know of several dairy farmers that buy their milk in the store. Agrarian writer and historian Alan Carlson once wrote that a successful local farmer brought his son to see Carlsons large garden so the boy could learn where food came from!

The American food system has become a kind of bizarro world. Food, Inc. raised the right questions, but offered only conventional answers, many of which created the system. A food system so truly counterproductive is doomed. One real answer to replace the system may lie in backyards and kitchens across America. I myself am looking forward to the day when I can enjoy local pepperoni at my favorite store.


susanna murley said...

hi! I appreciate your thoughts on Food, Inc. I would like to talk to you about a project I'm working on. Could you contact me at

LizBeth said...

Thank you for your comments on Food, Inc. I found it quite disturbing, but I don't really know enough about farming to evaluate their conclusions/solutions. Everywhere I turn now there is one more thing to be afraid of. I'm so overwhelmed by it all, I hardly know what to do. We have a garden, and I mill our own flours for baking. Cook from scratch. We want to do more, but everything is on hold while we wait to see what happens to the state budget. We got tired of church fights and retired a little early from the pastorate before it thoroughly wrecked out health. We bought a cheap house with a large lot, and I pray constantly Philippians 4:6,7.