I’m a small-potatoes beginner farmer and writer living in the middle of nowhere in Vermont, who was personally invited to an advance screening of the film Food, Inc. by the CEO of one of the largest organic companies in the world. So, if I didn’t win a silent auction, and if he isn’t connected to me in any way…then why was I there? Here’s the short answer: I wrote an article on Huffington Post about the idea that “organic” may be full of holes. Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms and featured expert in the film, wrote an article in response directed to me by name, insisting I was taking aim at the wrong target. He invited me to drive down to Boston and see the film, and assured me he’d be on hand to greet me. So I did.
I was a bit nervous, I’ll admit. I didn’t feel prepared to have an awkward interaction with a CEO who wrote publicly that I was “choosing china while the house was burning down.” Compared to him, my arguments about the food industry seem amateur. He’s the star of an acclaimed movie, and I’m shoveling shit from a hen house! I’m a farmer, but he’s a more important farmer, in the grand scheme of things. I can’t even afford to be certified organic, and he is called the Philosopher King of the organic movement itself. I felt out of my league. Sort of.
The movie was incredible; everyone should see it. Featuring interviews with experts including Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Food, Inc. exposes the modern U.S. food industry—big GMO agribusiness, unfathomably horrible animal feedlots, animal torture, and abused workers—as mechanized, inhumane and corrupt. I didn’t realize, for example, top-level FDA and USDA officials were also board members of the very companies (i.e., the pesticide producer Monsanto) they are supposed to be regulating. It’s clear the U.S. government has not had the safety of its citizens in mind, and the thirst for money and the quest for power have destroyed our food system, not to mention our health. This movie is utterly important.
My favorite parts were the interviews with farmer Joel Salatin. You may know Salatin from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he is profiled at length, or through his prolific writings on symbiotic farming techniques and the nature of our food system. The way Joel Salatin farms is an inspiration to me both as a beginner farmer, and as an eater of food in general. His animals live true to their nature; they’re happy, they roam, and the only (brief) uncomfortable moment in their life is their last. I’m in awe of how Salatin has managed to go from a small-time farmer in Virginia to a national voice on the food movement and stay small. He doesn’t believe in expansion, because he’s afraid he’d lose his conviction. And while he considers himself a capitalist (he sells his meat, after all) he’s not that concerned about money.
I think a large part of the problem in the food industry begin and end with that dirty little word. I’m not cynical enough to think the heads of big companies sit around rubbing their hands together saying…boy oh boy, I can’t wait to create a product that gives people diabetes, makes them fat, and eventually kills them. They’re thinking about money. Salatin, on the other hand, is thinking about farming. He loves to do it. He loves to write about it. He believes in it. To him, the most important thing is lying with the pigs, giving them a good life, and eating a good meal with his family. Money keeps his farm going, but he doesn’t live his life in search of it. This is why, when I see him talk, I trust what he says.
Food, Inc. portrays Salatin as—what they call on their website—”a forward thinking entrepreneur”. Another forward-thinker they profile is Gary Hirshberg, “CE-Yo” of Stonyfield Farms, and the man who invited me to the screening. In the film, he emerges as the hope for the future of the food industry—organic companies taking over the corporate sphere. Stonyfield Farms, under its corporate umbrella Danone (owner of Dannon, Evian, and others), is the largest and fastest growing organic yogurt company. You can find it in Wal-Mart. And, Gary Hirshberg is close personal friends with the US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Hirshberg is a powerful man, in other words.
Stonyfield Farms gets their milk from Organic Valley, which is a co-op of small family farms who sell their dairy to the larger company so that they, in turn, can process, package, and distribute as yogurt. In one scene from Food, Inc., Gary Hirshberg brings a couple of Wal-Mart executives to one of the small dairy suppliers in Brattleboro, VT. The big wigs look uncomfortable, and the farmer looks uncomfortable. Hirshberg certainly has gotten two disparate peoples in the same room, and you’ve got to hand it to him for shaking things up in the economic sphere. But upon the introduction, the dairy farmer looks at the Wal-Mart execs and says:
“Funny, I’ve never been inside a Wal-Mart. I boycott you guys.”
But how can you boycott a company to whom you’re also selling a product? This, I feel, is the ultimate dilemma of large-scale food in general, organic or not. And while Salatin sees a world where that dairy farmer sells her own milk, straight to the consumer, large companies—like Stonyfield Farms—overpower the market. As a result, small farmers find it harder and harder to compete in order to make a profit. So they become suppliers to the large companies (facilitating their growth), and large companies start controlling small farms.
If organic large-scale food is the only way of the future, then I’d rather have CEOs like Gary Hirshberg running the food industry than a McDonald brother, any day. But I’d rather buy food from someone like Joel Salatin, than from Stonyfield Farms. In an increasingly urban world, however, it’s true that fewer and fewer people come face to face with a farmer, and Joel Salatin isn’t the norm, by any means. And while I live in a community where many people have gardens and farms, I know that is not the norm, either. Every person has the right to affordable, healthy food—so if the only place some people can find it is in Wal-Mart, then I support them buying that food, and buying it there. But organic food is still not that affordable (especially in an economic downturn), even when it’s in Wal-Mart. And Wal-Mart is single-handedly putting small businesses six feet under. Not to mention a slew of other things they’re bad at, like treating their workers well. Food, Inc. didn’t take time to resolve this paradox, and I wish it had.
At the end of the film, the audience had a Q&A with Gary Hirshberg, who turned out to be at the screening after all (I was worried he had stood me up!). One woman asked if she had to buy one thing organic, what would it be? Hirshberg said meat or milk. Another asked if the USDA organic sticker meant the animals led a good life. Hirshberg said he couldn’t name names, but some organic farms use feedlots. Wait a minute. What!? Organic doesn’t mean the animals aren’t confined in kill-lots? Then how are we supposed to know which organic company uses humane practices, if certification doesn’t account for this? Hirshberg says, check out their websites. Right. Like companies are going to be transparent about confining their cows.
I’m already waiting for a sequel to Food, Inc. With more views of the future from Joel Salatin. And more alternatives to big business. I’m not ready to give up the fight against five white guys controlling every small farm in this country…even if they’re “organic”.
Check out Joel Salatin’s web site, and his books: