Food Inc. — the book that picks up where the documentary film left off

Here’s an excerpt from a great new story on the Ethicurean blog, by guest contributor Joshua J. Biggley:

See the movie -- then read the book!

See the movie -- then read the book!

Summer blockbusters are often contrived, schlocky representations of the books on which they are based. But the documentary “Food, Inc.,” which drew heavily on the nonfiction bestsellers “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” for its subject matter, has produced an accompanying book, “Food Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer — And What You Can Do About It,” that does far more than just rehash the film. This is no “one-two punch” marketing ploy by the folks at Participant Media, but rather a well-conceived, thoughtful follow-up to the overview offered up on the big screen.

Perhaps it is the weighty subject matter-the industrialization and externalization of our food supply-or the all-star cast of creators and real-life participants, but in this case the combination of movie and book offers ample education and inspiration for even the most discerning consumer.

Happily, the book is doing almost as well as the movie, which is the year’s top-grossing documentary: it is currently No. 325 on

Robert Kenner, the director of “Food, Inc.,” acknowledges that the movie’s 94 minutes couldn’t possibly detail all the complexities of the multinational food industry. The book’s editor, Karl Weber, writes that its goal was to reflect “the lively ongoing debates among the ‘food community’ about the best directions for the future-debates that, we believe, embody the best American traditions and hope for a better tomorrow shaped by the contributions of all of us.”

“Food, Inc.” is divided into three sections. First, coproducer Eric Schlosser and director Robert Kenner give an inside look at the “how” and “why” behind the film. They humanize the travails of the creative process, telling how their journey began and the point at which they realized they were walking the thin line of “being iconoclastic or being nuts.” Their status as iconoclasts is assured, but it’s also true that only the truly crazy would take on the industrial machine that is our global food chain.  While Kenner might not view himself as a crusader, his ideas are radical and his attacks on industrial food systems are long overdue.

The second section, “Inside the Food Wars,” is an answer to the compassionate critics who scolded the movie for offering “nothing new” to the industrial food debate. In it, the biggest challenges facing the food system — from the food-for-fuel debate to the exploitation of immigrant and indigenous labourers — are outlined in a series of essays by thought leaders including Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt (who is featured favorably in the film as the representative of “Big Organic”); Peter Pringle, author of several books on biotechnology; energy journalist Robert Bryce; Anna Lappé, author of a forthcoming book on climate change and food; United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez; and Muhammad Yunus, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his innovations in microlending.

Each opinion is balanced (and sometimes rebutted) by a viewpoint on the same or a similar theme from representatives of organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States and the Pesticide Action Network North America. These pieces, called “Another Take,” contain more concrete suggestions for taking action, and while some drift dangerously close to the realm of propaganda, they generally avoid the proverbial soapbox and add significantly to the practical information offered. One criticism, however: many of these and other pieces in “Food, Inc.” are far too crammed full of statistics.  As former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Statistics, used sparingly, reinforce an opinion or set the stage for a critique; however, used in such abundance they overwhelm, numb, and can create an aura of doubt. In offering a deluge of statistics, some of the authors appear to be trying to prove that their opinions are sound instead of simply letting them stand on their own merit.

Weber warns early on that “[A]lthough all of the distinguished individuals and organizations that contributed to this book share a concern about the problems with our industrial food system and a desire to reform it, they don’t always agree.” And indeed, the views offered up in the 12 segments of this section can seem a little contradictory and off-key. Hirshberg’s insistence that the “Big O” organic movement has not betrayed many of the movement’s original agroecological principles, but has instead been legitimized by the additional government oversight and regulation, cannot help but be shaped by his company’s impressive financial success.  Many would argue that the organic label has in the end done little to help lift the veil on our nation’s food industry and does not guarantee good farming practices, only less harmful ones than conventional agriculture.

But elsewhere I found myself nodding in agreement with these talented and dedicated activists. The Humane Society’s piece, “The Dirty Six,” covers the abuses of among other things, battery cages, gestation crates, and foie gras.  In spite of my own recent immersion into SOLE (sustainable, organic, local and/or ethical) food, this article had me asking “Why didn’t I know this?”….”

A bit about the writer: “Joshua J. Biggley was one of the winners of the Ethicurean’s “Food, Inc.”and “Fast Food Nation” giveaway contest that accompanied our review of the film. He lives in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, with his wife, Angela, and his four children, and is still hoping Participant Media will let him put together a special “Food, Inc.” screening on the island.  An IT consultant by day, he masquerades as a social advocate by night.  He has written extensively for, and was recently covered by CBC news after adding eight heritage hens to his urban backyard.”

Read the whole report on The Ethicurean which, by the way, if becoming one of my favourite news feeds.

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