“You have to use the model of tobacco. The tobacco industry was backed by incredibly rich corporations that were well tied into government, and ultimately making a product that was making people sick…and lying about that product. The food industry is no different than the tobacco industry.” So states documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner, clearly linking the underhanded, back-alley business policies of tobacco to the ever-changing, dodgy field of producing and distributing food goods. Kenner’s eye-opening exposé, Food, Inc., urgently shines a light on the historical trajectory of governmental food policy in the US, calling attention to the mere fact that the food we eat may not be as healthy or well-preserved as we once thought. Kenner and I discussed the ramifications of industrialized food production and how he hopes his new film will make you think twice before taking another bite out of that hamburger.
It took me a long time to realize—not even Health class in high school informed me about this mere fact—that what you put in your mouth innately affects your body.
Like they always say: Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food. They’re just sayings, but when you start looking around and seeing where your food comes from, it starts to take on a greater meaning. Our food has been transformed in the last 50 years in an amazing way—a totally different product. It has been so industrialized, but it’s all happened in this sort of invisible, Orwellian way. Things have been changed: The chickens are growing; they feed them in a way that they grow bigger and faster, and they’re all breast meat and they can’t even stand under the weight of their new bodies. Or the tomatoes: They’re grown to be bright red and not to bruise, but they’re not grown to have nutrition and they’re not grown to have flavor. We transport our food miles and all over the globe. We have forgotten food has seasons, food is supposed to have taste.
What do you think about genetically engineered food?
I’m not an expert; I’m a filmmaker. I can’t totally respond to GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The thing that really strikes me is that these [food] companies don’t want you to know where the food is being grown and what’s in it. So why, if genetically modified food is so good, do they fight tooth-and-nail to stop you from knowing what’s in your food? Why do they think it’s better that we have cloned animals [when] they’ll do everything that’s possible to stop labeling the cloned animal [meat]? Why can’t we get the information and make the choices ourselves. And they’re saying it’s just not good for us. And to me, that’s really scary.
Why are these large corporations embracing GMOs?
My impression with GMOs is that basically we have chemical companies that are selling us seeds. They want to develop products that need chemicals. They can care less about the soybean or the corn than they do on the pesticide that has to go with air to prevent the weeds. They’re saying these products create greater yields and will help feed the world. The Union of Concerned Scientists has said they are not sure these products do create yields. If they do create greater yields, why do [these companies] have to put everyone else out of business that’s not using [their product]? That’s what I don’t understand. It seems to be that we’ve developed—it’s almost like a marketplace where there is total domination by very few corporations, and there are very few products that we’re using. There’s a sense of great diversity when you go into the supermarket but yet controlled by very few companies—and corn and soy are in 90% of the items that you find in the supermarket.
What kind of reaction do you hope to get from the White House? Obama certainly has a lot on his plate at the moment.
I didn’t think Obama was really interested in the food issue, not because of a lack of interest, but because of so many desperate things facing him in office. But, the fact of the matter is that you can’t have a health care system in the United States where 1 out of every 3 children born after the year 2000 is going to develop early-onset diabetes and 1 out of every 2 minority children is going to develop it as well. That is going to bankrupt the health care system. You can’t care about health care and not change the food system—so, ultimately, it’s the food that we’re subsidizing that’s making us obese and creating diabetes. It’s government policy right now to create food that is making us sick. [The government has] got to change that.
How difficult was it to get interviews from subjects who are employed in the industry, especially the farmers?
It’s different with each subject. Anybody involved in the industrial food system was very difficult, because there is such a veil placed between us and that system. They don’t want you thinking about where your food comes from, and they will discourage people from talking to you in the most absolute terms possible. We went after many, many chicken farmers to talk to them about how they worked. We were denied access to one place after another. They wanted to talk to us yet they felt threatened that, even though it was their land and their money, they still knew they could lose their contract [with the food corporations]. The farmers are in such debt; they knew they would be put out of business. They really couldn’t talk. It wasn’t until someone said, “I’m so fed up. I’m ready to risk it,” as [the chicken farmer] Carol was willing to talk, and she happened to lose her business [after the interview].
Have you gotten a response from Monsanto now that the film has been released?
These corporations, all the people that didn’t want to speak with us, they’re now so anxious to get their side of the story out. We were so anxious to have them to talk and we bent over backwards. When Wal-Mart came into our film, we were so open to them. [These companies] only want to deliver their message when they want to control it. Wal-Mart was brave, and I believe I was very nice to them.
I think you painted them in a fairly good light, considering…
I’ve been attacked by numbers of people for going [easy on Wal-mart]. I think their side of the story—what interested me—is that consumers can have a voice, that we can demand certain products. I certainly left off a number of negative facts about Wal-Mart that I didn’t go into because they stepped forward, and I wanted to treat people courteously that came into our story. It’s a shame that Monsanto, Smithfield, or Tyson didn’t want to participate.
What kind of reach do you hope to have with Food, Inc.?
I just hope that consumers become conscious and realize that they have power to change the system. As I say, you vote three times a day, and hopefully will start to buy from farmers’ markets and local producers. We have to realize, this food, our health is dependent upon it, and we can’t afford the food system we have now, which also happens to be an unsustainable system; it’s based on gasoline and it’s based on pollution and it’s based on exploitation of the people who make it and the people who eat it. Ultimately, we have to figure out how to empower ourselves to create the system and the food we want to eat—but we can and we will.