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Food, Inc

by Michael Chu
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I had been meaning to write up a review for Food, Inc. ever since I got to watch it last week. Unfortunately, I've been pretty busy with work and haven't had much of a chance to write. It's still hard for me to find much time, so I'll keep this review relatively short. For the really short version, read this next line: Food, Inc. is in imperfect documentary, but does an excellent job portraying the picture of how Americans get their food that the film sets out to portray.


With Michael Pollan as their lead consultant and Eric Schlosser as one of the main interviewees, it's not hard to see what picture Food, Inc. is trying to paint. The documentary sets out to reveal to the viewer the current state of the American food industry and the shortcomings of mass produced food. It does an excellent job capturing the attention of the viewer and taking them through feed lots, disturbing images of windowless chicken coops, pig slaughter, corn, and the stranglehold that Monsanto has over many of the farmers in the United States.

I found that watching the film, just like reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, starts conversations and discussions about food, what we choose to eat, and what we're willing to do to get our food. These discussions are not only good to have, but nourishing to both the body and the mind if one acts according to their personal moral compass.

Unfortunately, the film is very one-sided. It's much more like a Michael Moore documentary than "Who Killed The Electric Car?" (which I loved for exploring all the different causes for the failure of the EV1). In some cases, Food, Inc. misrepresents facts concerning the activities of major corporations such as Monsanto (as well as interviewing people who violated contracts or engaged in illegal activity without revealing what they did wrong). It's easy to vilify the big Corporation, but when all the facts are laid out, the big bad wolf just doesn't seem that scary anymore. In many cases, the people "attacked" just don't seem to be business savvy or were unfortunately specializing in a field that isn't in demand anymore and find themselves unable to drum up enough business. In one example, a seed cleaner is going out of business because his customers are contractually obligated not to save their seeds. The seed cleaner then convinces these farmers to use his services (violating their contracts). What isn't explained in the movie is that the seeds were the result of decades of research and experimentation and patented by Monsanto. Whether or not you agree that genes can be patented, you cannot deny that it is currently the law. If you were a farmer and had to choose to use public seeds or patented, these should be considerations. The seeds from that year's crops cannot be saved not only because of legal reasons but because, by luck, the hybrid seeds produce offspring that is nonviable. The new batch of seeds will produce failed crop. This fact is not mentioned in Food, Inc. From a business standpoint, Monsanto needs to enforce their contracts or their brand and product reputation will suffer as saved seed crops fail and farmers go out of business. This is also not mentioned in the film. The film makes it seem like Monsanto wants to keep farmers from acting like traditional farmers, but this isn't really the case. Both the farmer and the corporation are to blame for the change in the farming industry. The farmer chose to abandon the traditional farming techniques for the quick and easy crop (you pay more money and it grows super easy), while the corporation exploited the farmer to promote their particular plant monoculture for maximum profits leaving the American farm landscape with very little diversity and massive amounts of output (mainly of just corn and soy beans).

There are several more examples shown in the film which are used to make their point that these people are suffering due to the industrialization of food, but upon closer scrutiny it's not hard to see that these people exist because of the industrialization of food. Without massive amounts of cheap food, it may not be possible for the population to sustain itself with our general standard of living. Spending the time to examine the examples, the scenarios, and the situations presented in Food, Inc. is where I think the most important impact of the movie will be. (I actually believe that reading The Omnivore's Dilemma is probably a better use of your time, but I understand that it's easier to simply watch a movie and that's what most people are going to do - just just go watch the movie. But, if you want to think about how your food got to your table a little more, I highly encourage you to read The Omnivore's Dilemma which doesn't just view food from one perspective but considers many aspects.)

For me, I believe the industrialization of food in the United States has benefited Americans and the world as a whole, but the reduction of choices and consolidation of foods into monocultures or single source providers is a bad trend. Unfortunately, it's not the "Corporation" who is at fault for this - it's the natural tendency of people (farmers, distributors, retailers, and consumers) to go with what's easiest or cheapest without looking to the long term. The film ends with an plea to its viewers to choose to buy food outside of the conventional mass-produced food industry, and I applaud their efforts. For many, many people this will not be possible - cheap conventional food will still feed the majority of Americans - but for those of us who can make a choice, those of us who can afford to buy more expensive meats, produce, and groceries from independent growers who minimize suffering and reduce pesticide and chemical usage, we should choose to support these farmers and producers in order to ensure that in the future we will continue to have a choice. And maybe more and more people will find they are able to buy "independent" food and a balance can be struck.

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on June 13, 2009 at 01:51 AM
15 comments on Food, Inc:(Post a comment)

On June 13, 2009 at 07:11 AM, Michael Chu said...
That was probably a great deal more rambling than I intended it to be... so if anyone has any questions, I'd be happy to answer them.


