Friday, February 19, 2010

Food, Inc. (2009)

This fascinating documentary kicks off with the assertion that the way we produce our food has changed more in the past 50 years than in the 10,000 years before that.

At the same time a 'veil' has been lifted between us and the system of centralised industrial agriculture, such that food marketing today widely perpetuates a pastoral fantasy completely out of step with modern farming methods.

This is clearly very much an American 'we', but Robert Kenner's Oscar-nominated film did get me thinking about the current flux in European attitudes towards food provenance.

Indeed, it was interesting to hear that the people that once had the audacity to call us Brits a nation of shopkeepers are reverting to local and specialist food retailers in their droves...or at least that is the prevailing explanation for the 70% drop in profits announced today by the world's second largest retailer Carrefour.

In part because I grew up in the very centre of London, it was not really until I left home to go up to Cambridge that I became properly exposed to the big supermarket chains. Big stores were already appearing around the edges of Britain's towns, but in Kensington and Chelsea the only significant examples of this retail phenomenon were two rather grim branches of Safeway.

As a result, our meat came from traditional local butchers (Lidstones in Lower Belgrave Street and Portwine in Earlham Street), our bread from a local bakery and our vegetables from local greengrocers. My father's company owned a building in Neal's Yard (Covent Garden) and in the early 80s the only other commercial activity going on there was a wholesale fruit and veg dealer called Asher & Son. It was a sad day for us when Asher junior closed his wooden gates for the last time, an event which marked the beginning of the takeover of Neal's Yard by the purveyors of counter-cultural comestibles, or what my father used to call 'the nuts and berries gang'.

So food generally didn't come shrink-wrapped or in boxes, unless one went to M&S, whose St Michael-branded grub then had an aura of unconventional quality. But in 1992 the first Tesco Metro appeared in Covent Garden, marking the intention of the big chains to capture the profitable West End trade too.

One of the reasons I love living in Central America is the blend of first and third world conditions and the choices that facilitates. I'm not one of those people who can live entirely without supermarkets, fast food or indeed capitalism — but I do like to have a choice over how much control such things hold over my life. Here in Antigua I can get a chicken burger meal from Pollo Campero for Q20 or I can drive up to the finca and choose a hen sitting in a tree and handed over to me patas first.

Even slightly less stark versions of this choice are seemingly no longer available in Britain — in the Thames Valley where my father now lives most of the stuff people eat has been provided by the likes of Waitrose, Somerfield, Tesco, Sainsbury's, ASDA and Morrison's. The village of Pangbourne has a Bentley shop, but no butcher, baker, greengrocer etc.

Kenner would have everyone choosing to eat locally-sourced, in-season produce instead of the stuff oozing out of the centralised industrial agricultural system, but this is surely not such an uncomplicated decision for inhabitants of sprawling conurbations such as Greater London. For any attempt to live in a globalised metropolis whilst acting as if one lives in a small rural community seems to require a whole set of often quite ridiculous affectations.

And the branding bunch are already onto you, especially if you are the sort of person who uses consumption as a way of standing out from the hoi polloi. They can easily spot eating habits morphing into lifestyle choices and have a whole batch of new ways for you to give the same old industrial food complex your money: Freetrade, organic, shade-grown...

As V once put it, "it's just another jail following you around". Younger, more affluent people in the big Western cities seem keener than ever to escape the confines of the industrial food system bequeathed to them by the baby boomers, but while I can agree with Kenner that the marketers have constructed a semiotic barrier between the consumer and the reality of modern agricultural practices, there's surely something in the very nature of modern urban culture that feeds the system.

Food, Inc. does make the point that even those Americans who studiously avoid the likes of the golden arches, are likely to be filling themselves up with calories prepared in a way that suits the fast food industry. The top four meat-packers now control 85% of the market, operating just thirteen slaughterhouses across the States, which means that any given burger could potentially contain meat from thousands of cows.

In the UK last month I noticed just how difficult it is not only to avoid eating stuff that comes out of plastic tubs or cardboard boxes, but also to reign in one's tendency to over-indulge.

Food, Inc.
reports that up in el norte people eat on average 200 lbs of meat per person per year and, as if that wasn't unhealthy enough, that the threat of E.Coli has emerged as a direct consequence of feeding cattle corn — and this at a time when regulatory bodies up there are toothless thanks to the 'revolving door' between them and the food companies, giving the latter effective control over public policy.

There's certainly no shortage of meat here in Central America, but the local diet has assigned a more proportional role to protein. It's also true that chicken here, whether it comes in the form of camperitos or is yanked off a branch, tastes a lot better than the bland, rubbery stuff on Britain's supermarket shelves.

The poor and un-educated — amongst whom one presumes the stupid feature disproportionately in a land of freedom and opportunity like the USA — are particularly vulnerable to bad calories, Kenner points out in this film, because bad calories are also cheap calories, thanks to America's farm subsidy policy. What seems like a good price to someone on a budget is thus often a 'dishonest' price (much like the price of oil and gas in Chávez's Venezuela.)

Minorities are also suffering: it is estimated that 1 in 2 people born after 2000 into a minority group in the USA will develop early-onset diabetes. They are also getting a raw deal on the labour side of the equation. Both the poultry and meat industries depend on poor blacks and Hispanics (many of the latter indocumentados) to carry out work like chicken catching, pig slaughtering or meat packing.

One of the central investigations of Kenner's documentary concerns the Smithfield Hog Processing Plant, the world's biggest slaughterhouse. The Migra is a constant visitor picking up around 15 workers a day, but somehow never putting together a full-on raid with the potential to disrupt the plant's output.

When NAFTA came into effect many Mexican corn farmers found themselves unable to compete with the gringos' subsidised product, but the Smithfield company was on hand to actively recruit from this labour glut, often via highly visible advertising campaigns on the other side of the border. As ever, it is the Mexicans fleeing destitution in their own land who suffer the consequences of poorly-conceived and enforced American laws, as noone from the Smithfield management has ever been prosecuted.

Grade: B++

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