MOVIE REVIEW: What Will We Eat?
Local and organic message in Michigan
Documentary film ask a provocative question about the future of our food system which leads to a simple answer.

Reviewed by Dan Sullivan

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What Will We Eat?
A film by Chris Bedford

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May 11, 2006: Chris Bedford’s 27-minute documentary “What Will We Eat?” packs a wallop for its size, offering a history lesson on America’s tragic half-century march into industrial agriculture and a promise for a brighter future led by educated consumers. Considering that the film’s target audience is the uninitiated, Bedford tackles some heady themes, including the notion that “local and organic” is the only sustainable way to fix our country’s broken food system. It’s a lot to chew on, but it’s as easily digestible as the grass-fed meat and fresh, organic produce the film promotes.

Industrial farming is bad, we quickly learn as we see surplus World War II chemicals being dumped onto America’s food supply. But is Big Organics a whole lot better?

“This industrial organic food system is neither fresh nor local,” a female narrator informs viewers with the calming, monotone voice of authority reminiscent of a ninth-grade science film.

One of the documentary’s strengths is that it speaks to the average American, opening with a teacher combing the grocery isles for food free of chemicals, hormones and antibiotic and following a cadre of average consumers as they question the health and safety of the food available to them.

One of the challenges of covering a lot of ground quickly is to adequately explain newly introduced concepts. The documentary generally pulls this off, though there are a few instances when you’d have to be part of the choir to connect the dots. But the main message is loud and clear: Local citizens generally don’t have access to local food, and that needs to change.

“There’s a disconnect between consumers and family farmers and what’s become of our community food system,” the narrator tells us before introducing leaders in the organic and sustainable farming movement to back that assertion up, icons like John Biernbaum, PhD, a soil scientist who heads up the organic farming program at Michigan State University, ag economist John Ikerd and Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

The green revolution turned farms into factories, they tell us, achieving incredible yields of commodity crops at incredible costs. “The industrial farming model is fundamentally in conflict with living processes,” Ikerd delivers in his preacher-like cadence. Then he and a litany of organic farmers and other scientists remind us that healthy farms are indeed alive, not “dead mechanistic systems.”

The documentary is chock full of statistics to make its case: From 1997 to 2002 58,000 medium sized farms were gobbled up by neighboring farms getting bigger (the size increase has not led to economic success); in 25 years the country’s depleted soils would need twice the current nitrogen inputs to maintain current yields (the earth’s taxed systems cannot handle such nutrient overloads); fetal blood samples of babies in a 2005 study contained 200 industrial chemicals, including 21 organo-chlorine pesticides (many of them known to cause cancer).

Pan back to Average Consumer lounging on the couch of her suburban home. “If it’s not food, don’t eat it,” she says matter-of-factly, rhetorically challenging the camera to show her an MSG tree anywhere outside.

Our unabashed favorite scene is Robert Rodale’s introduction of the term “regenerative agriculture” in 1971: “organic farming that enhanced soil quality while raising food; farming that would respect nature and natural processes.” Here, here!

Organic farming is not just about not using pesticides, or not using herbicides or not using commercial fertilizers, farmers Bill and Patrice Bobier tell us, “it’s about doing it right and cultivating that soil culture.”

Cut back to Dr. Biernbaum, doing what all good organic farmers do, scooping up a handful of healthy soil and touting the sheer miracle of it: “There’s more living organisms in a handful of healthy soil than there are people on the planet,” he exclaims with Carl Sagan-like wonder.

“Soil is a living thing and, just like our bodies, if you don’t feed the soil to keep it alive it’s gonna die,” offers organic farmer Jim Loe.

There’s also a dose of basic math:

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations = poor animal health = animals laced with antibiotics and hormones = unnatural diets and living conditions = poor water quality = very bad.

Pasture-raised animals = diverse diets and natural behavior = fresh air = recycling of on-farm nutrients = much better.

The film points out that the organic sector has grown from a $178 million industry in 1980 to a $13 billion industry in 2004—a 7,500 percent increase.

“There’s no question in our society today that what people purchase matters,” says Michael Hamm, PhD, a distinguished professor at Michigan State University’s C.S. Mott Center for Sustainable Food Systems. Consumer food choices, he said, affect policy, production, distribution and processing. In a word, they affect change.

So how to keep those purchases close to home instead of supporting an industrial model of agriculture that happens to fear the organic stamp?

The Leopold Center’s Kirschenmann suggests that people want food with a face on it and a story behind it. They want to know where and how their food was grown or raised and who the farmer is.

Enter the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market (www.localharvest.org/farmers-markets/M8241) in Sioux City, Iowa, opening in May 2004 as the only producer-only, humane-production farmers' market in the country. (What’s more, everything at the market is organic, too.) Sweetwater Local Foods Market (www.sweetwaterlocalfoodsmarket.org) (where filmmaker Bedford serves as president) in Montague, Michigan, followed suit in July 2005 under the banner “Healthy, humane, homegrown.”

Residents of Muskegon County—where Montague lies—spend more than $340 million on food annually, the film tells us, and less than 1 percent of that food is produced locally. If consumers there spent just $9 a week on local food, that would produce $100 million in new economic activity, when you factor in the local-economy multiplier effect, Dr. Hamm suggests.

And it’s not just about keeping dollars in the community.

“What’s at stake is healthy diets for the population so people have the potential to realize their ability as human beings,” Dr. Hamm tell the camera.

“What Will We Eat?” is a provocative question with some hopeful answers, and the perfect tool for farmers, market managers, and anyone interested in building a “healthy, humane and homegrown” food network to share with their communities. The documentary can be ordered at Chris Bedford Films www.localharvest.org/member/M10155 or by sending a $25 check, made out to Chris Bedford, to: Chris Bedford, 6543 Hancock Road, Montague, MI, 49437.