If you’ve watched Food, Inc. recently, the next time you dig into that hamburger, you’ll probably be wondering where the cow came from, and that’s the film’s biggest triumph. Directed by Robert Kenner, this Academy-Award-nominated documentary makes you THINK about your food, so often veiled behind the façade of glossy packaging and branding propaganda. The fat cow blissfully roaming around lush green meadows on your label is probably an image of the past. Today’s animal is a manufactured industrial product. It is among the millions bred, force fed and slaughtered in crammed cattle camps, barely able to stand because of injuries and lack of space by the time it’s about to go under the grind, just so that you and I can eat cheap steak.
But more than being a PETA video, Food, Inc. is a wake-up call for consumers like us, relentless campaigners of cheap supermarket meals, so estranged and cut off from the realities of what we consume, where it comes from and at what cost. To begin with I had my reservations about this being yet another left-wing conspiracy theory against the institutions of capitalism, but the makers have deftly steered clear of any such temptation.
Food, Inc. is an important film because it dares to confront issues the mainstream media has blissfully ignored. How many of us know that a monopoly of just a handful (four to be precise) of food corporations is running the entire show in the US food supply chain? Or of their murky nexus with regulators (the USDA and FDA) and the misery of small American farmers beholden to the demands of these profit-hungry monoliths? If you’ve wondered why we are getting fatter, perhaps it is because our food policy encourages people to eat all the junk money can buy. If processed meat or burgers and chips come at a fraction of the cost of fresh vegetables, it is hardly rocket science that cash-strapped families are going to rely on takeaways and ready-to-eat frozen meals.
There are several issues the film tackles, from the aggressive lobbying that goes on to get almost dictatorial bills passed, suppressing any room for consumer dissent, to how profits are being put ahead of food safety (remember all that uproar about E.Coli?) and the predominant use of corn syrup in a majority (80%) of the ingredients at the supermarkets, which has in effect resulted into the re-engineering of our food habits. At the outset this might seem like an American film. But it isn’t! The industrialization of food is soon becoming a reality in developing countries like India and China too, as supermarket chains and big corporations make headway into the organized food retail sector.
Watching this film made me rethink whether I really want my naturally organic environment to be altered to suit Western concepts of eating. It is really necessary to have a choice of 47,000 items when you do your food shopping? Some might call it archaic, but in India we still go to the street side market (the bazaar), not the supermarket, to buy fresh produce every day. Our fruit and vegetable consumption depends on seasons, unlike in the American supermarket where “there are no seasons” as the film observes. Takeaways and frozen food are an exception, not the rule.
But with affluence and an unthinking adoption of Western lifestyles, things are changing, and at a rapid pace. India has for instance sounded alarm bells at the rise of obesity which experts predict could reach chronic proportions in the next 25 years, especially among the middle classes. Go to any mall and you’ll have proof of this. Every second person is fighting the bulge, even as on the other extreme we have more malnourished people than in any other country in the world.
At the end of it what this film does, and very effectively at that, is lay bare hard facts in front of us. The solutions to bring about a change are not easy, and perhaps it is too late for Western consumers to change and adapt to a more austere pattern of food consumption. But for developing nations like India, where policy on organized food retail is still being framed and the influence of large corporations on what we eat is still minute as compared to traditional farming, recklessly abandoning our natural way of life would after all be foolish.