By Luke Simpson, Associate Editor, Chem.Info
It’s easy for people to like the Food Inc. movie. Executives serving big companies have become the poster boys (and girls) for greed and all that is wrong with corporate America, and this movie creates an us-against-them scenario complete with instructions for toppling these modern-day food czars.
Images of chickens living in ridiculously cramped conditions, cows being dragged to their deaths, and huge machines unapologetically grinding up multiple carcasses simultaneously are shocking — these are the things the food companies don’t want us to see, we’re told.
I think it is important to know where your food comes from, to read labels and buy foods that are minimally processed and nutritional. But the fact is that most of the time people only care about the taste, how much it costs and the preparation requirements. That’s the problem for a movie like this: It’s preaching to the converted.
As a consumer, I’m presented with a number of options, from farmer’s markets to organic produce to fast food. Because I’ve spent a lot of time sampling food from different sources, I’ve found that it isn’t much more expensive to buy local produce from small farms, or free range produce that is brought up in conditions that are humane, natural (feed) and in my opinion more hygienic, resulting in a much better tasting product.
Consumers have a choice, and most consumers opt for the convenience and low cost of supermarket produce supplied by the big food processors.
I understand the food companies’ need for secrecy. People like to think of their food as coming from kitchens or farms, not large processing plants or abattoirs. Seeing where the food comes from would hurt the bottom line, which is unacceptable for any company, much less one that is publicly listed. It also accounts for the branding used by companies to convey the idea that a product is produced at a family-run farm.
So I’m left to wonder: Are large food companies to blame for increases in obesity and diabetes if they are giving people what they want for a cheap price? And what role should the government play in our food system?
Before I answer that, I want to mention another movie called King Corn, which follows two college graduates who plant an acre of corn in Iowa and follow its progress from the field to our plates.
It shows the massive scale of corn production in the Midwest and the subsidies which make an otherwise unprofitable crop the basis for so many calorie-rich human and animal foods. But there is a sobering moment in the movie when they interview Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture during the Nixon administration and the man responsible for the shift in agricultural policy in the 1970s.
Butz considers the current food system to be the accomplishment of his generations’ efforts to make feeding the population easier. On top of that, Butz believes that cheap food is the basis of America’s affluence. We spend 16–17 percent of our take home pay on food, about half as much as our grandparents, freeing up money for us to spend on other things.
It certainly is a great accomplishment, but one that seems to have overshot the original goal. We are now locked into a system that emphasizes salty, fatty and sweet foods, which should only make up a small part of our diets.
Who’s fault is it? Government policy has allowed this system to flourish, and lobbying by large food companies has kept it in place. The Obama administration recently floated the idea of a tax on sweet and alcoholic beverages to pay for some of the healthcare overhaul. It appears that this idea has been muted thanks in part to the Americans Against Food Taxes coalition, with members that include the major soft drink manufacturers and supermarket industry groups.
Food companies are not in a position to make decisions that serve the public’s best interests. Unfortunately, it appears that a lot of people are also unable or unwilling to make decisions that are in their own best interests. Instead of leaving this large segment of our population to die prematurely, it’s up to the Government to create policies that make fresh fruits and vegetables cheaper and more appealing than junk food — let’s pay farmers to grow tomatoes, not the raw material for industrial sweetener.
We also need to look at why Californian produce is shipped all over the country, but Californians get some of their produce from Florida. The concept of food miles has linked the food industry with the sustainability movement, and I hope that this idea is extended to include human sustainability — practices that prolong and enrich our own lives.
Have you seen Food Inc. or King Corn? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.