There have been a number of films in the last few years (Super Size Me, King Corn, Fast Food Nation) breaking the not-so-shocking news that we, as Americans, aren’t eating very well. But Robert Kenner’s to-the-point documentary Food, Inc. may provide the clearest cinematic answer as to why. This one brings it all home and does so in a whispered, conspiratorial tone that makes you feel like you’re being let in on all the Big Secrets behind the curtain.
The biggest bugaboo exposed to the light of day here is the practice of corporate farming. It doesn’t take long to grasp the problem: Although the supermarkets of America are filled with images of rural farmers, happy chickens, contented cows and rolling pastoral hillsides, the vast (and I do mean vast) majority of our foodstuffs comes from a handful of cyclopean corporate farms. Food, Inc. lays it all out for viewers: No matter what you buy or where you buy it, odds are good that your food comes from one of four or five major corporations that control everything from seed to supermarket.
Under the sure hand of Kenner (who has produced and directed mostly history-based TV documentaries), Food, Inc. explains in no uncertain terms that it’s not merely the peddling of hamburgers in Happy Meals and the adverse affect on America’s waistline that we need to worry about. Corporate farming isn’t just a detriment to our diet. It also takes a heavy toll on workers, animals and the environment.
Thankfully, Kenner’s film doesn’t rely on the usual slideshow of talking heads to get its point across. Instead, Food, Inc. teaches by vivid, concrete example. Bolstered by some bright computer graphics, their color palette lifted liberally from the breakfast cereal aisle, are real-world object lessons. We see low-income families struggling with diabetes, obesity and food costs. We meet small farmers sued out of existence by chemical giants like Monsanto for not planting patented Monsanto seeds. We witness the vast difference between animals raised on actual free-range farms and animals shoved into lightless, overcrowded growing boxes. Of course, there are still a few A-list talking heads—Michael Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation—to give us guidance. But Food, Inc. speaks loudest when it lets the subject speak for itself.
A host of contributing factors lurk underneath the slash-and-burn policies of Monsanto, ConAgra, Tyson and a couple of others. There’s the Farm Bill heavily subsidizing everything that goes into a fast-food value meal but nothing that appears on a family’s dinner table. (How, exactly, did we come to live in a country where a Big Mac costs less than a head of broccoli?) There’s the policy of putting cheap corn in roughly 80 percent of food products on the market and feeding it to every farm animal, from cows to fish. There’s the now toothless USDA and FDA, both of whom have virtually no regulatory control over anyone in the food industry. There’s the increasing use of pesticides and antibiotics, which is creating virulent and virtually unstoppable forms of E. coli and other deadly bacteria. This goes beyond just your love handles, people.
Although it sounds like a great big downer that will make you never want to eat out again, Food, Inc. is actually an inspirational film. By showing how ethical organic farms are run and giving examples of how even major retailers like Wal-Mart will bend to the shopping habits of smart consumers, Food, Inc. gives us hope for the future of the food chain. It won’t put you off food, but it might inspire you to grind your own hamburger, grow your own tomatoes and think twice about what it is you’re shoving in your pie hole on a daily basis.