Food, Inc. director speaks to CFI

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Center for Food Integrity CEO Charlie Arnot sat down with Food, Inc. director/producer Robert Kenner at the 2009 Food System Summit Oct. 6-7 and asked questions that were presented by the audience. What follows are a few of the Q&As that demonstrated the lack of knowledge and different perspectives that went into making the film.

Charlie Arnot: Ninety-eight percent of farms in U.S. are family owned and operated. The perception is that somehow size is related to less healthful production.

Robert Kenner: It’s harder to farm unless you are a huge food producer. One of the things that is lost is we don’t have integrated farms; we no longer have animals on the farm. It costs more to raise a pig on a diversified farm than someone who buys subsidized corn feed. If the government is supporting the industrial system, the question is, is the industrial system sustainable? It takes a lot of oil to run the system.

We can produce more food in a CAFO operation, but can we feed the world with more organic type farms? I don’t know the answer to that. The danger of industrial operations is based on gasoline and pollution.

Arnot: You raised a lot of questions but didn’t offer solutions.

Kenner: As a filmmaker, I can ask questions and show the world we’re interested. I wanted people to start thinking about where their food comes from. I don’t have the answers. I think we have to use science and move into the future. I am not here with the solutions.

Arnot: Farming has become industrialized, capital intensive, has industrialization become bad or wrong for society?

Kenner: We have to keep changing and growing using science to help us figure out how to be more productive and grow more food. But it’s not just about quantity. Can we feed the world without an industrial system? But the industrial system is bankrupting the 3rd World, putting their farmers out of work and using tremendous gasoline to do that. I’m not sure that is the right answer to supply other continents with subsidized food. I don’t know what he balance is.

Arnot: Sustainability is a hard term to define. What is your working definition?

Kenner: In the ideal, I don’t think we have to be perfect all the time, Gary Hirshberg at Stonyfield Farms yogurt gets attacked by food movements of not being perfect, but he’s changing things and trying to use organic products when possible. At one point he thought he had to import milk from New Zealand to keep his supply line going. He couldn’t find enough perfect sources here.

Another farm we went to did not have much topsoil. What are we doing to the earth and water systems and the oil? What is it doing to people’s children? There are also abuses to workers who are growing this food and most of them are illegal. I don’t think the American public cares as much as I do, but they care about sustainability and health.

Arnot: In obesity and diabetes what is the role of personal responsibility vs. food system choices? How does that play into policy?

Kenner:   Right now we subsidize the corn and soy crops going into processed foods hat are less expensive than vegetables, and Americans are eating more. FDA’s Kessler wrote a book about food being designed to appeal to genetic dispositions. Sugar and salt going into the food is massive. Food is making us sick. We are subsidizing foods that are making us sick. Do I believe it should be more expensive? That’s a hard argument to make. I believe foods that make us sick should be taxed like tobacco. Foods that make us healthy should be encouraged and they don’t get subsidies.

Arnot: What is driving the attack on the food system? What happened and why are people coming after the food system?

Kenner: People are starting to think about it now and we need more dialogue. It’s really important that people with different points of view have these conversations. Stonyfield Yogurt’s Gary Hirshberg was in our film. He said we need Walmart. You will not change the system without big industry. You have more impact than someone running a small farm making a product that 100 people will buy. But how will large producers start connecting with consumers?  Sustainability is an important bandwagon to get on and they are way out in front of the government seeing it will be a profitable initiative. I have been attacked more by PETA wondering why I’m not advocating being a vegetarian than I have by industrial food groups.

We wanted to reach out to people who hadn’t thought about food. TIME ran a cover story on it. I don’t have solutions, but hopefully people will work with industrial groups to find out how to produce food in sustainable ways.

Arnot: There are a lot of mainstream producers but you only featured larger intensive operations. Was there an effort to reach out to try to reach the mainstream producers instead of just the industrial ones?

Kenner: We spoke to companies who were doing green initiatives who chose not to talk to us. There is a disconnect between the public and where food comes from. We tried to get to larger companies but we didn’t talk to everyone. There is an efficiency to large production and we’re not saying there’s one way to make food, there are many ways. You need diversification in the food system. We’re relying on monocultures and it makes us susceptible to crises.