On June 13, 2009 at 03:49 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: Good Review
The Monsanto seeds could be saved for another year. The company never commercialized it's sterilization technology, although it almost did:

http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto_today/for_the_record/monsanto_terminator_seeds.asp

The company does a fair amount of "traditional" breeding, which means that they culture plants from seeds of offspring to generate the crops that they sell, so somebody's growing crops from saved seed, even if it's before it gets to market.

I agree that the problem is more complex than the movie paints - caught up somewhere in between how American corporations are structured and how our government oversees these issues. As somebody who studied plant genetics in college, I know that there are a lot of applications that could be very good from these techniques.

I agree that Omnivore's Dilemma is a better use of spare time, too.

Thanks for the review!


On June 21, 2009 at 08:19 AM, Grant (guest) said...
Michael, you sound like you're quoting directly off of Monsanto's website. Do you have any URLs (not Monsanto's) that show details on what really went down? The reason I ask is Monsanto comes up over and over in these discussions (and movies and books).

What do you think about Monsanto taking farmers to court that aren't even their customers? Meaning they didn't even buy seed from them to start with.

"Whether or not you agree that genes can be patented, you cannot deny that it is currently the law."

And who do you think pushes to get such ridiculous things patented? Amazon patented the single click, took Barnes and Noble to court and won! I suppose you think that Microsoft was right in stopping the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from using a different document format? This isn't the first time a corporation put excessive pressure on someone who doesn't want to use their product.


On June 21, 2009 at 04:13 PM, Michael Chu said...
Grant wrote:
Michael, you sound like you're quoting directly off of Monsanto's website. Do you have any URLs (not Monsanto's) that show details on what really went down? The reason I ask is Monsanto comes up over and over in these discussions (and movies and books).

If you start off looking at all Corporations as evil, then it's going to always seem like Corporations or those people who defend them are in cahoots. I worked at a large corporation for seven years, worked at a tiny (4 person) corporation for the last four, and run my own corporation. A public corporation (usually larger) runs differently than privately/closely held ones. Their main interests are to provide value to their shareholders by maintaining and growing their net worth and revenue. It's actually harder for a gigantic company to purposefully and willfully be evil (but it could be a side effect of their goal to increase their profits). The main interests of a privately held corporation however can be whatever the people running the company want. In almost all cases, that's for the greater good and is less laser focused than a public company - but there are always a few crazies/bad apples that set out to cheat, lie, or steal. In both cases, it's not fair or correct for people to view corporations as "bad" or "evil" without examining actions in more detail.

For the Monsanto v. Parr case, the case history and analysis is available at LegalMetric:
http://www.legalmetric.com/cases/patent/innd/innd_407cv00008.html
Docket #73 and #74 show the (current) final status of the case and the injunction against Parr and Monsanto's choice to not collect the $40,000 awarded to them as long as Parr abides by the injuction.

The details of the injunction are currently only available for free at Fish and Richardson:
http://www.fr.com/DSU/Monsanto%20v.%20Parr%20(NDIN%204-07-cv-00008)%20Apr%2022,%202008.pdf

They might also be available at: http://dockets.justia.com/docket/court-inndce/case_no-4:2007cv00008/case_id-50021/
but you'll need a subscription to the US Court PACER system to access, which I do not have.

Grant wrote:
"Whether or not you agree that genes can be patented, you cannot deny that it is currently the law."

And who do you think pushes to get such ridiculous things patented?

Again, you might feel moral outrage over this particular law, but does it mean people shouldn't follow it until it is changed? The law is there to protect the investment of millions of shareholders of biotech and agricultural companies. Does having the law make it more or less fair to the American people as a whole?


On July 15, 2009 at 01:06 AM, Cristy (guest) said...
Subject: Food Inc Review
Nice, impartial job on this, Michael.
It's a complicated, interesting issue.
Last summer I was mad enough at my local grocery store I vowed never to buy their meat again, and I bought and had custom butchered a locally raised hog from some 4H kids, a yearling steer from a local ranch and I raised and processed 50 chickens of my own. It was an interesting experience, in a lot of ways, I gained a surprising amount of insight into the growers' point of view, and it made me do some soul searching as a consumer as well. It's not a tidy problem with a neat solution, that's for sure.
Thanks again for a thoughtful review.
I'm enjoying your site.

Cristy in WY


On July 16, 2009 at 05:31 PM, quickfold (guest) said...
Subject: serious errors in your analysis
I think that in your attempts to be "objective" (usually interpreted as giving pros and cons in every analysis), You make a number of points that don't hold up to scrutiny, and cause you to unfairly conclude that the documentary is unfairly biased.

