The Future of Food

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

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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8 thoughts on “The Future of Food

  1. Amen!
    I saw what looked like a trailer for Fast Food Nation yesterday on That one will be good, too.

    Now that I’m running out of the fresh from my garden produce and the cold crops aren’t quite ready, I find the produce at my nearest supermarket quite sad looking, even the more expensive organic varieties.

  2. Thanks for bringing this film to my attention. I’ve never heard of it before!

    I HIGHLY recommend Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. In it, he goes back to the source of four meals taken from four food systems:
    1. industrial (McDonalds)
    2. industrial organic (Whole Foods)
    3. “beyond” organic (alternative farming, managed intensive grazing, etc)
    4. hunted/grown/gathered

    This book totally changed how I look at food. “The Future of Food” would compliment it too, because Pollan doesn’t discuss the GMO issue in his book.

    Thanks again, Gayla!

  3. Renee: I saw the trailer and was surprised it’s been made into a narrative rather than a documentary. Interesting.

    Melamalie: I’ve been meaning to get his new book but damn those publishers and their need to bring books out in hardcover first. I read that they moved towards bioengineering in The Future of Food because they felt that was the bigger issue… and it all ties in together anyways. I saw a quote from the director somewhere saying that there was a time when you could just choose a certain food system to support and leave it at that but GMOs are contaminating everything so that freedom of choice is diminishing.

  4. the movie sounds good, i’ll try to see it. also, i read the first few chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in a pdf preview and it looks both informative and entertaining. i’d be interested to hear your take on it, gayla, and if it’s as useful as it is thought-provoking…

  5. I enjoy this website, but as one with an acutal agricultrual degree (emphasis in mircobiology and public health), I am annoyed about the much maligned GMOs. I would watch this movie, but am already suspect about its credibility, esp. with the info you post above. if it is “unnatural” for species to share genes, then why would one worry about a gene inserted into a plant finding its way into harmful bacteria. not only are most resistance genes for antibiotics that aren’t used in humans, it is much more likely that resistance will stem from either the natural selective pressure an antibiotic exerts on bacteria, or misuse/overuse of antibiotics in humans. the most common way to insert genes into plant cells is not bacteria anymore, the plasmid used is very large and there are easier methods. it is with a gene gun that fires a particle of gold coated in the gene into the cell. but one should worry because not only are bacteria from the soil already interacting with the cells, but e.coli is found in your body naturally. what most people worry about is a strain called 0157:H7 (most likely caused by overuse of antibiotics in cows in the 50s). GMOs are nothing new, semolina flour was created hundreds of years ago with the crossing of three different species. You (or the movie) depict GMOs as viruses in the plant community, but they are doing what normaly, natural plants do – pollen disemination. it doesn’t decrease diveristy, but increases it. Please, before you preach the evils of GMOs, take an acutal unbiased view.

  6. Patrick I’m not unconvinced that you aren’t a spammer working for Monsanto. I’ve allowed your comments through because I’m not shy about debating, but the way you make your argument is suspicious and insulting. Twice now you have tried to assert that I don’t know what I’m talking about… a bad attempt to try and garner some kind of authoritative position. You have only commented on posts where I mentioned gmos in full or even in passing but have never commented on or particpated in any other area of this site. You ask me to take an unbiased position before drawing a conclusion or having an opinion, yet yours obviously isn’t unbiased — you clearly have a personal vested interest in presenting GMOs in a favourable light.

    I do have a bias — which is also known as my opinion — and that is the postion from which I am writing. I don’t claim otherwise and there is nothing inappropriate about it. I am not prompted by money or funding from any corportation or organization to do so.

    That said you are making the same deflated argument I hear over and over again that attempts to draw comparisons between cross-pollination and biotechnology — making what large corporations are doing in labs seem like something that would happen naturally in the wild. As “someone with an agricultural degree” you should know that the two are not comparable for a myriad of reasons and that biotech processes do not increase diversity by any stretch.

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