Archive for July 31st, 2009

Food production, safety and transparency–and a darn good movie

July 31, 2009

Last night I finally got the chance to watch Food Inc, the hit documentary about food production. I say finally because I’ve been talking with my son about this movie for a couple of years, asking all the while “can I blog on it now?” Chris, our son, a cinematographer on this film and has been wonderfully mentored by producer-director Robby Kenner.

There are many in the food business who hate this film, and many farmers who seem to think it is attacking them. I’m one who has spent part of my life working for the big and powerful corporations and even some regulatory agencies who are attacked here. But I am very grateful for this excellent film, primarily because the most important theme is transparency.

There are certainly some oxes gored here, so to speak. I don’t think all of it was fair and once in a while the film got into a activist-propagandist mode–but that was pretty rare. There certainly are good guys and bad guys–white hats and black hats and that melodramatic style, while highly entertaining, tends to ignore the complexities of real life.

Monsanto wore the blackest hat of all. Too bad that Monsanto’s primary defense seems to that they didn’t decline to be interviewed. The back and forth on this topic has dominated some of the director’s interviews–in Vanity Fair for example. But that misses the point. If food producers and agribusinesses of all kinds–large and small–think that the public would not approve of their methods of production, they should stop. If they do not believe that what they would do would pass the smell test or stand scrutiny of the open air, then they should stop. If they do believe what they are doing is in the public interest, the for the sake of all of us who cherish a supply of healthy, abundant, inexpensive food, defend yourselves.

Do not be stupid like the oil industry and say, well, people have to buy our product anyway so it doesn’t matter whether they love us or hate us. That attitude is costing all of us because of the high cost of digging out of a reputation hole. For example, if those reactionary politicians had successfully passed a windfall profits tax, who would be paying more for our fuel?

Open the doors to your slaughter houses and your killing floors. Let the light of day into your hiring practices. If you can’t successfully defend them, change them. But please understand that hiding equals guilt and you appear to be doing all you can to hide. Today’s transparency won’t allow that. If you can’t defend what you are doing on the basis of the value of cheap, plentiful and healthy food, then it needs to change.

I think it is high time that we have a serious debate about our food production methods, our food safety standards, the value or lack of organics. To do that the public needs to know what is going on. Those who believe, as one chicken farmer stated, that we are producing more food for more people with less resource than ever before–those voices need to be heard. That one farmer can produce food for hundreds, that needs to be heard. We need to know if all food was created the “new” old way, how many would starve, or go without medicines to buy foods.

Food Inc may very well be seen as a trigger point in really getting the national debate on food safety and production methods going. I hope so and if it does it will have served an incredibly valuable and historic purpose. But I hope that debate, if it comes, is not one sided. I hope that reasonable voices with as much research and careful thought behind them as Michael Pollan has marshalled will enter the debate on the side of the likes of Monsanto, Tyson, Smithfield and others. Only if we hear clearly from all sides of this important issue will the right public policies be made as well as the right and proper consumer decisions.

Thank you Robby and Chris–great job and now to the Oscars!