Arnot:   Will there be a Food, Inc., 2? And what will its message be?

Kenner: I would like to help encourage dialogue in the subject. I would love to bring people with different points of view together. It’s important for large producers to think about this. Some have said they now welcome the dialogue who didn’t want to be in the film.

Arnot:: There is a lot of anxiety in people in the ag business. Did they overreact and what should the next step be to reconnect?

Kenner:   One of the most shocking scenes was going to a state hearing to decide wither to label cloned beef. Meat industry reps said it would be too confusing to the consumer. I felt the lack of transparency to be the most upsetting when I made the film. Other people also felt that way. You should be advertising the product not denying the consumer the right to know the information. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but shouldn’t we have the right to know whether a product has rBST or trans fat? The sense of transparency was a really big issue. Most people want inexpensive food but shouldn’t we have the right to know?

Arnot: In the film you say consumers vote three times a day. Are they already voting because they are comfortable or are they unaware?

Kenner: I think a minority is staring to vote. Organic is the fastest growing segment of supermarkets. Consumers are starting to force changes that are coming. It will be an exponential change.

An Inconvenient Truth came 25 years after the first Earth Day. People hadn’t been thinking about food. Fast Food Nation came out eight years ago. Michael Pollan’s book came out three years ago. It’s a really big market that is growing. It’s a fascinating subject and will continue to grow exponentially.

Arnot: You expressed concerns about a monoculture. A lot of other sectors have become industrialized and are monocultures. Take Southwest Airlines who do one thing with all the same kind of planes for efficiency. Why should the food system or agriculture be held to a different standard?

Kenner: Customers aren’t eating the airplane. You can put an efficiency to an airplane that doesn’t have costs. There is a cost to monoculture in agriculture; we have become vulnerable. We use more herbicides because we have two crops. Pests are smarter. There are inherent dangers that are more true to the food system than Southwest Airlines.

Arnot: If you could boil it down into three common concerns or overriding issues and big major themes driving the movement, what are they?

Kenner: Health to the consumer, what will it do to their children, is it sustainable and transparent?

Arnot: You can choose to eat three meals a day of whatever you want. How should policy, the market and personal responsibility make decisions?

Kenner: A family gets up, both parents work and they eat fast food because it’s cheap and fast. The father has diabetes and the daughter may. It costs $500 per month for the father’s medicine. They should be cooking with a crock pot at home. Within their community there are more fast food restaurants than supermarkets. It’s a food desert. They have to drive 15 minutes to a place with fresh vegetables that are at least affordable. The government should not subsidize fast food. It’s an incorrect policy. Supermarkets are not part of the town because folks are going to fast food restaurants.

Arnot: Can less intensive agriculture feed a growing population globally?

Kenner:  We’re at about 6 billion people. About 1 billion go to bed hungry. We are sending our subsidized food abroad and have put farmers out of work in parts of the world. We need to use science. One thing that concerns me is that research studies in ag schools in the U.S. have been decimated and funded just by large companies. There is very little research going on. We need independent science that doesn’t have to prove the point of the person backing the experiments. It’s a real concern that we don’t have independent ag schools. Schools are losing funding and are in precarious position.

Arnot: Was any funding for the movie provided by activists groups?

Kenner: It came from Participant Films who was a founder of E-bay. They funded An Inconvenient Truth and do fund activists films. However, the marketing funds for the film could have been spent in a second by any large food group. We spent $200,000-300,000. If we had had a Hollywood studio we could have made triple the amount of money. It’s in the top 20 of all time films. It’s not that the film was amazing; there was something about the subject that set people off.

Arnot: There is a frustration by folks who are promoting and producing good food. Do you have suggestions for them to better tell their story?

Kenner: I think Stonyfield Farms is a good example. He believes in his product, he tells his story and is proud. He is making a mass product and is thrilled to sell to Walmart. Walmart is a leader and I was shocked at things they were doing like how to find a correct measure for a sustainable product. They want it to create a worldwide symbol on how a product should be rated on a green scale.


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