It was around 8pm. I actually had other plans arranged, but it was canceled at the last minute. The trials and tribulations of…what, exactly? Friendship, I suppose. Ups, downs, and all that.
That still leaves me hungry, though. I am not a really happy bunny when I am hungry. So I called up Bindu, and asked him to bring back some fried chicken with him if possible. It was this that I said my thanks to.
And with that, I settled in nicely to watch ‘Food Inc’.
Wide, establishing shot of the sprawling farmland (presumably American). “The way we eat has changed more in the last fifty years than in the last ten thousand,” a voice, authoritative, but somewhat kind and friendly, starts. “But the image that’s used to sell the food, it is still the image of agrarian America.”
“You go into the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers,” another voice picks up the buck. And then another, and another. “The picket fence and the silo and the 30s farmhouse and the green grass…” “It’s the spinning of a pastoral fantasy.”
Evidently, then, ‘Food Inc.’ is an attempt to puncture this fantasy. It is a documentary that looks at what we eat, and how it’s being made. Unfortunately, along the way, there are those who do not want us to know what it is, exactly, that we’re eating. It all adds to the intrigue. ‘Food Inc.’ is made up of several different segments, and each looks at different aspects of the food manufacturing industry. The first one, for example, took a closer look at how chickens are raised in the 21st century, as well as cows and pigs. Nevertheless, it is with the chicken farmers from whom we get our first taste of the juice. In the introduction, it is suggested that while the image of the American farmer is still used to sell meat (and other food products), that is not necessarily the case. In terms of people, however, they’re still everything you’d expect them to be. They wear a certain kind of clothes, speak in a certain way, and one was even more than happy to show the filmmakers the insides of his chicken houses. That was before his big boss, a company named Tyson, intervened, and threatened to cancel his contract if he does so. “It would be nice if you could see what we do,” the farmer mused regretfully. At various points of the film, such moments of deafening silence, of corporate reluctance, are portrayed merely by text: “Tyson refused to be interviewed for this film.” “Monsanto refused to be interviewed for this film.” Such silence can be golden, and in this case, it does nothing but add credibility to this film.
I devour my chicken with relish. It is not particularly delicious, though. I did add some Kimball chili sauce to it. No, ‘add’ is perhaps not the right words. I drown the chicken with it. If it is still alive, it ain’t now. Plus, I am more than just hungry now. And it’s been a while since I tasted such meat.
It does not mean that we are deprived of any sort of images. In fact, the documentary is very beautifully shot, with a number of aerial shots, as well as the use of stock and archive footage. The most interesting of these described McDonald’s impact on the fast food industry (there wasn’t one when it started). Intriguing to see a big company like McDonald’s during its formative days. And while some were afraid to voice out in fear of losing their contracts (a lot of the farmers are actually contracted to the big companies), one did bring the filmmakers into her chicken house. Inevitably, she would lose her own contract, but not before revealing a whole lot of chicken shit hitting the fan. “This is not farming, this is like mass assembly in a factory.”
I tell you a moment that did get to me, though. No, two. The first one is her explaining that the chicken were genetically engineered in a way so that they would grow twice as big in half the time. However, the bone structure of the chicken do not mature at the same rate, and so a lot of the chicken would actually have problems just walking a few steps. They literally couldn’t stand up on their own two feet.
The second moment was seeing a bunch of chicks being handled inside a factory. They are transported up a conveyor belt, and just as I was thinking, “Oh, how cute and sweet…” they are dropped into another conveyor belt, to be separated accordingly. It is then that I realise that no longer is cuteness a factor, but the practicality: all of those sweet little yellow chicks would be grown into chicken, and become the food that I and others would devour. It’s food, man, it’s food. It doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t have a conscience, it doesn’t have a mind of it’s own…or does it? While there are other images that captured my attention, the thought of those little chicks (and the chicken being unable to even stand up!) did make me think more than just a little bit (another moment that got to me was when one of the scientist literally stuck his hand inside a part of a cow’s stomach while it is still alive).
