May 3, 2011

“Fresh”, A Movie on the Food System

Filed under: Food and Farms, Land Reform — Tags: — Russ @ 3:58 am


Last week I went to a screening of the movie, “Fresh”, about the corporate food system and how to restore sane farming practices. It’s an excellent primer on the basics, with lots of inspiring as well as harrowing images.
Much of the attack is against CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), AKA factory farms. These are a physical, moral, aesthetic, and socioeconomic disaster. They’ve been the form of concentration of cattle, hogs, and chickens, destroying innumerable autonomous farmers in America, Eastern Europe, indirectly in Africa, and elsewhere. They’re a hideous regime of animal cruelty. They generate such vast amounts of unusable animal waste that it must be dumped in lagoons which slowly spread across the countryside, their stench spreading much further to afflict mostly poor (and only non-rich) communities. These “manure” lagoons are similar to the storage of spent rods from nuclear energy production. There’s simply no way to dispose of the toxic waste, which just continues to pile up. (I think no matter how much of a psychopath one wants to be, all defenses of nuclear energy as well as CAFOs must ultimately shipwreck on this waste problem, which is truly unsolvable.)
This waste crisis is an extreme version of the longstanding problem of the separation of town and country which is imposed by capitalism in food production. In sane farming the farmer uses manure, crop waste, and crop rotation to replenish the soil. It’s a mostly closed loop. But under industrial farming, the farmer is driven to grow a cash crop monoculture. The crop is repeatedly grown, harvested, and exported from the farm to the city. The farmer is forced to turn to synthetic fertilizer to prop up the zombie soil. Meanwhile the waste is imported to the city along with the animals sent to the processors there, as well as in the form of the human waste the city generates as imported food lets populations not grounded on the land burgeon there. Thus an intractable waste problem is generated there. As it’s always put, the separation of town and country takes a well-balanced natural system and replaces it with two massive artificial problems.
Today CAFOs are an intensified manifestation of the same phenomenon. They’re simply mini-cities of concentrated animals. In the movie we drive past a small CAFO of 2400 hogs. But 20,000 is a more typical number. This aggravates the artificial problems of lack of natural soil building and what to do with the accumulating waste.
This waste can’t be used by farmers as manure because it’s too concentrated and too loaded with drug and hormone residues. The animals could never function in the horrendous confined environment without quickly becoming sick, so they’re continually pumped full of antibiotics. The same US government which has strict regulations regarding the dispensation of antibiotics for human use, and whose DEA has long menaced doctors prescribing painkillers to suffering patients, has practically no regulations at all for the promiscuous use of antibiotics in factory farming. Not to treat actually sick animals, but as a constant maintenance regime to prevent their immediately sickening and dying. This only generates microbial resistance which must then be met with escalating injections. Thus we have a biological arms race taking place in what are de facto bioweapons labs. These bioweapons factories are unregulated and unsecured. They were probably the source of the swine flu, a shot over our bow. It’s guaranteed that they’ll one day be the source of a lethal pandemic which will kill millions.
The more dire things I wrote there aren’t explicit in the movie, which has a more restrained tone. But it comes through loud and clear when reformed hog farmer David Ball describes how he almost died from an infection he contracted after being lacerated by one of his hogs back when he was a factory farmer who spent most of his time injecting his stock.
Factory farms are the worst aspect of a terrible system in general. The movie discusses how the monocrop system is dominated by corn and soy, which in turn are not grown for direct human consumption, but almost all for industrial use: As processed animal feed in those CAFOs (another reason the cattle are all intrinsically ill – cattle aren’t set up to eat corn and grain, they eat grass; more on that below); to be processed into corn sweetener; to be processed into ethanol.
Today’s corporate farmers are economically unviable. They’re actually the same debt-enslaved sharecroppers of the 19th century South. Their income could never cover all they have to pay for seeds, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, fuel, equipment, and the interest on al their debts. The only thing which keeps them in business is government subsidies. So that’s the modern refinement on the old sharecropping system. Today’s sharecropper has his debts covered by the taxpayer.
But let me make clear that this is not done to “support the farmer”. There are far better ways to farm and to organize a food production economy which don’t require debt at all. The federal subsidies are to support corporate agriculture, which is what’s truly unviable, a permanent welfare patient. Corporate agriculture has never in its history been legitimately profitable. Instead, it’s always relied upon government support and externalizing many of its costs. In the movie Michael Pollan appears as a talking head, conceding that “local organic food costs more” (at the moment), but only because corporate food is dumped on the market, with most of its costs externalized on taxpayer subsidies, the environment, the poor (who must endure the proximity of CAFOs and other horrors of industrial production), and our health. So the price we pay at the supermarket for corporate produce and processed food is artificially kept far below the real price. But we’ll pay it, in taxes, doctor bills, environmental disasters, and eventually famines and pandemics.
What is the alternative? Most of the movie follows farmers Joel Salatin and David Ball, showing how they base their farming on natural practices. Salatin moves his herd of cattle from pasture to pasture. They graze on one field, leaving their manure behind. Free-range chickens follow them, picking the manure clean of all parasites and their eggs and larvae. Fields are fertilized, the chickens produce great eggs, and the cattle are healthy and yield delicious beef. Ball, who barely survived his scrape with CAFO microbiology, now practices similar sustainability in hog farming.
As Salatin explains, in nature herbivores are always moving and never eat meat. We see how factory farming, with its intensive confinement and cattle feed combining grains (which they also don’t naturally eat) and waste parts of animals (animals in CAFOs are forced to be cannibals) is the radical opposite. To think that we’re such exceptions to the natural order of the Earth that we can get away with spitting in nature’s face this way is insanity. Those responsible – corporate executives, major shareholders, politicians and media flacks – must answer for these crimes.
What could restore sanity to our agriculture? Salatin gives a taut formula. Currently 70% of our grain production goes to cattle feed, only 30% to people, pigs, and poultry. So take the land dedicated to that wasted 70% and restore it to grass-fed cattle raising. This would restore the balances and eliminate the problems.
The movie doesn’t go into the big political picture, and has a reformist tone. But the redemptions called for will take place only within a comprehensive framework of a Food Sovereignty revolution. There will be no way to redeem the land for this restored holistic production, liberate the farmer from debt indenture, remove the market inefficiencies like CAFOs and commodity ethanol, and remove the criminals who want to force all the destructive entities and practices upon us and prevent all reforms and redemptions, other than through a complete transformation.
But in the meantime, we must steadily and gradually do what we can to exist in spite of the system. Farmers like Salatin and Ball, and distribution networks like Good Natured Family Farms, a consortium of independent producers and distributors also featured in the movie, provide proof of principle.


