A Vegan Take on Food, Inc.

June 25, 2009

I just got back from watching Food, Inc., and it’s pretty much what I expected it to be: a very well done expose´ on agribusiness that falls far short of its potential.

As the author of three books that cover agribusiness, I have to admit that movies, not books, are the ideal medium for addressing this subject. That’s because many of the realities of agribusiness are too weirdly disturbing to be captured in writing: if you don’t see the inside of a modern feedlot, poultry house, or hamburger plant with your own eyes, an accurate description seems scarcely believable.

This movie goes into the trenches to show you these things, preceding its revelations with a scene showing Eric Schlosser cheerfully tucking into a burger. So, right from the start, it’s clear we’re going to get a conscientious omnivore’s perspective on agribusiness. In fact, the filmmakers might have well have issued a fatwa against even raising the possibility of vegetarianism: not once are the words vegetarian or vegan so much as uttered over the course of the movie.

Instead, we get hagiographic portraits of Stonyfield Yogurt CEO Gary Hirshberg and small-scall animal farmer Joel Salatan. And while it’s true that these guys are indeed saints when juxtaposed against corporate villains like Monsanto, it’s also true that pretty much anybody is a saint when compared to Monsanto. Fortunately, Monsanto at long last receives its due in this film, as Food Inc. showcases the company’s preoccupation with tracking down and financially ruining any farmer it perceives as getting in the way of its business plans. Food Inc. is far from the best documentary I’ve ever seen, but the scenes involving Monsanto are documentary filmmaking at its very finest.

And while Joel Salatan is undoubtedly intended to be one of this film’s heros, at least Food Inc. has the honesty to spend a minute showing the throat-cutting that’s at the heart of his chicken business.

While I have my share of gripes about Food, Inc., I’m well aware that I’m far from this film’s target audience. Who is Food, Inc. attempting to reach? Primarily literate, well-off people who haven’t yet been exposed to the realities of agribusiness. The film makes its effete foodie sensibilities clear in the first two minutes, as it invokes the phrase, “A notional tomato.”

I’d have liked to see a wider spectrum of possible food choices addressed, as well as more diversity in the film’s featured experts. If there is any difference in the food philosophy advanced by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan — two writers at the heart of this film — I’m unable to detect it.

Despite my misgivings, Food, Inc. nevertheless does a great service to the vegan cause, because as long as agribusiness is corrupt, powerful, and gigantic, veganism will always be on society’s fringes. Food Inc., poses a far greater threat to the agribusiness empire than anything that’s come along to date. It’s got better production values, and vastly more depth, than Super Size Me, which I until now regarded as the best film advocating the conscientious omnivore agenda.

The enemy of agribusiness is my friend, so with that in mind I’m thrilled that Food, Inc. has been released. I expect it to inflict a lasting blow upon factory farming interests.

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