Food Inc., Food Links - from the movie to how we eat

Thanks to Edible Boston for the opportunity to attend the screening of the new documentary "Food Inc."

Food Inc. or What's Wrong with our McFood Systems

The movie represents more than six years of Robert Kenney's life, it represents much of what's wrong with our current food production and distribution systems. From Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and others at very high levels in the FDA and elsewhere, many of them former lobbyists for the top agricultural multinationals, like the poor chicken farmers harassed by Tyson Foods into refusing Kenner's crew access to film his chickens - so much is broke with our food systems it's easy to despair. But the film is not about despair. It's about showing the state of things, providing an alternative to ponder (self described "lunatic farmer" Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms) and about reminding us that we have choices to make each day, each meal. It asks us to consider the consequences of ignoring the true costs that get passed on so we can eat cheap food. And hopefully not get too sick from it, or die.

My main concern with the film is that it will show to theater after theater of people like my counterparts last night - mostly folks who already know about these issues, mostly folks who avoid big box groceries, mostly folks who shop from local farmers markets. Preaching to the choir has seldom produced new converts.

My fantasy is that the film could be screened in schools, we've got to get kids before they're set in their habits. One of the most deficient aspects of our food health and safety is our school lunch program. For a good overview of how the inmates are running the asylum and how the asylum is rewarded for perpetuating that insanity, see J. Kenji Alt's, The Problem with School Lunch.

Three types of Sustainability - Environmental, Economic, and Social

In Casson Trenor's Sustainable Sushi, he does a fine job of summarizing the three types of sustainability, noting that his book focuses on Environmental issues. We have overfished so many species that we are approaching extinction for many species. Our ability to enjoy sushi will one day be affected by more than guilt. We are rapidly eating Bluefin Tuna to extinction, for example. 

The other types of sustainability: Economic and Social are sadly, easier to ignore. At least they were before Food Inc. was released. The fatalities from such crimes as the e.coli contamination were anonymous, they happened to "someone" out "there". Now I know Barbara Kowalcyk's face and am aware of her loss. Because her child did something as innocent as eat a hamburger on a family vacation. It is tragic because it could have been avoided, both from better cattle production and from better accountability (it was later discovered that the e.coli laced burger was traceable to a plant whose beef had already been recalled due to contamination, days before Kevin Kowalcyk ate his).

We learn that nearly all our beef is produced by about four corporations, that more products than you can imagine use the corn that is heavily subsidized, including the cattle that did not evolve to eat corn and develop bacteria such as e.coli as a direct result of what they're fed and how they're raised. We see how they are raised ankle deep in feces and shipped to slaughter covered and caked in it. The only mystery is why more of us do not get poisoned eating burgers. Maybe it's because we're getting ammonia washed beef. 

The environment also suffers, the corn growers suffer, the meat packers suffer, the cows suffer. These are costs we don't want to know about because it seems there is so little we can do. That is one of the bright spots in the film. It leaves you with the message that you can vote with your food choices (as well as your actual votes) and it reminds you of the mutliple benefits of supporting your local farmers. 

The WalMart organics and recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), moves are bookended with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, the self-proclaimed "lunatic farmer". 

From Food Inc. to Food Links

Communities. Foodsheds. Whatever you call them, the local farmers and now fishermen, are organizing in ways that promote their own economic and the region's economic sustainability.  Buying from local farmers has many benefits including economic, environmental and social. CSAs are now increasingly common. These enable you the consumer to pay up-front for a share of a farm's produce in advance. This gives the farmer a reliable income enabling investment in equipment or materials for his farm and you get a weekly delivery of produce.

Fisheries are now replicating the model here in the Northeast. The Wall Street Journal ran Taking Stock of Fish, by Clare Leschin-Hoar which describes the CSF Community Supported Fisheries model here in the local Boston area. As Clare points out in the piece, the CSF was hugely popular and oversubscribed. People are hungry for more. The article also notes the issues with sustainability. The fishermen's advocates seem to be saying "one step at a time" and we're encouraged that developing these local relationships could, in the future, lead to us persuading the fishermen to catch sustainable fish and to fish in environmentally sound ways. 

On balance, this could be a better choice than supermarket fish. You are addressing some of the economic and social costs of how food is produced and distributed in your local area. There is room for debate. Perhaps some enterprising CSF will begin catering to the consumers with a preference for environmentally sound options? Or maybe some local fishmonger will step up to fill the void for the 500 people on the waitlist for the CSFs. (This compares to the recent UK study that showed 90% of diners want sustainable seafood in restaurants.) It seems clear there is a market for locally caught sustainable food, if only there were more sustainable choices in the marketplace.

It's not a perfect solution but we live in a world that is far from perfect. It needs all our solutions and all our help.

Here are some resources that can help you stay on top of food safety and sustainability issues:

 What is your favorite wesite or blog? Who do you turn to for information and analysis of sustainability issues?