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Movie review: King Corn August 18, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Movie reviews.
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King Corn is a rollicking jaunt though the life of an acre of corn, or more specifically, an acre of yellow dent #2, one of the industrial varieties that make up the vast majority of the corn currently grown in the US. Aaron Woolf’s documentary kicks off with a pair of friends who are informed by a scientist at the University of Virginia that they have corn in their hair – literally, that the composition of their hair indicates that their diet is corn-based. They’re confused, because they hardly ever allow an actual vegetable to cross their plates. But what does cross their plates is lots of corn-fed hamburger meat, corn-syrup laden soda, corn-oil doused fries, etc. So Ian and Curtis plant an acre of yellow dent #2 to follow it in its journey to their stomachs, a journey which takes them from an Iowa cornfield through a Colorado cattle feedlot to a Brooklyn, NY convenience store.

Ian and Curtis are pretty laid-back protagonists, and they ensure that KC never gets preachy or depressing, even when they’re in the middle of a feedlot where the cows are sunk ankle-deep in their own shit. Their easy demeanor conceals two determined journalists, however, who score some thought-provoking interviews that are the opposite of dry documentary fodder. A couple of gems: Audrae Erickson, spokesperson for the Corn Refiners Association, whose polished and fluent explanation of why they can’t possibly visit the refinery – for their own good, of course – fits her right into the role of corporate stooge; and Earl Butz, the Nixon administration’s unapologetic driver of the current farm subsidy structure, whom you have a tough time villanizing as he powers himself down the hallway in his wheelchair, even as he praises the Age of Plenty (and plenty, and plenty more) that he ushered in.

At the end of it all, KC’s message is aptly captured by the sight of Iowa’s staggering corn mountains and the words of one of those interviewees: “We subsidize the Happy Meals, but we don’t subsidize the healthy ones.” Indeed.

Movie review: Food, Inc. August 18, 2009

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Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. could have been the Omnivore’s Dilemma of film – the authority on the reality of our modern food production system. Instead, Kenner engineered an endictment of Big Ag, Big Government, and Corporate America that alternately illuminates and excoriates the food industry. The overzealous bits unfortunately make FI the sort of movie that exactly those people most in need of illumination will refuse to see – and the sort of movie that detractors will find easy to attack.

The merit of FI is that it manages to get movie cameras and interviewers inside some of the parts of our food chain that we never glimpse: the harsh Confined Animal Feeding Operations, the nighttime police round-ups of immigrants working in slaughterhouses, and the halls of justice where lobbyists fight laws preventing food contamination. But then come vignettes that verge on the maudlin, like the extended home movie footage of a young boy who died from E. coli poisoning, and overzealous witch hunts like the one villanizing Monsanto (to which the company released a fair response).

Overall, FI is an informative introduction to our food system if you can get past the ham-fistedness. A better option: invest the time to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and get a more thoughtful and even-handed point of view.

Book review: Dominion August 17, 2009

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Matthew Scully offers what is often termed “the Christian Right defense” of animal welfare in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Expecting to open the book to an account that, while perhaps academically interesting, would be irrelevant for a secularist like myself, I was surprised at how little Scully’s argument relies on Christian faith. He engages in a mere ten pages of biblical exegesis in a 400-page book, and that to refute Christians who conveniently interpret Genesis as an invitation to “go forth and subdue.” The rest of the book is relevant for any believer in the virtues of compassion and mercy.

In defending mercy toward animals, Scully shows none of it to those who exploit them: the game hunters, whalers, factory farmers, and scientists who have a deluded and self-interested vision of animal welfare if they have one at all. He is at his best exposing the idiocy of tired truisms so often trotted out to dismiss concern for animals, as in this rejoinder to those who think that concern for animal cruelty comes from a soft urban mindset that shrinks before the harsh reality of rural life: “Another way of looking at this is that the ‘urban’ types are not steeped in the ways of blood spilling and have no financial and emotional attachments to the practices in question. In other contexts, that’s usually called objectivity.” And responding to the criticism that people who care about animals don’t care about people: “…as if for every dolphin spared from the net a homeless person must go unfed, or as if the people who make such accusations are themselves to be found devoting every spare moment to the uplift of their fellow man.” The sarcasm doesn’t drip, it courses from the page.

He is less convincing when addressing the question of cruelty in the natural world. Rightly pointing out that the fact of cruelty between animals does not justify similar behavior from rational, reflective humans, he fails to consider the possibility that some human use of animals for food or sport hunting may be a less cruel fate for them than what would lie in wait in the natural world. He dismisses the possibility of raising the world’s supply of livestock humanely in one sentence. He rejects the potential solution to protecting endangered species offered by making their protection profitable for, say, game parks in South Africa. Granting his point that it would be better if people just protected animals out of the goodness of their hearts, we probably need to realize that not everyone will have enough goodness to work with, and give them other incentives.

Finally, Scully does not tend to brevity, making Dominion at times a bit of a slog. Ultimately it’s worth the effort, though, to relish his biting wit and no-holds-barred argumentation.

