Sunday, July 4, 2010

Thoughts on "Food, Inc."

I recently watched Food, Inc. (yes, it's two years old; no, I don't care), and I have to say, I agree with the advertising. This is an important movie, and everybody should watch it, for one simple reason. There are others, of course, and I agree or disagree with them to various degrees, but one reason I think any decent person could agree to is: it is important to know where your food comes from.

I also ought to say that I am a quality consultant in my office life, and so I am marginally sympathetic to the corporate perspective in this situation. I mean, I spend my downtime at the office reading up on things like process compliance an' shit. Just two days ago, I read about How To Think Like a Factory, and my mind is abuzz with ways to apply this to the call center floor which will be good for both the corporation's bottom line and the mental stability of us drones.

With those caveats out of the way, you should still watch Food, Inc. It's really well made, and it highlights some core parts of the industry that a great many people would probably prefer to ignore. Blissful ignorance is precisely why the food industry has been able to get away with this sort of thing, and if it makes people uncomfortable, then they need to be made aware so that they can vote with their dollars and pay the extra buck-two-ninety-eight to get a product that is brought to them in a way they can stomach.

OK, so I want to talk about how things got here, and not in terms of blame and disgust and harsh invective, but in terms of impersonal and perfectly logical (if unfortunate) progression. It's very simple. So simple, in fact, it's stupid. Try walking out into the street and asking people about "factory farming", and I can almost guarantee that a sizable fraction will think it's a metaphor, most will have vaguely unpleasant thoughts, a few will regurgitate very similar talking points (and probably smell of patchouli), and a tiny minority will have something well-informed and thoughtful to say. This is just the industrial revolution, applied to what you put in your belly every single day: a similar thing is happening in consumer electronics, Wired put out an article on it and called it "The Good Enough Revolution". In most of our day-to-day lives, quick & dirty is just fine, and top-of-the-line gizmos can be left for professionals and cutting-edge aficionados. Ah, but when you're struggling to feed your family, what approach is going to garner the most of your votes dollars? The costlier but more wholesome product, or the cheaper bulk product? Imagine this decision being made in dozens of millions of homes across the nation, and at the other end are chief executive officers who want to make as much money as they can and control as much of the market as they can. How should they do this? By trying to put out a costlier but more wholesome product, or by putting out cheaper bulk products? It all comes down to selection pressures.

What do you think a successful climber of the corporate ladder would do? I'm not asking what you would do, since you haven't climbed to the top of your corporate ladder - these decisions are in the hands of the ruthless opportunists who have climbed on the backs of their competitors to be where they are today, not the people who have made the decision to be satisfied with a modest existence.

So of course we're in the situation we're in today. It couldn't have happened any other way. No single person is to blame for this: we're all to blame. The producers are to blame for their production, and the consumers are to blame for their consumption, and no single person "decided" that this is the way it would go. This is the way it had to go. At least, so far. I dunno, maybe I'm just saying that because I'm a determinist, but the point remains that there's no great and powerful wizard behind the curtain. There's nobody behind the curtain at all.

I want to take some time to talk about some of the "gross" aspects of industrial food production, like chlorine baths. Actually, that's a great example in itself. See, if you've got a huge food operation, this is going to be a literal wellspring of opportunity for disease. Any disease that could infiltrate such an enormous and far-reaching niche would be hugely successful. But of course we don't want diseases to be able to carve out a niche in our food supply - we want our food supply to be a safe, standardized, idiot-proof sort of thing that we can set up anywhere and have a dependable outcome. We don't want to have to think about every single fucking food purchase, we want to be able to just pick something we want that's in our price range and take the rest for granted. We want factory farming, and so as a corollary we want to set up an over-the-top obstacle to give pathogenic would-be infiltrators as little opportunity as possible to survive and adapt. Corporations have an honest interest in making their operations disease-proof, because their customers can sue if something goes wrong. Food, Inc. has a segment where a mother relates the story of how her son fucking died from a food-borne pathogen. It's a goddamned tragedy, and I'm being perfectly serious about this: losing a child is one of the worst experiences a person can have, and for a whole lot of reasons, and if that death was caused by the food you put in that child's mouth, but you didn't make that food, then whoever did is going to fucking pay.