  1. […] New review of the movie “Fresh” Russ reviews the movie “Fresh” on his “Volatility” website: […]

    Pingback by New review of the movie “Fresh” | The Bovine — May 3, 2011 @ 8:01 am

  2. Good stuff, Russ! 🙂

    Comment by Johnny D. — May 3, 2011 @ 10:46 am

  3. The Feds just came down on an Amish “raw milk” producer.

    Funny – until the 20th century, everyone in the world who drank milk was drinking “raw milk.” It doesn’t seem to have been a major source of human death, compared to other causes.

    The Amish farmer’s customers were all 100% happy with their milk.

    The Obama administration has advocated leaving medical marijuana alone, as well as illegal immigrants, etc.

    But raw milk is a danger to big ag.

    Illegal immigration is only a danger to the wage base of the proletariat.

    Comment by Publius — May 3, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    • That’s why they’re doing it. The food safety claim is even more fraudulent than the threat-of-terrorism claim.

      Statistically, you’re more likely to be badly hurt or killed in a car crash while driving to buy your raw milk than you are to get sick from drinking it.

      BTW, the recently passed Food Control bill seeks to integrate the corporate food tyranny with the “war on terror” police state.

      To quote from an earlier post:


      The Senate version of the bill did make significant corporate progress over the House version in one way – it wants to integrate our food into the Department of Homeland Security’s “war on terror”. The DHS of course shouldn’t exist at all. It has never served any purpose other than pork and police statism. (It should be called the Dept. of PPS.)

      Why aren’t the tea partiers outraged over how the food bill orders HHS and the DoA to coordinate with DHS, via a gaggle of secretive executive master plans, to conjure up a “National Agriculture and Food Defense Strategy”? This is Big Government at its most stupid and brutal. Anyone who hasn’t read about the Nazi party’s Four Year Plan and the wartime SS program to take over the entire economy had better study these examples of extreme corporatism, because we have the same phenomenon progressing today through the mechanisms of the DHS and its bogus “war on terror”.

      As I said before, terrorism can be a threat only to a highly centralized food system. So anyone who was truly concerned about terrorism would call for decentralizing it. We see again how all security is always increased by heading in that direction, while the bogeyman of “terrorism” is always being fraudulently trumped up to justify further centralization. This again proves that this bill is a sham.

      Comment by Russ — May 3, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

      • and ironically, it’s Big Agriculture who’s brought us the outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella in heretofore un-risky substances like spinach and peanut butter.

        So much for “food safety” claims.

        Comment by Lidia — May 8, 2011 @ 8:47 am

      • Yes, on its face the “food safety” rationale is a lie, since:

        1. All major outbreaks are caused by big corporate producers, so any regulatory outfit which truly cared about safety would put almost all its resources into policing them. But the FDA etc. put an absurd level of resources into harassing and assaulting small producers instead.

        2. We know that from the point of view of countering any threat – normal food-borne illness, artificially created illness (endemic to the industrial food system itself), and the alleged threat of terrorism – the answer is decentralization of the food system.

        But this government systematically tries to concentrate it further.

        So both of these prove “food safety” is just as big a disaster capitalist scam as “the war on terror.”

        And the two ploys are being integrated:


        Comment by Russ — May 8, 2011 @ 11:33 am

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Russ. I’ll have to check this one out.

