Ever since watching Food, Inc. and Fat Head, The Movie a couple of years ago, we’ve been on a “food film” jag, hunting down and watching every filmed documentary about industrial food, sustainable farming and healthy diets we can find (and there are quite a few on Netflix). Fresh, which enjoyed a limited release in theatres in 2009, was just released on DVD and we ordered – and watched – it eagerly. This is Beloved’s review, and it’s a good one. A trailer for the film is at the end; please watch it, as well.
The film Fresh, directed by Ana Sofia Joanes, is indeed a fresh look at the hazards of our industrial food system and the benefits of local and sustainable farming. It is an emotionally compelling look at the contrast between industrial CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Farming Operations) and pastoral heritage farming. Like the documentary Food, Inc., it contrasts the monoculture industrial food system with the medium-sized sustainable farmer representing the local food movement. It picks up where Food Inc. left off by offering an optimistic vision of sustainable farming solutions in contrast to the industrial system. The story is the same: monoculture agriculture promises to cheaply feed the world at the cost of non-renewable resources and tax rebates, where the real price is far more dear than that of higher quality, albeit higher priced, local sustainable food that is being destroyed by the economic and political power of the few companies that comprise the industrial food system. Several of the characters are the same, including Joel Salatin, a renowned sustainable farmer and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A compelling story is told through the trials and realizations of conventional farmers and those evolving and succeeding at the next generation of sustainable farming. For those who understand the detriment of the current food industry to our health and our world, this is an inspiring film that offers an optimistic future. Yet, the concluding call to action is to wait for government resolution to a problem that the government created in the first place.
Several farmers explain their unique position in surviving and defining the shifts in the food industry. The Fox family represents the CAFO chicken farmers who invested in confined mass chicken houses and are being financially squeezed by their relationship with one of the few companies that own the vertically integrated chicken industry.
Russ Kremer came out of college and got “hung up” following his newly learned tactics to drive productivity by converting his family farm to industrial practices that included antibiotic treatments that ultimately lead to a resistance in his pigs and a personal infection that nearly killed him. He went “cold turkey” when he finally realized that “when you have only one choice, you have no choice” and killed off his entire stock and threw away the syringe. Since then he has built a successful self-sustaining pig farm that hasn’t used antibiotics for fourteen years.
George Naylor, also featured in The Omnivores Dilemma, represents the conventional subsidized Iowa farmer, focusing on mono-crop production based on petroleum and the required chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The imbalance of mono-crop agriculture leaves the topsoil open to erosion – about 50% of Iowa’s top soil has been lost in the last 50 years. Andrew Kimbrell, a public interest attorney, activist and author, states that as we have “lost 90% of our diversity; our soil is being depleted at thirteen times the rate it can be replaced.” Not many people living outside now barren areas (such as the “Fertile Crescent”) understand that top soil can’t be replaced. And while Naylor has so far resisted GMO crops, most have not.
The movie horrifies us with images of these mono-crops being shipped (read, more petroleum) hundreds of miles away to CAFO’s where cattle, crammed together, ankle deep in their own excrement, are fed subsidized grains they aren’t evolved to digest, along with the antibiotics required to keep them alive. As Joel Salatin states:
“…you can go down the line, avian flu, mad cow, salmonella, pfiesteria, Camphylobacter, ecoli, just go down the line and every single one of these things is nature speaking to us today, screaming at our industrialized culture, saying, ‘ENOUGH!’”
Michael Pollan confirms that “monocultures are a dangerous thing… nature doesn’t like monocultures; sooner or later she will destroy them.” Joel further elaborates:
“70% of all the row crops in the United States, which represent most of the genetically engineered crops, the petroleum, the erosion and the negative things in agriculture, are grown for multi-stomached herbivores which aren’t supposed to eat that anyway. Only 30% goes to people, pigs and poultry.”
In contrast, the Salatin family has turned a barren farm with depleted top soil into one of the brightest stars in local sustainable farming by working with nature to develop a poly-culture community that doesn’t need chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Joel is first and foremost a grass farmer – harvesting solar energy that is converted by ruminants into proteins and healthy fats. Cows, fed only grasses as nature intends, are herded from field to field and followed by Joel’s egg mobiles where chickens feed on the larvae in the cow patties. Instead of manure lagoons, Joel is rebuilding his top soil naturally. Where his neighbor, farming only beef, is making $150 per acre, Joel claims he is getting “$3,000 per acre …and we haven’t planted a seed or bought an ounce of chemical fertilizer in fifty years.”
Several success stories illustrate the inspiring optimism of this documentary.
One of the most impressive farmers is Will Allen, an urban farmer who runs Growing Power in Milwaukee. Starting with 3 acres of inner city land, he has created a poly-culture farm on a small scale that uses no chemicals. In his greenhouses he raises 150 varieties of greens alongside a tank of 4,000 tilapia fish which provides fertilizer for the plants. His vermicomposting converts 6 million pounds of food waste from the Milwaukee landfills per year into what he calls “black gold” – rich, fertile soil.
Diana Endicott runs Good Natured Family Farms, a coop of 75 independent farms near the Kansas City metropolitan area providing local and sustainable foods to independent grocers that are being pushed out of the market by forces such as Wal-mart (which will soon be selling trans-genetically modified ears of corn). In one heartfelt scene, one of Dianna’s farmers brings the optimism home, tearfully saying,
“I’ve been a family farmer ever since I was five years old… and I have been through a lot of struggles and this is all I have ever wanted to do. But you talk about the greatest opportunities in my lifetime, it’s right now. ‘Cause I know, that’s what the consumer wants. They want MY pigs”.
Indeed, this is a well-executed film that explains some terrifying realities using an emotional appeal to get us to take back control of our food system, and the harsh realities are often offset by an idyllic optimism. But an underlying message of the movie suggests that the solution depends upon more regulation. John Ikerd, of the University of Missouri, blames industrialization for exploiting labor. Michael Pollan suggests that decentralization of the food supply is critical for national security as less people can suffer from epidemics and crop failures – his solution is to shift government subsidies from the industrial to the sustainable farmer. George Naylor comes across as an apologetic conventional farmer who seems to have surrendered his fate saying by jumping into the sinking lifeboat, “many farmers have done what they had to do to survive and knowing full well that it is not the best thing for themselves or for society.” Naylor hopes he can only hang on until he can ”transition back to something that is more sane once we get the policy that’s going to support an agriculture that is sustainable and supports family farms across the board.” It is also suggested that food deserts should be subsidized so people have access to good food when in reality if they wanted it, it would be on their store shelves. They erroneously believe the government will solve our problems: if we could only get the right people in power, power will no longer be corrupt.
But the movie redeems itself in its message and its belief in the power of enlightenment and individuals. The optimism of the movie is best expressed by Will Allen and Diana Endicott. I agree with Allen that only by educating the consumer is “how you grow a movement.” Endicott understands that it is the consumer who will make the difference and states:
“Consolidation is growing at such a rate, not just in the food industry, but in all industries, that probably the first and foremost thing…I truly believe that we are trying to sustain is consumer choice.”
Endicott pleads for a modest change and suggests each of us of spend only $10 a month on local foods. Both are right. We won’t correct the injustice of interference and more controls – we can merely battle this issue with the only fair vote we have: our wallets. How much of your food budget is spent within 100 miles? How much of your food budget is spent on petroleum, chemicals, and diminishing soil resources? Health benefits aside, do you still think the higher price tag of sustainable farming costs more in the long run? As John Ikerd explains, “it just happens, one person at a time, one farmer, one consumer at a time.” Are you next?