Have you ever sat down and wondered where your food comes from? Not just which supermarket, or take-away shop, but which farm? And what does that “farm” look like?
When most of us think of a “farm”, we conjure up images of red barns and happy animals roaming sprawling grass paddocks. But these days, that image couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Food Inc” is the Oscar nominated documentary that lifts the veil of secrecy to show you what really goes on in our industrial food system. Putrid tin sheds crammed with thousands of genetically modified animals, who are subjected to a painful and (mercifully) short life. And then there’s the slaughter process, the super-bacteria that grows within the meat, the treatment of workers, the damage to our environment and the affects on our own health by consuming the end product. After doing research on the food industry for several years, it won’t surprise you to learn that I am a vegetarian.
But even though I don’t eat meat, I don’t expect everyone else to do the same. So thankfully we have farmers like Joel Salatin from America’s “Polyface Farms”, who aim to provide consumers with a healthier, more ethical and cruelty-free alternative. Joel’s one of the people featured in “Food Inc”, and I chatted to him about what we can do to change the industry. He also uses very big words.
Why did you want to be involved with “Food Inc”?
The summer that “Food Inc” was here, we had, I think, 6 videography outfits here. And you have to understand that we’re a bit of a ‘sustainable’ icon in the US, so we have media here all the time. Over the years we’ve gotten used to the fact that some things pan out, and others don’t, so we’re pretty non-judgemental if someone wants to come along and take pictures. We’re glad to work with them and we encourage them.
But that’s pretty rare for a food provider these days, there seems to be so much secrecy surrounding where our food comes from…
Yes and that’s one of our signature values – that we are open source and transparent. We have a 24/7, 365 day open door policy; where anyone can come anytime and see anything anywhere. And we believe that is the cornerstone of food with integrity, is to have a transparent, accountable type of system.
When people think of where their food comes from, they probably think of a traditional ‘farm’ like yours, but that’s not the reality these days is it?
No, the reality is quite different, you’re exactly correct.
So what kinds of things would shock people about those big factory farms?
First of all, they are repugnant to the senses, they stink, and they’re not beautiful – you have to walk through sheep dip and put on a HAZMAT suit in order to visit.
If it is not attractive in sight and smell, it’s not good food production. In the same way that if you’re cooking something on the stove and it drives everyone out of the house, it probably indicates that maybe something’s wrong with what you’re cooking. When food systems carry an obnoxious odour, that’s indicative that something is grossly wrong in the management and the ecology of the production or the processing model.
Do you think if the average person were allowed access to those factory farms, they would change the way they think about their food?
Oh absolutely, no question, no question. The emotional and philosophical repugnancy of a confinement animal feeding operation… it’s an impressive demonstration of hubris, but it’s not a very good demonstration of natural templates.
They don’t seem to treat animals as animals, they are just products.
That’s right. In the Western world, our paradigm towards life, whether it’s plants or animals, is they’re just inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure, to be manipulated however cleverly humans can imagine manipulating them. And I would suggest that a culture that views its ‘life’ from that type of disrespectful arrogant attitude, will also view its citizens the same way, and even other cultures the same way. That’s why I think philosophy has to trump science, when science has no moral compass, it can become an ogre.
It seems to me that we should treat animals with more respect and at least give them a nice life, if we are going to take theirs for our food…
Sure. Actually the first question we ask at Polyface Farms is ‘how do we create a habitat that allows the pig to fully express his pig-ness?’ And the fact is that an animal that is fully expressing it’s physiological distinctiveness, will be a healthy, happy, nutritious animal… or plant for that matter, we’re talking primarily about animals here but plants are in the same class.
So why has food become so industrialised?
I think primarily because as a culture we have not developed a food ethic. We essentially see food as a necessary component of life, but it has no real intrinsic value other than that. Maybe it’s partly because we have so much and so plenty – plenty creates it’s own lack of worth.
But I do not believe that there’s some grand conspiracy that moved us down this road, I think it just happened piece by piece when people don’t think. They’re just looking at what is cheaper today and what makes it easier today, they’re not thinking about type 2 diabetes and obesity…. Just basically living for today and not thinking about tomorrow.
Are you seeing a change slowly? Do you see people starting to think about where their food comes from and making more ethical choices?
Yes for sure, there are certainly more people interested in this today than previously. But it’s still extremely small. When you land at the airport in Melbourne, within two blocks you have KFC, McDonalds, Burger King… and it looks like any other global fast food burger alley in the US or Japan or whatever. For fun I go to hotel clerks and people like that and say, “Have you ever heard of ‘Food Inc’?” The film has received huge acclaim over here, and almost amazingly no one has ever heard of it! They’ve heard of “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” and they’ve heard of….
Yeah, and Tom Selleck and whatever! (laughs) The truth is its still an extremely small number of the whole population.
So what can an individual do if they want to change things?
The first thing an individual can do is to just quit patronising the global industrial processed food agenda. How do you do that? Well first of all you rediscover your kitchen. We’ve never spent more money remodelling and gadget-ising our kitchen and been more lost as to where they are! And so the domestic culinary arts need to be rediscovered with new passion. Eating seasonally, home canning, preserving, home cooking from scratch. Interestingly when that happens you save a lot of money. And if we’d simply buy things where the labels list fewer than 5 ingredients and they’re everything that we can pronounce, everything we could make in our kitchen, and that item will rot. Those are the three primary principals – you should be able to pronounce it, you should be able to make it in your kitchen, and it should rot. And if any of those three things are not true, then its not really food. Think about stuff that’s sold as food that’s not food – Coca Cola is not food, Taco Bell isn’t food – we buy a lot of things that are not necessary, I mean designer jeans that are sold for $100 that have holes in them!
Hey… I have some of those!
(laughs) But there’s a lot an individual can do to cut off the funding to these corporate food interests, simply by not buying those items.
Yeah as it says in “Food Inc” we can all vote three times a day.
That’s right. Vote three times a day.
– ALICIA MALONE
“Food Inc” is now showing
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