Food, Inc.

Last night, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I finally made the time to sit down and watch Food, Inc. It’s an outstanding documentary film about modern industrial agriculture, where it came from, the strategies it uses to sustain itself, and what the rest of us can do to supply alternatives. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend you do so. Put it in your Netflix queue, rent it at your local video store, or buy it from Amazon. Just watch it.

The film is at its best in discussing corn, and how elements of corn (and/or soybeans) have found their way into nearly every corner of the supermarket. I would’ve liked more detail about the ways in which federal agriculture policy subsidizes corn production, but the bottom line is that corn comes to the market below its real cost. Chemical and food companies have found countless ways to break this artificially cheap commodity apart into component pieces and reassemble them into the dizzying array of ingredients you see listed on package labels — and these “processed to death,” calorie-laden products end up cheaper than more wholesome alternatives. Ever wondered why a package of Twinkies is less expensive than a bunch of carrots? Even though the former is among the most highly engineered and chemical-intensive products in the supermarket and the latter is just several roots yanked out of the ground and rinsed off?

The sections about confinement agriculture, feedlots, and factory meat processing are eye-opening. The narrative was especially powerful in drawing a line between the inhumane ways in which animals are treated to the dehumanizing ways in which agricultural workers are treated. Everything — animal and human— is simply another element of industrial production.

One of the film’s bigger “lightbulb moments” for me was the degree to which the fast food industry has shaped the way food is produced for all markets. McDonald’s, Burger King, and the rest are enormous customers who want their products to taste exactly the same every time. They thus have enormous power to dictate the standardization of beef, pork, chicken, and potato production. And because those products need to be cheap enough for the Dollar Menu, growers need all kinds of “efficiencies” (i.e. feedlots and other animal concentration camps) to reduce their own costs.
The sections showing Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia are by far the best in the film. Salatin’s books (in particular You Can Farm and Pastured Poultry Profits) greatly inspired us as we were starting out, and it was even more inspiring to see his farm in living color. Salatin has put together a real, workable model of how wholesome food can be produced profitably. It’s no wonder that people drive a hundred miles to fill their freezers with Salatin’s meat. Although we are not attempting to run a pastured poultry enterprise, his production techniques have provided our family with outstanding chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.
I could’ve done without the long section with a grieving mother who is now a “food safety activist” seeking to enact legislation named after her son, who died from a e coli infected meat. Although I certainly empathize with her grief, and cannot imagine the pain she has had to endure, I really don’t think additional regulations and inspections of mammoth industrial food facilities are the answer; as the film itself shows later, the very agencies charged with creating and enforcing regulations are frequently headed and staffed by former executives and lobbyists from the industrial food companies themselves. In political science, we call this revolving door phenomenon “regulatory capture.” In the case of industrial agriculture, it results because the only people with enough experience and expertise to understand the industry are those with extensive ties to the industry itself.
The film’s biggest shortcoming, in my mind, is that it doesn’t do enough to connect the dots between “food safety legislation” and regulatory capture. My sense is that the former is useless — or even counterproductive — unless something is first done about the latter. And given the complexity of the industry, I’m not sure anything can be done about it. The result is a regulatory environment designed by and for the protection of agricultural conglomerates, but too byzantine and expensive for small producers to understand or abide by. The entirely foreseen and intended outcome is even less competition from farmers like Joel Salatin. Want to be able to sell your meat to local restaurants, which would provide a very nice and stable customer base for any farmer? You’ll need to have your animals butchered at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. Good luck finding one of those anywhere near your farm. And, by the time you transport your animals there and go back to pick up the meat, good luck turning a profit. And don’t even think about starting your own small dairy or cheesemaking operation until you’re ready to spend a fortune building something that abides by state regulations. Then, have fun with the inspectors showing up to pick through your property whenever they feel like it. I realize that some of these measures are essential for large producers, but there ought to be more exemptions for small entrepreneurs.
The bottom line, though, is that this is a very important documentary. I apologize that it took me over two years to see and review it here. If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend that you do so.

2 thoughts on “Food, Inc.

  1. My opinion is “let the buyer beware”. Have your “certified seal” if you want to sell at a supermarket. If you want to sell non-USDA approved foods, give up that seal and sell as you wish. It is then the BUYERS discretion whether they want to purchase from a facility or business that is NOT USDA certified. Clearly show that you are NOT USDA certified, and sell away. If the consumer chooses to buy that product, they hold the risk. Then the gov't only has to legislate those that want to have the certification. Saves money everywhere and people still have access to good foods. But who am I… if a normal Joe ever got to make laws, the country would make way too much sense.

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  2. HM – Agree on all points. By way of analogy, AFAIK, Underwriters Labratories certification isn't legally required to sell an electrical device. Seems we could treat USDA certification in the same way. Let the consumer decide how important it is.

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