I was at our favourite fruit & veggie stand at Kensington Market last weekend, when I heard a woman asking one of the regulars at the store what he was doing the following monday evening. She happened to have a pass for two for a preview screening of Food Inc. at the Varsity Cinema (close to where we live) and couldn’t go. The guy said he couldn’t go and I quickly said “has the movie opened yet? I’m dying to watch it!” I had just written a post about it the previous day and I wanted to watch it so badly that my initial shyness fell to the way side. She turned to me and said “would you be interested in going?” Oh yeah! “Pass by my store in 15 mins and I’ll have the pass for you.”
The movie opened the last edition of Toronto’s International Film Festival and was released in threatres across the US last Friday to much media attention, leading to some interesting discussions. The screening we attended this past Monday was followed by a Q&A session with local activists as well as Gary Hirshberg, founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farm and one of the people interviewed in the film. There were no surprises for me in the movie. It felt like a film version of the Omnivore’s Dilemma and dealt with the dark side of the American food industry (whose model is exported all over the world, so don’t think you are off the hook for living in Canada or other countries), and deals with everything from the rise of food-born illnesses, the development of deadly strands of e-coli or salmonella, factory farm workers, the powerlessness of farmers who refuse to play the game according to the big industry’s rules, and the presumed powerlessness of consumers. It’s dark and it leaves you stuck between disgust, anger, and frustration.
The basic message sent by Gary and all the others is that although we have known that there are serious problems with the food industry for years, nothing will be done until we are able to make it a mainstream issue rather than a concern of activists only. And to get there, people need to know where their food come from and what is hidden in it. It’s all about transparency and education really. You can’t just pretend it doesn’t affect you. That people are over-reacting. I mean, we are all under the illusion we know what we eat. But that can often be an illusion. Take hamburguers, for example, the quintessential North American food. We all know that eating too many burguers is not really good for us but we assume that’s because too much meat is bad and that’s what burguers are, right? Ground beef. With perhaps a bit of preservative. But do you know that the entire meat industry in the US is controlled by four companies? And that 80% of the hamburguer meat available in the market is washed with ammonia? And that it is washed with ammonia because that meat originally had a much higher content of e-coli bacteria than meat ever had before. You know why? Because cows are fed corn, which their bodies have not evolved to be able to digest. So either you eat hamburguer laced with ammonia or you may share Kevin’s fate.
I have written before on this blog about the importance of knowing what you eat. Some people tell me it is too difficult to eat healthy, that they don’t have the time or the knowledge, or that organic food is too expensive. That’s not necessarily true. Good food can be deceavingly simple. If you are not sure where to start in the kitchen, I highly recommend any of Mark Bittman’s books (or even his site) since they are very didactic and based on principles of cooking rather than holding on to steadfast recipes. As for organic food being more expensive than “conventional” food, yes, that’s true, but only if you don’t consider the hidden societal, health, and environmental costs of this so-called conventional food or the real reason fast food is so cheap. The real reason is that since the entire American food industry is controlled by four or five companies, these multibillion-dollar players have enough power and influence to bend food safety rules and guarantee massive subsidies, allowing them to sell food at well below the cost of production (incidentally, conditions in these factories are so dire that these business have to rely on hiring the powerless – such as illegal immigrants – to work in them) . If sustainable farms could get half of the same subsidies, you wouldn’t have to choose based on price. Also, if there was more demand for organic products, more organic products would be produced. We see that beginning to happen. During the Q&A Gary Hirshberg mentioned how his company’s decision to go for organic sugar made a huge impact on its price and availability. When they made their first orders, organic sugar cost nearly five times the price or regular sugar. With the higher demand, more farmers turned to organic farming methods (which achieve the same yields as “conventional” methods) and began to produce more sugar. Now Stonyfield is able to buy sugar for the same price, if not cheaper, than regular sugar.
There is certainly a segment of the population than cannot afford a 50-cent difference on a particular produce. That is a shame and I’m glad there are organizations dedicated to making organic food more accessible. But many of us can afford to pay a little more to ensure not only optimal health but also encourage the organic food industry. It’s all a matter of priorities. And my health has priority over any other luxury in my life because without it, let’s face it, nothing else really matters.
So do yourself and the planet a favour. Learn about the issues. Watch the movie.
If you have trouble playing the video above, watch it on the official site.