By Joel Preston Smith
Hollywood has discovered that although an Iowa cornfield—after being plowed under and anointed with a pitcher’s mound—is an irresistible soul magnet for dead baseball players (as seen in 1989’s Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams,) it’s also a great place to grow corn. Witness the films Beyond Organic, Fast Food Nation, Food Fight, King Corn and the Oscar nominated film Food, Inc.
It’s sometimes easier to find organic food on the big screen than on the shelf of your supermarket, with growth in organic sales declining in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. The industry’s reputation took a beating after a British study proclaimed organic to be no more nutritious than conventionally grown food. But whereas recent documentaries have looked at food as a system, as a social and environmental phenomenon, the study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine boiled organic down into a purely chemical concern. Instead of looking at organic’s nutritive impact on health as a whole—meaning the health of the system that nourishes the human body—researchers looked at the mineral content of organic, compared to conventional.
The report (published July 29 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) was right; a molecule of (for example) the amino acid lysine from conventionally grown corn—once it’s been distilled from fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, and severed from the blighted monoculture that “grew” it—is indistinguishable from a molecule of lysine from organically grown corn. It is also true (in theory) that carbon atoms from organically grown radishes, once split, emit vast amounts of energy, not the chorus of Kum Ba-Ya.
Organic farmers should be grateful that British scientists won’t soon be grafting granola onto the Periodic Table of Elements.
If there’s a problem with organics, it’s not with organic food, or the organic system in its quest for sustainability, but rather with the ecologically dissociated culture disecting it; there may be a problem when, in order to get a comprehensive portrait of the future of agriculture, we find ourselves turning away from scientists, and toward Tinsel Town.
Indeed, the last time cattle, farmers and landscape figured so prominently in the foreground of film, you could be certain that John Wayne, the Sioux Nation, and the Utah Board of Tourism were not far behind.
Now producers and writers find that food itself, as an ecological concern, is moderately bankable, has star power, and the public is hungry for food news, and food “personalities.”
Graham Leggat, former associate publisher of Film Comment magazine, and now executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, says food’s star status is evidence of a growing understanding of agriculture’s role in global ecology. “Basically, it’s a result of an understanding that eating practices and agricultural practices are a crucial element of globalization, and of a growing awareness of environmental issues.”
“By tracking food,” argues Leggat, “you can reveal a lot of fault lines in contemporary society. You can look at balance-of-trade issues, migration issues, labor relations issues, the hyper-commodification of daily life, animal rights, racism, class issues, global trade as it impacts pollution, and the impact of GMOs.”
Leggat says food’s leading role comes as a surprise, but possibly an inevitable one. “A few years ago, I thought, ‘This is merely a novelty.’ But food is a useful thread to pull on, to unravel many questions that are essential in contemporary society. At first it looks like an arcane subject, but it actually turns out to be essential to many issues.”
Zenobia Barlow, founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy, headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., says food “suddenly has cachet in the media,” and its principal spokespersons are rising “rock stars.”
Barlow, co-editor of Ecological Literacy (Sierra Club Books), notes, “It’s a good sign when you see people such as [farmer and writer] Michael Ableman and [writer] Michael Pollan achieving celebrity status in films about food.”
Ableman’s work on behalf of sustainable agriculture was the focal point of the documentary Beyond Organic, narrated by Meryl Streep. Pollan appears in Food, Inc. and in the documentary The Botany of Desire, recently aired on PBS.
“Wherever you look,” Barlow observes, “food is the headline: e coli poisoning, starvation, climate change. Documentaries have a great deal of power to affect how we’re going to address that. Film is emotional, and decision-making is emotional. Film is able to show relationships and connections graphically.”
Doug Gurian-Sherman, Senior Scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program, argues that while agricultural science has vaulted onto the big screen, the public should not expect food documentaries to be a substitute for accurate scientific information that is often needed to advocate for change.
“Clearly,” he explains, “documentaries can have a positive impact by getting people connected to food issues, and that’s very much to the good. But I wouldn’t confuse ‘documentary’ with ‘scientific literacy.’ On the political side, they contribute useful information, but my general impression is that they’re often not completely accurate on the science.”
