Last night I attended a preview screening of Eric Schlosser's new documentary, Food INC. The invitation said the movie "uncovers the truth about the food we eat."
After cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, a NYC crowd of trendy and beautiful people watched gross images of badly treated chickens and cattle at factory farms. A fawning promoter then wrung her hands over the safety of her children, before introducing Schlosser for some Q and A. It’s natural that she worries, since prissy New York City parents worry about everything, and the movie implied that industrial agriculture will Americans cancer and food poisoning.
However, there are problems with that logic: Schlosser claims that there has been a "huge increase in food-borne illnesses."
Truth: The CDC says food poisoning cases fell by 25% since 1996, as the chart below indicates. (CDC chart below)
Reliable national data only goes back to 1996, when the CDC established an agency called "FoodNet" to estimate the extent of food poisoning. According Dr. Elaine Scallan, a former chief of FoodNet, the CDC had "no idea" about the levels of many food-borne illnesses prior to 1996. Since 1996, industrial food production has increased and food poisoning declined. Of course it would decline much further if America would irradiate food, but environmental hysterics and "pure" food nuts have spread so much fear about irradiation than less than 1% of American food is irradiated.
Food Inc also suggests that Monsanto is evil because it patents its genetically altered seeds and sues farmers just for saving or replanting the seeds.
Of course, companies can't make a return on their giant investment in better seeds if they can't protect their patent on what they invent.
To have a meaningful patent, Monsanto has to make sure nobody else sells the same genetically modified seeds. That is why they require farmers to sign contracts stating that they will not save or replant the seeds. When they believe the contracts are broken, they take the farmers to court (and frequently win.) Monsanto, I suspect that if you made copies of Eric Schlosser's books and movies to give to friends and sell to bookstores, Schlosser's lawyers would be after you pretty quickly. I didn't get a chance to ask him about that.
His film also points out that a Supreme Court decision involving plant patents was written by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who once worked for Monsanto. The film suggests the decision was influenced by Thomas¹ previous employment with Monsanto. It’s possible, of course. But the audience is never told that while Justice Thomas indeed wrote the majority opinion, it was a 6-2 decision. Justice Thomas was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Souter and Ginsberg. How could his former employment influence all of them?
At least Schlosser's movie attacks farm subsidies and points out their destructive side-effects -- that can't be done often enough.