Immoral, Inc.

food incLast night we saw Food, Inc. Not much of the film’s content was new to me, and it had some of the emotional manipulation common to most documentaries these days. But Food, Inc. did do a pretty good job of infuriating me for a while, and then leaving me with a sense of hopelessness. The anger comes from the power of Big Agra, big corporations in general, to dominate the political process and use it and the legal system to screw the little guy. The hopelessness came as I realized, yet again, there’s not much we can do about it. Thankfully, though, plenty of activists don’t share my pessimism, and they deserve our respect as they take on the powers that be.

It's so bucolic down on the ol' factory farm...

It's so bucolic down on the ol' factory farm...

The film shows how just a handful of large companies – Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill, a few others – dominate the factory-farm system that produces most food in this country. That dominance leads to unhealthy food, pollution, and in some cases, E. coli outbreaks that could be prevented, if the companies had any kind of a conscience. But since they are immoral/amoral in their pursuit of profits, we have to hope the government regulators do their job inspecting plants and preventing ecological disasters. Yeah, good luck. Between the revolving door between the companies and the government, and the PAC money, the feds have abrogated their responsibility.

Deadly chemicals AND GMO food? Bonus!

Deadly chemicals AND GMO food? Bonus!

I think there is a special place in hell for the folks who run Monsanto. Years ago they won a court case that said their genetically modified seeds belong to them. If farmers plant their soybeans, for example, they can’t take the seeds of that crop and plant them the next year. Nope, they have to go back to Monsanto and pony up again. And God forbid that GMO seeds blow onto the land of a farmer who doesn’t grow them. Monsanto relies on private investigators who scour the heartland looking for farms where the airborne seeds might have taken root, or where some dastardly farmer has tried to circumvent Monsanto’s ownership of second-generation seeds.

The film, and others before it, illustrate the intimidation Monsanto uses to keep the family farmers in line. The threat of a lawsuit is usually enough for a farmer to settle up to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those farmers who maintain their innocence quickly find that justice may be blind, but her fingers work well, thank you very much, so she has no trouble reaching into Monsanto’s deep pockets. The company easily outlasts the farmers in any judicial pissing match.

As I watched Food, Inc., blood boiling, I thought about all the nut jobs worried about “socialized” medicine and gummint intrustion, and how they have got it all so wrong. They should be worrying about the big companies that put profits above everything else, to the detriment of our and the Earth’s health. And if government is part of the problem (it is, it is), it’s only because too often it dances to Big Agra/Pharma/Oil’s tune.

But it’s just the free market, the conservatives and capitalists say. How can we challenge the bedrock of our nation? Well, how free is it when the big companies don’t pay anywhere near the actual cost of production for, say, a bushel of corn? Subsidies, just like the ones Big Oil gets, mean the playing field is hardly level. And for more than 100 years, since the days of The Jungle, lots of Americans have realized the beneficial power of regulation — when it actually regulates. The Bush years, of course, were a nightmare for this, but Clinton wasn’t much better, and I don’t hold out a lot of hope for Obama either. The changes a Democratic administration brings are not systemic and are quickly undone when the Republicans return to power.

Systemic – that’s the key word, as I learned from my days with the Hartford Food System. Soup kitchens and community gardens are great, for what they are. But we need a huge overhaul of the system that lets Big Agra so dominate the production and distribution of food. Has hi-tech farming allowed fewer farmers to feed ever-more people? Yup. But could changes in how animals are slaughtered save some human lives, without leaving the world pork and beefless? Could an end to corn subsidies mean more money for organic farming or preservation of farmland? I bet. Changes have got to come through the political process to have a truly healthy food system, where everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food every day. I hope it comes in my lifetime. But it will take a lot of work and the gutting of the power of some large companies that kinda like the status quo. Don’t hold your breath.

Food, Inc. closed with some suggestions for things we can all do to at least take some steps toward fixing the system. Here are a few (I admit that I don’t do all of them all the time; change is not always easy on a personal level, either):

Eat local food in season, preferably bought at a farmers’ market

Support healthier food in public schools

Support efforts for nutritional labeling at fast-food restaurants

Tell your lawmakers to support bills protecting food safety

Blow up Monsanto (nah, the film didn’t really say that one)

For more on the big issues, see the Film, Inc. website

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~ by mburgan on August 16, 2009.

6 Responses to “Immoral, Inc.”

  1. Your frustration and serious concern is justified. In my 40 year career as an Agricultural Economics professor, US Department of Agriculture Division Head and agricultural development consultant in more than 25 countries on every continent, I observed the evolution of Food, Inc. We agricultural economists assisted and cheered as the revolution in economic efficiency through economies of scale by big corporations helped reduce the cost of food. Secretary of Agriculture Howard Butz and others gushed about the fact that some 3% of our population on farms was able to feed the nation and export huge quantities to feed other nations. Now the chickens are coming home to roost (pun intended) in their 24 hour lighted cages. We will pay a high price for the mistake as diseases like bird flu, swine flu and staff infections ravage our population while the chemicals in our food poison our bodies. I for one am ashamed at my complicity in this tragedy.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, if only so naysayers will realize it’s not just left-wing aging hippies who see the problem here. As you say, a time bomb of sorts on the environmental/medical front, and one that could have been lessened, if not avoided, I believe, by real government oversight.

  3. I agree. Monsanto is the devil. I am going out on a radical limb here, but have the people who run these giant corporations lost their humanity? Human beings, animals, life on earth itself seems expendable to them. In my opinion, these companies are committing crimes against humanity on a daily basis.

  4. I read a book long ago about how seemingly moral individuals–good parents, church goes, givers to charities–can become part of immoral structures and not see a disconnect between their personal essence and the actions they help carry out. Corporations and government are the obvious examples of those structures. I don’t know how you give a company a soul/sense of right and wrong. I suppose it starts at the top. But when you consider that the corporation, by definition, has only one mission–make a profit–it’s hard to see how any one or two person’s morality can have an impact. And that’s why I said in the post that the film frustrated me so. This country worships capitalism as some sort of force for moral good and individual freedom is always the best state of affairs, which is of course just bull. Some people in the system are good, some are not, but the net result of always putting profits before people/the environment is a lot of bad craziness.

  5. Hey, (one head at a time)

    I love your blog, I really do. I was going to leave you another response to your response above, but it was getting a little too heady inside my head….and you know, what if I run for office? All my heady weirdness would be right here on your blog. What you’re saying makes me think of Germany in 1939. And Americans, we think that accumulating stuff, at whatever cost, will make us immortal. But mortality is our biggest flaw and we have no idea what to do with it. It has made us confused and neurotic. You and I will have to finish the conversation when we see each other again, so we can straighten this whole mess out, if not just inside our own heads.

  6. Thanks for your positive feedback, and sorry about the head headiness.Looking forward to finishing the dialogue any time, though I don’t have much faith, I’m afraid, in straightening things out. Sometimes it’s just good to know there are like souls out there who share your view, especially when that view is not exactly in tune with the majority’s zeitgeist.

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