I pause for a moment, eyebrows scrunched in slight revulsion. “That can’t be right,” I thought to myself. After a moment of looking at my chicken (by this time I was already halfway through my meal), I decided to continue.
It’s not all about chickens, though. The second part of the film looks at the growth of vegetables, such as corn. You’d think there would be less to worry about (you can’t really think of corn as cute, can you?), but on the contrary, this part is no-less hard hitting. It presents a compelling case for certain things to be reconsidered and reevaluated, while the third is led on from the second part, and looks at how powerful the food companies can be when they want to play ball in the courts of law.
Yet it is not just all about the food, and how it’s made. ‘Food Inc.’ also looks at the side-effects of the growth of such an industry, and the cover-ups that inevitably lead to disaster. For example, there’s also an extensive segment following a mother who lost her son after he ate some contaminated meat, meat that is claimed to be produced by such a system. We also spend a bit of time with a low-income family struggling to make ends meet and eat healthily at the same time, while there is also a quick look at the expansion of the industries themselves. With such rapid expansion, cheap migrant workers are brought in to work the factories, but at the same time, they are not afforded enough protection by the food companies. An implication was made that there is a deal between the immigration department and the food companies: the immigration department would swoop in to ensure that they are doing their job, but due to the deal, they don’t do their job too well to ensure that there would be enough people to work at the factories owned by the said companies. “They’ve been here ten, fifteen years, processing your food, your holiday ham, and now they’re getting picked up like criminals.” An ironic image I have to mention here; when the immigrants were being raided, there was a shot of an overweight policeman, with his belly almost hanging out, escorting the workers to the cars, hands in cuffs. He might have been one of the workers involved in the making of the hamburger that the officer may have had for breakfast.
Ironies and jokes aside, this is a serious bit of film by serious people. There is a lot of interviews with people (those who are willing to be interviewed), and the director, Robert Kenner, certainly seems like he tried to cover as many bases as possible. Among those interviewed (and involved as producers, I should disclaim) are authors and activists like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, who wrote the book ‘Fast Food Nation’. “This is not just about what we’re eating. It’s about our right to know. We have a right to know what we’re eating, but the companies don’t want us to know.”
That’s not to say that it is a perfect documentary, however. While it does inspire strong emotions and perhaps further considerations on your part, bear in mind as well the likelihood that the old-style farming that some of the people advocated in the film may seem out of date now. The simple fact is, as much as we’d like to grow chickens properly, to rear cows properly, the world is too large a place to not change and revolutionise some of the methods. To use a frame of reference within the film, when McDonald’s first came into existence in 1940, the world’s population was estimated to be around 2.3 billion, with over 130 million of these people located in America. By 2009, that number has more than doubled to over 300 million, with the world’s estimated number closer to 7 billion people. There is a demand to eat more food, and there has to be a system in place to satisfy this demand. What ‘Food Inc.’ doesn’t do in this film is to suggest credible alternatives to satisfy this volume of demand. I am swayed on one level, though, and do believe that transparency is the way to go with many things, but I would have liked more detailed suggestions from many people as to what to do. ‘Food Inc.’ seems to be telling me that I should not support these companies, which is fine, but beyond supporting smaller companies who do not have as large a reach to places like Malaysia and South Korea, there is little by way of alternatives. Of course, this is a film that is limited to America and America only, but nevertheless, I feel like a trick has been missed somewhere along this line.
It is a film worth watching, though, and one worth thinking about. It wins a lot of points, certainly, in terms of presentation. Numbers are crunched and presented in colourful and pleasant graphics. The music also plays along to this tune, leaning heavily on a country bias during these scenes (having said that, the director is smart enough to vary and use different kinds of music for the different scenes).
I look at the remnants of my dinner for tonight, the chicken bones and the fried skin leftovers. I considered what this chicken was before, and went back to the question of a chicken’s sentience.
Where did this chicken come from? How was it raised? Is this what it’s like all over the world? Is there a possible alternative to this that would be just as satisfying?
This film made me think a lot, if only on that level.
Fikri thinks that this is one Food that won’t run out of Inc. Ho hum.
He’s not even sure what that meant, but it seems funny enough to him… 🙂