Thursday, February 17, 2011

Farming systems and Food, Inc.

Week four of the food systems course has again been chock-full of readings, ideas, and a movie: Food Inc.. I've heard about the film, which came out in 2008, but I'd never seen it. It's put me off feedlot anything: pork, poultry, beef. Yick.

I took notes during the film, which we watched on Feb. 8. The movie concentrates on food safety (or lack thereof) and the sort of indentured servitude in which farmers and factory workers are trapped in the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs, or factory farms/industrial farms that are where, horrifically, most of our meat is raised. It also goes into the influence of fast food and supermarket chains (in particular, MacDonald's and Wal-Mart) on the way meat is produced–their incredible purchasing power makes a big difference.

Here's a few items I jotted down:
  • In the chicken ranches of the south, debt by the large-scale chicken meat sellers like Perdue or Tyson is deftly put onto the farmers, who (a) don't own the chickens (b) but must raise them to the specifications and requirements of the meat company and have no control over how their business is run. The farmer, who earns maybe $18,000 a year, ends up in major debt (in the realm of $100,000 to a half-million) because each chicken house costs a huge amount and the equipment, feed, and antibiotics (a necessary part of the operation) are also expensive--but the price the farmer gets for the meat is pretty much dictated by the company.
  • The movie described the way the hog industry had dramatically changed, following the pattern in the poultry and beef industries.
  • It went into the tactics of companies for dealing with regulation: infiltration of the agencies responsible for oversight by former lobbyists and former or future employees of the industries they are supposed to regulate, the reduction of funding for agencies, and the demonizing of government regulation and promotion of "personal responsibility" and "self-policing." The most interesting former employee (of Monsanto) was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who worked as a lawyer for the company and later wrote the Supreme Court majority opinion that allowed Monsanto to prosecute farmers for seed patent infringement when their crops had been contaminated by Monsanto's Roundup-Ready GMO crops (the farmers have to prove they didn't steal it). Thomas didn't recuse himself, obviously. (He didn't recuse himself in the Roundup-Ready alfalfa case, either.)
  • The film spent quite some time on the case of Moe Parr, who ran a seed-cleaning company and was being sued by Monsanto for, essentially, assisting in theft. He was driven out of business, eventually. (Monsanto has a reply to Food Inc. here.)
  • The movie talked about Kevin's Law, that was introduced in response to the death of a little boy, Kevin, from a hamburger contaminated with a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria. Kevin's Law, simply put, would give the USDA the power to shut down meat packing plants that have too many health infringements, among other things. And guess what? it keeps dying in committee, even though it gets introduced every year since 2005. The ironic thing was that I had thought that it had been passed, and that we had protection like this already. The interviews with his mother were both very interesting and moving--not schmaltzy, even though it dealt with the very personal loss of her son. She and her mother have gone on to be very active politically for foodborne illness research and prevention.
  • Another interesting aspect of the tactics used in the meat-packing industry was the undermining of unions, the hiring of illegal or new immigrants (but it's the immigrants who get hauled off to jail, not the managers or officers of the companies), and effect of NAFTA in driving Mexican farmers out of work and off their land because of cheap, subsidized corn from the US. The film made mention of Upton Sinclair's 1906 book, The Jungle, and how this led to the meatpacking industry's strength for many years as one of the safest, best-paid, and generally good industries in which to work in the US due to union effort and the public's appalled reaction to the horrors Sinclair described. Now, however, the meatpacking industry is back to being unsafe, and has lost much of the gains made during the middle of the 20th century.
  • In one of the funnier ironic moments of the movie, an engineer and efficiency designer for one of the companies involved in the meat processing industry was glowingly describing their control room, where they could monitor and adjust the speed and activities of the machinery moving and treating meat in plants across the country. He said, with obvious pride, that it was "a marriage between technology and industry"--but apparently, I observed, not a marriage with agriculture.
  • A stomach-turning moment for me came when they showed how a percentage of ammonia-treated beef is mixed into hamburger as a means of sterilizing the meat so that harmful pathogens don't survive. Again, a prideful manager spoke about how the percentage of meat in the industry that had this stuff in it should be up to 80% by 2010. I wondered about the effects of that ammonia on me when I eat the burger. I'm afraid I'm not buying hamburger any more unless I know this crud isn't in it.
In contrast to the industrialized food system, the movie interviewed Joel Salatin, an author and farmer and a wonderfully outspoken, biting, funny man. There were several good bits in the interview, but his point that growth in market share is not an end in itself was important. He doesn't want to get big—he'd no longer be farming.

And that, I think, was the essential point of the movie: that the consolidation and overmechanization of food/agriculture operations had made them into an industry, a means of making money—and they really have nothing to do with actual food or human beings anymore, resulting in an industry that isn't safe, isn't producing food, subsidizes disease, and has no connection to the land, plants, people, and animals it is supposedly about.

No comments: