Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Food Inc film is worth seeing (Feb10)

I was really impressed with Food Inc – it was powerful and compelling – and even after a busy day in London I didn’t fall asleep, which is quite unusual.

The main point of the film was to illustrate how the American food system has been centralised under the control of just a handful of hugely powerful companies, who are behind the 47,000 food brands on the market.

I’ve actually been to Nebraska and seen the vast beef feedlots but was still horrified at the pictures – and the fact that the average American consumes 200lbs of meat in a year. The film explains that cheap meat comes from cheap corn, which appears to be the source of many unhealthy foods – from fizzy drinks to jelly, syrup and snacks.

Cows it says are not actually designed to eat corn – they much prefer grass. But corn is not only cheap but makes them fatter quicker. Apparently, it also makes them more prone to high levels of E-coli in their gut. And the industrial scale slaughtering – there were thousands of slaughter houses in the 1970s, but now there are only 13 – makes it difficult to stop this E-coli getting into the food system.

One of the most shocking stories portrayed was about a mother, whose young son had died from E-coli poisoning. She was campaigning on food safety. But she had been so thoroughly legally gagged by the American food corporates that she was even unable to reveal what she ate!

Chicken production was just as horrifying as beef, not least because of the secrecy that surrounded it. The film makers were only able to find one farmer who would show them inside a chicken shed – and even then they were restricted.

Lack of transparency is also a central feature of the GM industry. Monsanto got a lot of flack for aggressively taking over soya production in the US. Their Roundup Ready Soya had a market share of just 2% in 1996 but now over 90% of US soya has their patented gene. And they have an extremely rigorous system to check up and punish anyone who stores and replants their own seed – and so avoids paying them.

Monsanto also appear to be extremely keen to avoid any food labelling, which tells consumers about the use of GM. The point was made that if they were proud of what they were doing, they wouldn’t object to publicising it.

One statistic that the food industry may be keen to hide is that one in three Americans born after 2000 – and half of minorities – will contract early onset diabetes. Cheap food actually costs more if you factor in the health problems created by obesity. The audience were asked to imagine how different food would be if the success of national policy was measured on the number of hospital admissions in a year.

The film’s director, Robert Kenner, was at the screening that I went to, along with Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association. And the panel discussion was chaired by Charles Redfern, founder of Organico and Fish4Ever. Holden emphatically pointed out the film was equally applicable to the UK.

To my mind the most significant point made by Kenner was that the food industry is focusing on technical solutions to solve problems that arise from the industrial food system we’ve created. His view was that they should be changing the system itself. Factory farms, mega industrial processing, animals designed to fit machines and crops that are far removed from nature may not actually be the best way of feeding the world’s population.

Food Inc can now be viewed in cinemas around the country. But if you miss it, you’ll be able to get it on DVD or stream it on Netflix. I’d like to give some copies to schools – it’s a real eye opener but may lead to some awkward questions about school dinners….

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