I would really appreciate it if you would respond to my points below.

You say: "The farmer chose to abandon the traditional farming techniques for the quick and easy crop (you pay more money and it grows super easy), while the corporation exploited the farmer to promote their particular plant monoculture for maximum profits leaving the American farm landscape with very little diversity and massive amounts of output (mainly of just corn and soy beans)."

But there is a VERY key point that you overlook: often, through no choice or fault by the farmer, Monsanto seeds contaminate the farmer's non-Monsanto crop. There is literally no way for the farmer to prevent this, and the courts then rule that the farmer must pay Monsanto for the crops.

This is an awful abuse of the farmer and belies your claim that they have chosen an easy way out but buying Monsanto seeds.

Another issue (admittedly not raised by the documentary) is that Monsanto aggressively and misleadingly markets their 'terminator' seeds (seeds that don't yield crops that provide seeds for the future) to 3rd world countries, and makes these poorer countries dependent on Monsanto for the future. They market to illiterate farmers without explaining that their seeds disrupt the traditional farming methods these cultures have depended on for literally thousands of years. I'm not arguing that traditional methods are inherently better, but rather that these farmers cannot make an informed decision about this and that they do not realize that once they go for these Monsanto seeds, they will not feasibly be able to return to their old methods.

You write: "What isn't explained in the movie is that the seeds were the result of decades of research and experimentation and patented by Monsanto. Whether or not you agree that genes can be patented, you cannot deny that it is currently the law."

This is a very poor argument. The real question is whether that SHOULD be the law. Monsanto spends millions of dollars lobbying congress to get this law passed.

This form of argument could just as easily (and wrongly) have be applied to civil rights violations: "Whether or not you think blacks and whites should be able to marry, you cannot deny that it is currently the law."

You say: "From a business standpoint, Monsanto needs to enforce their contracts or their brand and product reputation will suffer as saved seed crops fail and farmers go out of business. This is also not mentioned in the film."

The film does not need to mention that businesses are motivated by profit because it is obvious. Monsanto's lawsuits against farmers actually does nothing to hurt their product reputation--the product's reputation rises or falls based on its output, not whether farmers are prevented from using non-Monsanto seeds. If saved seed crops fail, the farmers would obviously know which seeds they used and would not blame Monsanto. The end-purchaser doesn't care what seeds were used; they are concerned about the crop output.

You write: "There are several more examples shown in the film which are used to make their point that these people are suffering due to the industrialization of food, but upon closer scrutiny it's not hard to see that these people exist because of the industrialization of food."

This is an argument used by the industry, and it is based on the logical fallacy of ambiguity. The issue is not whether 'industrialization' as one concept is good or bad, it is whether certain types of industrialization are good or bad. You can support 'industrialization' to increase food yield per acre, for example, without supporting 'self-destruct' seeds that don't provide seeds for future crops.

Your say: "Unfortunately, it's not the "Corporation" who is at fault for this - it's the natural tendency of people (farmers, distributors, retailers, and consumers) to go with what's easiest or cheapest without looking to the long term."

This argument is based on the fallacy of free choice in this marketplace. The farmer does not have the resources to make a free choice. If Monsanto locks up the market contractually, the farmer has no choice but to play or get out of the game. The seed cleaner cannot choose to continue his business because he's blacklisted by other farmers (almost all other farmers) who are obligated to Monsanto. You say that he is just not business-savvy, but that's just another way of saying that it is not business-feasible to not contract with Monsanto. There goes your notion of 'choice' out the window.

These farmers are often poor (consider the statistic in the film that chicken farmers make $18k a year on average) and don't have the resources to get other skills through education. They are in rural areas where other jobs are not available. They may not have the resources to move to other cities where apartments require first and last month's + security deposit and they don't have a job already set up. They may not be computer-literate as you are to set up jobs remotely. The economy sucks and they may literally not be able to choose to get other jobs.

When you talk about choice, you must be realistic about what choices people can make.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and I home that Michael responds.


On July 16, 2009 at 06:40 PM, Dilbert said...
there are many holes in the counter arguments.

the suggestion that society should operate on what should be the law vs what is the law is completely unworkable. read up on world history for that one.

