Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bad Food

Writing this in the closing stretch of the election campaign, it’s no surprise food hasn’t figured as an issue; it never does. Health care, of course, is perpetually in the spotlight. Not health itself, not wellness, just the usual platitudes about protecting the Canada Health Act and preserving funding. There’s a lot of passion (real or feigned, I don’t know) about keeping private money out of the system, but it often strikes me as a morally corrupt battleground. If we collectively gave a damn about equal access to treatment and recovery, we’d focus more seriously on prevention, on acting long before people turn up in the emergency room. I don’t see much ethical distinction between denying medication to an aging Canadian for a particular ailment, and letting young Canadians live on diets that drastically accelerate the odds of developing that condition.

The notional distinction, of course, is that what we eat falls under the umbrella of personal choice, whereas once our body starts to fail us, it’s our right and the nation’s obligation to access the best possible repair. But the choice is bogus. A lot of people can’t afford healthy food. Others have never been adequately sensitized to it. Others may wrongly think they’re eating it, not realizing how wretched the choices before us have actually become. It ought to be the shame of the nation, and of all the other developed nations.

Big Brother Scenario

Our city council recently voted down a proposal to ban soft drink sales from vending machines on city property. "It's the Big Brother scenario," said Councilor Doug Ford. "Government knows best, we should tell you what you should be doing, what you should be drinking, because as parent of four girls I don't know.” That’s right, human history teaches us parenthood is a source of infallible wisdom. I’m sure I would have voted for the ban, but frankly, I would have rolled my eyes as I was doing it. We don’t need symbolic gestures that are easy to parody - it’s increasingly clear they only entrench what we’re meant to be fighting against. It might almost be a plot, to make Coke seem like a symbol of defiant individualism.

The food system is so vast, so ever-present, so in-our-faces and down-our-throats, that it’s hard to see it as a construction, to realize how it didn’t have to be this way (and, not that long ago, it wasn’t). Films like Food Inc. and books like Fast Food Nation have ably mapped the landscape, joined now by the French documentary Solutions locales pour un désordre global. It played at the Bell Lightbox recently under the much less evocative title Good Food, Bad Food (apparently imposed by the distributors, to the displeasure of director Coline Serreau), and it’s available on DVD as well as on SuperChannel.

Compared to the much sleeker Food Inc., Serreau’s film has a rough-edged intimacy, fitting to its focus on localization and provocation. She put it like this in a recent Globe and Mail interview: “We have to get out of this system, and profit is not the aim. Ever. It should never be the aim. Period. Profit has nothing to do with happiness. So if food is linked to profit, food is going to be bad.” Through interviews with economists, agronomists, activists and farmers, and trips to farms and collectives all around the world, Serreau persuasively establishes this moral, ideological and nutritional badness. The industrialized food system, while presenting the illusion of plenitude and choice, imposes dull uniformity (so for instance only five mostly-American varieties of apple are generally available in France now, where there used to be hundreds) and crushes local economies; small farmers are increasingly swept up into multinationals which impose on them their chemically deranged techniques, killing the ecosystem and mandating eternal reliance on even more potent chemicals.

Good Food, Bad Food

Serreau’s advocacy is strongly visceral - she forces us to study the soil itself, contrasting the arid dust of ground that’s been over-treated and over-ploughed with a fertile, lumpy, complex mixture that’s been respected and tended. The film equates the industrial war on traditional farming methods with physical violence - various speakers cite the terms “terrorism” and “genocide.” On several occasions, it goes further, stamping it as a specifically masculine violence, destroying the traditional role of women as the “keepers of the seed;” the system renders women as commodities rather than participants, indirectly creating the warped ideologies that lead in some countries to disproportionate abortions of female embryos. This obviously overspills the normal terms of debate on the issue. The film makes no attempt at a mundane notion of balance – there’s no one here to present the “other side.” There are no eye-friendly graphics, no funny archival footage, no shtick. At the same time, some of the issues covered in those other works – such as factory farming, or the industry’s corrupt treatment of its low-paid workers – are mentioned only in passing, if at all. It’s a determined, focused work of advocacy.

Think Big

Serreau (best known, strangely enough, for the popular 1985 comedy 3 hommes et un couffin, remade in Hollywood as Three Men and a Baby) made the revolutionary implications explicit in that same interview. Asked whether her thesis would mean cities have to disperse, she said: “Oh yes. They’re in big danger. Look at the 35 million people in Tokyo. What are they going to do? Right now, they’re in big, big food danger. They have a power danger. Instead of being forced like this, we should just organize it. Because it’s going to happen.” Put tritely then, the strength of Solutions locales pour un désordre global is that it demands we think big. Of course, since we’re mostly incapable of doing that, it’s also the film’s limitation, stamping it as an idealistic thought experiment of the left-wing French bourgeoisie, the kind of thing that – indeed – might play for a week or two at the Lightbox and score itself a minor feature in the Life section, but will barely churn the soil of awareness otherwise. And I don’t suppose it helps that Serreau’s sweeping prescriptions aren’t supported by any detailed suggestions (or barely even vague ones) on how such a drastic dismantling of our current infrastructure might be “just organized.”

Ultimately, it’s not merely about reclaiming our right to grow our own food; the film says we have a duty to do so. The final speaker recalls how the British Empire must have seemed impregnable until Gandhi came along; now, he says, we need a hundred Gandhis. But the metaphor is flawed – it’s not us against the Empire, it’s us against ourselves, but after the Empire has dismantled our faculties, sapped our energies and tied our hands behind our backs. So we just keep swallowing whatever it shoves into our throats. And our politicians and decision-makers, great champions of freedom that they are, just get out of the way.

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