Book review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma August 17, 2009

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If you haven’t yet read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (aka the Foodie Bible), get your nose out of your bag of Kettle Chips and go pick it up. Books like this are made for people like you.

Pollan’s project is to trace the food chains behind four meals: the fast-food meal, the “big organic” meal, the grass-fed pastoral meal, and the hunted/gathered meal. In the process he fascinates us with descriptions of corn sex and cowpatties in a way that only someone truly in thrall to the natural world could. We shake our heads at the immense impact on our food of the minor players in the story: Fritz Haber (who invented the process for fixing nitrogen in fertilizer), Baron Justus von Liebig (who simplified soil fertility into three little letters, NPK), and Earl Butz (Nixon’s second Secretary of Agriculture, who set up the modern farm subsidy framework that enables us to eat so cheaply). We live the food chain side-by-side with Joel Salatin, hero of grass-based rotational grazing; Angelo Garro, hunter, wine-maker, and foodie extraordinaire; and #534, a steer Pollan bought to gain insight into Confined Animal Feeding Operations. To Pollan’s credit, not a single anecdote is superfluous; every character and subplot both engages and informs.

However, OD is much more than just a vivid representation of food production from many different perspectives. It is a call to action – to wake up and educate ourselves about the food we eat. Further, while Pollan refrains from urging us to use our newfound knowledge to drop our Chicken McNuggets in favor of delicacies like the Wild East Bay Yeast Levain in his hunted/gathered dinner, it’s pretty clear that he thinks that’s what anyone with any real gustatory sensibility or social conscience would do. Some call that foodie elitism; others call it good taste or good sense. A more serious critique often voiced against Pollan is that even if everyone wanted to heed his advice, only he and his Slow Food friends could afford to. And even if everyone could, does the earth have enough resources to produce food without the space-saving advantages of conventional agriculture? Pollan only lightly touches on these issues, but the virtue of OD is that it has succeeded in sparking this vital debate.

Similarly, Pollan is more suggestive than definitive when addressing the animal welfare concerns and environmental consequences of the food systems he investigates. He openly rejects utilitarianism, so he’s not in the business of meticulously weighing the costs and benefits of alternatives. This leaves the reader a bit vague about what values he’s relying on to make the judgment that we should change the way we eat. His tone hints at a mishmash of pastoral idealism, skepticism about corporate America and even capitalism itself, and (despite his disavowal) utilitarianism. If you’re looking for a more rigorous analysis of the issues that follows a strictly utilitarian calculus, Singer and Mason’s The Way We Eat, published the same year as OD, would be a better choice.

What makes OD still worth the read is precisely that Pollan is not a philosopher like Singer (or a PETA advocate, or a health nut). He’s an omnivore like most of us – who even occasionally gives in to fast food! – who has just thought a little more deeply about what we’re doing when we eat.

Book review: The Way We Eat August 11, 2009

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Peter Singer, author of the classic 1970s animal welfare text Animal Liberation, has teamed up with Jim Mason to write another book that should be a cornerstone of the animal welfare movement of its time. However, its publication in 2006, the same year as Michael Pollan’s celebrated Omnivore’s Dilemma, may have unfairly relegated it to relative obscurity.

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter is no vegan diatribe against meat; Singer and Mason honestly assess the food animal industry. Those who brand Singer as an extremist or radical will be surprised by his even-handed treatment of animal “growers” and his ungrudging praise for those who do it well. He credits pig farmers like Niman Ranch suppliers Mike Jones and Tim Holmes for creating farms where “pigs really can be pigs” and has mostly positive things to say about big retailers like Chipotle and Whole Foods who are serious about animal welfare. Further, against the liberal intellectual tide, he turns a critical eye to such sacred cows as eating local, eating organic, and the horrors of genetically modified foods. Though in the end he cautiously agrees with the standard liberal views of these practices, he presents the cons as well as the pros and does not pretend that the debates are satisfactorily closed.

Ultimately Singer does affirm a vegan diet as the optimal ethical choice, the one “sure way of completely avoiding participation in the abuse of farm animals.” He does this partly for environmental reasons, though he allows that a vegan diet is not necessarily better in this respect than a diet that “includes some organic animal products from animals grazing in a sustainable way on pasture that is unsuitable for growing crops.” His support for veganism is largely based on the hidden abuses that even most humanely-raised animals suffer: the killing of superfluous male chicks and perpetual hunger of breeder hens in chicken farming; the unanesthetized castration of male piglets in the pork industry; the short life spans of all farmed animals.

Singer is a philosopher, and his writing is never as lyrical, his anecdotes never as engaging, as a stylist like Pollan’s. Framing his investigation of the food animal industry as a peek into the pantries of three families – the standard Americans, the conscientious omnivores, and the vegans – is an attempt to personalize the project that ultimately distracts more than it illuminates. But his honest, unsentimental, and thorough examination of how we use animals for food makes The Way We Eat a must-read.

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