This is a Superb documentary which demonstrates the downsides of the industrialisation of the food system in the USA.
It is relevant to the following areas of Global Development within A level Sociology.
Illustrating the downsides of Industrialisation
Illustrating unfair trade rules (corn is subsidised in America)
Illustrating the downsides of forced neoliberalisation
Illustrating the incredible power of Transnational Corporations in America and the negative consequences of them controlling the food chain ‘from seed to supermarket’.
There is also one example (the local farmer guy) of People Centred Development
Illustrating the limitations of western models of development
Scene One – Food Inc.
The Film starts by outlining the unrealities of the modern American supermarket, where there are no seasons and the meat has no bones. Then a bold statement – there is a deliberate veil drawn over the realities of the food production chain, which is basically a factory system, an industrialised system. The rest of the documentary is devoted to outlining the downsides of this system.
Scene Two – Fast Food for All
It’s suggested that the move towards an industrial food system started with McDonalds – when the McDonald brothers got rid of their waitresses and invented the drive through to cut costs, it caught on massively and McDonald’s and other fast food outlets expanded, and so did the mass demand for standardised food products.
McDonalds is now the largest purchaser of Beef in America and one of the largest purchasers of potatoes, tomatoes and even apples, and of course corn-syrup (and hence corn). It was the demand for large volumes of standardised food goods that led to a concentration of food production into massive farms and factories.
Such is the concentration that only four companies now control 80% of the beef packing market, with similar concentrations in other food sectors, so even if you don’t eat in a fast food restaurant you’re probably eating products produced by the same system, by the same food companies. One company name to look out for in particular is Tyson!
Tyson, which is the largest food production company in the world has redesigned the chicken – so it grows in half the time it used to, and has larger breasts. It has also redesigned the chicken farmer and the whole process of chicken farming.
The video now takes the inevitable trip to the battery farm – where hideous abuses take place, most all IMO for the chicken farmers who are kept in debt by Tyson because Tyson keeps demanding they upgrade to new systems. Keeping chickens in abusive conditions is very actually very expensive!
Scene Three – A Cornucopia of Choices
Starts with an interview with the most excellent Michael Pollen – ‘The idea that you need to write a book about where our food comes from shows you the scale of the problem’.
There are only a few companies involved and only a few food products involved, and much of our industrial food turns out to be clever rearrangements of corn… Ketchup, Peanut butter, Coke, and even batteries contain corn derivatives.
So important is corn that even though yields have increased from 20 to 200 bushels of wheat an acre, 30% of the US land base is planted to corn – which is subsidised which in turn leads to over production. Subsidies are in place because the big food TNCs (Tyson and Cargill) want cheap corn, and they have the ears of the government (no pun intended).
There is a transport network which transports corn to CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Farming Operations) where thousands of cattle are kept standing in their own manure until they are slaughtered.
The fact that cattle are now fed corn rather than grass has created the conditions in their stomachs for e.coli to breed, this comes out in manure, and because cattle in CAFOs all live close together shit is transferred between them and it spreads and gets in the food chain and to the consumer
Scene Four – Unintended Consequences
Which ends up with children dying.
In the movie we are persistently shown how food is farmed along factory lines – we go to the inevitable battery chicken factory and processing plants, massive corn fields and CAFO’s – or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – where thousands of cattle are farmed together, literally standing in their own shit all day, before being slaughtered.
NB this is very different to how food is marketed to Americans – It is marketed in a very misleading way with images of small scale farmers out in the open air with their free range animals. (NB if you’ve never thought of the concept of ‘industrialisation’ as being applicable to food production as well as to the manufacturing of goods then this shows how good a job the food industry has done with its marketing!).
The reason given for this industrialisation/ rationalisation of the food system is the profit motive – It’s cheaper to mass produce things, which is something demanded by the handful of companies who control the entire food chain in the US and require standardised food products for mass distribution.
Costs are further kept low because the American government subsidises corm production so that it can be sold for less than the cost of producing it. Corn is the main constituent of animal feed today, so cheap corn = cheap meat.
This industrialisation of agriculture has several downsides:
EXPLOITATION and ABUSE of animals – we see several images of animals being kept in atrocious conditions and dying.
Exploitation of workers – battery farm owners are paid very little, and the often illegal migrant workers who pack chickens even less.
The spread of diseases and health problems linked to animals being kept in appalling conditions. Includes children dying of E.coli, and the companies responsible being allowed to carry on producing.
Environmental damage – when cattle and pigs are kept in mass enclosures excrement becomes a pollutant rather than a fertiliser (which would be the case if they were kept in open fields with enough room to graze. Also because corn rather than grass has become the main feed for factory ‘farmed’ animals we have a situation where corn is shipped to meat growing houses, then the meat shipped to consumers, with all the attendant petrol costs, which you wouldn’t have with local food production systems.