/q
You can support 'industrialization' to increase food yield per acre, for example, without supporting 'self-destruct' seeds that don't provide seeds for future crops.
/uq

well, that logic puts every hybrid crop in the dumper.
a mule is a hybrid in the animal kingdom. it is almost to exclusion sterile. noticed any shortage of mules lately?

there is nothing ambiguous about the debate - if natural selective breeding of open pollinated crops works - that route would be taken. hybridization and genetic engineering "speed the process up" and in some cases like herbicide resistance provide plant traits which might never be achieve by natural means.

selective breeding produced more/better crops; hybrids produce more/better crops; generic engineering pushes that further.

every civilization since pre-history has been limited by its food supply.

the argument that farmers should only use crops that reproduce true to species is not invalid.
that farmers - especially in third world areas - should not be provided improved varieties implies tacit genocide:
- they can't grow enough food to feed the population.
- too bad, let them die from hunger, at least a few will survive to replant a viable seed crop.

of course, there's always the ship them bags of food approach. then they have no need to farm at all.
gets back to the old give 'em a fish, teach 'em to fish thing.

whether one chooses to accept it or not, there is a truth to economies of scale.
the American farmer was in trouble long before hybrid and genetic engineering. large scale farming using very expensive machines that plant/harvest hundreds of acres per day reduces the cost of the crop - modified or not.
the little guy with his Cub Cadet and six row corn planter cannot economically compete.

and putting megaharvesters on terraced paddies in alpine like terrain could be slightly unworkable.
go to western Europe and observe farming. small plots, small fields, walk behind power equipment because nothing else can reach the terrain (exceptions apply.) either find a crop that produces more pounds per hectare or import food.

the same goes for chemical fertilizers / pesticides / etc. if you raise cattle/dairy farm you put the manure back in the field. if you've got 30,000 acres of corn, you don't have enough cows.

does that make it all right? no.
are there consequences to the environment and earth stewardship? yes.
going back to subsistence farming is not politically correct - not because of the farming bit - but because of half the world population dying from lack of food will not be tolerated.

while I'm not a giant corporation & greed fan/supporter, if Monsanto didn't do it, some other company would have. and if the private sector didn't do it the 'government' would have. A non-existing corporation does not care about starving people but government goodie two shoes people do.

the whole 'thing' may not be a perfect solution, but it's the only solution on tap - and when it comes to solutions from the private sector vs the public sector, stick with the private. capitalism is not perfect either, but just take a gander around world history regarding the success of "public sector rule"


On July 17, 2009 at 04:28 AM, Michael Chu said...
Subject: Re: serious errors in your analysis
Thanks Dilbert for jumping in. I won't be able to provide long answers at this moment due to being a bit behind at work and my overall schedule this week, but I'll try to address some of your concerns, quickfold.

First off, the film <b>is</b> biased. The fact that it is biased in the same direction that you and I lean on agriculture and the source of our food, doesn't make it less of a bias. If the film weren't biased and presented all the facts, it would be muddled and difficult to understand (just like real life!). It simplifies and focuses to generate controversy and discussion about a subject that deserves rich discussion. As part of that discussion, it should be raised that the film is biased and to discuss the areas that the film does not properly address, like what we're doing now.

quickfold wrote:
Often, through no choice or fault by the farmer, Monsanto seeds contaminate the farmer's non-Monsanto crop. There is literally no way for the farmer to prevent this, and the courts then rule that the farmer must pay Monsanto for the crops.

I'm not really sure this is really the case. I've heard of farmers claiming Monsanto has strong armed them or had injunctions placed on them in court to prevent them from further use of Monsanto crop, but it always ends up being the farmer that procured the seeds (either second generation which doesn't work too well anyway or some other means) illegally. Of course, the farmer will claim it's due to seed contamination and the winds, and of course Monsanto will claim the farmer is full of bull****. In the few court cases I've found the court sides with Monsanto - and of course we'll say that's bull**** because Monsanto has money and lawyers and the farmer is a poor nobody just trying to eek out a living. Unfortunately, you can't really go into it that way (or, rather, you shouldn't - you <i>can</i> do whatever you want). Is Monsanto wrongfully accusing farmers of stealing their technology because of the whims of nature contaminating the farmer's crops? No - they are just claiming that the farmer is stealing technology. Is that true? So far, not according to the courts. Do we know better? Doubtful, we don't have all the information and, at the very least, the courts had more information than we do. Could the judges be corrupt? Possible, but all of them? Unlikely. Perhaps they all are - but you would think eventually a judge would stand up and rule that Monsanto is pursuing BS cases against farmers and so far I haven't seen a case like this. (If you can find it, then that would be awesome and something to write about. The viewpoints of angry farmers who got screwed / dealt a bad hand / inherited a bad mistake / screwed up with uninformed decisions do not represent proof of wrong doing to me. A judgment would.) Is seed contamination from neighboring Monsanto crops a problem? It's hard to find out these days if it is - so many farmers are not using public seeds anymore. The few that I've talked to over the last year have <i>heard</i> of farmers being strongarmed by Monsanto due to contaminated crops (in the same way that we've heard of them), but none of them have ever had <i>their</i> crops contaminated.

quickfold wrote:
Another issue (admittedly not raised by the documentary) is that Monsanto aggressively and misleadingly markets their 'terminator' seeds (seeds that don't yield crops that provide seeds for the future) to 3rd world countries, and makes these poorer countries dependent on Monsanto for the future. They market to illiterate farmers without explaining that their seeds disrupt the traditional farming methods these cultures have depended on for literally thousands of years. I'm not arguing that traditional methods are inherently better, but rather that these farmers cannot make an informed decision about this and that they do not realize that once they go for these Monsanto seeds, they will not feasibly be able to return to their old methods.

