Food, Inc.

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I went to see Food, Inc. last night. The showing was in a funky, mostly organic food restaurant cinema combination here in Brunswick, Maine. Appropriately the ticketing is on the honor system. I had read Michael Pollan's, The Omnivore's Dilemma some time ago so some of the film was familiar. Most of the reviews of the film I read had focused on the gore and gristly shots of the life and death of chickens, beef, and porkers. The film lives up to this aspect.

But what I found most disconcerting was the parts of the film that exposed the way Food, Inc. operates. After having just suffered the effects of a collapse of a financial system that was "too large to fail," I see the same situation in the food industry. The food industry is basically owned and operated by a handful of companies, each working hard to become even larger. The largest beef producer, BPI, has somewhere about 20% share of all the ground beef that is manufactured (not grown), and the owner boasted that he was hoping to own 100% of the market.

It's hard to think of anything more central to sustainability than food. Without adequate and healthy food, no one, even in affluent America, can flourish. It is clear to me, and to the producers of the film, that, as the industry has become more and more efficient, it has become less and less resilient. Some errant mutation in Roundup Ready soybeans could wipe out the whole crop. Some 94% of all soybeans start with Monsanto's genetically-modified seeds. Maybe these seeds represent a great technological step forward, but they are wiping out any vestiges of how faming came to be. Patent-based prohibitions against seed saving, the traditional faming way, run counter to sustainability. Roundup Ready corn, canola, and cotton are also now on or coming to the market.

Much like the way the financial industry captured the regulatory functions of the Government, Food, Inc. has done much the same. It is welcome news that the Obama Administration may be reversing this pernicious practice with the appointment of Margaret Hamburg as Commissioner. She comes with no ties to the drug or food industry, but rather with a distinguished record in public health.

This is a film that anyone concerned about sustainability should see. It is more than a film just about food. The way that both animals and human beings are being treated by these giant manufacturing firms (to think of them as farms is a misnomer) is about as far from any conception of sustainability as I can imagine. The impact on your and my health is not wonderful. I would imagine our genes are as antagonistic to all the artificial stuff we ingest as is corn a burden to fish and cows. Efficiency is a great concept. It has brought a better life to many world-wide, but this film shows its limits. In a system dependent on living beings, both as inputs and consumers, it is very dangerous to push it as hard as it is being pushed. Global warming is capturing most of the headlines these days, but this is another critical system that is being stressed beyond some prudent limit. If or when it does collapse, the impact will be much more serious than the loss of credit or asset values.

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