Food, Inc., The High Cost of Cheap Food

by Bruce Boyers

The twenty-first-century world has made us very accustomed to new technology. But there are times when our thirst for the latest in scientific solutions leads us to new problems we’d never imagined. We have seen how our appetites for electrical energy and big cars have led us to a worldwide fuel crisis and global warming. Now, as revealed in the new film Food, Inc., the low-cost convenience of our industrialized food system, enthusiastically embraced by most of us for about the last 50 years, has had a number of consequences that we need to very quickly wake up to—and change.

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It’s been several years since I stopped eating fast food, and as a result of writing for Calmful Living this decision has been further cemented. I also shop for and buy organic whenever possible, and my wife has a vegetable garden. Even with everything I already knew, I’m at a loss for words to describe the way I felt as the film’s credits rolled. There were tears streaming down my face. At that moment I decided what I would say to the film’s director, Robert Kenner, when I got my interview with him—which I did.

I said this: “Before I start the interview, I have to say that watching your film was, for me, quite a profound experience. I think every American should see this movie, and it should win every award imaginable. Congratulations for persisting and getting such a work onto the screen.

There was a bit of a pause, after which Kenner replied half-jokingly, “You can put that in the article!” He then got serious and said, “Thank you. It’s not been easy.”

The New Muckrakers

Food, Inc. didn’t start off to be an exposé as such, although it became one. The film’s producers have, unwittingly at first, followed in the footsteps of author Upton Sinclair, who, 103 years ago, wrote The Jungle, a shocking novel exposing then-current horrific practices within the meatpacking industry that ultimately resulted in the formation of the FDA.

Kenner’s documentary shows that the last 50 years or so have seen tremendous changes in our society. With the formation of McDonald’s as a catalyst, our ever growing appetite for convenience and low cost has resulted in the creation of vast quantities of standardized, inexpensive food, complete with the latest chemical sprays, additives, hormones, genetic modification and more. Part of the collateral damage in all this was that vast numbers of small farms were swept away, with huge food conglomerates buying up the land to create a uniform industrial agriculture to supply fast-food chains and supermarkets. This was not farming as we once knew it. It is food manufacturing—or Food, Inc.

As is pointed out in the film, Madison Avenue still portrays a nostalgic image of food produced on pristine farms with pretty red barns and white picket fences. The truth—which considerable effort has been spent to block—is not pretty to look at, much less appetizing on any level.

As Food, Inc. progresses, we see that the actual scene has been cleverly hidden from the American public. Corporations have made “breakthroughs” in the breeding and raising of poultry, beef and pork that are inhumanely cruel to both animals and humans.

Many crops, such as corn and soybeans, have been genetically modified (GM) to be supposedly drought and pest resistant. This is very controversial. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) is calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods and for physicians to urge their patients, the medical community and the public to avoid them when possible. The AAEM is also calling for long-term independent studies and labeling, citing serious health risks associated with GM foods, including infertility, accelerated aging and problems with the immune system and insulin regulation, as well as changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.

A recent AAEM position paper states: “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation,” as defined by recognized scientific criteria.

According to the Food Safety Monitor, a tracking tool of leading market research company NPD, consumers are increasingly concerned about food safety. Among Americans’ top concerns in this area are salmonella, E. coli, trans fatty acids, mercury in fish and seafood, mad cow disease, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial growth hormones in milk, genetically modified foods, foot-and-mouth disease, and meat and milk from cloned animals.

Freedom of Information?

For Kenner, making the film was a serious wake-up call. “The most shocking thing for me was when I went to a hearing on whether we should label cloned meats,” he said. “I didn’t even know there were cloned meats. And when the representative from the meat industry said, ‘I think it would be too confusing to the consumer to give them this kind of information,’ I realized this happens time and time again.

“One major company that developed GMOs [genetically modified organisms] has said that these are great things; however, the company will do everything possible to stop you from knowing they’re in your food. Or bST, the growth hormone for dairy cows: they’ll do everything possible to stop you from knowing it’s in the milk you’re giving to your child—and this is a really powerful hormone. We could go on and on listing these things.

“There’s something wrong if, in a free society and a free market, we’re being denied information. How do you make choices if you don’t have information?

Kenner and his crew were blocked at every turn. Repeatedly throughout the film, when one or another unsavory aspect of food production is revealed, the companies behind these operations refuse to be interviewed. Not only that, but some of the farmers and workers who did agree to speak on camera had their jobs and livelihoods threatened by these corporations and in two cases lost them completely.