Yes - agreed that the practices we've heard in countries like India where farmers are committing suicide due to the switch to Monsanto seeds is a major problem. Misleading or lying to farmers about the nature of their seeds is a horrible crime and whoever is to blame for this (Monsanto or the firms they have contracted to sell their product) should be brought to justice. The farmers in the United States, however, knew that they'd have to buy seeds from Monsanto every year - but the mentality that "yield is king" leads them to make poor short term decisions. Perhaps they felt they could always go back to public seeds if they needed to and didn't realize that in a decade all their colleages would have switched to keep up with their yield and public seeds would be harder to come by.

quickfold wrote:
This form of argument could just as easily (and wrongly) have be applied to civil rights violations: "Whether or not you think blacks and whites should be able to marry, you cannot deny that it is currently the law."

And until the law is changed, they should not be married. I'm all for gay marriage - I voted No on Prop 8 in California, but Prop 8 passed and gay marriage in California has been suspended. It's the current law. Gay people aren't getting married (legally - spiritually and emotionally they may be married, but not in the eyes of the State). Another example is the (false) belief that park land is public and therefore you have rights on such public land. The argument goes - we pay taxes, the government owns land, therefore, we own the land (collectively) and have full access rights to the land. It's these people who take pine cones and river rocks home from their trips to the National Parks based on this logic even though the law of the land says it's illegal. Are they committing a crime? Yes - the law says so. Is the law correct? Perhaps, that is up to society as a whole to decide to uphold or change. Similarly, we have patent laws designed to serve two purposes - first to foster future innovation (by publishing publicly the techniques, methods, and designs of non-obvious inventions) and second to protect the original inventor financially for a certain number of years. Many people disagree with the idea of patents or how they are implemented (just like those people who believe public land should be truly public), but until society as a whole decides to change what can and cannot be patented, it is the law.

quickfold wrote:
The film does not need to mention that businesses are motivated by profit because it is obvious. Monsanto's lawsuits against farmers actually does nothing to hurt their product reputation--the product's reputation rises or falls based on its output, not whether farmers are prevented from using non-Monsanto seeds. If saved seed crops fail, the farmers would obviously know which seeds they used and would not blame Monsanto. The end-purchaser doesn't care what seeds were used; they are concerned about the crop output.

Farmers would care. If the Jim down the country road is using X-Gen seeds and his crop is doing poorly and you asked what seeds he's using, he's going to say "Monsanto". Monsanto isn't the only company out there making high-yield pesticide-resistant seed. Maybe next year you'll switch because you're afraid the next bad batch of Monsanto seeds will end up in your hands next season. Companies need to protect their brand. That's why Beretta (the Italian gun company) sued GM when the Chevrolet Beretta (a clunker of a car) was introduced - to protect their brand image. You'd be surprised how far companies go to protect their name. (While I was at Intel, we sent cease and desist letters to a short shorts company in Brazil that was using the name Pentium to market their product.) Now, we can argue that if Monsanto had been a good steward of the Earth and did more good works then they wouldn't need to protect their good name. But that's a very small part of what I mean about protecting their name. The brand Monsanto evokes many things in people's minds - evil, pushy, and 200 bushels of corn per acre. That last one is pretty important in the minds of the farmer when he's considering what seeds to use each year and it is that image that Monsanto tries to maintain. Since yield is everything, if Monsanto seed yields are questioned and Syngenta seeds or Dupont seeds seem more reliable with the same yield, why not switch?

quickfold wrote:
This is an argument used by the industry, and it is based on the logical fallacy of ambiguity. The issue is not whether 'industrialization' as one concept is good or bad, it is whether certain types of industrialization are good or bad. You can support 'industrialization' to increase food yield per acre, for example, without supporting 'self-destruct' seeds that don't provide seeds for future crops.

