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[The Creation of the Chicken]

An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Mixed Review of Food Inc.

The current rage of “non-fiction” or “documentary” films ought not to bear such labels, because the terms both have too much association with vague notions of a sort of textbook “truth.” Fact is, these newer breed of films are better termed audio-visual editorials...or in worse case scenarios blatantly misleading propaganda. If you’ve ever had to sit through one in which you held contradictory opinions, then you know what torture they can inflict – there’s never a contrary view provided and there’s never any real debate. Of course if you subscribe to the filmmakers worldview then these films are the self-indulging great hope for mankind...or something.

As it so happens I agree with about 51.89% of the opinions (give or take) expressed in the editorial film “Food Inc.” and I would encourage everyone to see it. Now, I will nail my current intellectual colors to the mast and say that I do indeed believe in the value of organic, sustainable farming and I also believe in the importance of buying locally. We don’t always practice what I "preach", but we usually go out of our way to live these values, but by the same token I do NOT judge or condemn those who do not share these values. I hate it when people lift up such issues to the level of religious truth and meander about evangelizing and wiping the dust from their feet as they leave the homes of non-believers. I’m happy to share WHY I think these things are important to me, but I’m a big proponent of individual liberty and responsibility. And that’s where I find myself parting company with a significant proposition in the film: that the government must protect me and through intense regulation, taxation and oversight support my values with regard food/farming.

Food Safety and our need for protection
It’s decidedly reasonable, I think, for there to be some regulation here. But let’s be realistic: you can also build an indestructible airplane, but you’ll never get it off the ground. The fact is, if you eat food you will always be risking food borne illness and there is a TREMENDOUS amount that you – PERSONALLY – can do to help prevent it. We (us) are the final line of defense and if we are busily living our lives expecting that the government will save us from everything bad in the world, whether it be a financial crisis, a hurricane, or food poisoning then I’m afraid we are deceiving ourselves with fairy tales. It’s like a Police officer I know who once told me: “99% of the time we arrive at a crime scene, not a crime in progress.” And yet somehow we really think we have some assurance of real safety through prayers offered to 911.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against food safety regulations - I'm going to have to keep saying that because inevitably someone is going to comment as if I suggested there be NO food safety oversight. But by the same token, just because a bit of legislation is a food regulation doesn’t mean it makes sense, is reasonable, effective, or necessary. For instance, in many states it is ILLEGAL to purchase raw milk from a farmer. This is a “food safety” regulation. Hey! Who is so stupid to fail to know that the pasteurization of milk will reduce the SLIGHT chance of a food borne illness and that buying raw milk is a SLIGHTLY greater risk? I certainly don’t need any government regulation to protect me from my own freedom in this regard! Fact is, raw milk has far more nutrients (lost in the pasteurization process) and obtaining it from its source affords you the ability to directly support a local dairy farmer who would ordinarily get far less for his product than it’s worth. Such regulation robs you the consumer of your freedom and greatly favors huge factory milk operations against who small family dairy farmers cannot compete.

Consider how much the average consumer is willing to pay for a gallon of milk? Regulations will inevitably cost the farmer and this doubly hurts the small farmer who must suffer the cost of a "middle-man" processor and whose mega-factory competitors can often afford the new regulation easily. But in the end, regulation costs will be passed down to the consumer until such a time that the government steps in the “regulate” costs because of the public outcry which adds makes it even more impossible to survive and compete if you are a small family farmer.

In the film, we hear about how terrible the various E.Coli outbreaks have been over the last decade or two. And truly there were awful, I remember them well - particularly the Jack-in-the-box fast food fiasco. We follow in the legal footsteps of the mother of one of the victims around she lobbies the government for greater food safety regulations. As I recall, we never really hear many specifics about the specific legislation they are trying to pass, but there is this sort of underlying tone that we should all readily agree that government should do everything possible to insure our safety...and I frankly think that statement is absurd. We should do that, but not the government. Think about it, by this logic you should be insisting that the city provide a Police Officer at the door of every home 24hrs a day. There is a limit to what government can do, and there’s a great deal that we as families CAN do, but don’t. Where should our emphasis be? I think one excellent aspect of the film is that it makes clear that mass- production of food is inherently more dangerous to the consumer. But what the film fails to note is that IF to government were to overly regulate the industry you would very quickly lose any of the "benefits" of incredibly inexpensive food...and you'd very quickly crush the small local food providers. Once again I will pause and say that I am NOT against all government food regulation.

