The Future of Food

I’ve pretty much always been a blasÈ omnivore (blame it on my Midwestern roots), but in recent years I’ve developed more of an appreciation for underlying food concerns like nutrition, economics, and ethics. I’ve watched friends organize their lives around identifying food allergies or monitoring blood sugar or adopting new eating habits. As someone says in The Future of Food, one of the most informative and practical documentaries I saw last year (and again at UCLA last night), eating is one of the most intimate things we do.

Although the film is formally straightforward with interviews, illustrative graphics, and polished narration, I’ve had to watch it twice just to sort through its dense patchwork of science, history, and political commentary. Actually, it may be inappropriately titled–it’s less about the future of food than its past and present, recounting how America evolved from an agricultural society into an industrial one during the 20th century. With alarming and concise analysis, it highlights the way traditional farming in the US has become a corporate-controlled, less diversified business with global repercussions.

The film critiques the prevalence of untested and unlabeled genetically modified (GM) foods–created with the help of viruses and bacteria that invade cell structures and alter DNA–sold in US grocery stores. (A Monsanto spokesman told the New York Times in 1998: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”) But the FDA has never required special testing or labeling of GM foods, beginning with the FlavrSavr tomato, which was quietly introduced to consumers in 1994.

GM crops in the US proliferated from 4.2 million acres in 1996 to 100 million acres in 2003. Despite public safety concerns, elected officials continue to bow to industry lobbyists; just last week, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill ruling that states cannot exceed federal standards for food labeling, thus threatening over 200 current warning labels across the country. In Europe and Japan, however, GM foods must be identified, which–unsurprisingly–has seriously hurt their sales. The film shows how globalized standards threaten to undo safety measures.

The film also details the historic US Supreme Court decision–never voted upon by Americans–to allow corporations to patent living organisms, thus creating monopolies on certain GM plants (and animals) cultivated by farmers for centuries. Thus when GM crops spread by natural means to American, Canadian, or Mexican farmland, companies like Monsanto sue the farmers for copyright infringement. The film interviews Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, who was financially ruined by a court battle with Monsanto after they discovered Roundup Ready canola scattered on his land near a traffic road. As Schmeiser’s lawyer explains, previous patented items (like carburetors or toasters) don’t self-replicate.

And yet, despite the worrisome developments it describes, the film ends on an upbeat note, showcasing the counter movement embracing local foods, biodiversity, and non-GM foods through the rise in popularity of farmer’s markets and organic foods. The film is a well-researched and thoughtful statement on crucial public health and economic issues.

Incidentally, writer-director Deborah Koons Garcia appeared after the film last night and offered an amiable and intelligent Q&A. I didn’t realize until then that she’s the widow of singer Jerry Garcia, who, according to this article had pretty good taste in cinema, too: “Jerry loved film, she said, and would approve of her using some of his money–less than $1 million–to make [this documentary]. When they lived together in the ’70s, he supported her craft and would take her around to see all the films ‘he considered must-sees for me as a filmmaker–Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, The Thin Man.'”

The Future of Food DVD can be ordered from the film’s website.

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