Food, Inc. (2008)


Food, Inc is an activist documentary, which aims to educate consumers about the food system. This is much of the same information found in the author’s books: Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma). But it puts together many interesting points, especially from economist’s point of view.

For one, most people don’t think about how food is produced. We clearly see the benefits of mass production, such as lower prices and standardization, but not so much the downsides, such as poor conditions (for animals and workers, environment problems with manure, pesticides and fertilizers), low diversity (system lacks resilience to external events, food is nutritionally limited) and health impact (unhealthy foods, obesity/diabetes, drug resistance, bacterial outbreaks).

The second angle is the role of government. The documentary provides key insights, but doesn’t seem to follow them through. On one hand, it states that “we put faith in our government to protect us”, but on the other it admits that it failed us in many ways (regulatory agencies are controlled/lobbied by the industries it means to regulate, revolving door between industry and agencies, the FDA often cannot close unsanitary factories, FDA hampers small local growers).
There are three government interventions which caught my attention. They are clearly called out, but somehow are not discussed in the context of reforms.

  1. subsidies to corn industry (pays to overproduce, distorts prices of meat, skews towards unhealthy food, makes it hard to compete locally and internationally)
  2. patent laws (give Monsanto leverage against farmers saving seeds)
  3. libel laws for food industry (mutes much of the criticism against them)

Finally, the documentary emphasizes consumer sovereignty. Aside from the artifacts of government intervention, the system is very sensitive to consumer demand. It shows the example of Wal-Mart which is shifting to some organic produces to satisfy customers, and marketing products without growth hormones.
The conclusion highlights consumer choice as a driver for the system, which I think makes sense. It also recommends asking Congress for additional regulation, which I think is a mistake (giving Congress more reach will give the industries more incentives to control the political process, leading to more negative effects as seen above).
But overall, this is a worthwhile documentary, especially if you have not read the recent popular books on the topic.


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