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Web & media - Feb 11

Robert Kenner: Big Food will do everything to stop you talking about this
Laura Sevier, the ecologist

Laura Sevier: What inspired you to make the film about the food industry?

Robert Kenner: I had read Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. I realised I knew so little about where food comes from and how much our food systems had been changed.

The illusion is that food comes from a farm with a white picket fence and barns but it's not. It's from huge mega factories where tens of thousands of animals are confined in one space. Waste used to be fertiliser - now it's a pollutant. The pieces of the system no longer make sense.

LS: Did you set out to listen to all sides of the story - from organic farmers to Monsanto?

RK: I thought it would be interesting to talk to everyone - food companies, industrial and organic farmers and have a conversation about how we can feed the world.

Little did I know how off-limits the food world would become and how much industry does not want you talking about this subject. I went from one company to the other - in the film you only see ten or so but actually there were dozens that did not want to talk to us.

I realised the system was off limits. Ultimately in the US food products have started to have more rights than we as individuals. There are laws in place to protect companies - known as 'veggie libel' laws - that stop you from insulting a product or endangering profits of a corporation. [Food libel laws or food disparagement laws exist in 13 US states]

LS: Can you tell me about the legal challenges you faced with this film?

RK: The irony is that it's more frightening to talk about it here than in the States. I didn't realise what we faced until we talked to Barbara Kowalcyck, a food safety advocate whose son died having contracted E-coli from a tainted hamburger. She mentioned what happened to Oprah Winfrey who, on a program about BSE in 1996, expressed concern about the safety of eating hamburgers. [Texas ranchers sued Winfrey under a food libel law, although in 1998 the jurors rejected the $11 million dollar defamation lawsuit.]

I ended up spending more legal fees on this film than the past 15 films combined - times three! The world of corporate food is a very litigious world. They will do everything to stop you from getting people to think about this subject. It made my life very frightening. If I'd known all this before I started out, I might have had second thoughts about making this film.

We went through the film and thoroughly fact-checked every single statement.

I took things out of Food Inc that I thought were true but [over which] I didn't want to spend time in court.

...LS: What do you hope people will take away from the film?

RK: That the system is unsustainable. We've created a world where we're using up our natural resources and, in doing so, robbing our children and our grandchildren. We have to think about growing and producing food in a fairer way.

We have to return the balance of power towards individuals and away from the corporations. The film does show Walmart in a good light for helping to ban a growth hormone given to cattle to produce more milk.

We also need to figure out how to create another system. The current food system is all based on oil. If you believe in peak oil we're going to run out at some point. We need to think about how to feed the world and what's sustainable. People should have the right to know the consequences and the cost of the industrial food system...
(9 Feb 2010)

Swing Time: On Morris Dickstein (review of Dancing in the Dark)
D.D. Guttenplan, The Nation

You probably don't remember where you were when Lionel Trilling died. But I bet Morris Dickstein does. The death of America's most prominent literary critic on November 5, 1975, made the front page of the New York Times--with the story continuing for another 2,000 words after the jump. My friends and I--all Columbia undergraduates at the time--gathered around a bench in the middle of Broadway, not far from Trilling's office, debating the impact of this one man on American literature, an impact that seems unimaginable today. Yet as I read through Dancing in the Dark, Dickstein's elegant, evocative and passionate defense of the culture of the Great Depression, I found my thoughts turning again and again to the cool, genteel mandarin whose embrace of the complex ambiguities of literary Modernism, and disdain for the vulgarities of the Popular Front, did so much to shape our sense of the 1930s.

Those readers who, either by birth date or education, escaped the influence of Trilling's Olympian pronouncements may find it difficult to credit or even understand the chilling effect such denigration had on the taste of an entire generation. We still, after all, have literary critics, and some of them--Harold Bloom leaps to mind--are not exactly shrinking violets. But Bloom has always cast himself as the underdog in his many battles, a noisy Jewish outcast railing against the ruling pieties of polite literary society, rubbing our noses in the Oedipal rage of poet against predecessor or the messy sexual personas behind the biblical narrative. And though Bloom and Frank Kermode may be the only living critics with Trilling's range or learning, it is hard to see either of them commanding similar acreage from the press on his way out--or compelling such allegiance even among those of us who delight in their judgments. Nor do any of their younger colleagues seem to aspire to such authority: try to imagine what a "school of James Wood" might look like, and you'll see what I mean.