Free Speech Abridged

Along with his partners, Kenner was also faced with the so-called veggie libel laws—actual legislation that has been enacted to prevent public criticism of food products. “I think these laws were put into place after food makers saw what happened to tobacco companies,” Kenner remarked. “They made it so they can sue you if you endanger their profits or you disparage a food product. If tobacco had had similar laws, nobody could have said, ‘Cigarettes are bad for your health,’ because you would have damaged their profits. There are laws in 13 states that say you can’t disparage food products. I think that’s pretty amazing.”


One might wonder where the government has been in all this. There are agencies charged with protecting the public, but as revealed in Food, Inc., oversight is often performed by many former executives of the same companies they are responsible for regulating.

“In finance, we had large, powerful corporations that were ‘too big to fail,’ that said they were better at policing themselves than the government would be,” continued Kenner. “Ultimately, look what happened. They not only destroyed themselves, they brought all of us down as well. Here we have a food system that’s not sustainable, and I’m just hoping we can enter into a conversation with all the producers so that we can make it sustainable.”

The changes brought about by the techno-industrial food system have had a definite effect on the health of society as a whole. “We eat 300 more calories a day than we used to,” Kenner said. “In the last decade 64 percent of Americans have become overweight or obese, and one-third of all Americans are going to get early onset diabetes. The fact is that this very inexpensive food (we spend less on food than at any time in history) has become very expensive. You don’t see the costs when you go to the checkout counter.”

Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have released an alarming prediction; and in case anyone was wondering if we have a health crisis, this should put any question to rest. In a recent report, the CDC stated that for children born in the year 2000, one out of three Caucasians and one out of two African Americans and Hispanics will develop diabetes.

Bringing the Changes

It would seem that the odds are stacked against trying to lead a healthy life in America today. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food accounts for only about 3.5 percent of all US food sales. That of course means that 96.5 percent is non-organic.

The USDA is now providing $50 million in new funding for organic food producers— and the organic food industry is steadily expanding. At the same time, the US corn subsidy for 2006 was almost $5 billion and nearly twice that in 2005. Note the disparity.

These corn subsidies are part and parcel of what is known as the Farm Bill—which until only a couple of years ago passed through Congress without so much as a cursory glance from an unsuspecting public. Beginning in 2007, however, the public began to take notice of—and raise their voices on—the billions in funding that help determine the direction of our food system and what most of us and our children end up eating.

It may only be a beginning, but it’s a beginning nonetheless and one taken notice of in Food, Inc. “This film is ultimately there to empower the consumer, to make you hungry for all the great things that are out there, those great choices,” Kenner explained. “It’s not to make you close your eyes at the horrible side; it is to make you understand that we need the information because we want to make the right choices. And hopefully Food, Inc. will point you toward those good choices.

“We actually screened this film for some high-ups in the Obama administration, and they said, ‘If there’s a movement, we’ll follow.’ So I implore all your readers to let everyone else know that they can get out and vote three times a day through their breakfast, lunch and dinner choices—plus we also can make our voices heard with our regular votes. Ultimately we have to stop subsidizing food that’s making us sick and start encouraging food that’s going to make us healthy and make the planet healthy.”

Down to Us

Kenner’s statement actually brings responsibility back to where it really belongs—the consumers. For while it could be argued that we were deviously fooled into spending our hard-earned dollars into this food system, we still did it. If we hadn’t, it wouldn’t be here. So, in the end, it’s going to have to be we the people that cause any change to occur. That is why it is not enough for the few of us to produce and sell organic products and to lead sustainable lives ourselves; we have to get this message out to everyone.

Responsibility certainly starts with reforming legislation—and there is much the seemingly lowly citizen can do. “We changed tobacco laws,” said Kenner. “These, too, were huge, powerful corporations that were ultimately as tied into government as any sort of industry, and they were putting out incredible misinformation about the safety of their product—‘These cigarettes are not bad for you’—and they had ‘studies’ to prove it. When we started to learn that these cigarettes were not good for us, we actually were able to change the laws. I think as we begin to learn about this food system, and as we start to open our eyes, we’re going to bring about a change.”

More importantly, though, it also comes down to a consumer’s everyday life. As Michael Pollan wrote in “Why Bother?”—his excellent contribution to the Food, Inc. companion book: “For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing—something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking—passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists—that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.”

“We can change the system; there are lots of great choices and there will be many more,” Kenner concluded. “Hopefully Food, Inc. will encourage people to take part in those good choices.”

Get everyone you know to see the film. To help sell them on the idea, you can send them to the Food, Inc. website where they can watch the movie trailer. Once they’ve seen it, they can return to the site to find out how they can simply but surely start taking action.

Here’s to a healthy, sustainable food system for us all.