Jean Ziegler: A Swiss not to miss
I happened to catch two new documentaries on the global mechanized food system in the last three weeks that gave me a lot to chew over, and I thought I'd share my impressions with you.
The first was Our Daily Bread
, directed by the Austrian moviemaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Geyrhalter's movie looks at the industrial farming of fruits, vegetables, and animals to show the individuals who pluck and harvest our crops and the, frankly, ingenious and pretty cool machines they operate. The movie is spare, with no music and no talking heads, indeed no clearly discernible narrative at all. There is only ambient sound and scene upon scene of conveyer belts and sorting machines and people going about the quotidian business of reaping and killing, when they're not eating their packed sandwiches for lunch, that is. It's a sort of Koyaanisqatsi
for factory farming, minus Philip Glass, and you leave feeling vaguely appalled, but also vaguely impressed by the ruthless efficiency and sheer ingenious indifference of twenty-first century Homo Faber
The second film, We Feed the World
, is a documentary by another Austrian, Erwin Wagenhofer, and has the distinction of being the most successful Austrian documentary ever produced. This one features talking heads: among them, a French fisherman; a Brazilian farmer; a quasi-apologetic representative from Pioneer
, owned by Du Pont, and a Monsanto
clone; the smoothly aggressive better-living-through-chemistry head of Nestle
; a driver of a truck carrying perfectly edible bread to be thrown away because it's more than two days old; and the wonderfully frank and acerbic Jean Ziegler
, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Unlike Our Daily Bread
, We Feed the World
is not interested in aestheticizing the weird world we've created to have cheap food (you can see stills from the Our Daily Bread here
), although both films show the glittering valley filled with tomato greenhouses in Spain
, and they appear to have visited the same chick incubation factory.
Instead, it is concerned with globalization and the absurdity of our bioindustrial food system, where local foods cost more than imported ones, a massive amount of food is wasted while the country that exports it starves, and where fish that no one used to eat are now being "harvested" because we're sucking the seas dry of food, quite literally as we see in Our Daily Bread
. To their credit, both films show animals being killed in vast numbers and with no consideration for their welfare, although the line speeds in Europe appear to be much
slower and the hygiene much
better than in the United States.
When we went and saw Our Daily Bread
, in Huntington, Long Island, Mia and I were interested to see what the food policy maven and social scientist Marion Nestle
would make of it. She introduced the film to the audience by saying that the film would include pictures of animals being mistreated (it did), an issue, she added, that had previously only been the purview of "extremist" animal rights groups, like PETA. Now, she said, the issue was much more in the mainsteam. (Full disclosure: Lantern used to host and maintain Marion Nestle's website.) Well, Mia and I were stunned. Here was somebody welcoming an awareness about farmed animal welfare in the public consciousness, and then calling the very activists who brought it to the attention of the world "extremist." This wasn't shooting the messenger, it was disemboweling them. Dr. Nestle, who is in other respects a very sensible and knowledgeable individual, said some other discouraging things as well, but we'll save those to another day and another blog post.
Anyway, I strongly recommend checking out both movies when, and if, you can. Our Daily Bread
is the more interesting film, not least because it's more arresting to look at. We Feed the World
is more informative and more trenchant. It also has Jean Ziegler: and he alone is worth the price of admission alone.