It is an exceedingly well-done film, but I do not intend to review it. One of the points of focus is Polyface Farm and its proprietor, Joel Salatin. As it happens, not only have I visited Polyface, as I wrote here, but on Saturday I got my first pickup from participation in one of the local Metropolitan Buying Clubs, and I had their breakfast sausage along with my pancakes this morning.
Others here, such as Jill, can write far more eloquently on the subject of our food supply. That is important. I will refer to parts of the film that deal with our food supply.
But the takeaway for me was far broader than merely the way our food is produced, and it on those additional areas that I wish to reflect.
Several things stood out for me. In the not so distant past, 5 companies controlled around 20% of the meatpacking business in this country. Now it is 4 companies, and they control far more - perhaps 70-80%. To me that seems violative of the idea of anti-trust laws. Of course, as we know, beginning with the Reagan administration and certainly accelerating during the last administration, the ability limit monopolies of any kind seems to have be eviscerated - we have certainly seen that in the expansion of ownership allowed by the FCC for example.
And the meatpacking industry pales in comparison with Monsanto, which now controls some 90% of the seeds for soybeans. Why that is not a subject for antitrust review is beyond me.
I am not a scientist. Yet even with my limited knowledge and the childhood experience of growing fruits and vegetables, I know the dangers of monoculture - if there is a disease or a pest, the entire crop is often lost. Our practices in food production seem to make us much more vulnerable to blights and infections, and while these might now occur naturally, it is not hard to imagine that an enemy could deliberately attack our agriculture in a similar fashion.
That would be a form of economic warfare. Yet that is, effectively, what we are doing to other nations. We distribute and sell corn at a price less than its production costs. While we benefit, at least in theory, from lower prices, our massive production has the effect of putting out of business corn farmers in other nations, notably in Mexico, which contributes mightily to those attempting to come to this country, illegally as well as legally, in search of economic stability.
I was not surprised to see how much of our agriculture depends upon the labor of undocumented workers. I know how heavily the meatpacking industry depends on those of Hispanic background, and those undocumented cannot join unions and have little opportunity for legal protections. But it was more than shocking to see the pattern displayed for workers for Smithfield's Tarheel NC hog slaughterhouse, the world's largest meatpacking facility. The people from Immigration do not raid the factory, where if they found "illegals" they would have little choice but to charge the management and ownership. Instead they do middle of the night raids in the residences, grabbing perhaps a dozen or so workers at a time. They can then claim to be "enforcing" immigration law, even as their actions in no way jeopardize Smithfield's ability to maintain a cheap and compliant workforce. This is a form of economic warfare on the workers, and when we buy their products, we contribute to this.
The meatpacking companies and Monsanto have so much economic power they can use their deep pockets to bankrupt anyone who would try to stand up against them, even if the lawsuits they file might ultimately be shown to have no merit. Their size and their wealth enable them to get laws and regulations written to benefit them and protect their economic interest even if in the process our health is put at risk, or possible competitors or alternatives are eliminated.
Think about it - a few companies basically have a stranglehold on much of our food supply. And if one wants to think beyond the parts of the economy examined in the film, we also know that corporations are attempting to control water supplies. This is very true of multinationals and their operations in other nations, particularly those in the category of "developing" economies. The hostility to anything governmental, a part of the Republican ideology since before Reagan, has also led to privatization of many functions in the US, such as selling toll roads to foreign companies. I fully expect to see pressure put on localities to sell the municipal water systems that currently supply much of the nation's population with potable water.
Were that to happen, the only thing necessary for survival not in the hands of for-profit entities would be air, and of course we know that many corporations do not want to be held accountable for how they pollute that, and thereby poison lakes and the environment in general.
And then there is "veggie libel." As Oprah Winfrey found out, were one to criticize some aspects of food production, one faces the very real risk of being sued for disparaging and thereby causing economic harm, and in some cases the charges are not merely tort actions, but carry criminal penalties. At the same time agricultural organizations argue against certain kinds of certification - such as not genetically modified, on the grounds that it implies products not carrying such labels are not safe. Thus we are denied the opportunity to exercise our buying power as a market force that can direct corporations away from practices that we view as harmful, because we are denied the information necessary to make such choices. Adam Smith's arguments for the market economy and its efficiency were, if I remember Wealth of Nations, dependent upon perfect information by all actors. We, the consumers whose spending is so necessary to sustain our economy, are denied far too much information for the market system envisioned by Smith to work. Which is why we need vigorous regulation, but that is a separate issue.
Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms Organic Yogurt appears in the film. One key point he makes is that consumers can make a difference. We are offered two examples. One is Wal-Mart deciding to only buy rBGH-free milk, because that is what their customers want. The other is the regulation of tobacco. Yet both of these were problems, with the Supreme Court rejecting an attempt by David Kessler of FDA to regulate tobacco as a drug, and strong attempts by dairy producers to prohibit the use of labels indicating product that were rBGH-free. Perhaps we can have some optimism because of some successes, but I wonder if the damage done before the successes are achieved are not too great to overcome. I simply do not know.
I do know these things.
Our heavy use of petroleum to produce food is not in the long term sustainable. We have to find ways that use less fossil fuels in the production of food. That may require us as consumers to eat differently than we have been eating.
By government policy we subsidize unhealthy eating at the expense of healthy eating. This leads to increases in obesity, Type II diabetes, and other health problems, which put great pressure on our health systems, and reduce the productive lives of many of our people. At a time when we are attempting to extend health care to all, perhaps we need to be examining how we exacerbate the problem of health care by our food policy.
If we are supposed to be a market economy, then consumers need full information in order to exercise choice. Laws and rules drawn to prevent such full disclosure are inimical to the free market system we ostensibly claim to want.
The concentration of economic, political, - and thus legal - power in the hands of a small groups of companies is not healthy. It is not healthy for a democracy. It is not healthy for our health, because too many of those companies think only of maximizing short term profits, and not of the downstream costs they are imposing upon us all. That includes the environmental damage being done by the CAFOs, the concentrated animal feeding operations, with the massive amounts of animal waste that pollute soil and water, and lead to disease among the animals confined there. It includes the health risks of the heavy use of antibiotics, leading to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
We all have choices to make. Sometimes our range of choice is limited by our economic circumstances, or our location. Not everyone can afford to pay $3.00 or more a dozen for eggs from chickens who actually get to live as chickens. Although I will say in my brief experience of Polyface eggs, they are tastier, and I need to eat less to satisfy myself.
But I cannot impose my choices upon others. All I can do is try to act in a way that creates more choices for more people, to use what economic power I have in my purchase of food in a fashion that contributes to - how can I say this - a better use of the resources that are applied in the process of my eating and drinking.
The film cause me to think. I knew something about these issues. I now know more, but still not enough.
There are many threats to our well-being. At this point I would have to say I am far less worried about "Islamofacism" and attacks from Al Qaeda than I am about the consequences of the concentration of economic power. This is true in media, in food production, in far too many areas of our lives. There are consequences for all of us.
There is little more basic than eating. If we can be threatened there, how are we secure?
Just a few of my reflections, recorded perhaps 6 hours after I finished watching the film.