Picture the fast-food hamburger you ate for lunch yesterday afternoon. Chances are that beef came from a major industrialized food producer, not a locally owned and operated farm. That label on the wrapper that reads “100% pure beef” does not say anything about the amount of antibiotics fed to the cattle. Nor does it boast any information about the conditions the animals were raised in, or the exploitation of the farmer whose livelihood depends on equitable treatment by industrial food businesses.
This lack of awareness and honesty is the current reality of our food system; something I learned on Monday night after viewing the documentary FRESH. The film, directed and produced by Ana Joanes, was shown at an event hosted by Sustain Mizzou as a part of National Food Day.
Before watching the documentary I did not really consider the sources of my food in great depth. Like many consumers I realized that something unnatural was occurring within the food system. I accepted that fresh, farm-raised poultry and beef taste significantly better than frozen, mass-produced foods, but I was not willing to go out of my way to procure them. I was not truly bothered enough by this reality to overhaul the way I eat, or to consider the other factors that come into play when producing meat in the industrialized food system.
FRESH opens with a scene of the type of farm I would like to envision my food coming from. Joel Salatin, a third-generation farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, is the owner and operator of a farm called Polyface, Inc. A utopia settled in an area so rural that GPS and cell-phone coverage do not extend to their acreage. As Salatin takes viewers on a tour of his farm, explaining his methodologies and principles in an almost poetic manner, he details what he means when he says he is a “steward of the earth.” With the collaboration of other family members, and a commitment to sustainable farming, Salatin has implemented farming techniques that boast success on a large scale without the help of antibiotics, seeds, plows or synthetic fertilizers. Polyface, Inc. serves as a sustainable model for what can be the reality of the food system, if consumers would only take a participatory role in the local food movement and make greater demands of the industrialized food system.
In stark contrast to Salatin’s farming philosophy was the portrayal of industrialized food production. When juxtaposed with Polyface, Inc., the description of an industrialized chicken house is enough to put viewers off their lunch, quite literally. While watching the documentary, I was struck by the images of pig houses that shelter hundreds of pigs at a time. Within these houses, animals are fed an unnatural diet chocked full of antibiotics to combat rampant disease outbreaks, and hormones to promote rapid growth at an unorthodox rate.
Another farmer profiled in FRESH, Russ Kremer of Osage County, Missouri told his compelling story on-screen. After making the transition to industrial pig farming techniques in the 1980s, including keeping hundreds of pigs inside concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)- essentially metal crates, Kremer sustained a life-threatening injury while handling one of his boars.
The boar speared Kremer in the kneecap with one of its tusks, resulting in a serious infection in Kremer’s leg. After countless indeterminate tests and ineffectual rounds of standard antibiotics, doctors concluded that Kremer was fighting a drug-resistant form of strep bacteria- the exact same bacteria he fought to ward off in his pig herd. The bacteria had mutated to become drug-resistant as a result of the massive amounts of antibiotics that he fed his pigs, and posed a serious risk to human health.
After his brush with drug-resistant bacteria, Kremer returned to his farm and exterminated his herd. He made a commitment to overhauling his farming practices, deciding not to use any industrial techniques, ruling out the use of antibiotics or confinement. According to Kremer, in his first year of traditional farming he saved $14,000 without drug expenses or veterinary bills. Kremer went on to found the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative and Heritage Acres label, a coalition of more than 50 family farmers raising pig herds sustainably; and notably, with monetary success.
Throughout the documentary, it became clear that the industrialized food system is currently in a dire situation, and needs the attention of the public to affect change. But there is hope.
Retired University of Missouri Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Applied Economics John Ikerd was featured in the film, as well as during a panel discussion following the viewing on Monday night. Ikerd shared his unique opinions concerning the food system as it is now. As a man who lived during the year the first supermarket was introduced, Ikerd remembers a time when his family received all of the food from farms no more than 60 miles from his home.
Ikerd presented his conception of the big picture of the industrialized food system, and how to reconcile that with the local food movement. He called for a paradigm shift involving three steps. “People need to conclude that the current changes to the food system are not working- that it is not healthy and that there are still hungry people in this country. There also needs to be some concept of what changes will work; and finally, people need to believe that it is possible to make the transition to a healthier system,” Ikerd said.
For additional information about FRESH and the local food movement, check out the website below.