Are self-destruct seeds that bad? It's a cost benefit analysis - you pay money for these seeds, they provide you with the luxury of spraying pesticides everywhere and surviving, they grow real dense, you just can't save the resulting seeds for next year OR you don't pay for these seeds and deal with pesticides in the traditional way and get traditional levels of yield and you get to save your seeds in the traditional way. You can't have your cake and eat it too (for those readers where this idiom makes no sense - it really means "you can't eat your cake and still have it"). I think for farmers there's a place for both high-yield, low maintenance, self-destruct seeds and traditional seeds. For consumers, we should be more educated on the difference and choose according to our personal ethics and moral standards. But if a farmer feels that he can make a living based on the high-tech seeds, then they should be allowed to buy them and the manufacturer should be allowed to supply even if it's a mistake for the farmer to do so.

quickfold wrote:
This argument is based on the fallacy of free choice in this marketplace. The farmer does not have the resources to make a free choice. If Monsanto locks up the market contractually, the farmer has no choice but to play or get out of the game. The seed cleaner cannot choose to continue his business because he's blacklisted by other farmers (almost all other farmers) who are obligated to Monsanto. You say that he is just not business-savvy, but that's just another way of saying that it is not business-feasible to not contract with Monsanto. There goes your notion of 'choice' out the window.

In a free market, the seed cleaner <i>should</i> go out of business. In our market (which is far from free), ideally he should go out of business. The market has changed and his service is no longer viable. He is no longer providing a useful service or good to his region. This may not always be true, perhaps in the future the farmers will find a way to return to public seeds and a seed cleaner will become a viable service again. When automobiles came into fashion, what happened to the guy who put new horseshoes on people who owned horses but weren't good at putting horseshoes on them? He went out of business. That's unfortunate and the poor guy probably struggled for a while and had to find a source of income, but the market changed. Certainly, he was upset with Ford and Oldsmobile for altering the market and making his business unviable, but hopefully he didn't convince new car purchases to put shoes on their cars.

quickfold wrote:
These farmers are often poor (consider the statistic in the film that chicken farmers make $18k a year on average) and don't have the resources to get other skills through education. They are in rural areas where other jobs are not available. They may not have the resources to move to other cities where apartments require first and last month's + security deposit and they don't have a job already set up. They may not be computer-literate as you are to set up jobs remotely. The economy sucks and they may literally not be able to choose to get other jobs.

When you talk about choice, you must be realistic about what choices people can make.

Yes, that is all true - but the chicken farmers that they focused on weren't always chicken farmers. They borrowed money from a bank for the capital investments (Carole Morison from the movie says that each chicken house costs $280,000 - $300,000). The film also says the average chicken farmer has $500,000 in debt, 2 chicken houses, and earns $18,000 a year. Carole Morison didn't inherit them chicken farm - she chose to go into it (if I recall correctly). What convinced them to become so highly leveraged? If you make an investment and through no fault of your own it turns out to be a really bad investment, do you get your money back? Normally, you don't (unless you bought insurance)... except in the case of the sub-prime loan crisis where some relief is provided. It really sucks and I feel bad for people stuck in these situations. I do agree with you that many people don't have many choices, but choices still exist for these people (no matter how difficult it may seem) and they are making a choice. In the same way, we should make informed choices about how we want to support the agricultural economy and who should get our money and support.


On July 19, 2009 at 03:36 PM, quickfold (guest) said...
Subject: food inc again
Quote:
First off, the film is biased...As part of that discussion, it should be raised that the film is biased and to discuss the areas that the film does not properly address, like what we're doing now.


Every film is biased. As such, the term 'biased' cannot be leveled as a criticism, and is really irrelevant. Any unfair or misleading aspects are best discussed per se without the misleading term 'biased.'

Also, the notion that documentaries should be 'objective' and it is a failing of documentaries to be 'biased' has been well-discussed in documentary theory, and essentially no one who studies the subject supports the notion.

Quote:
quickfold wrote:
Often, through no choice or fault by the farmer, Monsanto seeds contaminate the farmer's non-Monsanto crop. There is literally no way for the farmer to prevent this, and the courts then rule that the farmer must pay Monsanto for the crops.


Quote:
I'm not really sure this is really the case.


Well, this is an empirical question that apparently neither of us has the time to fully research, but it is essentially impossible for the farmer to prove a negative (that the seed was caused by some method that is NOT the fault of the farmer). Since Monsanto is suing the farmer, the burden of proof should be on them (and on you making an assumption that Monsanto is not at fault). In what I've read, the courts have taken the patent as the presumption, and forced the farmer to try to prove the source of the contamination, which is (a) essentially impossible and (b) directly linked to the farmer's legal resources, which is a totally unfair fight.

Quote:
Is Monsanto wrongfully accusing farmers of stealing their technology because of the whims of nature contaminating the farmer's crops? No - they are just claiming that the farmer is stealing technology. Is that true? So far, not according to the courts.


See above.

Quote:
quickfold wrote:
This form of argument could just as easily (and wrongly) have be applied to civil rights violations: "Whether or not you think blacks and whites should be able to marry, you cannot deny that it is currently the law."


