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'Food, Inc.' explains role of multinational agriculture conglomerates

Many folks think their food comes only from family farms, such as Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm in Virginia. But Food, Inc. shows that multinational conglomerates produce most of our food.

Magnolia Pictures

Many folks think their food comes only from family farms, such as Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm in Virginia. But Food, Inc. shows that multinational conglomerates produce most of our food.

You should go see the documentary Food, Inc. even though it won't be easy, for a couple of reasons. • For now, Food, Inc. is playing on one screen in the Tampa Bay area, the Tampa Theatre, and on Monday night it was only showing at 7 p.m. Perhaps the limited availability here, and in other markets of similar size, says something about our concern for the food we feed our families. • Limited screenings aside, Food, Inc. tells a troubling story of what has become of our food system. And it is especially disturbing when solutions are hard to come by. The way we live now is so tangled in the web of industrial agriculture that unraveling it is as daunting as fixing the health care system. Maybe more so.

We have let lousy things happen to the food supply by ignoring the way food is produced, and Food, Inc. is another attempt to explain why. Filmmaker Robert Kenner is not telling us anything that hasn't been screamed at us before. Super Size Me, the book by Morgan Spurlock and subsequent movie, and Fast Food Nation, the book by Eric Schlosser that was also made into a movie, told similar stories. Michael Pollan's books The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food laid out the dangers of industrialized food production. (Chief among them are the difficulties in figuring out what goes wrong when products are tainted, and the monstrous manipulation of animals.)

Heck, Willie Nelson has been decrying the loss of the family farm since 1985, when he staged his first Farm Aid concert.

In a nutshell, here's the problem according to Food, Inc.: Many Americans don't have a clue how dinner gets to their table and think they are being fed by farmers in overalls on red tractors. At least that's what the labels on many products depict. Truth is, the food supply is largely controlled by a handful of businesses and a government farm bill that promotes the overproduction of corn. Consequently, corn is in 80 percent of the food we consume and fed to animals to fatten them quickly (maybe that's what's happening to us, too).

And, get this, federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department are often piloted by people who worked at the top levels of the multinational food conglomerates. You've got to wonder whose side these people are on.

Something obviously isn't working. Salmonella and E. coli contamination, for example, is happening more frequently. According to Food, Inc., that's partially because large-scale agriculture encourages unhealthy habitats for animals. (The movie is graphic on this point and may encourage you to stop eating chicken, beef or pork. At least for a while.)

I've had a theory for a long time about how we got ourselves into this pickle. American families focus their lives too much outside the home, by choice or by necessity, and I include myself in this group. Work takes up the majority of the day, and children's sports activities frequently happen over the dinner hour.

That's not to say that we should work less, or that no kids should play baseball. But it takes a super-human feat to do all this and prepare homemade food, too. Unfortunately, we've handed over our care and feeding to companies whose focus is their bottom line, not our nutritional well-being.

Even those people who make it a priority to cook at home rather than buy convenience products are affected by the fast food nation. Because fast food companies, McDonald's especially, are the nation's largest buyers of beef and chicken, as well as other foods, the agriculture industry has changed to meet their needs. The ground beef that goes into a Big Mac? It's the beef on your grill, too.

There is a glimmer of hope, though.

The number of farmers markets in the United States have nearly doubled this decade. That's a solid indication that more people want to buy produce from farmers in overalls and not factory workers dressed head-to-toe in protective gear.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

'Food, Inc.' explains role of multinational agriculture conglomerates 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 5:30am]

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