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Food, Inc.

Bonni McCoy, C&EN Contributing Editor

Food Inc. poster “Food, Inc.” arrived on DVD just in time to ruin Thanksgiving dinner. Which isn’t a pejorative comment on the documentary’s worth but a reaction to its gut-churning images of livestock mistreatment and factory food production. Among other things, we witness pigs on the killing floor and sick cows standing ankle-deep in their own manure, prodded straight into the slaughterhouse. It’s a reality horror show, the result of merciless driving forces: corporate profit bolstered by billions in government subsidies.

In 93 lively minutes, director Robert Kenner tackles food-borne illness, dangerous working conditions, weakened human health, patent protection, the advent of fast food, corporation strong-arming, degradation of the environment, lack of government oversight, and organic foods. It’s a mighty tall order and somewhat frustrating to those already familiar with the arguments against industrial farming and who might be craving more in-depth analysis. Indeed, the cleverly conceived opening credits take place in a supermarket, and too many times the film’s colorful cinematography, goofy graphics, and ambitiously wide reach render it a cinematic version of the same sprawling emporium it decries.

Kenner has assembled an impressive lineup of talking heads: Eric Schlosser (author of “Fast Food Nation” and this film’s coproducer), Michael Pollan (author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), and Gary Hirshberg, the chief executive officer of yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm. All present compelling arguments in clear, measured tones.

Still, it’s the “regular folks” we meet who resonate most; they seem less outraged with their plights than disappointed, as they fill the screen with warm, palpable authenticity. There’s Barbara Kowalcyk, a mother who became an activist when her two-year-old died after eating an Escherichia coli-tainted hamburger; chicken farmer Carole Morison, who chose to lose her contract with Perdue rather than subject her animals to the company mandate of life in an overcrowded, perpetually dark tunnel; the working-class Orozco family, whose members describe their budget-driven rationale for eating at McDonald’s despite firsthand experience with that decision’s dire health consequences.

A bright spot in “Food, Inc.” is provided by Joel Salatin, an outspoken, appealing farmer who first came into the public spotlight via Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” As Salatin takes us on a little tour of his organic farm in western Virginia, he points toward his cows grazing in the pasture and compares them with the corn-fed cows on neighboring industrial farms. He claims his economics work: “The cow fertilizes—she’s moving. We don’t have to spread any manure! We don’t have to harvest … she’s harvesting it! It’s all real time, real silver dollars.”

If only Salatin’s business model could be translated to a global scale. As it stands, a United Nations report released last month predicts that developing countries will need investments of $83 billion per year if there is to be enough food to feed the world’s expected 9.1 billion people by 2050. To meet the world’s food needs, the U.S. will need to boost spending by 50%, and “mechanization will account for the single biggest investment area,” according to the report.

Like an inescapable mantra, voice-overs and text titles are woven throughout “Food, Inc.,” reminding us of agribusiness big boys’ refusal to cooperate with interview requests. This opaqueness reflects especially poorly on Monsanto: The movie presents a damning case against the company’s practice of investigating farmers suspected of violating their contracts by saving and reusing the firm’s patented Roundup Ready soybean seeds.

Here Kenner introduces Moe Parr, a 30-year veteran of the seed-cleaning business and every inch the embodiment of Americans’ nostalgia for crusty codgers perched atop tractors, toiling happily in the warm, fading sun. Unfortunately for Parr, the era of patent-protected seeds means far less demand for his specialized service.

Monsanto doesn’t take its hits lying down. On a comprehensive, user-friendly website (www.monsanto.com/foodinc), the company refutes what it calls key “fictions” embedded in “Food, Inc.,” including the film’s implication that Monsanto is dishonorable for doing whatever is necessary to protect its valuable intellectual property.

Although “Food, Inc.” doesn’t adopt the heavy-handed, anticorporate tone of a Michael Moore flick, its one-sided depiction of Monsanto’s role in agribusiness is a disservice to viewers and well-meaning scientists alike. It undermines the film’s larger message—one that, for the most part, Americans would do well to heed.