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
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
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.”
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
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,
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
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
or by sending a $25 check, made out to Chris Bedford, to:
Chris Bedford, 6543 Hancock Road, Montague, MI, 49437.