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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review: Farmageddon

Woman Milking Cow. Albert J. Ewing, Ohio Historical Society
Farmageddon is a 2011 documentary now streaming on Netflix. I watched it last night, and will probably watch it again soon because there's a lot to...err...digest there. I'd suggest watching Food Inc. first, except that unfortunately it is no longer streaming. Food Inc. is about how mass production of foodstuffs by corporations leads to it being less healthy to the consumer and the environment and less ethical in terms of treatment of livestock, whereas Farmageddon is more about the efforts of small farmers to make a living and produce what they consider to be healthy food, only to be thwarted by the same regulations that prop up those corporations depicted in Food Inc. One of the reviews I read for Farmageddon described it as "anti-government," but that's not exactly true. After all, one of the criticisms made is that government agencies are not regulating enough. The general criticism, however, is that they are not regulating well.

But what does "not regulating well" mean? It means, basically, that these agencies lack perspective, and injustice is born whenever perspective is absent. The argument is not against regulation generally, but it's about what happens when regulation stops being about protecting people and becomes more about protecting interests. For example, both of these movies feature sustainable farmer Joel Salatin (whom I've written about before). He has written and speaks about how government regulations punish small farmers for being small farmers regularly, but one of the most striking examples I've seen of this was actually about a friend of his described in The Omnivore's Dilemma who constructed a small-scale slaughterhouse to exacting USDA standards only to find, once it was built, that he couldn't use it because there were no USDA standards which would allow for the necessary regular inspection and approval of a small-scale slaughterhouse. Which means, in other words, that he could raise livestock but not slaughter and sell it-- not because there was anything wrong with the livestock, or with the means of slaughtering, but because the regulations themselves would not allow it.

Now, I'm pretty extreme when it comes to these things. One of my favorite causes is Keep Food Legal, because I basically believe that if you can produce something, you should be allowed to consume it. And if you can consume it (or do it), you should be allowed to sell it. That's a very anti-regulation stance, except that I think that the government should be able to demand that if you hire people to produce food you should make it possible for them to do it safely, and that if the food you sell is poisonous or otherwise harmful in a way that isn't made known to the consumer then you should be legally held responsible for that. In other words, I see a place for OSHA, the FDA, and the USDA-- I just think that they're doing too much in some places and too little in others, and they're doing it too much in service of the profit motives of corporations instead of the public welfare.

If you watch Farmageddon, you will get ample examples of this. It's heartbreaking and horrifying to see the privacy of a family farm invaded and their produce and animals seized by a load of men pointing guns around as if they're wandering into a warzone rather than taking some vegetables and sheep from some people in pajamas. It's even more ridiculous than a marijuana seizure, and I'm surprised to not yet have heard about SCOTUS debating whether it's permissible to conduct no-knock raids on suspicion of raw milk possession (Scalia and Thomas, of course, would be in favor).

Raw milk, it should be noted, is a heavy point of this film. The director firmly believes that consumption of raw milk was the key to relieving her son's allergies, and the health benefits of such are touted throughout the movie. I would strongly suggest ignoring all of that. Regulations preventing the production and consumption of raw milk would be equally unjust if it wasn't a magical panacea, so let's just assume it isn't. It is, however, particularly illustrative of the inequity if everything being discussed is actually health food-- if government regulations and subsidies favor the production of what will make you fat while inhibiting what will  make you healthy-- so you can hardly blame the film for harping on that. I'm just saying it isn't necessary. Chocolate isn't good for you, but it would still be wrong to break into confectionaries in the early morning to wave guns around and confiscate everything containing more than 150 calories an ounce.

In the ongoing healthcare debate, the ethics of how to treat people who produce and consume food-- any kind of food-- is an important topic. I'd say that the message of Farmageddon, a correct and supported message, is Not like this. People who are trying to make and sell what they believe to be healthy food are not criminals, and should not be treated as such. Like a good documentary, this one illustrates the problem clearly.

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