Friday, July 10, 2009

Are We Really What We Eat?

Last night I finally went to see Food, Inc., the documentary by Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser that examines what Eisenhower, were he alive today, might have termed the "food industrial complex." After seeing it, I cringed at the thought that, as the saying goes, "we are what we eat."

In only 94 minutes, the documentary highlights several disquieting facts: the link between the rise of industrial agriculture and farming and the rise of previously uncommon health conditions; the lack of oversight by regulatory agencies compared to the recent past; the environmental and social impact of the "food industrial complex"; the powerlessness of small farmers faced with competition by huge corporations (often made unfair by the disparity in government subsidies); the way the system is built to reward unhealthy choices over healthier ones (for example, a fast food meal is cheaper than the produce you can buy at your local supermarket); and the list goes on.

One welcome aspect of Food, Inc. is that it does not aim, unlike many of its predecessors, to convert omnivores into vegetarians by suggesting that a vegetarian lifestyle is entirely devoid of risks. In other words, while the negative aspects of meat consumption are made abundantly clear, the documentary makes it clear that becoming a vegetarian only eliminates the ethical complications of eating animals raised inhumanely, inefficiently, and dangerously for human health and for the environment; vegeterianism does not, however, come without risks for human health or the environment, because the giant food conglomerates that sit atop our food chain have contaminated the vegetable side of the equation as well, both by genetically modifying food like corn, soybeans, rice, tomatoes, etc., and by polluting much produce via the poisonous byproducts of animal farming.

Notwithstanding the fact that becoming a vegetarian is not the silver bullet to the world's food crisis, several powerful reasons remain why we should at least consider the option:

  • Even the chickens, pigs, and cattle raised on a Virginia organic farm are still slaughtered before coming to market. How animals are raised on the farm does nothing to change the fact that they suffer a death that we would not wish on our worst enemy, and that they are killed non-chalantly to make foodstock for the omnivores amongst us. Animals raised humanely on an organic farm may be healthier for humans but remain the victims of humanity's blind spot and "dominionist" view of nature.
  • Absent serious regulation and enforcement, raising animals for human consumption has potentially disastrous side-effects on the environment and on human health.
  • Meat-based diets are significantly less efficient than plant-based diets, and less sustainable. If we take into account the limited availability of clean water for much of the world's population, the amount of water necessary to sustain meat-based diets is an unconscionable waste of the most precious resource.

The most positive thing about the documentary, though, is that it does not stop at raising flags and pulling alarms, like other documentaries, books, and feature films before it have done; it also shows how consumers can influence what the market offers and highlights some healthy or healthier choices that are already available. The viewer can take heart in finding out that even Walmart has jumped on the organic food bandwagon: not because it has suddenly found a conscience, but because it has realized that there is a market for organic choices that can enhance shareholder value and corporate profits. Whatever the motivations, consumers can find some hope knowing that they vote for products everytime the contents of their shopping carts are scanned.

Amongst a dearth of interesting movie offerings this summer, there are far worse ways to spend an hour and a half than to sit through this powerful and eye-opening documentary. You should see it, and bring a friend along while you're at it.

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