Film Review: Food, Inc.

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a screening of the documentary Food, Inc. I am still shaping my economic worldview, and as the film seemed to be pointing out problems in the food industry, I was interested in the attitudes the film would take towards massive food corporations, the government, and the market.

The film caters to liberal-leaning health-conscious organic types, and while I anticipated an anti-corporate government-embracing slant, I was pleasantly surprised to find a reasonable balance. I did not entirely agree with the film’s claims or position, but it generally vindicated the power of consumers in the market and the dangers of government intervention, while giving me things to consider about the capacity of corporations for abuse within our version of capitalism.

In a nutshell, the film portrays the unhealthy and manipulative practices of America’s largest food corporations and their resistance to correcting these abuses. It encourages support for individual farmers and healthier eating, and it largely presents this at the level of personal responsibility, emphasizing the power of the consumer in the market.

The beginning of the film detailed abusive industry practices and the implied failure of the market or the explicit failure of government to correct this, but my favorite part was when it noted how the market is taking care of increasing demand for organic products all on its own. It even told the story of one healthy yogurt producer who was pursued by Wal-Mart, the most vilified corporation of our time. The beauty of capitalism is that when businesses “selfishly” seek to maximize profits, they are forced to sell products that people want, and the consumer ends up better off because of it. The government never forced the production of organic foods, but as more people demanded them, the market supplied more.

I was discouraged, however, that while recognizing the market’s ability to encourage healthier food by itself, the film still treated the government as necessary for reducing abusive practices. Even after detailing the repeated failure of government in the past and highlighting the corrupt links between government regulators and the corporate food industry, the film still saw a solution in Congress passing a law to give the FDA (or was it the USDA?) power to shut down plants with repeated disease outbreaks. Do they really think that, even if passed, this law would be enforced?

The woman advocating this law believes it would prevent citizens from dying as her 2-year-old-son did, but I thought her naive when she stated something like, “We trust the government to protect us, and they are failing us.” I believe the root of the problem is not in the government failing, but that we trust the government to protect us in the first place. I think I agree with the libertarian notion that a true free market could root out those unhealthy practices on its own; as more people demand food that has not undergone such unhealthy production, the market will be forced to supply it. The filmmakers may argue that the market hasn’t taken care of it yet, but I think their film is intentionally playing a part in doing that, by highlighting some of these practices and increasing pressure on corporations to take care of these things. No government intervention required.

Speaking of government intervention, the film did a wonderful job portraying the dangers of government subsidies, and even included my favorite economic phrase, “unintended consequences.” One of the basic rules of economics is that when you subsidize something, you’re guaranteed to get more of it. Libertarians would add that when you subsidize something you’re guaranteed to get too much of it, wasting resources and offsetting balances that would otherwise correct themselves. Specifically, the film touched on the government’s subsidization of corn, which allows corn to be produced and sold below cost. It’s easy to argue that this artificially increases the supply and demand of corn at the expense of other resources.

But the film presents more insidious consequences than an abstract “misallocation of resources.” The artificially lower cost encourages corn to be given to farm animals instead of grass (which apparently is dangerously less healthy for them), in addition to ruining poor international corn markets that can’t compete with America’s cheap corn. The film even tries to link this to corporation abuse by pointing out how the meat industry actively recruited Mexican farmers put out of work by their now-defunct corn industry. As usual, most “market failure” can be traced back to poor government policy.

I’m all for promoting healthier food production, but I don’t have a problem with massive food corporations in principle. The film stated that technological and agricultural innovation allows a farmer to feed 126 people these days instead of the 6-8 of a century or so ago, but that’s still a far cry from the thousands supported by the massive animal factories. The shots of the massive factories were clearly intended to shock and appall, and there was a fair amount of repulsive behavior (For the faint of heart, the film involves cow stomachs, chicken slayings, implied pig squashing, and the like), but on one level I couldn’t help but be impressed by the technological innovation that allows us to produce food on such a massive scale.

If you can feed the world with fewer farmers, it’s more efficient to free up their labor and skill for other productive uses. Let’s demand it to be transparent and healthy and humane, to be sure, but let’s not demonize the factories for existing and saving us from needing an exponentially greater number of farmers and farmland (further deforestation, anyone?), not to mention the effect higher food prices would have on the poor.

The film argues that our desire for cheap food exacerbates our health problems, but the market can fix that if films like these increase our demand for healthy food, thereby increasing our willingness to pay more for healthier food. But it has to happen naturally. Any government-mandated changes that lead to increased food prices will hurt the poor worst of all. The film showed a poor Hispanic family opting for fast-food over groceries, but unless they just don’t know how to shop (or maybe California has really expensive groceries), I don’t believe the film’s claim that eating fast-food is categorically cheaper than groceries; my mother spends $100-$200 a week on groceries and it would easily cost our family $400-500 on pure fast-food (the difference is too remarkable to merely be the effect of Sam’s Club and Costco and the ability to buy in bulk).

Fast-food aside, I accept the overall premise that healthier foods are more expensive, but the film seemed to want government action, perhaps a different direction of subsidy, to make healthy food cheaper, and I don’t have faith in the government to do that any more efficiently (I’m surprised the film does, after clearly highlighting the array of unintended consequences of current government subsidies, which surely had reasonable justifications at the time).

Overall, however, I was pleased with the film. Markets require knowledge and transparency to function properly, and this film is filling a gap due to the secrecy of the operations underlying our food production. If it increases consumer demand for health and safety, then it has done its job. If it increases demand for government to step in, I’m worried about what else they’ll screw up.

But this may be the first corporate-hating green-conscious film to show something positive about Wal-Mart – and that’s indicative of what I like about this film as a whole. It mercilessly exposes corporate abuse along with government failure, and most importantly of all, it highlights the power of consumer demand in what’s left of our marketplace.

Food, Inc. expands to more theaters tomorrow.