As you all know, I love movies and I love food. This past Friday night, I fused those two passions as I saw the new documentary FRESH playing at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. Directed and produced by Ana Sofia Joanes, it focuses on the shift away from industrialized factory farming and the farmers striving to make food production sustainable. While I was excited to watch it as I’m always intrigued by food politics, I assumed it would be another re-telling of Food, Inc. Luckily, I was wrong. The film takes a unique approach by providing the perspective of the organic farmers yearning to make a difference.
We often don’t think about where our food comes from, only if it tastes good and if it’s convenient. Farming today is vastly different then it was even 30 years ago. Corporations conduct the bulk of farming with animals crammed into warehouses, never seeing sunshine or grass or feeling the breeze. Pesticides are sprayed over crops, leaving residue on our produce. Farming today is synonymous with “factory farming”: the food industry has become industrialized. Unfortunately, we need to be aware of how the existing system of industrialized farming destroys the environment, abuses animals and endangers our health through food contamination and obesity. Sustainability has become a buzzword in our lexicons. But what does it really mean? Sustainable farming respects diversity of crops and animals, is productive and doesn’t emit pollution but rather utilizes waste as fertilizer. In response to factory farming, a growing movement has emerged to change the food industry.
Joanes, who shot over 300 hours of film, explores this movement by showcasing sustainable organic farmers Joel Salatin (who also appears in Food, Inc., The Ethics of What We Eat, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Will Allen, Russ Kremer and George Naylor (who appears in The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Each of them implements techniques that mimic the rhythm of animals and nature.
Salatin, a gregarious and passionate man, greets his hens as “ladies” and has the chickens roam free (actual free-range chickens as opposed to the myth perpetuated by the industrialized dairy industry). He considers them “workers” and “part of the team.” Each day, he moves his cows from paddock to paddock, imitating their natural herding behavior. Salatin clearly respects the animals and the land. He says, “As stewards of the earth, we have to respect the design of nature.” This mantra becomes evident when he discusses all of the diseases out there, such as avian flu, E. coli, mad cow, as he says, “Nature is speaking to us saying enough is enough.”
Kremer uses no antibiotics on his hogs and Naylor uses no pesticides on his soybeans. Allen, a larger than life charismatic person, created a greenhouse farm on 3 acres of land in the middle of the city of Milwaukee. He’s recreated a natural and sustainable environment. For example, the waste in fish “ponds” gets diverted to fertilize the roots of the plants. He also uses no pesticides and calls the worms who fertilize the soil his “babies.” Allen, who offers people the opportunity to tour his farm says,
“If you have 70 people who visit, you won’t have 70 farmers, that’s unrealistic. But you will have people who learn about sustainability and how to eat healthy. That’s how you create a movement.”
Joanes also spoke with journalist/author Michael Pollan, Professor John Ikerd and author/activist Andrew Kimbrell, who provide commentary on the unsustainability of our current methods of food production. Proponents of factory farming say that the U.S. is feeding the world. Pollan admits that “it’s very seductive to hear feed the world.” But grain is grown to feed cattle, not people. Salatin declares that,
“70% of row crops, which are the majority of crops, are grown for multi-stomached creatures [such as cows] never meant to eat anything other than grass. 30% of row crops goes to feed pigs, poultry and people.”
Kimbrell states that the solution to end world hunger is to not go industrial as medium-sized organic can work as opposed to large industrial which simply cannot work.
Buying organic is one solution for consumers. While those who know the horrific consequences of factory farming agree that we need to change, many understandably lament the cost of organic food. And there’s no denying organic food is expensive. Particularly if you live paycheck to paycheck, you may not have the disposable income to pay for more expensive food, even if that food is better for you. In the film, Pollan says,
“It’s true that organic and local cost more. But it’s worth more…As we’ve produced food cheaper, we’ve diminished its nutrition…by 40%. The more you process food, the less nutritious it is…Cheap food is an illusion. The real cost is paid somewhere…If not at the cash register, then with the environment, subsidies, or your health.”
Unfortunately, not everyone has access to healthy produce. Pollan mentions how “millions of people live in a ‘food desert’…You can find ramen noodles but not an apple.” Allen, who’s also concerned with the cost of food, seeks solutions with his non-profit Growing Power. He says, “We want everyone to have access to good sustainable food, not just rich people.”
I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It inspired me rather than depleted hope. Joanes, who attended the premiere, is a jovial, warm person, truly delighted to discuss her passion. Her husband and young daughter accompanied her as well, making it a family affair. During Q&A following the film, I had the opportunity to ask Joanes if she consciously chose to not include veganism/vegetarianism as both the sustainable and veg movements share many common goals, such as respect for animals and the environment. She said that it was indeed a conscious decision as she wanted to open up the discussion. Joanes said,
“Most people eat meat. So if you have an audience that doesn’t even know, isn’t even aware of the abuses, hearing vegan or vegetarian, they might tune the message out. I wanted to make the discussion broad.”
Joanes went on to say that as she eats meat, even though her husband is vegetarian, she didn’t want to focus on vegetarianism/veganism when she’s not. She shared how she feels comfortable eating meat, even after seeing slaughter because farms like Joel Salatin’s are so sustainable. Although she did admit that witnessing slaughter makes you eat less meat. She also said that while some are dismissive of the veg movement, she thinks that they are the best allies.
After the Q&A, I had the chance to speak to Joanes one-on-one and told her that I was a freelance writer and blogger reviewing FRESH. Her eyes lit up and she took my hand, graciously thanking me for taking the time to see the film and write about it. With absolutely no marketing dollars, Joanes and her team employ a grassroots effort in attracting audiences to their labor of love. They are committed to sharing their message about sustainable farming.
Our eating and food choices do matter; they impact and influence those around us. We as consumers exert enormous influence over food and farming through our purchases. In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses the power we as consumers wield. He argues that what we choose to spend our money on sends a message to corporations:
“…nothing comes close to having the impact of our dietary choices…It’s an empowering idea. The entire goliath of the food industry is ultimately driven and determined by the choices we make as the waiter gets impatient for our order or in the practicalities and whimsies of what we load into our shopping carts or farmers’ market bags.”
While an important documentary examining the food industry, Food, Inc. scares you. It makes you afraid to eat anything. But FRESH inspires you; I left the theatre buoyed by hope. Too often, we become bogged down by despair, not knowing what to do, thinking that we are merely one person who cannot possibly make a difference. But we can. As Kimbrell says in the film, it’s time we “vote with our dollar.” It’s time we start a revolution.