Dancing in the Dark is a book best read slowly, perhaps with a DVD player or YouTube close at hand, so that when Dickstein invokes Fred Astaire's "refusal to dance, and the very dance in which he acts this out" in Swing Time, you can see exactly what he means. Yet among its many delights, the pleasure of watching the author, a student of Trilling's in the late 1950s and a longtime contributor to Partisan Review, kick over his own traces is far from trivial. This is not Dickstein's first crack at filial rebellion. In Double Agent, from 1992, he complained that, owing to Trilling's prejudice, "seminal figures like [Theodore] Dreiser and Richard Wright were relegated to the shabby ghetto of propaganda." And in Gates of Eden, published in 1977, Dickstein offered a notably sympathetic account of the culture of the 1960s--a decade the Partisan Review crowd regarded with fear and loathing.

True, Dickstein's portrait of the '60s was slanted heavily toward literature (think Catch-22, not the Velvet Underground or Ed Roth), a view from the faculty lounge rather than the streets. As a critic he still seems more comfortable discussing William Faulkner or Richard Wright than Harlem rent parties, the Coit Tower or Snow White. But Dancing in the Dark doesn't merely offer a series of judgments, any one of which would have been anathema to Dickstein's teachers. By confronting our received--and often condescending--ideas about the 1930s head-on, Dickstein lays the ground for his own far more nuanced and affectionate take on Depression culture. In a way, though, his intellectual demolition work on the decade's detractors is at least as important as any new interpretation, because when it comes to the 1930s, most of us still have a great deal of unlearning to do.

Though we now find ourselves in the second year (counting from the collapse of Lehman Brothers) of the second Great Depression, every day the newspapers remind us that the political facts of the 1930s Depression remain hotly contested. No one denies that a terrifying number of American workers were unemployed in 1932 (12 million; approximately 25 percent of the workforce), or that industrial production and the stock market both fell by staggering amounts; and there is some agreement on what caused the contraction in the first place. But why the United States remained in depression longer than most of Western Europe, or which New Deal measures helped matters and which didn't, or whether the kind of economic collapse immortalized in Dorothea Lange's iconic photographs can ever happen again--on such questions there is endless disputation. And if your view of the political landscape of the 1930s is, like Trilling's, essentially a jaundiced one, the culture that flourished in that same contentious soil is hardly going to be attractive. Even Richard Rovere, in the 1930s an editor of New Masses and far to Trilling's left, looked back with distaste on the Depression decade as "cheap and metallic and strident." For Rovere, too, the contrast was between "mandarin or avant-garde" literature and a Popular Front culture, promoted by the Communist Party and its literary fellow travelers, that was "corny and vulgar and innocent of any subtlety."...
(4 Feb 2010)
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression is published by W.W. Norton.

The Book of Eli and the Sacred Journey of Collapse
Carolyn Baker, Speaking Truth to Power

I've always been fascinated by questions of faith and spirituality and the idea is that there is something greater than yourselves. The idea of the movie was the belief in something greater than yourself, the most powerful force in the universe, and that's a force that can be turned either for good or evil depending on what we do with it.

~Gary Whitta, Author of "Book of Eli" screenplay

During the past year, Hollywood has brought forth an array of post-apocalyptic movies such as "2012" and "The Road", but "The Book of Eli" is unique in this genre by way of a message that supersedes a abject survivalism as the bottom line theme. The message was intentional for screenplay author, Gary Whitta, who comments that "faith and hope have as much value to humanity as sustenance and safety." In other words, "The Book of Eli" is about much more than first-chakra survival in a world where little else matters and where most people are fighting, moment to moment, to simply stay alive.

The story focuses on a man in the not-too-distant future who has become a warrior, not by choice but by necessity, 30 years after what is referred to as "the flash" and the subsequent war that left the earth a catastrophic wasteland. Few people are alive who remember what the world was like before those cataclysmic events, and the rest are illiterate with no sense of history or purpose beyond finding food, water, and shelter.

For three decades, Eli (Denzel Washington) has been walking and wandering in response to a voice that he says came from inside him to protect the book (a bible) that he found amid the rubble of cataclysm, and keep heading west. Along the way he witnesses myriad injustices and wrongs he could help right, but instead, he chooses to abide with his instructions and avoid such entanglements.

We wonder why a bible in such a world makes any difference, but we soon discover that the war may have erupted in part because of religion and the power and control some people usurped in its name. Almost all bibles were burned after the war, and we assume it was for this reason. One man besides Eli in the current intellectual wasteland understands the power of books and reading them, and especially the power of the bible as a tool of control. That man is Carnegie (Gary Oldman)-an ironic name given that the nineteenth-century steel tycoon, Andrew Carnegie, donated millions to the building and maintenance of libraries in the United States. After encountering Eli and learning that he has a bible, the Carnegie of Whitta's screenplay is relentless in his quest to obtain it and is willing to do whatever it takes to do so because he shamelessly declares that "if we have the book, we can control people". But from Eli's perspective, nothing and no one will stand in the way of fulfilling his mission and following the instructions to keep walking west.