Another area where we are apparently helpless is, according to the film, related to our poverty levels and our evolutionary lineage. Now anyone who has read my blog before knows I am vehemently opposed to the very notion of Darwinian determinism and so when the film even briefly suggests that evil food corporations are deliberately targeting our irresistible evolutionary food triggers, I immediately begin to tune out. Give me a break! There’s no conspiracy here, they are selling their products the same way all products are sold and if we are powerless to resist them why bother making the film? Hello? Freewill? Look, I’m fat, so I know it isn’t easy, but I’m not going to sue the pork manufacturers of the world for my fondness for pork. I make my choices (period).

So, if you are “poor”. The odds are (we are told) you will be fat because you are unable to buy anything but Twinkies and Doritos. Puhlease! Watch me get fat on organic rice, cheese, pasture raised beef and bean burritos. Yeah Twinkies and Doritos are awful for you, but you can totally get fat eating healthy food...just as soon as your caloric intake exceeds your output. Don't get me wrong, I realize that Doritos and Twinkies are patently awful for you and play havoc with your body in ways healthy food doesn't, but I think my point stands none-the-less. And besides, I don’t believe for a second that anyone is forced by economics to eat like crap. The example in the film of the family whose kids won’t chose the apples at the store because they can’t get “enough” of them is really too much. Are we seriously supposed to believe that they have NO CHOICE but to eat at fast food restaurants? That’s astonishingly expensive compared to what you can make quickly and easily at home. If I haul my family out to Taco Bell, we can expect to pay at least $30 for that meal, while even the very best of meals we make quickly and easily at home coast a fraction of that. And yes, the VAST majority of us do have time and if we really care about what we eat we should make that time. Obviously I cannot speak for every family on the planet, but what on earth is the film proposing here? That for that rare family that truly has NO TIME AT ALL to prepare their own food at home we should legislate that healthy and cheap fast food exist? Through planning and careful budgeting you CAN eat healthy food without paying more...yes, you can. But if your idea of healthy food is prepackaged organic or all natural microwavable –instant foods, then yes, you will pay more. Michael Pollan says in the film:

“To eat well in this country costs more than to eat badly. It will take more money and some people simply don't have it. That's one of the reasons we need changes at the policy level so that the carrots are a better deal than the chips.”

Well I don’t believe his premise is necessarily true, as I said. People who take the time to educate themselves, to plan and prepare, and investigate, I think will find they do not need policy changes to make sure “carrots are a better deal than chips.” I suspect for the vast majority of people, it’s just easier to buy the chips than listen to the kids scream about what a rotten deal carrots are compared to chips! I say this from my own experience, both in taking the easy way our AND in having to keep a fairly small monthly food budget. Just google "eat healthy cheaply" and start exploring. I get really nervous about seeking some means by which the government will make chips more expensive or carrots less so. The devil is definitely in those details and as I said I absolutely believe such regulation is wholly unnecessary.

