Food, Inc. 2

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Food, Inc. 2, it won’t surprise anyone to hear, is the follow-up to Food, Inc., the 2008 documentary which usefully summarised what you might call the anti-Big Food position.

Bad, in a word. Food, Inc. 2 doesn’t have much that’s positive to say in this update, not at first anyway. It also starts with an opening premise that seems to be contradicted by facts – that the production of food is in so few hands that the supply chain isn’t secure. It then points to the Covid pandemic when… er… I don’t remember hearing stories of food running out. Panic buying, yes. Kinks in the supply chain, yes. More than that – not so sure.

But then, patiently, and over the rest of the documentary’s running time, that argument – too much power, too few hands – is stood up, repeatedly and without anyone getting hysterical.

What that over-concentration of power means is significant. Low workers’ wages. The environmental cost of industrial-style food production. The insane logic of the lobby system, whereby some foodstuffs are subsidised by tax payers. The draining of aquifers to keep deserts productive. The loss of topsoil. The diabetes/diabesity pandemic. The depopulation of the countryside. Brutal living conditions for animals. Climate change. All this is laid at the door of entire sectors being dominated by one company – much is made of the Tyson meat packing company, which lobbied President Trump to keep the plants open even as its elbow-to-elbow working conditions were leading to exploding Covid deaths during the epidemic, says Sheriff Tony Thompson.

Slightly hung up on the pandemic – the shifts in food production it’s talking about have happened over generations – Food, Inc. 2 is at its best away from the short term. It unashamedly advocates for its position and isn’t interested in balance or the case for intensive food-production methods. Everyday abundance, sustainability of supply and the diversity of products more or less already do that for Big Food, I suppose. As does Big Food’s massive advertising spend, and the even less visible budget targeted at lobbying the government, which outstrips that of the defence industry.

Since the first film discussions about subjects like food production have been weaponised. In culture-wars standoffs the old adage “play the ball not the man” no longer applies. Old “woke” commentators like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser turn up on screen, as they did in the first film. They’re also producers of this one. But noticeably the bulk of the arguing about what’s going wrong is left to people on the ground not “the elites”.

A combine harvester in a gigantic field
Harvesting at industrial scale

So we get Zack Smith, the farmer who watched his topsoil, “the richest in the world”, blowing away and decided to do something about it with a back-to-basics sustainable system he now lectures other local farmers about (they look sceptical but not hostile). Fran Marion, the fast-food employee sick of living on survival level wages. Dana Small the psychologist commissioned by Pepsi to map how the brain responds to artificial sweeteners, the findings of whose research the company were not happy to hear. John Tester, the senate’s only working farmer, who went organic in the 1980s and reckons “the corporate business model is killing rural America”. And Bren Smith, who gave up trawler fishing (too intensive) for fish farming, then found that to be too intensive too (“like pig farming out in the ocean”) and now harvests kelp, muscles and oysters and makes a good living.

These witnesses and others like them are the film’s great resource. These people know what they’re talking about and are for the most part lively, engaging human beings who don’t seem to be at the vanguard of anything so much as a movement to go back to something.

Towards the end the emphasis shifts to novel foods. Can we be saved by meatless meat and fishless fish, from protein grown in tanks, often from waste products? The jury is out – Pollan is cautiously positive, food journalist Larissa Zimberoff is less convinced. The future is a mixed bag. Progress might get us part of the way, while going backwards might also yield rewards.

And as a finale, in case there has been too much doom spread, a quick round-up of positive developments. Healthy eating campaigns. The Fair Food Program ensuring higher wages for pickers. Drives towards the unionisation of fast food workers, also nudging wages upwards.

Apart from one side trip to Sao Paulo to investigate UPFs (ultra-processed foods) – and why people who eat them tend to consume 500 calories a day more than those who don’t – it’s an entirely USA focused affair. For those of us who don’t live there, it’s an eye-opening and cautionary tale. Tomorrow the world, and all that.

Food, Inc. 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2024

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