I recently sat down and watched, The Future of Food, a documentary that investigates the problems we face in the industrialization and corporatization of food production. Wow, I can’t say enough about this film and am sorry it took me this long to make a point to watch it. If you have any questions about what is going on in farming in North America including questions about about the history, politics, economy, and science of how your food gets to the table and what it is when it gets there, then I urge you to go out and see this film.*
The film leads carefully and clearly from one point to the next, beginning by outlining the problem of patenting life and the power of patent law over farmer’s rights. This segment makes its’ point by following the lawsuits brought on by Monsanto against several farmers including the well-known case of Percy Schmeiser a Canadian canola farmer who was charged with infringing on Monsanto’s patents by having Round-Up Ready canola in his fields, despite the fact that the seeds got there accidentally and he didn’t want them there in the first place.
The film then goes on to explain the science of genetic engineering in a clear manner that really brought home the process by which GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are made and the problems they present. As an example the film explains that genes are put into the plant by invading the cell wall with bacteria and viruses (ecoli). Antibiotic marker genes are attached as a way to test if all of that “messing about” worked. This use of an antibiotic marker has the medical community concerned as to how this will contribute to the loss of antibiotics. Beyond the unknowns of messing about with life, the film provides concrete examples of several other issues brought on by bioengineering including the threat to diversity and agricultural heritage due to what amounts to the uncontrolled spread of GMOs as we find plants located in remote areas with contaminated gene lines. This poses the further (and rather scary) question of what will happen if and when terminator technology (seeds go sterile in second season) pollutes crops around the world.
The film explains that right now the vast majority of seed farmers plant comes from a clustering of 4 companies and projects that in the next 10 years only 6 retail firms will be controlling all food on a retail level (1 of which is Walmart). This means that in the future not only will we have no control over what’s on the shelf and where it comes from, but that what is available will be dictated not by ethics, a respect for the environment, our health, how much farmers are paid, or what we want, but by what is cheapest to provide and puts the most money into the pockets of a few large corporations.
Despite the heaviness of the information presented the film ends on a positive note and serves as a call to action, presenting alternatives (CSA’s, organic farming, and farmers markets) and illustrating how the choices we make right now can have a positive influence on the future. I would say that learning to grow our own food is another positive step in moving toward fixing the problem. While most of us can’t possibly grow enough to provide for our food needs, we can not only offset the cost, but in the act of growing food gain first-hand knowledge of what food looks like when it isn’t homogenized and packaged for our convenience. It also teaches us a respect and basic understanding of what goes into good food production. An educated consumer is a more demanding consumer. As a gardener my priorities have changed in that I expect my food to have been grown ethically and healthfully but I also accept the beauty and flaws that are natural and normal. My potatoes may not be perfect, scrubed spheres but they taste great!
Before I finish I want to call attention to a panel discussion that is shown in the extras on disk 2. In this clip Michael Pollan addresses the question, Why does better food cost more? or Why is organic food expensive? He makes a great argument in turning back the question, Why is conventional food so cheap? The price is low but the cost is high in terms of the environment, public health, karma, the cost to taxpayers in subsidies, the amount of nitrogen used to fertilize which pollutes water, the obesity epidemic, food poisoning… In making his point he does not discount the fact that there are a lot of people living in poverty who can not afford to spend another cent on food but he adds that:
“We only pay 11% of our disposable income on food in the USA. That is less than anywhere else on earth and less than any other civilization that has ever been on this earth.
We have developed a food system that values quantity over quality. We need to reach into our pockets and elevate the importance of food in our lives.”
And as the film states, with food being one of the most intimate things we do, we can’t afford not to think about the consequences of our food choices and as consumers very literally put our money where our mouth is.
*In Toronto, I rented a copy from Black Dog video on Queen St. W