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Where Their Food Comes From

There are two complaints which have been heard hundreds of times from farm meeting platforms or in coffee shop conversations. “Consumers don’t know where their food comes from anymore – they just think it comes from the supermarket.”

Then there’s “Farming is not the traditional mom-and-pop operation anymore – it’s a business.”

Those are statements which the director of “Food, Inc.” has clearly taken to heart. That’s apparent in the opening credits of the Emmy Award-winning documentary about the U.S. food system, and which is being shown widely across North America. The film begins with the camera focusing on packages of food, many of which come from companies using the name “Farms” and which feature images of the classic red barn with assorted livestock running around the yard. The film then makes it clear that these companies are certainly not farms at all. They are giant processors, and the farms where their food comes from don’t look anything like mom and pop’s.

Just what they do look like is not clear, at least for large poultry and hog barns, as the farmers wouldn’t allow the film crews into the barn, under orders from the contractors, Tyson and Perdue. There was one exception, a woman raising broilers in an older-style barn with screen sides open to light and air. After the interview, Perdue cancelled her contract, apparently because she failed to construct a new closed barn to their specifications. The film notes that the cost of a new barn is about $500,000, and the return to an average poultry contractor in the U.S. is $18,000 per year.

Lest anyone accuse the film’s director of exaggerating the plight of U.S. contract growers, evidence of even worse abuses was documented in hearings by the USDA and the Department of Justice earlier this year.

The narrators of “Food Inc.” are Michael Pollan, author ofThe Omnivore’s Dilemma,and Eric Schlosser, author ofFast Food Nation,both of whom have been critical of U.S. farm policy and hence have come under fire from proponents of “mainstream agriculture.”

And just what is “mainstream agriculture?” That came to mind recently when reading a Reuters report about the new chairman of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. According to the story, “Stabenow focused on public nutrition, land stewardship and fruit and vegetable programs in recent years, leaving some farm groups wondering if she understands mainstream agriculture. Among congressional staff, there were questions if she would be a ‘foodie’ as chairman.”

So the farmers who grow the stuff that’s good for you aren’t part of mainstream agriculture? And when the largest portion of the USDA’s budget goes to food stamps and other nutrition programs, it’s not a good idea to have someone interested in public nutrition as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee? It sounds as if the proponents of “mainstream agriculture” are asking for trouble, and from the people paying the bills too.

We’ve heard criticisms of “Food Inc.” in this country as well, so when asked to attend a recent public showing at the University of Manitoba, took a pen and paper to take note of any inaccuracies or distortions.

There weren’t many. The film did dwell excessively on a mother who had lost her son to E. coli from a hamburger, and had become a crusader for better regulations to prevent it. Certainly that was a tragedy, and there’s no doubt that the assembling of ground beef from thousands of animals creates an opportunity for widespread contamination. That said, bacterial contamination is possible under any system and overall rates are probably lower than they’ve ever been.

But overall, “Food Inc.” presents an accurate description of what has become a highly industrialized food system, and one that isn’t doing much good for the health of North Americans. And the film is a result of what farmers have said they’ve wanted – for consumers to learn more about where their food comes from.

Now that they’re finding out and not liking what they see, “mainstream agriculture” is retreating to the bunker and essentially acknowledging the concerns, in effect saying, “We have to do it this way or we can’t feed the world’s hungry,” and, “If we did it better, consumers wouldn’t pay for it anyway.”

That didn’t seem to be the view of those at the University of Manitoba’s screening of “Food Inc.” In the discussion period after, many seemed pleased to learn that U.S.-style contracting practices weren’t a problem here because of supply management. They no doubt feel the same relief that our meat-packing industry doesn’t depend on abused illegal-immigrant labour.

If nothing else, “Food Inc.” is a reminder that the U.S. and Canadian systems are different, and in many ways, ours is better. That can be a selling point with consumers, both in and outside Canada, and as the popularity of “Food Inc.” shows, consumers are starting to do as farmers have asked – ask more questions about where their food comes from. [email protected]

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JOHN MORRISS

EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

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