Some reviewers have described the milieu of "The Book of Eli" as a "Mad Max" scenario, but it seems important to note that the latter movie was made in the 80s in the throes of Reagan's "morning in America" when consumerism on steroids and off-the-scale narcissism ruled. Thus, in those days, movie-goers could only find the world of Mad Max bizarre and purely mythical whereas today, as we find ourselves sinking deeper into the Second Great Depression, fraught with the ramifications of Peak Oil, climate change, and global economic devastation, that particular scenario feels increasingly more plausible...
(10 Feb 2010)

Michael Pollan interviewed by Amy Goodman (text, audio, video)
Amy Goodman, Democracy Now

Acclaimed author and journalist Michael Pollan argues that what most Americans are consuming today is not food but “edible food-like substances.” His previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. His latest book, just published, is called In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. [includes rush transcript]

... AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan, what were you most surprised by in writing this book, In Defense of Food?

MICHAEL POLLAN: I was most surprised by two things. One was that the science on nutrition that we all traffic in every day—we read these articles on the front page, we talk about antioxidants and cholesterol and all this kind of stuff—it’s really sketchy that nutritional science is still a very young science. And food is very complicated, as is the human digestive system. There’s a great mystery on both ends of the food chain, and science has not yet sorted it out. Nutrition science is where surgery was in about 1650, you know, really interesting and promising, but would you want to have them operate on you yet? I don’t think so. I don’t think we want to change our eating decisions based on nutritional science.

But what I also was surprised at is how many opportunities we now have. If we have—if we’re willing to put the money and the time into it to get off the Western diet and find another way of eating without actually having to leave civilization or, you know, grow all your own food or anything—although I do think we should grow whatever food we can—that it is such a hopeful time and that there’s some very simple things we can all do to eat well without being cowed by the scientists.

AMY GOODMAN: The healthiest cuisines, what do you feel they are?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, the interesting thing is that most traditional cuisines are very healthy, that people—that the human body has done very well on the Mediterranean diet, on the Japanese diet, on the peasant South American diet. It’s really interesting how many different foods we can do well on. The one diet we seem poorly adapted to happens to be the one we’re eating, the Western diet. So whatever traditional diet suits you—you like eating that way—you know, follow it. And that—you know, that’s a good rule of thumb.

There’s an enormous amount of wisdom contained in a cuisine. And, you know, we privilege scientific information and authority in this country, but, of course, there’s cultural authority and information, too. And whoever figured out that olive oil and tomatoes was a really great combination was actually, we’re now learning, onto something scientifically. If you want to use that nutrient vocabulary, the lycopene in the tomato, which we think is the good thing, is basically made available to your body through the olive oil. So there was a wisdom in those combinations. And you see it throughout.

(13 February 2010)
Recommended by Tom Philpott at Grist who writes:

You may think you’ve heard all that Pollan’s got to say, as many interviews that he does. But Amy’s a great interviewer—she enforces a “no sound bites” policy—and the conversation gets really good. Pollan comes on at about the 11:30 mark.


Why Food Inc. Should Make Us All Retch

Charles Clover, The Times/UK
... There is no doubt that Food Inc - based on Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma - is a powerful and forensic film with an unerring eye for human stories about the cruel US industrial food system, which abuses animals and workers in many ways.

British audiences, however appalled, are bound to look away and say: it can't be that bad here, can it? They will be right, up to a point. There are no British equivalents of the feed-lot operations that turn subsidised maize into meat that sells for less than vegetables. We have banned growth hormones and still rear most of our cows on grass. Our regulators are independent and have not so obviously been corrupted by political and legal appointments.

Yet feed lots have crept into Italy. American pork producers, such as Smithfield, now have vast operations in Poland and Romania.

There are signs that the downside of super-efficient, globalised agriculture is coming our way: it's already within importing range of our supermarkets. The film may just be, as Schlosser put it drily to me last week, a preview of coming attractions.
(7 February 2010)


Davie Philip on ‘The Good Life 2.0.’
(video)
Davie Philip, Transition Culture - Vimeo
Here’s a great talk by Davie Philip, long-standing master-networker, Transition Ireland Network catalyst and one man catalyst for change, speaking at day two of The New Emergency Conference: Managing Risk and Building Resilience in a Resource Constrained World, held in Dublin last summer by FEASTA. Excellent.

Davie Philip – Developing a transition mindset to overcome the inertia of the familiar from Feasta on Vimeo.

(8 February 2010)

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