Why Food Inc. Fails: Documentary Bites Off More Than It Can Chew

With Schlosser and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) going fifty-fifty on narration, Kenner directs the viewer into the belly of the beast, deep into the corporate factory farms, slaughterhouses, and grocery mega stores of the US, delivering an overdue vitriolic review of commercial agribusiness. Opening with an apropos, but embarrassingly banal supermarket montage, a resolute voiceover explains to the viewer that the idyllic adverts, resplendent with scenes of pastoral farms and bucolic farmhands, are nothing more than the intent to obfuscate the fact that the some 40,000 products sold at your average supermarket derive from a dehumanized, mechanized and automated, and in some cases, fully remote controlled, assembly line process; not from the farmer in the dell.

Kenner makes no hesitation with his indictment upon the corporate agricultural sphere. At a point in time when eighty percent of all agriculture is controlled by an incorrigible coterie of no more than four bureaucratic transnationals, Kenner is effective with unveiling the iniquities that pervade the agriculture-industrial-complex. These institutions have taken food production far away from any ‘garden of Eden’ stewarded by responsible agronomists. The "notional" tomato,[1] Roundup-ready soybeans, and a myriad of lab-built food additives are just a few of the salient creations of the civilized agricultural arrangement.

Immediately, the film delivers scenes of chicks tumbling off of automated conveyor belts by the hundreds, their poultry progenitors cramped breast to breast, shoulder upon shoulder within windowless coops, eliciting a lump in my throat; many more scenes, depicting the maltreatment of animals, interstice the entire film, enraging any ally of the wild.

At one point in the film, the cameraman and crew hone in on a local chicken farmer contracted for Tyson Foods. When trying to gain permission to enter one of Tyson’s factory-coops, the farmer denies the crew entry, after which the cameraman shoots the farmer waxing exultant over the efficiency of Tyson’s chickens: "If you can grow a chicken in forty nine days, why would you want one that takes three months!?" Oh yeah, it’s revealed that the chickens’ growth is unnaturally accelerated: a Purdue "grower" explains that the bones and organs can’t keep up with the chickens’ external growth, and that that they topple over a lot…into their own feces.

The film then meanders along, stopping momentarily to offer glimpses into a multitude of issues pertinent to the nefarious world of commercial industrial food production. From immigration related issues and workers’ rights to corn subsidies, GMO soybeans and novel noxious strands of E. Coli to CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations) and Kevin’s Law,[2] Kenner attempts to weave together a picture that may be too large for the big screen.

Unfortunately, the problem with producing a film about everything that vitiates modern day food production, as well as the dire effects of modern day food production, is that there just isn’t enough time in one documentary to educate the public on the whole issue. Thus leaving Food Inc. a rather inchoate film for those who have been diehard critics of the industrial food system to begin with.

It is true that corporate giants lobby congress to influence US subsidies that allow corn and soy to be grown at a cost lower than the cost of production – they have for years. It is also true that one third of Americans, and one out of two minorities will contract type-two diabetes (and then become heavily reliant on Big Pharma for medication and treatment); junk food is made from commodity crops and healthy food is more expensive due to shoddy farm policy. It is also a fact that meatpacking is the most dangerous job, and illegal immigrants from Mexico make up the brunt of the workforce: because of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) more than one and a half million Mexican farmers were left jobless. Immigrant workers are harassed and arrested while the employers who hire them are left completely off the hook. And it is also lamentably the case that your average chicken grower borrows approximately $500,000 from their corporate contractor, while averaging an $18,000 annual income: companies are able to keep their farmers attached at the hip because of such debt.[3] All of this information, and more, is revealed throughout the film, and kudos to Kenner for speaking a little bit of truth to power, but in my opinion he doesn’t go deep enough. And more importantly, he doesn’t spend nearly enough time on the crucial issues that matter the most at this juncture.

Food Inc. fails to address the fact that Monsanto, ADM (Archer Midland Daniels), Carlyle, and other corporations are responsible for the theft of land the world over, displacing communities and farmers from their land, and appropriating the land for mono-cropped cash-crops, i.e. corn, soya, palm, jatropha, and more. In Paraguay, campesinos (rural subsistence farmers) have lost their land to giant soy plantations. The soybeans are genetically modified (over 90 percent of all soybeans contain Monsanto’s Roundup-ready gene), and the plants are sprayed with deadly chemicals that also conduce to maiming birth defects. The soy is then harvested and sold to European countries to feed hogs. And because the decline of cheap and abundant fossil fuels is now upon us, many of these crops are being grown to fuel automobiles too, rather than to feed people.

Biofuels, also known as agrofuels, "rely on large-scale industrial monocultures, are a cause of global warming…" and in fact result "…in greater emissions because they promote deforestation and the destruction of the ecosystems, including carbon-rich peat lands which play a vital role in regulating the climate."[4] They also lead to an increase in the use of nitrogen and other detrimental fertilizers and chemicals.

Due to indigenous lands being seized by logging and palm-oil plantations, not only are the native Awas losing their culture, but also, Ecuador has become Latin America’s second largest producer of agri-diesel and intends to increase production over 50 percent over the next 5 years. This is occurring throughout much of the global South, if not the world.

There are now plans to grow genetically engineered trees that can be harvested for biofuel purposes. Many of these trees are engineered so as to not contain lignin – the chemical compound responsible for the osseous rigidity of trees. Without lignin – well, picture a human being without a skeletal structure.

The list of threatening effects of biofuels can be as long as you want it to be. For more information I highly advise visiting the Global Justice Ecology Project’s website.

Moreover, owing to the fact that fossil fuels provided the impetus for the industrialization of agriculture, the very corporate institutions that control and operate the system need this energy in order to maintain their supremacy and maximization of profits for no other reason than the fact that they stringently rely upon it in order to do so. The veracity of the decline of cheap and abundant fossil fuels will only lead to a further drive to supplant fossil fuels with biofuels. Perhaps more startling is the fact that the entire mega-machine that is the dominant cultural-economic-complex relies, too, on cheap and abundant fossil fuels (and of course its collusion with the corporate elite), inevitably leading to total state endorsement of biofuels, unless of course the people refuse to let this happen.             

The other issue that is brought to light in Food Inc. but not discussed deep enough is the revolving door at Capitol Hill – the revolving door Monsanto is wearing the hinges off of.

Kenner reveals the ongoing collaboration between Washington and big agribusinesses. In the film, Kenner illuminates the industrial bigwigs who walked down from their corporate posts after being invited to become appointees to the EPA, USDA, FDA, et al under the Clinton and Bush administrations. Below is a list of Monsanto officials who held governmental regulatory posts under the Bush cabinet: 

Linda Fisher – Deputy Director, EPA, ex V.P. of Monsanto & Chief Lobbyist.

Donald Rumsfeld – Sec. of Defense, ex Pres. of Searle Pharmaceuticals,[5] owned by Monsanto.

John L. Henshaw – Asst. Sec. of Labor for OSHA, worked for Monsanto for twenty years.

Ann Veneman – Sec. of Agriculture, sat on Board of Directors for Calgene Pharmaceuticals, owned by Monsanto.

Mitch Daniels – Dir. of the Office of Management and Budget, ex V.P. of Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals.

And let’s not excise Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, from this index. He’s an ex lawyer for Monsanto.

The list goes on to include: Marcia Hale, L. Val Giddinger, David Beier, Michael A. Friedman, M.D., Michael Kantor, Josh King, Terry Medley, Margaret Miller, Michael Phillips, William D. Ruckelshaus, Michael Taylor, Lidia Watrud, Jack Watson, Clayton K. Yeutter, Larry Zeph, and the list still goes on my friends.

What Kenner leaves out of the film are Obama’s appointees. Obama has named Michael Taylor as the senior advisor to the FDA Commissioner on food safety. Taylor, under the Clinton administration was responsible for approving Monsanto’s rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) in dairy products. The latter growth hormone has been known to increase the risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancers by seven times.

Next in line, we have Sec. of Agriculture Vilsack who has absolutely no record of food safety, but an amazing track record of support for Monsanto and GMOs. Vilsack also oversaw a huge recrudescence of CAFO building in Iowa – devastating small farmers and local agriculture. Moreover, rumored to be Obama’s pick for Under Sec. of Agriculture for Food Safety is rBGH-wielding dairy farmer, and Pennsylvania’s Sec. of Agriculture, Dennis Wolff. This guy pushed legislature in PA that would have stripped away the rights of consumers to know whether or not the milk and other dairy products they were buying were contaminated with Monsanto’s (now Eli Lilly’s) genetically engineered bovine growth hormone. Sadly, Kenner did not expose any of this. And the worst is perhaps yet to come.

Earlier this year, congresswoman Rosa De Lauro sponsored HR 875 the "Food Safety Modernization Act." Monsanto, ADM, Tyson, and others are backing this bill. And it just so happens that De Lauro’s husband is Stanley Greenberg, owner of a polling and consulting firm, whose main client is – you guessed it – Monsanto.

The bill calls for the creation of a new (and entirely separate from the FDA) food safety administration that will allow government regulation at all levels of food production. This bill also mandates property seizure and fines up to $1,000,000 per charge and/or prosecution for producers and manufacturers and distributors who refuse to comply. De Lauro also calls for a "national traceability system" that can retrieve history, use, and location of each food product at each stage of production, processing, and distribution. If one visits rfidfood.com, s/he can read that the company "is dedicated to assisting companies design and implement Radio Frequency Identification technology solutions for food-related industries. Whether it is monitoring the temperature of perishable products or the tracking of inventory, BlueBean has the knowledge and capability to provide our clients a competitive advantage."

To back up De Lauro’s insanity, Senate Bill 425 "Food Safety and Tracking Improvement Act," sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has been introduced. Backed by ADM and Tyson, it calls for a "traceability system" monitored by the FDA for all stages. If these bills apply to all "food producers" how will small-scale farmers and growers fare? Will Monsanto’s staff of 75 investigators, who have ruined countless locally-catering family farms, be given new positions and duties under this new and separate "food and safety administration" that has industry giants’ names written all over it?

The truth is, we are in desperate need of food regulation reform. But there needs to be strict stipulations to proposed reform bills. I am all for aspects of the former and latter bills – as long as they are used exclusively for industrial food production, and do not touch any of the local producers. The numerous accounts of contaminated food, laggard standards and practices, malign treatment of land and animals has only been found within the agriculture-industrial-complex, not within localized community-geared agriculture. And if you want my honest opinion, no bill is going to change the current shape of agriculture, only public action.

Kenner dares not discuss the impending legislature that seeks to further consolidate production power into the hands of a few. He egregiously ends the film with a prescription of platitudes that promulgate "…you can change the world with every bite…" and "…the power of change is within your vote…" or something like that. But the truth is, those we elect into office, and those in power and the laws of those in power hold no inherent moral value. However, a garden that provides for a community does hold inherent moral value. The other self-evident truth is that any bill passed and enforced is only a bunch of words written on paper that we all agree means something. At the end of the day, a sustainable (not industrial) garden is physically real and trumps legislation any day – laws can’t literally provide us food. The answer to food reform is to relocalize and deindustrialize. Also, any mode of food production that does not benefit the land through which it relies upon for harvest and sustenance is totally unsustainable. Once again, the first step toward food reform is relocalization and deindustrialization. The next step is removing the capitalist economic model so healthy food can be equally available to all.

Robert Kenner states that the perfect example of effective public activism we should reflect on if we want to work towards creating a food system that works is the fight against Big Tobacco. Come on – really? On January 1, 1994, the implementation of NAFTA began. As a response to extremely unbalanced policy and the loss of community land the Zapatistas stood up to the free-market agenda and acted in the best interest of the people. This to me is the perfect example of not creating a system that works, but reclaiming a system that works.


[1] Striving to create the flawless tomato, scientists have been known to splice the commercial tomato with fish genes as well as spray it with petrol chemicals to obviate bruising and quicken the ripening process.

[2] Named in memory of two-year old Kevin Kowalcyk, who died in 2001 after eating an all-American hamburger tainted with the deadly E. Coli, 0157:H7. What would have been called the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act of 2003, aka H.R. 3160 (introduced by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Palo Alto), held the prospective of giving the USDA power to shut down plants producing contaminated meat. It never became law.

[3] It is this exact debt warfare, except on a much larger, destructive scale, waged by intransigent transnationals and their financial agents from the IMF and World Bank, that has been culpable for the immiseration and devastation of entire economies such as Jamaica, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Haiti, Paraguay, and on and on. Sadly, Kenner does not expatiate fully on the parallels between domestic and foreign policies.

[4] The Real Cost of Agrofuels: Impacts on food, forests, peoples and the climate by Dr. Rachel Smolker, Brian Tokar, Anne Petermann & contributions from Eva Hernandez and Jim Thomas – p. 3

[5] The company that brought you the deadly artificial sweetener, aspartame. Kept off the market for 16 years by the FDA, Rumsfeld and others lobbied it back into your sodas and junk food. Aspartame is 40 percent aspartic acid, an excitotoxin that can cause adverse effects upon the brain and endocrine system when ingested without accompanying amino acids. In some markets, aspartame is genetically modified using a particular strand of E. Coli.