Quote:
And until the law is changed, they should not be married.


You are missing the point of the argument. I (and the documentary) are not arguing whether people should break the law. We are arguing what the law should be--in essence, whether the law should be changed. This is not an issue of civil disobedience.

Quote:
quickfold wrote:
The film does not need to mention that businesses are motivated by profit because it is obvious. Monsanto's lawsuits against farmers actually does nothing to hurt their product reputation--the product's reputation rises or falls based on its output, not whether farmers are prevented from using non-Monsanto seeds.


Quote:
Farmers would care. If the Jim down the country road is using X-Gen seeds and his crop is doing poorly and you asked what seeds he's using, he's going to say "Monsanto".


You have missed the thrust of the argument. You are talking about product reputation based on product performance--which, as I state above, I agree is what reputation is based on. What I said is that Monsanto's lawsuits against farmers are not relevant to the reputation of the quality of their products. This is a counter-argument to your argument that the lawsuits are necessary to protect their reputation. The lawsuits do not serve that purpose.

Quote:
quickfold wrote:
The issue is not whether 'industrialization' as one concept is good or bad, it is whether certain types of industrialization are good or bad. You can support 'industrialization' to increase food yield per acre, for example, without supporting 'self-destruct' seeds that don't provide seeds for future crops.


Quote:
Are self-destruct seeds that bad?


You are shifting the goalposts here. My argument was a response to your original claim that "For me, I believe the industrialization of food in the United States has benefited Americans and the world as a whole". I am saying that your statement is ambiguous. You may be right that industrialization as a whole has benefited people, but that doesn't mean that the specific practices identified in the documentary are good. I am arguing against those practices, not all forms of industrialization.

Quote:
quickfold wrote:
This argument is based on the fallacy of free choice in this marketplace.

Quote:

In our market (which is far from free), ideally he should go out of business. The market has changed and his service is no longer viable.


You are using the naturalistic fallacy here--the way things are is the way they should be. In our market, his service is no longer viable, but our market (I hold) is based on unfair practices allowed by current regulation. The issue is whether those regulations should be the way they are. I am making an argument that current regulations distort the "free market" in a way that is anti-competitive and thus detrimental to the consumer (which is ultimately much more important to the impact on the farmer's seed business).

There are many historical examples of monopolies and oligopolies exploiting the marketplace to the detriment of the consumer. Changes in regulation were required to fix the imbalance. That's what's required here.

Quote:
quickfold wrote:
When you talk about choice, you must be realistic about what choices people can make.


Quote:
I do agree with you that many people don't have many choices, but choices still exist for these people (no matter how difficult it may seem) and they are making a choice.


What choice? Most farmers are born into the family business and that is all they know. If you are uneducated and don't know of the choices you can make, or don't have the resources to make the choice, it is no choice at all. No one is going to these people and giving them resources or showing them a way to get out. And as I detailed in my last post, in most cases, they really don't have the choice to leave town or get other jobs that don't exist. So what choice do you suggest they make?

It is very easy for an educated person who has had the opportunity to make choices to say that everyone has a choice, but it is not realistic.

Thanks for responding to my post in a thoughtful way.


On August 02, 2009 at 05:37 PM, robclark (guest) said...
Subject: Quickfold vs Chu
First, I found the film to be stimulating but very weak on evidence; I wanted to hear a detailed analysis of how federal regulation works to reduce choice and increase profits. If the film was content to operate on the level of allegation, I would have liked to see a discussion of how the food and health industries are symbiotic in their joint pursuit of profit and lobbying efforts to shape federal policy.

I wanted to opine on the substantive debate above between quickfold and the reviewer:

- I have a deep belief in free markets and strongly believe that the corporate form of ownership has created great wealth for humanity broadly. But the idea that general free market conclusions, eg "it is good for firms to default when they don't make a profit" or "individuals should bear the consequences of their decisions", don't make sense when the actual marketplace is distorted by individual firms changing the rules of the market to their private advantage. A correct economic analysis of the food industry has to start from an open-minded approach to whether the marketplace is free or highly regulated and distorted. When I consider it this way, I agree with quickfold on the topic of whether is it good that the seed-cleaner goes out of business. The useful analogy here (for me) is not that the horseshoe-maker is obsolete when cars are invented - I agree that is a good bankruptcy which frees up inefficiently deployed resources to be used elsewhere in the economy. Instead this is more like me opening refineries and gas stations that make and sell only ethanol, getting subsidies from the govt to make ethanol cheap, then getting laws changed to add surcharges to traditional fuels so that ethanol is the best choice from the consumer's perspective, then running commercials to convince voters that traditional fuels are the obsolete horseshoes that we need to allow to die. In this case the free market has been distorted by one firm which uses the power of govt to create a de facto monopoly power over a good and drive its competitors out of business; it should be unsurprising to even the most diehard free marketer that this can be net bad for society.

