The widely acclaimed documentary film Food, Inc. (2008) makes a valuable contribution to the cultural conversation about food: what we eat, where it comes from, and what that all means. Bringing together some of the most startling revelations from muckraking bestsellers like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food, Inc. is representative of a new “food justice” genre, both in its insights and its blind-spots.
Director Robert Kenner has remarked that while Food, Inc. began as a film about food, it quickly “became a film about unchecked corporate power.” Indeed, at its most incisive, Food, Inc. encourages viewers to follow the food chain down to its roots in the corporate domination of land, animals, people, and scientific knowledge. At other times, however, it obscures the systemic problems—as well as the openings—created by corporate capitalism, proclaiming that the “people have the power,” primarily through their “voting” at the check-out counter and through “green” entrepreneurship. “Empowering” as such consumerist conclusions may feel (at least to those with money in their pockets), they tend to defer both the necessity and the possibility of more radical social change.
Food, Inc. is representative of a new “food justice” genre, both in its insights and its blind-spots.
The heart of the problem here lies in what we might call a kind of “food determinism” which implies that taking better care of food will necessarily radiate outwards to other aspects of the social system. For instance, the film suggests that if we could just stop treating hogs (and other animals) badly, then the lot of workers would also improve.
The sad truth is that things are not that simple. Avoiding mass-produced meat does not mean your food is produced with justice. As Eric Schlosser pointed out in his first food exposé in Atlantic Monthly (“In the Strawberry Fields,” 1995), fruit and vegetable production involve some of the most exploitative labor conditions in the United States. Moreover, organic agriculture, as Felicia Mello observed in The Nation (“Hard Labor,” 2007), is far from less likely to exploit workers. Instead, it is often compelled to be even more ruthless and grueling. Organics’ non-reliance on pesticides requires that acres of produce be weeded by hand. Moreover, within a market economy, organic firms must struggle to maintain competitive prices (and profits), despite their extra-costly methods, meaning there is often even more pressure on owners—and labor contractors—to “control costs” wherever they can. This often means getting more for less out of their non-union, frequently undocumented fieldworkers. Furthermore, many organic farms are coming under the control of corporate institutions bereft of a mission of long-term sustainability beyond the bottom line, making it likely that “organics” will be increasingly contained as a market niche, and that serious ecological transformation will be relegated to the status of a corporate after-thought.
In the end, Food Inc. calls us all to scrutinize our purchasing and eating habits. We should exercise our “freedom of choice” to alter corporate behavior, rewarding “good” firms and punishing “bad” ones. However, at its best, the documentary shows why this is far from enough. It demonstrates how the food system in the US (and, increasingly, worldwide) is not determined primarily by consumer “choices,” but by US agricultural and economic policies, which are themselves rooted in the political-financial control of US food corporations over all branches of government . The strength of the film is that it helps us to see how the terrain of “choices” on which we are taught to exercise our precious “freedom” is itself structured, constrained, and shaped “behind the scenes.”
Perhaps the most insightful and radical segment of Food, Inc. is its surprisingly deft “behind the scenes” treatment of NAFTA and immigration. The film shows the effects of NAFTA in expropriating and impoverishing millions of Mexican small farmers. The same companies who lobbied for NAFTA – companies whose cheap, federally-subsidized corn production has driven these Mexican farmers out of business and off the land –now aggressively recruit these displaced, desperate ex-farmers to labor “illegally” in US meat-processing plants, where their lack of proper documentation leaves them especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation (not to mention, deportation).
How can these impoverished and unemployed workers make “better choices” on the market when they lack the resources to purchase food at all? How does including these hungry proletarians in the picture change our strategy for revolutionizing not just the food system, but our entire society?
Unfortunately, Food, Inc. doesn’t consider these workers allies in the struggle so much as passive victims in a system that only consumers can set right. But unlike the cattle whose suffering appalls us, the workers in the food system are capable of thought, organization, and collective action. Are they not the ones best situated to occupy not just the marketplace, but the food system itself?