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Food Inc – why it’s so relevant for Australian audiences

Food Inc. is not simply a documentary that exposes America’s industrialised food system and its effect on the environment, health, economy and workers’ rights. It’s a campaign that encourages people to become actively involved in fighting for a healthier, fairer food supply.

Unfortunately, Croakey has not yet had the opportunity to see the film for herself, but is delighted that Associate Professor Mark Lawrence, an expert in public health nutrition at Deakin University, has provided this review:

“Food Inc provides a devastating expose of the dysfunctional nature of the modern food system. It is a film that highlights the hypocrisy behind government attempts to encourage individuals to eat a healthy diet, while at the same time pursuing policies and partnerships with large food companies that create unhealthy food environments.

The film explains that in the space of a few generations the food system has been transformed from its ecological basis to a highly efficient commercial entity controlled from seed to supermarket by a small number of large multinational corporations. Revealing footage illustrates how the drive for increased efficiencies, ‘innovations’ and profit are positioned ahead of public health, social, animal welfare and environmental interests. For example, viewers are shown inside chicken farms that have become highly mechanised factories controlling drug and nutrition inputs that can produce a full weight chicken with enlarged breasts in 49 days that otherwise would take 3 months.

A particularly stark example of the exploitation of the power differential in the food system is illustrated through Monsanto’s pursuit of an elderly farmer. The farmer operated a creaky old seed cleaner machine to help a handful of his friends preserve their seed supply. From a public health perspective this might be seen as a public good because it is protecting seed biodiversity albeit with contamination from some of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seed. In the commercial world it was defined as a threat to ownership of a seed’s genetic material. The film shows Monsanto’s team of lawyers challenging this individual. After losing his savings attempting to defend himself, Monsanto then extracted the ultimate indignity, through tears he is shown being forced to reveal the names of his close friends to whom he had supplied cleaned seed.

Food Inc does not address food systems in other countries. So, how relevant is its analysis to the Australian context?

When we consider Australian circumstances such as the huge proportion of chicken meat sourced from intensive chicken factories, the duopoly controlling approximately 75% of the food retail sector and the pervasive influence of food industry interests in state and commonwealth food regulation committees, the answer is ‘very relevant’.

There is a common lesson. Control of the food system by large corporations supported by government policies driven by an ideology of deregulation and the pursuit of unfettered growth, has resulted in a food system that is a commercial success, but a public health, social and environmental failure.

Clearly, the film’s producers are aware that in exposing how large corporations are so entrenched in controlling the US food system they risk further disempowering the citizens they are attempting to inform. Much attention is devoted to actions and reforms to help shift the various power relationships within the food system. For example, linking food producers directly with citizens, making governments more accountable for their decision-making and encouraging citizens to ‘vote’ through the choices they make each time they purchase food.

The film’s closing credits are accompanied by, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘This land is your land’ – providing a powerful reminder of the film’s core message. The film itself is one component of a broader campaign to promote change – there is a Food Inc website with valuable complementary information.”

• Meanwhile, on related issues, the latest revision of the US dietary guidelines has just been released for public comment. Here is public health nutritionst Professor Marion Nestle’s take on the guidelines, and here is the LA Times report.