- with respect to self-destruct seeds, I am not well informed, but I would suggest that we as a society choose to extend property rights to intellectual property because we recognize that this will lead to welfare enhancing outcomes as firms will pursue more innovation under a system of strong patent law; we are correcting for a potential mkt-failure of underinvestment in inventions under a system without intellectual property rights. But when companies or individuals approach our system of patent law to exploit it for their own benefit, we are not guaranteed of a winning outcome for society. In this situation, I think Monsanto has an incentive to use their existing technologies and patents to produce an inferior product that is more profitable. This is not a good outcome for society nor is it the intent of patent law; it is a legal corruption of patent law. The analogy I like here is autos; companies like Ford and GM had an incentive in the 70s to make cars that only lasted 7yrs because then the consumer had to buy a new car and the market was sufficiently closed to new entrants that it was short-run profit maximizing for them to make an inferior product (I don't mean that they explicitly did this, but passive actions like not investing to make a superior product are effectively the same). When you had new entrants to the US auto mkt with better quality in the 80s, it was better for consumers. We should be letting Monsanto's original patents run out and let other firms compete with them so that inferior products like seeds designed to work only one season become uncompetitive in the marketplace. I would go further and require as part of the bargain of respecting intellectual property rights, that the holders of intellectual property are required to allow for licensing of their patents at a price (something like capping the returns on invention at a very high level, not unlike how we price electricity via a regulated monopoly - inventors are basically a govt-sanctioned monopolist).

My net view of the debate is that while the film is of course imperfect, the argument that many of the unfortunate situations described in the movie are part of a healthy capitalistic system is a bad argument, trading on the assumption that the food industry is sufficiently competitive and free of govt intervention that normal free-market principles can be applied here.

Bob


On August 03, 2009 at 01:33 AM, an anonymous reader said...
Two quick things. First, it's arguable whether or not Monsanto seeds are inferior - sure they only work for one season (inferior) but they produce insane yields (superior). They are only inferior if the buyer thinks they are in this case and it seems like either the purchasers weren't properly educated on the pros and cons of the product or they thought it would be best for them.

Second, I don't think Mr. Chu said the status quo was healthy - it seems like he's advocating people to do the capitalistic thing and vote with their dollars on where they want their food to come from.


On December 04, 2009 at 12:29 AM, mdgv2002@yahoo.com (guest) said...
Subject: grinding flour at home
I've been diagnosied with celiac disease -- and I'm not working. I have a breadmaking machine, and I need to know if I can make amaranth, millet, or other gluten-free flours in my blender. The grains are expensive, and the already-milled flours even more so. So I must make my own.

Do two cups of grains equal two cups of flour, or are they reduced as less space is left between the flour and the grain?

Thank you -


On December 04, 2009 at 01:24 PM, Dilbert said...
certainly you can give the blender a try - but what you may find is the turbulent chopping action leaves bigger pieces at the bottom and dust at the top. you'll need to sift thoroughly.

hand operated grain mills are fairly inexpensive - $25+/- and up. as a special purpose device you may find they do a better job overall.

good luck!


On June 28, 2010 at 10:41 AM, t (guest) said...
I think part of the problem is the faulty us democracy with their majority votes. You only have two big parties you can vote for. If you had another voting system that would let some smaller parties participate, it would be a lot harder for all those big corporations to lobby.

Here in germany, the some smaller parties are very hostile towards such advances because the guys actually know about the risks of such a food monopoly.

No farmer would vote for a patent on crops. Only ppl who don't understand farmers would vote for that.

Same goes for software patents, no software engineer would want that. You can see what happens - big players "share" their patents and small firms can't code an innovative programm because they can't hire enough lawyers to crosscheck with millions of patents they might violate....


Yes, creators of a "new idea" need to have their intellectual property protected. But genes of a new breed or cooking recipes (a software is nothing else than a cooking recipe?) I don't think it's beneficial for the majority.


On August 12, 2010 at 03:23 PM, lindsbinz (guest) said...
I agree that most Americans aren't going to be able to buy local foods rather than 'corporation' created ones. You hit the nail on the head when you said that everybody's excuse is to do it the easy way. Perhaps in the future the 'easy way' will evolve to be less attack-worthy.

But yes, very good review. You managed to look at the film more so as a viewer critiquing it's contents and style/direction, rather than just talking about the issues it brings up. I agree that many documentaries today are one sided. It surprises me that documentaries are met to be informative and yet they only inform people of one side of the argument. Very clever, that.



-Lindzbinz


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