In the 15 years since Food, Inc. shone a light on how unsustainable the food industry has become, many people have been galvanized to make healthier, better-informed choices in what they eat and who they buy it from. But during the months of COVID-19 lockdown, even the people behind that documentary were struck by just how unsustainable our food system is. And, as the sobering follow-up film they’ve made argues, individual purse-string choices can go only so far to build an ecosystem of kinder, gentler and more sensible proportions. How to dismantle the existing one when it’s a well-entrenched behemoth?
Again drawing inspiration from journalists Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and with returning director Robert Kenner joined this time at the helm by Melissa Robledo (a co-producer of the first doc), Food, Inc. 2 follows the general format of its predecessor, opting for a clarion call over cinematic subtlety. Moving with steady energy, it presents a multifaceted composite portrait from the front lines — farmers, researchers, labor organizers, inventors and legislators weigh in, offering substantial rays of hope in the form of a rising number of alternatives to GMO commodity crops, factory farming and abusive workplaces.
Food, Inc. 2
The Bottom Line
Food for action.
But the alarm is still loud and clear, and this time round the economic core of the problem is addressed head-on, the takeaway being that nothing short of a true system overhaul will do. We’re up against a food-processing industry of monstrous proportions and an economic model, supported and subsidized by government, that prizes profit above all else.
The pandemic, as we all saw, laid bare the weaknesses in a food pipeline dominated by just a few corporate giants, and it made blazingly apparent how absolutely essential the lowest-paid workers among us are, even while they’re treated as disposable. This was the starting point for the filmmakers, their initial reason to revisit the subject. The most wrenching moment in the documentary is their interview with Fran Marion, a longtime fast-food worker (and activist) who talks, tearfully, about the struggle to raise her children on a low hourly wage with no health care or sick leave.
Gerardo Reyes Chávez, a farmworker since he was a kid, and a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, talks about the inhumane conditions endured by mostly Latino and Haitian farmhands. Schlosser notes the link between fresh fruits and vegetables and a world of exploited immigrant workers. During the outbreak of COVID-19, the big processors nixed contact tracing for many farmworkers in order not to interrupt the harvesting-packing-shipping timetable.
And the sheriff of Black Hawk County in Iowa relates how Tyson, a major local employer, resisted officials’ shutdown recommendations and even helped craft an executive order from President Trump that kept its assembly lines going — stances wrapped in patriotic “feed America” talking points when much of Tyson’s chicken was being exported to other countries.
The doc excels at illustrating how connected all this is, how the loss of Wisconsin dairies, the horrors of factory farming, and urban food deserts can be traced to the same roots, along with the rise of addictive ultra-processed foods and the proliferation of undiversified commodity crops (corn and soybeans) that results in the wholesale destruction of topsoil and depletion of water. This is the fallout of decisions designed to boost the bottom line, made by ever-larger monopolies on a seemingly endless quest to gobble up the competition.
Kenner and Robledo point to the breakdown in antitrust enforcement over the decades, a weakening of government oversight made possible by both factions in the two-party system. This is, rightly, the heart of their thesis. Their argument is least convincing when it revolves around a couple of senators, positioning them as avatars of change. However well-meaning and charismatic Montana’s Jon Tester and New Jersey’s Cory Booker may be — and it’s good that they’re working on these issues for farmers and consumers — this part of Food, Inc. 2 seems to put a middle-ground gloss on a complex situation.
In place of the senators’ talking points, additional details about solutions in action would have been more involving and instructive. But we get the basics of school food programs in Brazil and in Camden, New Jersey, that put kids’ well-being first. There’s the Immokalee coalition’s breakthrough Fair Food Agreement for improved farmworker conditions — and the helmers helpfully make note of the restaurant and grocery chains that refused to sign on to the initiative. Bren Smith, a fisherman turned kelp farmer, is excited to be part of a shift “from pillaging to regeneration” in the oceans, while a fifth-generation Iowa farmer, Zack Smith, explains why he quit his job as a seed rep in the GMO industry and is promoting an invention designed to bring old-school farm values into the 21st century.
The doc strikes a nice balance between eager curiosity and the-jury’s-still-out skepticism regarding such food-tech innovations as cell-cultured meats, bee-less honey and coffee without the beans. Surrounded by gleaming tanks and tubes, Pollan interviews the creators and samples their wares; later, he points out that products flying the “plant-based” flag (the new “natural” in terms of label mania) are generally ultra-processed. A further conundrum: Is it good or bad that many big corporations are investing in these technologies and products?
Food, Inc. 2 addresses issues of the utmost urgency, key among them unchecked business consolidation, the hegemony of multinational corporations, and an aggressive indifference to what’s healthful and sustainable for people, animals and the planet. The subject is food, yes — not in the sense of lifestyle choices but of life itself, in all its interconnected potential and vulnerabilities. The film’s closing credits include a Call to Action list, and among the uplifting and not unexpected exhortations for involvement and change is a dire warning that goes to the heart of the matter: “Monopoly power is a threat to our freedom.”