This week, I along with about 100 ag leaders watched the movie “Food Inc.” as part of the Penn State Ag Council meeting. The documentary film, as its producer put it, “exposed the highly mechanized underbelly” (and a few other parts) largely hidden from the American consumer. And it wasn’t pretty.
Some of the shown realities were downright ugly – undercover film of animal abuses, animals knee-deep in manure, poultry production contracts severed for speaking out and overwhelming legal intimidation of seed producers and seed cleaners by corporate giants. Yes, these incidences were clearly documented.
I studied the faces of the men and women as they watched the film. All were somber. A lady sitting next to me, a discussion group facilitator likely with little ag experience, gasped at times, trying to hold back tears.
The film addressed America’s obesity debacle, blaming on inexpensive, but calorie-infested deals offered by “Big Fast Food”. The breeding programs that gave us big-breasted chickens and bountiful corn for high-fructose corn syrup were hammered as well.
Most of us can clearly identify with the low-income family with high medical bills trying to shop for groceries. Today, it’s tough for even middle-income families of four to afford the food that they know they should be eating. One container of fruits or veggies costs almost as much as a whole meal for four at McDonalds.
But more than cheap French fries and corn-ladened colas are driving people to fast food. Ever-mounting government and regulations – the taxes and costs required to feed them – continue to chew ever-bigger holes out of family income. And this film missed it completely! But that’s a whole different topic for another time.
No return to ‘old ways’
Every so often the film would flick back to idealic images of agriculture in the early to middle 1900s – you know, grandpa out there with the wheat swather. Then it would jump to Joel Salatin, the amazing small-scale farmer/entrepreneur from western Virginia who once challenged American Agriculturist readers with pithy columns about holistic production and marketing direct to consumers.
Joel “preaches” his thing, and it works very well for his Polyface Farm. But when he rails against big, bad “Big Food”, he forgets three realities. He can send only so many chicken guts to his farm lagoon. And, he still needs a larger-scale meat processor to handle his beef and pork.
The second reality is that only a minute number of farmers can do what Joel does. Only a rare individual has Joel’s skills, enthusiasm and/or resources.
But the biggest reality is that our food system developed to feed a U.S. population that more than doubled between 1950 and April of this year. America, alone, has 158 million more mouths to feed.
That’s not half of it! In 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion, give or take a few hundred thousand. Today, there are 6.8 billion mouths to feed. Within 30 years, the United Nations expects it to explode 32% to 9 billion.
Even with a million Joel Salatins, our world would be far hungrier than it is. That’s the reality. And the future would be and will be much uglier without research, technology and development paid for, at least in part, by “Big Food”.
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