“We do not all have to be scientists, but we need to do a better job helping people understand how to evaluate what passes for science-based information. Checking several qualified sources, rather than accepting information from documentaries at face value, is a start.”
Food, Inc., for example, presents viewers with a contented cat sunning itself in a glowing green field as celebrity farmer Joel Salatin, who previously appeared onscreen in suspenders and a straw hat, accompanied by an acoustic guitar soundtrack, offers a voiceover on “accountability in the food system.” Following the cat cameo is a scene in which chickens are beheaded with a butcher’s knife, and cleaned by hand. Salatin concludes, “We have allowed ourselves to become so disconnected and ignorant about something that is as intimate as the food that we eat.”
Organic farmers have, naturally, no argument with Salatin’s main conclusions, but viewers would be wise to consider the rhetorical context; the public as a whole is being surreptitiously asked (by filmmaker Robert Kenner) to accept the veracity of Salatin’s message because the grass is green, because the cat appears happy, because Salatin is “earthy,” and because when he strides through his pesticide-free fields, he’s accompanied by acoustic guitar.
The irony is that the highly mechanized, electrified, industrial system that made “big ag” possible, also animates Kenner’s ethereal image fades, symphonic soundtrack and CGI effects. The message is, “trust high tech to tell you, you can’t trust high-tech.”
John Louis Lucaites, professor of rhetoric and public culture at Indiana University, observes, “A good documentary image isn’t just tech savvy; it’s sensitive to what the culture is and can be. The most persuasive [documentarians] show us images that call attention to the contradictions in our culture.”
If we’re smart enough to see that the London School’s study couldn’t possibly hope to illustrate the “value” of an ecological phenomenon by looking at organic on a molecular level, we should be smart enough to understand that the relative happiness of kittens is not a trustworthy variable in evaluating the social or physiological impacts of a given system of agriculture.
Robert Hariman, chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, in Chicago, Ill., says that the public often races to the conclusion that documentaries are harbingers of social change. Hariman, who co-wrote Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy with Lucaites, notes, “Most people don’t realize how much labor is necessary for political change. They think it’s like Marc Antony making a speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, turning the audience on a dime. That can happen, but it can also take Herculean efforts. Look at the struggle for women’s rights. All the arguments were there, in the U.S., as far back as 1850, and look at how long it took us to act.”
The disconnect between knowledge and political action is featured prominently in Errol Morris’ documentary The Fog of War. Morris’ film points out that Richard M. Nixon was elected to the presidency in 1968, running on a promise to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam. After escalating the war, then expanding it to Cambodia, he ran again in 1972, on a pledge to end the conflict—and defeated anti-war candidate George S. McGovern by 18 million votes, the fourth largest margin in U.S. political history.
Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for the Organic Consumers’ Alliance, is something of an authority on Herculean efforts and lack of political will for change. Baden-Mayer says the recent popularity of food films means that “food is suddenly sexy,” to the point that food and the green movement has even inspired a green-gossip website, www.ecorazzi.com, where the public can shadow the eco lifestyles of the stars.
“If it’s glamorous to shop at the farmer’s market,” says Baden-Mayer, let it be so. But popular culture can’t change the food system alone.”
While concern about food safety and ecology might be growing in the public sector, it’s still struggling to take root in D.C. Baden-Mayer wryly observes that although she’s put in nine years as a lobbyist campaigning on behalf of sustainable food, she’s only wrangled sit-down meetings with Congresspersons twice.
“Agribusinesses like Monsanto, Cargill and Tyson still dominate,” she admits. “We need to get big ag’s money out of politics if we want real change.”
Baden-Mayer argues that documentaries have their most significant impact when they motivate people to become politically active, and change their habits. “Documentaries are very valuable for organizing consumers, but nothing can stand on its own. For the food movement, the most important people are the people growing the food, the people helping make organic food available in as many markets as possible—people such as Joel Salatin—and the people developing CSA’s. What we really, really need, though, is more organic farmers.”
Joel Preston Smith is a Portland-based photojournalist and investigative reporter.