By this point in the film, I was starving (pun intended) for a healthy and encouraging story of personal empowerment in the face of “food inc” and to some degree we were provided that with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms and Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, an organic yogurt company. Many of you no doubt know Mr. Salatin, and believe me, his perspective...or even his mere presence in the film...was like a breath of fresh air. Up to this point one would think our only food choices were coming from horrific, over-crowded, borg-like beef feedlots measured in square miles and chicken factories where birds have never seen the sun. It seemed as if we were being told we had no choice but to appeal to the government, and now here is Joel showing us the glorious world outside of the cave in that we have a great many options. One of my favorite parts of the film is where Joel is shown with his farm hands butchering chickens and he tells us about how the GOVERNMENT tried to shut him down because his slaughter house had no walls. He goes on to relate that scientific testing proved that his chickens had significantly less bacterial contamination than the heavily regulated chicken factory processing plants! (Please do keep in mind what I said above about government regulation that doesn’t help.) Later, we see people shopping at the Polyface Farm store...people making a choice. Now, are Mr. Salatin’s free range, pasture raised chickens going to cost more than the stacked-on-top-of-one-another, hormone-treated, never-set-foot- outside, mass produced chicken? Of course. The latter is produced quickly, cheaply, “efficiently” and on a massive assembly line like scale which ends with the consumer getting a decidedly unnatural price and a much reduced quality product. But hey! Fifty cents a pound! At that price I can go and buy 3-4 bags of Doritos for dinner and Twinkies for desert instead of a using that bag of brown rice that I bought a month ago ( and is STILL providing for us) for the same price as the aforementioned “treats.” So while you spend more on the chicken, by making intelligent choices elsewhere you can actually save money.

And, in actuality, you have even MORE choices than you likely realize. While at the local County Fair (a great place to meet food producers) a few years ago, we met a breeder of miniature Hereford cattle. They do not make their living as beef producers, but by the nature of their business do produce beef as a by-product of their breeding business. As such, they often try to network with people interested in buying beef right off of the farm and their prices are quite competitive with the beef of unknown origin found in the local supermarket. He is completely upfront about how his cows are raised: some are grain fed, but most are grass fed, and we’ve even been able to visit his farm. There is, in my humble opinion, an inherent value in knowing who produces your food and you can meet them in ways you may not expect and then come to find out they can feed you for surprisingly low prices.

Now, Gary Hirshberg is a fascinating man. He’s what I suppose could be called a serious “green” guy, one who you'd expect would also tow the left-leaning line of heavy handed government protections and social engineering. But he has come to believe, apparently, that the best way to effect change for the good of the planet and the sake of healthy, sustainable food is to utilize the free market. The film has Gary dealing with what most of his associates admittedly consider to be the absolute pinnacle of evil: Wal-Mart. But Gary sees opportunity for market forces to do good and not unexpectedly he gets results - in the film we learn about how WalMart stopped carrying milk with growth hormone and readily began to carry Gary’s Organic Yogurt. Why? Because, quite simply, it made good business sense to change. Clearly, consumers have far more power than they think, and WalMart will carry whatever it may be that enough of us demand. If we educate the public, demand will shift, and then sit back and watch the companies provide for it. I think Gary himself said it best:

“The irony is that the average consumer does not feel very powerful, they think that they are the recipients of whatever industry has put out there for them to consume. Trust me, it's the exact opposite. When we run an item past the supermarket scanner we're voting...individual consumers changed the biggest company on earth."

The “regulators” try to use smoking as an example of their ability to crush a bad thing with the heavy hand of government. I would argue that this is highly debatable. What role did an educated public play in the decline of smoking? I would be willing to bet that it is far more significant than the government making every legislative and legal effort (and now even so with regard to the individual smoker) to crush big tobacco. Were this not the case, the outcry against government's heavy hand would have been massive.

I believe in people. I don’t believe people are defenseless ignoramuses in desperate need of government protection. Given a bit of education, they can wield their marketing power to make healthy food choices even MORE readily available. If people care enough, they will do it. I’m willing to be convinced about the need for some specific legislation (I’m not an anarchist after all), but, education is where the real power is to be found. The powers-that-be will bow down far more quickly when we begin to take our dollars elsewhere.

For example, have you noticed exactly how the mega-breweries are struggling to regain their market shares lost to Micro-breweries? They are desperately trying to re-image their brands or even produce more competitive products as small craft brewers all over the United States have successfully appealed to the tastes of the people. And those people are demanding MORE from the ale products they consume. No doubt the “big boys” have thrown their weight around, but in the end WE the consumers will decide. I think the big corporations are going to have to get used to sharing the playing board with the small guys. And so will “Food Inc"...to an even greater degree than it does now. There are options, let’s grow them by voting when we buy.

In any event, this was a thoughtful editorial film and I recommend it, but clearly I don’t buy everything in it.

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 3:25 PM [+]
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