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Friday, June 12, 2009

A Conversation with 'Food, Inc.' Director Robert Kenner

Posted By on Fri, Jun 12, 2009 at 11:52 AM

click to enlarge Robert Kenner (right) with author Michael Pollan. - WNYC/FLICKR
  • wnyc/Flickr
  • Robert Kenner (right) with author Michael Pollan.
Food, Inc., a documentary opening today at Landmark Theatres' Embarcadero Center, takes a grim look at the American industrial food system. (See the trailer below.) Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser is a producer (he'll be in the city tomorrow, appearing at the 4:50 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. showings). Director Robert Kenner spoke with SFoodie this morning about the impact making the film has had on his own food choices, as well as the backlash against Food, Inc. by Big Ag.

SFoodie: How has making the film changed the way you eat?

Kenner: The most shocking thing to me in making this film was just how much information has been denied to us. I've become much more conscious of a system that's been hidden from me. Some people have seen this film and say, I'm never going to eat chicken again. Well that's not the point of our film. It's to show the lack of transparency. And we're up against billions of dollars of advertising from the other side -- if my distributor spent half a million getting the word out about this film I'd be thrilled! All we want is transparency and a good conversation about these things. Eric Schlosser said that after Fast Food Nation came out there wasn't that much interest in this stuff. Today we're part of a huge movement -- even Michelle Obama is part of it, whether she knows it or not, just by having the audacity to grow a vegetable garden without chemicals. And there's organized resistance against it! It's truly an Orwellian world out there.

SFoodie: Critics like Monsanto, which declined to appear in the movie, have been saying it disses hard-working family farmers.

Kenner: We have nothing but the utmost respect for farmers, but the whole system is made possible by government subsidies to a few huge crops like corn. It's a form of socialism that's making us sick. Look, the farmers were asked to provide us with more and more food, and they did a great job. Unfortunately, these calories are making us sick. More and more people are not willing to engage in a system that's not sustainable. Inexpensive food is coming to us at too big a price. It's like tobacco -- very strong corporations with very close ties to government. I think there's a real parallel with food. As soon as we find out the real story about our food, we make different choices. I'm optimistic it's going to change. People like Monsanto, or these groups of young farmers speaking out about the film that are actually funded by these big organizations, say that 98 percent of the farmers in America are family farmers. Well Carole Morison [a Maryland chicken farmer in the film who exposes the horrors of industrial-scale poultry-raising] is a small family farmer, but has no say, basically, over what she does. There might be a lot of farmers, but they're controlled by a very few corporations. And their argument that farmers now are feeding us all is false -- we're not feeding the world now.

SFoodie: Talk about the criticism the film has sparked by these big corporations.

Kenner: I'm aware that the corporations I've tried to enlist to be part of the film are actively speaking out against it. The Meat Association has said that they're concerned it was going to be a major issue, and started sending out talking points to their supporters. Monsanto has created a Web site -- they've tried to follow me whenever I'm speaking on the radio. Monsanto is saying they didn't decline to be in the film. But we spent five months of phone calls and back-and-forth emails. They asked what we'd be talking about in the film. We told them, we told them who else we were talking. They wanted phone numbers, we gave them. We kept in discussion. We finally sent them a letter saying that after four or five months, a lack of response will be taken as a no. We never heard from them. Now Monsanto is taking exception to our statement that they declined to participate -- they say they never formally declined! It's hard to make a fair film when agribusiness refuses to have their voices heard. Now, after the film is made, when they can control the message, they're speaking out very loudly.

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