Monday, January 25, 2010

The American Food Industry

I watched two very good documentaries today about the American food industry. "King Corn" and "Food Inc." Both were heavily inspired by Micheal Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." They are highly informative and fairly successful at avoiding the melodrama that is characteristic of a lot of the more radical tree-hugger, conspiracy-theory laden, propaganda that is out there. I have a little bit of an academic background in agricultural economics so most of what I heard was not new to me but for those who don't know, or for those who just want an entertaining refresher course on how food is produced in America, these two documentaries are much recommended.

I do have a few quibbles however.

1. The diversity of products available to the average American consumer is massive and real, not merely apparent, as both documentaries claim, despite the consolidation of the food industry. Walk into almost any supermarket in America and you can buy products from all over the globe. The fact that most Americans still stick to their Coke, potato chips, and Rice-a-roni is not due to a lack of choices but to American's failure to take them.

2. Healthy home-cooked meals are NOT more expensive than fast food or "TV dinners" at the supermarket as "Food Inc." claims. I personally cook cheap and healthy meals for a fraction of what those ready-made meals cost and it is neither difficult nor even very time consuming.

3. Even if you haven't watched these documentaries you should know that the following statements are sheer stupidity and those who make them do not deserve anyone's pity.

From "King Corn" a guy who was obese and is now diabetic lamenting about the evils of high fructose corn syrup, said "I used to drink 2 liters of grape soda a day, sometimes more."

And from "Food Inc." the mother of a family of four whose husband is diabetic said "We never used to think about healthy eating because we thought that everything was healthy."

4. I generally dislike it when anyone positions "the masses" as helpless victims of some large, usually evil and irresistible, force. Such narratives are usually overly simplistic and misleading. People, even the poor (at least in the United States), almost always have choices about the food they buy and consume and it is not difficult, if one has the will, to know, at least generally, how and from where one's food originates. It is everyone's individual responsibility to feed themselves in a healthy manner, and frankly this is not a difficult task in America. Although we certainly have the right and the need to complain and demand higher standards, on the whole Americans should be thankful they are fortunate enough to live in a country where such easy access to a healthy diet is possible. In many parts of the world, some of which I visited just last week, this is not the case.


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