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Monday, December 28, 2009

Food Incomplete

I've been weighing carefully my opinions of the movie Food, Inc. This self-proclaimed exposé of the American industrialized food manufacturing and processing system is taking the food blogosphere by storm, and appears to have life changing effects. After seeing lauded so-much, and then finally being preached upon by random people using the movie as their sole source and justification, I find I must extend the discussion.

First though, as spoiler alert - I am not going to recap the movie, but I'll assume that you have watched it by now. It has been out on DVD for a while, and the accompanying website and blogs are the stuff of rebellious activism. Unfortunately, it is activism that is co-opted by a number of disparate causes, some of which are only tenuously related to the premise. And the premise itself is shaky.

Here's the gist of the message: the industrial production of most American food stems from the monoculture of crops (GMO corn and soy) that feeds into factory feed lots which produce meat and dairy that supply American supermarkets. Problems are highlighted on this so-called "unnatural" arrangement (more on that later). Consolidation and legal corruption has squeezed out competition. "Organic" farmers are the rebellion against this set up, and produce not only better food products, but by supporting them, you fight against the man.

I don't agree with many of these conclusions, because they pick and choose from a complex set of issues to drive home a monolithic image and message. But let's start with one issue that isn't described adequately: cost.

An ominous theme described is one of food safety - that the monolithic setup and increasingly consolidated sourcing of food in the US is a very weak link in terms of contamination. By commoditizing food production, a single outbreak or contamination in one producing source of say ground meat or packaged salad mix can contaminate the entire food supply. All of this points to requirements for better oversight on a perennially underfunded government entity supposedly responsible for this. All the while, the movie points to anecdotal evidence that "pastoral" farmers are somehow pristine and immune from such outbreaks simply by being outside of the system.

Nonsense - what it is the convenience of interpreting the unknown to favorable ends. Pastoral farmers are not systematically monitored. Moreover, by their very nature of being unstandardized, anecdotal evidence cannot be extrapolated. Simply put, we are aware of the problems in the commoditized system, but the pastoral system is a black box. That does not make them inherently advisable or superior.

But the reasoning behind the commoditization stems from the need to increase standardized monitoring for lowered cost. Bottom line is, the system may be broken, but it was created to conform for a demand for cheap and reproducible food. Change that demand, and the system will fall apart. "Organic" (whatever that means) produce doesn't address that specific core issue.

More on this later.

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