Not long ago I sat down and watched a 2009 documentary called Fresh, which offers a look at the current state of our industrialized food system, and contrasts that to what more and more farmers are doing to produce food in a sustainable, organic way. This movie is not to be confused with 1994 film entitled Fresh starring Samuel L. Jackson about a 12 year old drug pusher living in the projects – for the record. Though apparently those who viewed the food production documentary on IMDB “also liked” the drug pusher story – according to the website anyway. Somebody may want to check the algorithm on that.
FRESH is not an in depth look at the in’s and out’s of food production, it is a top-level view that paints a good picture of the current scenario in the United States, then provides a few counter examples of people bucking the commercial system. Here’s a snapshot of the industrialized “cheaper, faster” model….According to the movie, the majority of farmers in the plain states are producing government subsidized, monoculture, crops like corn, which require massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides to grow – and contribute largely to pollution, soil erosion and degradation, and give rise to super, pesticide resistant bugs. The crops they grow then make their way into highly processed, shelf-stable foods, or go towards feeding herbivorous animals, like cows, that were never intended to eat grains in the first place. The majority of the animals fed by these grains are kept in unsanitary, crowded, disease-prone environments, and require loads of antibiotics and other pharma-grade drugs to keep their sorry lives in tact until they are sent to slaughter. These highly packed “animal cities” are the cause of great pollution where there once was none. No bueno. This is particularly interesting after having watched an interview with the owner Organic Pastures Dairy earlier in the week, who described a very similar situation in traditional dairy’s versus his raw milk dairy.
This industrialized farm system is contrasted to a few farmers practicing sustainable agricultural methods, whether in an urban environment, or in a traditional (very idyllic, as depicted by the movie) farm setting in which cows are allowed to pasture; chickens lay eggs, forage freely, and help keep the insect population under control; the manageable amount of waste produced by the animals is kept and used as fertilizer for crops; which all creates symbiotic system mimicking the way nature intended. The difference is stark and the key word is SYSTEM, with each piece playing a vital role of its own. The Fresh contains many interview clips from industry heavy hitters like Michael Pollan.
The big claim that Fresh the movie makes is that sustainable, organic farming is able to “feed the world,” refuting previous claims that this is not possible. They reference a study that came out in the last few years that supports this idea, but are light on the specifics of how. It must be a pretty impressive / complicated study to demonstrate such a big claim on such a broad scale, and I would love to see how they went about determining this. Is it on a calorie-per-calorie basis? Is it by somehow showing that the ultimate cost of producing food in an industrial manner, plus the cost of pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, the cost on the environment and its cleanup, and the ultimate cost of the health care support needed by Americans raised on a poisonous diet is far greater compared to “doing it the right way?” I am not an agricultural economist, though it does not take one to realize that we have a problem in the food system, and a solution is out there.
Muckraking documentation of our food system is not a new theme for writers and film makers (Upton Sinclair, anyone?), which begs the question – what will it take to raise awareness enough that it matters to us? Or more importantly, matters to the decision makers (but I thought the people were the decision makers…?). As I always say, or I’ve said at least once (likely picking up on someone else’s saying) – awareness does not fix problems. Whenever I sit down and watch a movie like this I ask myself over and over again, “But how? How the f*** did this really happen?” Though maybe not problem solving, questions like that are good for learning, and make me hope that on the next go ’round we’ll avoid the nearsighted decisions that may lead to profitable business in the short term, but ultimately cause a host of other – expense incurring – problems down the road.
The voices in Fresh the movie are not proposing a regression back to simple farming using rudimentary technology. But rather utilizing the technology we have today with our fairly good understanding of how the environment has evolved for eons to work in a sustainable way. We have the knowledge and wherewithal to embrace it, so why ruin such a complex system that has functioned since long before we were around? Fresh the movie offers one perspective, and I’m sure there are plenty of other out there. Though it’s at least worth a watch.
If you have any thoughts or direct experience with commercial agriculture vs. sustainable, please share in the comments as this is a behemoth issue.
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