But now stop and consider the numbers. We're not talking about whether this particular child would have died or not, but the raw, impersonal statistics. This is reality, where things go wrong, and sometimes they go wrong in very bad ways, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it for good. Mistakes shall always be made, and someone will always need to pay for them, because we are a litigious people and that's how things go. As it stands, this is one child out of millions, and it's terrible and awful and a genuine tragedy, and the corporation paid something for their mistake - but what's the alternative? Let's say that we go all organic and local, and all our producers feed grass to their cows and butcher their free-range chickens under open sky and they all have twenty times fewer pathogens. This is great! Ninety-five percent less children will die of food-borne pathogens!

But what about the other five percent? For every twenty food-related lawsuits we have now, we'll only have one, and this is truly great news. But in order to save nineteen families from a personal tragedy, we'll have to upset the lives of an entire farm's worth of folks because I can guarantee that those honest, hard-working, wholesome farmers who fucked up once won't have the money to pay hot-shot lawyers to stop litigious citizens from breaking their banks. When something bad happens with less frequency, those few times it does happen become all the more significant, and someone will still have to pay. Now, personally, I think it's better that a few dozen families have their incomes destabilized in order to save nineteen out of twenty lives. This is a genuinely smaller cost. But it's still a cost, it's just diffused and lessened, and it bothers me when people think that going all-organic (or whatever the fuckin' buzzword is gonna be) will make everything turn to sunshine and rainbows. I dunno, maybe I'm just upset that not everybody is as cynical as I am.


Enough defending dehumanizing corporate practices as logical outgrowths of consumer disinterest. We should follow the film's advice and vote for the bucolic, sustainable approach to our food - y'know, the kind that costs more money because you'll have to train folks to do more steps in a process, which requires a larger up-front investment and blah blah blah - because if we don't, I can see where things are going. The corporations will continue to control the means of production, and pretty soon, complete nutrition will come in the form of convenient pills so that people can keep their bodies running smoothly without all those pesky calories that make you fat. I mean, who wouldn't want to be able to ensure that they stay slim and get all the nutrients they need without drinking Liquid Sanctimony? Sure, the act of actually eating will become a luxury, but that's OK because more folks will be able to eke out a decent living on less money. The cost of feeding oneself will become an increasingly known quantity, and when you combine that with the cost of housing and clothing oneself, suddenly we have a precise calculation of what the minimum wage needs to be to let people just barely keep their heads above water. And honestly, that's all you need: to tread water your whole life, with tax breaks for deciding to permanently shack up with someone and raise some offspring, and the requirements for this will also be a known quantity. Pretty soon, the middle class will be entirely eliminated, and the corporate overlords will manage the lives of their drones with vaguely humane efficiency, since they know exactly what they need to pay their workers to keep them alive without giving them the opportunity for their offspring to break into the upper class.

You might have doubts that things could go that far, for the simple reason that pills alone won't fill you up - but have you heard of the Full Bar?


Annie said...

You should probably do a little more research and reading on this subject.

The book of the same name is a good read, as is "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

The current state of affairs is far from inevitable; it was manipulated by corporations and the US government, which seems to love big business like nothin' else and consequently supports it financially over and over, at the cost of the local farmers.

At the very least people should follow Michael Pollan's advice to Eat (real, not processed) Food. Mostly Plants.

To which I would add, eat what's in season in your own hemisphere at a minimum. Don't buy crap that's trucked in from Argentina.

D said...

Thanks for the comment, Annie! I guess you and I might have different ideas of what is meant by "inevitable". I mean, sure, the corporations and the government weren't forced to do what they did - but when you consider the types of people who pursue that kind of power, actually give them that power, and then ask them to make nation-affecting policy decisions, I guess it seems obvious to me that they'd do something like this. And that large numbers of consumers would let them get away with it to save a buck or two. Or maybe we're talking about different things?

Anyway, thanks for the reading recommendation, and I do want to say that I agree with your (and Pollan's) advice. Kind of a shame that things have to go this far to knock us out of our consumer culture complacency. Have a great one!