Sunday, July 12, 2009

‘Food, Inc.’: Another capitalist crisis

‘Food, Inc.’: Another capitalist crisis

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Filmmaker Robert Kenner’s documentary “Food, Inc.” is a powerful condemnation of the food industry under capitalism—a must-see film that explores the mechanization of U.S. agriculture, which, with the consent of government regulatory agencies, threatens consumers and workers alike.

“Food, Inc.” picks up from films like “The Future of Food,” “Fast Food Nation” and “King Corn” by connecting the dots that calorie-laden McDonald’s-type fast food, heavy reliance on the use of corn and corn byproducts, and Monsanto’s genetically engineered soy beans and other patented seeds are part of a larger picture of an agricultural industry controlled by fewer and fewer corporations.

Food writers Michael Pollan (“In Defense of Food”) and Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) narrate the film that reveals an industry driven, not by concerns for human consumption, but strictly by the drive to maximize profits.

“Food, Inc.” starts by examining McDonald’s introduction of high technology in the 1960s, which revolutionized the fast food industry by using assembly-line style preparation. Each worker performs only one repetitive job, whether it’s flipping hundreds of burgers each hour or placing pickles in the same precise spot on every sesame seed bun.

This allowed such a speed-up in production that millions of items could be sold at relatively low cost. Workers were less likely to organize because they could easily be replaced, and consumers came to rely on quick, cheap, albeit highly caloric meals.

Assembly line horrors for animals, workers

This same high-tech assembly-line strategy was gradually adopted by meat and poultry companies, where everything from handling of baby chickens to the final packaging of hamburger was driven by machines. Workers each have one task to perform before the product (food) they are working on passes to the next person on the line.

Kenner explores the increasing monopolization of beef, poultry and pig production, with only a handful of companies, including Tyson, JBS Swift, Armour, Perdue, Cargill Meat Solutions and Smithfield, controlling these industries. In the 1970s the top five beef packers controlled about 25 percent of the market. Today, the top four control more than 80 percent. These giant agribusiness companies declined to be interviewed for the film.

“Food, Inc.” explores the poultry industry’s practices of tube feeding growth hormones and antibiotics to thousands of chickens crowded into dark, confined, poorly ventilated “barns.” Designed to produce plumper chickens in less time, this technique to maximize profits results in animals too heavy to stand.

The average chicken farmer invests over $500,000 to buy these industrial “barns,” while the annual return may be as little as $18,000. Those who don’t go along, like Maryland chicken farmer Carole Morison, who agreed to be interviewed for the film despite threats from Perdue, face the loss of their investments. Another farmer declined to open up his barn where all the latest “factory methods” were being used because Tyson instructed him not to.

In the early 20th century, Upton Sinclair’s classic indictment of the exploitation of workers in the beef processing industry opened the way for the growth of powerful unions which helped improve consumer safety and working conditions over the decades.

But in the last 30 years, the increasing monopolization of the industry has undermined these improvements. Today’s reality is far worse than anything Sinclair exposed, and the role of unions in the industry has been seriously undercut.

Cattle are crowded into centrally organized feed areas–massive plots where they are jammed together, standing in their own feces, and fed a diet heavy in corn that their bodies are not biologically designed to digest. These cattle, sometimes too heavy to stand, are driven to massive factories to be slaughtered and processed in an industrial setting.

Often contaminated with E. coli bacteria as a result of the feeding process, the meat from these animals is mixed together with that of thousands of others. Roughly 73,000 people in the U.S. are sickened annually as a result.

Rather than addressing the root causes of the contamination, or switching to grass feed, the owners of these industrial farms introduce more high-tech solutions, such as spraying ammonia onto the meat to kill the bacteria.

Hogs are grown by the millions in confined spaces and not moved until the day they are slaughtered. In the Smithfield Hog Processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., the largest slaughterhouse in the world, 32,000 hogs are killed each day.

Smithfield’s workers, many of whom are undocumented, not only labor in an unsafe and unhealthy environment, but are frequently targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. One raid is caught on tape in the film.

The raid makes the point that the partnership between U.S. corporations and the U.S. government resulted in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allowed subsidized corn produced in the U.S. to flood the Mexican market. Many out-of-work Mexican farmers were enticed by companies like Smithfield to come to the U.S., while ICE looked away. Now these same workers are targeted by ICE while Smithfield bosses continue their operations, this time bussing in workers from over a 100-mile radius for their Tar Heel farm-factories.

Profits from Agent Orange to soybeans

Prior to changing its name, Monsanto was a chemical company that produced DDT and one of the companies that produced Agent Orange. In 1996 it introduced Round-Up Ready Soybeans–genetically modified patented seeds. Over the last 13 years its market control has gone from 2 percent to over 90 percent of all soybeans in the U.S. Today 70 percent of processed foods have some genetically modified ingredient.

In a campaign reminiscent of McCarthy-era witch-hunts against communists, Monsanto has carried out a systematic campaign against farmers who continue to use their own unmodified seeds, sending a team of private investigators into fields looking for evidence that Monsanto’s seeds ended up on these farmers’ land.

Monsanto compiled a list with hundreds of names of farmers who refused to buy their modified seeds and names of “seed cleaners”–agricultural workers with mobile equipment who assist farmers in cleaning seeds for recycling–for prosecution. Those who tried to stand up to Mon-

santo’s legal challenges faced enormous legal bills that eventually forced them to go along or go out of business.

Today, 30 percent of the land in the U.S. is used to produce corn, the crop most heavily subsidized by the U.S. government. Corn products can be found in ketchup, batteries, peanut butter, Coke, jelly, Sweet & Low, Motrin, charcoal and diapers, to name just a few items.

The broad use of corn products, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, has also been credited with spearheading the growing problems of obesity and related diseases. “Food, Inc.” sounds the alarm over the nearly epidemic spread of early-onset (type 2) diabetes in the U.S., which disproportionately affects people who have a hard time paying for healthier, less-processed food. The statistics are shocking: Type-2 diabetes is expected to affect one out of three people born after 2000 and one in two who are people of color.

“Food, Inc.” serves up ample evidence that the fault lies with the greed of the capitalist corporations, but falls short of offering any real alternative. Like the fast food companies it condemns, “Food, Inc.” sugarcoats the problem by suggesting these corporations will self-reform under consumer pressure. Kenner leaves his audience hungry for more by failing to conclude that the system “Food, Inc.” exposes needs to end. In fact, he does the opposite.

After presenting damning evidence that capitalism’s drive for super profits has led to a crisis in food production, all but obliterating the “family farm” while threatening the health of consumers and the safety of workers, Kenner lets Gary Hirshberg, former owner of Stonyfield Farms who sold his company’s organic brand name to Colgate, suggest that a kinder, gentler capitalism is possible, even though all the antecdotal evidence speaks to the contrary.

Hirshberg concludes, “We can’t get rid of capitalism.” Rather, he states, consumer demands for healthier food will move the mega-giants like Wal-mart to carry more organic produce. However, “Food, Inc.” shows Wal-Mart representatives going to a small organic dairy farm that sells milk to Stonyfield Farms, raising the reality that even these independent farmers will eventually be dependent on the giant food corporations for distribution.

Kenner suggests alternative farms, farmers’ markets and buying local, organic products—all appealing and available for those with means. But they will not reverse the trend toward monopolization. Nor can they address the global problem where an estimated 913 million people in 2008 suffered from chronic hunger. It will take an economy based on production for human need not profit, to do that.

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