    I’m just beginning to grapple with some of these issues myself. The primary model referred to by academics interested in indoor aquaculture is the broiler chicken industry, which is, as you know, composed of hideously destructive CAFOs operated by contract farmers in a monopsony-type market with 4 major vertically-integrated corporations dominating almost all US production. That this is presented as an ideal to be strived for is revealing- academics in these agricultural departments seem to have been completely intellectually coopted by industry, and think only in terms of production and at-market price. At the same time, it shows how rational-seeming the CAFO system is in an environment where environmental and social costs are externalised, to the point where otherwise intelligent scientists and engineers embrace it as the only way forward.

    I would like to know more about the specifics of how these organic producers are able to compete with CAFO operations. Are there general strategies we can take away from their successes? Do they rely mostly on upper-income customers to pay a premium for local produce, or are they able to be cost-competitive with these highly subsidized corporations in their own right?

    It’s been difficult to wrap my head around the best way forward. Clearly, we need a system that accounts for the true cost of food. We’re not likely to get that, however, due to the political power of corporate producers, so we have to be able to compete in some way with corporate production. At the same time, for an industry like aquaculture, we have the added constraint of the frozen fished market being dominated by Chinese and South American operations with absurdly low unit costs. The pressures to produce large volumes of animal with the most meat per animal, least feed per animal, least space and labour per animal, etc, are very real and embedded within the system, due to its inability to account for food quality, the wellbeing of the animals, the wellbeing of the labourers, environmental impact, etc etc.

    It seems to me that we will need to find ways to integrate food production into our communities, perhaps using alternate monetary or bartering schemes that you have mentioned, in order to allow them to operate on a less-than-strictly monetary basis. Costing out some of the basics for an urban indoor recirculating aquaculture system, there are major cashflow issues with rent, capital depreciation, labour costs (the systems are not insanely complex, but require close monitoring, careful husbandry, and 24/7 on-call staff), transport of live fish to market, etc. A way to decrease cash labour costs by using other forms of compensation, or to replace/maintain plant by barter with local engineers would significantly abrogate those problems. This is going to be a long, hard slog, and will require as much cultural innovation as technical. I hope that as this movement goes forward we’ll be able to use this as a forum to exchange practical strategies to achieve our goals.

    Comment by paper mac — May 3, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    • Those are the questions we’re all trying to figure out. I agree that the answer is to be sought in large part through alternative economic arrangements.

      I’m not completely sure about how today’s organic producers compete, but unfortunately I think it is largely through a premium that higher-income customers are willing to pay. For obvious reasons, that’s a tenuous business plan, if they’re truly dependent upon that.

      It’s sickening because organic agriculture would easily be cost-competitive if the subsidies were removed. I actually do think it’s possible that commodity crop subsidies might be politically vulnerable. There’s broad hostility (at least rhetorical) toward them even among the politicians (the ones who haven’t been directly bought by Bi Ag). As short-run painful as it would be for many farmers, the best thing would be to strip the subsidies.

      The line which is both true and, I think, politically effective would be to keep hammering away at what I said above, that “farmer” subsidies are really disguised corporate subsidies which prop up the zombie Big Ag system and don’t benefit the farmer, but merely string him along at the subsistence level.

      If the anti-subsidy coalition, which initially showed vigor during the last round of Farm Bill debate before letting itself be dismantled as various groups were bought off with various crumbs, were to actually stick together this time around, maybe that could be accomplished.

      I’m not betting on it, of course.

      Comment by Russ — May 4, 2011 @ 2:12 am

  5. Hello, thanks for the movie recommendation.

    I know this is neither here nor there but do you think plumbing will be useful in a re-localized economy?

    Comment by Strieb Roman — May 5, 2011 @ 1:01 am

    • You’re welcome, Strieb.

      I think plumbing’s very useful, and it’s good for anyone to learn at least the basics.

      Comment by Russ — May 5, 2011 @ 1:56 am

    • I think plumbing, especially as it concerns wastewater, runoff capture and irrigation, would be a great skill to have. I would also try to study older and more “primitive” ways of working, for example, using gravity and hand pumps rather than assuming you’ll always have electrical pumps or town water pressure. Any kind of knowledge in hydraulics would be useful in other circumstances, I can imagine.

      Comment by Lidia — May 8, 2011 @ 11:37 am

  6. I’m proud to have become a vegetarian, eventually to be vegan. I can’t stomach (intended) the way we produce food in this country. Animal protein is a polluted and polluting food source, imo.

    Good news! Our new place has a community garden. First in which I’ve ever been able to participate.

    When we’re settled I’ll be reading here in more depth. You have wonderful plans and ideas, all of you (us). New ideas and good ideas will prevail–we’re just in a very difficult period right now and it requires enormous courage and cooperation to confront. These times have a lot in common with the 1750s to 1770s in colonial America. Challenging.

    Comment by Janice — May 7, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

    • That’s great about the garden. I just put out ten of my tomato seedlings in pots two days ago, and I’ll put the rest in the ground sometime this week.

      Comment by Russ — May 7, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

    • Janice, you should look into the permaculture and “bioenergetic” systems of food production. Far from being polluting, animals are a critical part of the process, being themselves nourished and nourishing the plants in turn.

      Congrats on the garden!

      Comment by Lidia — May 8, 2011 @ 11:28 am

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