Scene Five – The Dollar Menu
Starts off with a low income family shopping at Burger King – they in fact buy lots of junk food over healthy fresh vegetables because the former is cheaper. The biggest predictor of obesity is income level –
The industry claims a ‘crisis of individual responsibility’ for obesity – but the problem is that we are biologically hard-wired to seek out three tastes – salt, sugar and fat, which are very rare in nature, but are everywhere in modern society thanks to the industrial food industry, so this claim is clearly disingenuous.
The father of poor family has diabetes (his pills cost something in the region of $200 month) and 1 out of 3 people born after the year 2000 in the US will develop early onset diabetes.
Scene Six – In The Grass
Featuring Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms – basically a farm where their livestock eat actual grass and they slaughter them by hand– and have much conditions than your average meet factory – the livestock also manure the fields automatically – basically a sensible, truly efficient farm.
As a contrast, we now take a trip to Smithfield Hog Processing Plant, the largest in the world in North Carolina, where over 30K hogs go through every day, where they treat their workers like their hogs – the workers are drawn from the poorest people and work in a conveyor belt system, sometimes getting covered in feces and blood and developing infections to the extent that finger nails separate from hands.
They effectively use up workers – few of the local population work at the plant, workers are now bused in from 100 miles away, and they also employ illegal immigrants from Mexico (ie people desperate for the money) – who have come to America because of NAFTA which led to cheap US corn flooding into Mexico, putting 1.5 million Mexican corn farmers out of business, who now work illegally for giant meat multinationals under appalling conditions. US meat companies actually actively recruited these workers from Mexico, with adverts and buses laid on.
Of course the government response is to crack down on the illegal immigrants rather than the meat companies.
Scene Seven – Hidden Costs
You wouldn’t want to buy the cheapest car – so why do we apply the same principle to food?
In any case, once you add up the environmental, social and health costs of industrial food, it ends up being far more expensive than locally grown, ethical, organic food.
Back to Joel Salatan who says that although some people make a round trip of 500 miles to get to him, he has no desire to upscale and argues that he can’t do so without compromising the integrity of his business.
This is then contrasted to Stonyfield yoghurts, who are the third biggest yoghurt brand in the states, run on ethical principles.
Like many other ethical companies, these are now owned by a massive international corporation and deal with companies like Walmart – who are stocking more ethical products for economic reasons. The argument for this is simply the impact.
Scene Eight – From Seed to the Supermarket
Back at the turn of the century, the average farmer could feed 6-8 people, now it’s 120 people. The change to farming has been profound – I mean, who sees a farmer anymore.
We now take the inevitable trip to Monstanto Land – who developed both Round Up (a pesticide) and then the Round Up Ready Soya Bean.
In 1996 – 2% of Soya beans grown in the US for Monsanto’s
By 2008 – this had risen to 90%.
Since the 1980s its now legal to patent life, there are now prohibitions on saving seed – when the concept first came about farmers were appalled now it’s just accepted and Monsanto effectively control 90% of Soya production in the US.
Monsanto as a team of private investigators (sometimes ex-military) who visit farmers who save their own seed.
We now take a trip to a farmer who didn’t switch to Monsanto’s GM seed, but his fields are contaminated by Monsanto’s seed because of cross-contamination.
We’re also shown the case study of Monstanto suing a certain ‘seed cleaner’ (used by the 10% of farmers who aren’t GM and save their own seed) who is already in debt to the tune of $25 000 and he hasn’t even been in a court room, and friends of 50 years no longer talk to him for fear of coming under Monstano’s wrath.
The end result is that Monsanto effectively own the Soya Been and they control it from seed to the Supermarket – you have to be in bed with Monstano to be a soya farmer
Scene Nine – The Veil
Covers the revolving door between the Justice Department, the development of seed-patenting law and Monsanto’s Corporate executives – its seems that for the past 25 years the US government has been dominated by people who work for food multinationals.
This is a case of centralised power being used against workers, farmers and ultimately consumers.
This has resulted in legislation which prevents the labelling of GMO products and also criticism of the food industry.
There is now an outline of the legal protections the meat industry has – The most famous case being when Oprah said Mad Cow Disease had meant she didn’t want to eat another Burger – the industry sued her for lose of profit and the case spent 6 years in court and a million dollars in fees – sometimes the industry will sue just to send out a message even if it knows it can’t win.
Scene Ten – Shocks to the System
Basically the food system is precarious – fewer food substances, fewer companies and heavy dependence on petroleum.
The cracks are definitely showing, and every time the public get a glimpse of the truth, they tend to turn their backs on this industry.
The battle against the tobacco industry is the perfect model that illustrates the possibility of breaking monopolistic controls over a system by a few powerful corporations.
You can vote to change this system three times a day.
Buy from ethical companies who treat workers and animals humanely.
Choose foods that are organic and grown locally and in season, shop in Farmers Markets
Tell the government to enforce food safety standards….
‘You can change the world with every bit’.
See the Food Inc documentary for more information…