State of Science :: Commentaries
A Tale of Two Films: "Food, Inc." and "Fresh"
Author(s): Charles Benbrook
The Organic Center
Two newly released documentary films, "Food, Inc." and "Fresh" are bound to broaden the national dialogue underway about what we eat and how we grow food in America. While the two movies cover much of the same ground, they differ in tone and substance.
"Food, Inc." will leave many viewers alarmed and eager for change, while the stories in "Fresh" about people creating healthier local and regional islands within the larger food system are uplifting and hopeful.
Michael Pollan narrates much of "Food, Inc." In the opening segment, as the camera moves along the aisles of a modern supermarket, capturing pictures on food packages of red barns, happy cows, and green fields, Pollan remarks upon "…the spinning of this pastoral fantasy" by the American food industry.
Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," is the co-narrator of "Food, Inc." He focuses his comments on the industrialization of the meat industry, emphasizing throughout that "…[industrial] food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us."
He explains that because most Americans prefer the white meat on chicken breasts, the industry "redesigned" the chicken so that each bird produces more breast meat. One consequence of this "improvement" in chicken genetics is shown a few scenes later.
A ground-floor camera shot inside a large boiler house captures chickens so front heavy from their big breasts that they can walk only a few steps before falling forward, victim of their weight and poorly developed, weak bones.
On camera, Schlosser exudes folksy charm. Sitting at the counter in Alen Ander's Bright Spot Restaurant, he admits that a hamburger and French fries are his favorite meal. What he has to say about food safety and the government is another matter. He describes how today's large-scale beef slaughterhouses are perfect venues for spreading E. coli O157:H7, and that each hamburger can have pieces of hundreds or even thousands of animals in it.
And on the topic of government oversight and regulation of animal product food safety, Schlosser states that:
"It's remarkable how toothless our regulatory agencies are, and that's the way industry wants it."
About the Films
"Fresh" is a film by Ripple Effect Productions, edited by Mona Davis and produced and directed by Ana Sophia Joanes. Information on the film can be found on the film's website.
"Food, Inc." is currently showing in several major cities and is a joint production of River Road Entertainment, Participant Media, and Magnolia Pictures. Robert Kenner directed Food, Inc.
Information about the film, where it is showing and a book that accompanies the film is presented on the "Food, Inc." website.
"Food, Inc.," the book, contains 13 chapters by different experts, including four done by individuals featured in the film.
Widening the Debate
"Food, Inc." and "Fresh" are a powerful combination. Their impact will obviously be a direct function of the number of people that see the films.
The best chance for wide viewership is likely to come from airing on PBS. Hopefully, a PBS benefactor will provide the funding needed to show the two films back to back several times this summer and fall, starting with "Food, Inc."
As a nation, an extended discussion about the food we eat, how we grow it, and the way people and animals are treated is long overdue.
With her interest in healthy, fresh foods for her children and the planting of a White House garden, First Lady Michelle Obama has gotten the dialogue off to a solid, spirited start. These two films have great potential to move the discussion forward for the benefit of all.
Accessing "A Tale of Two Films"
Three files are posted below. The first contains a five-page overview of the content of the two films, with special focus on the efficiency of production, the scale of farming operations and food businesses, food safety, and how to change the food system.
"Feeding the World" is the second file and addresses the critical question "Can organic farming feed the world?"
The third file contains the full nine-page "A Tale of Two Films" commentary in one file. It includes the introductory text above, plus the discussion of efficiency, scale, food safety, and the section on whether organic farming can feed the world.
In addition, more detailed technical reports and scientific findings on the key topics addressed in the film are listed in the box below.
Further Information on Key Issues Involving Organic Food and Farming
Can world food needs be met through organic farming?
Brian Halweil wrote the most thoroughly documented and carefully reasoned explanation why organic farming can and should make a major contribution in promoting global food security. Brian's essay "Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?" initially appeared in the May-June 2006 issue of the "WorldWatch Magazine."
What about the future role, if any, for genetic engineering in organic and sustainable food production systems?
A March 2006 "Interview" with Chuck Benbrook in the "Bioneers Magazine" explores the precision and pitfalls of genetic engineering.
What about the impacts of genetic engineering on developing countries?
A detailed report is available on the impact of Roundup Ready soybeans in Argentina.
Is organic food healthier?
For a discussion of six ways that organic food and farming can help combat obesity and diabetes, see "The Organic Factor: Tilting the Odds Toward Healthy Development," the May-June 2009 cover story in "Organic Processing Magazine."
What about pesticides in conventional and organic food?
The March 2008 State of Science Review "Simplifying the Pesticide Risk Equation: The Organic Option" concludes that a shift to all organic fruits and vegetables would eliminate as much as 97% of the pesticide risk in the diet. This analysis draws heavily on USDA pesticide residue data.
Michael Pollan states that the nutrient content of conventional food has dropped 40%. Is that true?
Dr. Don Davis, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas-Austin carried out a rigorous analysis of changes from 1950 to 1999 in the levels (concentrations) of 13 nutrients in 43 fruits and vegetable crops. Six out of 13 nutrient concentrations declined, one by 38% (riboflavin).
What about the differences in the nutritional quality of organic and conventional foods?
In a March 2008 State of Science Review, the results of 97 published studies comparing nutrient levels in organic and conventional foods were analyzed. On average, nutrient levels in organic food were about 25% higher in 256 matched pairs of organic and conventional food.