Sunday, June 29, 2014

Food Inc.

I offered seeing Food Inc. as a bonus project for my students and only had 2/30 takers. The title sounds boring. And to tell you the truth, the pacing is a bit slow and tedious. I started checking my watch after about an hour. Some say it tried to do too much at once. But the subject matter is fascinating. The facts are all American, but much of our stores are filled with US produce. It's making me ensure all my produce is either organically grown or from Ontario or both where possible. "You can change the world with every bite."

Here's a brief synopsis of the main points with lots of links for more information. If the movie's not playing near you, then read below and watch this instead:

The way we eat changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 50,000. We still have the image of agrarian America, but that's no longer the reality. We don't eat fresh tomatoes; they're picked green and ripened with ethyline gas.

This world is deliberately hidden from us.

Lifting the Veil

1930s drive-in fast food McDonald's stores changed how beef was processed. It started the rise of efficient assembly-line production. (The same factory mentality hit the schools too - and now we're finally exploring the problems with it.)

1970s - the top five companies control 25% of the market
2005 - the top four companies control 80% of the market: Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield, ConAgra

Richard Lobb - National Chicken Council

We can grow chickens twice as big in half the time but their bones and internal organs can't keep up the the rapid growth. They can't walk, and they get sick easier, so antibiotics are put in their feed. Even sick chickens go to the plant for processing. The farmers end up as slaves to the corporations which insist on barn upgrades. Farmers typically borrow over half a million to start off, and make about $18,000/year for their efforts.

Cornucopia of Choices

Michael Pollan - Omnivore's Dilemma

We have an illusion of diversity, but only a few companies and only a few products are produced. A huge number of products are filled with corn. Corn is subsidized by the government, so producers find ways to get it into everything to make food cheaper. It's a commodity crop because it can be stored and engineered.

Larry Johnson - Center for Crop Utilization Research

High-fructose corn syrup and soya is in 90% of products including feed for cows, pigs, chickens and fish. Cheap corn means cheap feed and cheap meat. But it also means a sub-standard product.

CAFO - Concentrated Animal Feed Operation

Cows shouldn't be eating corn. They should eat grass. I wrote about that a bit more here in which it's suggested that eating grass-fed cows can even help you lose weight. High corn diets in cows lead to e-coli that are antibiotic resistant. Cows stand in manure all day, and the manure gets in the meat. This was made explicit in Schosser's Fast Food Nation which is a great read (much better than the film of that name).

Unintended Consequences

We're getting tainted meat, but also tainted spinach and juice, etc. from run-off from the farms. The regulators (FDA) are too tied to the corporations so people get away with atrocities.
1972 - there were 50,000 FDA inspections
2006 - there were 9,164
The regulatory agencies are toothless.

Barb Kowalcyk and Patricia Buck are food safety advocates hoping to stop the self-policing in industries after Barb's son died of e-coli, initiating Kevin's Law, which is not yet passed. Our food is killing people They want any contamination in a plant to mean the plant has to be shut-down until cleaned up. But the courts decided it's unconstitutional to stop businesses from running. "We put faith in our government, and we're not being protected at the most basic level." The new law would return ability to shut down plants to the USDA. Unfortunately, the industry is more protected than the citizens.

If we feed cows grass, they will naturally shed 80% of the e-coli in their guts within 5 days. But instead, we want high-tech solutions. So we mix ammonium hydroxide filler with hamburgers to kill the bacteria. Yum.

The Dollar Menu

Poor people have no time to cook and no money to buy fresh vegetables, so they're stuck eating fast food. McDonald's shouldn't be cheaper than veggies. The food system is scewed to bad calories because of the subsidized commodity crops. The biggest predictor of obesity is income level. We're hard-wired to like salt, fat, and sugar, and the industry has taken advantage of this without responsibility.

We're getting spikes of insulin which is wearing down our body. One in three Americans born after 2000 will get diabetes.

In the Grass

Joel Salatin - Polyface Farms

Giant factory farms are faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper, but not better. Polyface is an all grass-based family farm. The cows move through the grass and fertilize as they graze. This is more economical than growing corn, transporting it, then moving the manure out and creating toxic run-off in the water system. "We've allowed ourselves to become disconnected and ignorant." Instead of bathing chickens in chlorine baths, they give them enough space that they don't become sickly.

A culture of technicians is into the "how" of it, but nobody's asking "why".

Eduard Peno - union organizer

The corporations don't worry about the comfort of their workers because they're temporary - just like the animals. Their fingernails separate from their fingers from infections. They're poor people that can't afford to quit. IBP (Tyson) took labour practices from the fast food industry. They won't have unions. They hire lots of illegal immigrants. NAFTA has put 1.5 million Mexican farmers out of business so they have to come to the US to find work illegally. The government cracks down on the workers, but never on the company that hires them. They get rid of 15 workers/day in a deal with immigration It's all to get the cheapest price for food.

New Alchemy Institute

We can't stop capitalism. We need to be a Goliath. If enough people buy organic, like Stoneyfield yogurt, then the larger corporations will start selling organic. Now WalMart is selling organic because the customers want it.

From Seed to the Supermarket

Monsanto was allowed to patent seeds since 1980. This makes it illegal to save seeds from plants to grow again next year, and gives Monsanto the monopoly on food manipulation (GMO).
They made DDT, Agent Orange, and Round-Up. Now they make "Round-Up Ready" crops so we can spray all the crops with herbicides and the crops will be protected genetically.
1996 - 2% round-up ready crops
2008 - 90%

Farmers are finding it's cheaper to pay Monsanto's fines than actually try to fight the corporation. Even farmers who's crops were downwind from a Monsanto field are being charged because cross-pollination is seen as theft.

The Veil

There are myriad government links to Monsanto including Clarence Thomas, Rumsfield, Shapiro, Kanter... not to mention other problems with GMOs.

They have the power to do whatever works best for the company including preventing labelling laws. Schwartzenegger vetoed SB-68, a law that enables lawsuits against corporations. Now 70% of processed food is genetically modified. It's even against the law to criticize products in the veggie-libel laws. Oprah was sued by the meat industry for saying she doesn't eat burgers. It cost her $1 million to fight them. It's a felony to criticize ground beef.

Shocks to the System

Farmers will deliver what people demand. Vote with your feet, and buy organic!

Cross-posted from Project Earth Blog, November 1, 2009

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