Food Activism at Berlinale Saving the Planet, One Bite at a Time

This year's Berlin International Film Festival features a number of films dedicated to the movement for sustainable food. "Food, Inc." is a chilling documentary about the US food industry, while "Terra Madre" is a tribute to the Slow Food movement.

By David Gordon Smith in Berlin

Newly hatched chicks being sorted on a factory conveyer belt. Cows being slain by the dozen on a slaughterhouse "killing floor." Chickens kept in a shed at such density that the floor can't be seen. Hamburger meat being cleaned with ammonia in a high-tech factory.

These are the kinds of shocking images that can be seen in "Food, Inc.," a new documentary by filmmaker Robert Kenner that draws back the veil on the American food industry. The film, which is showing as part of the Culinary Cinema section at the Berlin International Film Festival, uses footage from hidden cameras and interviews with victims of the food system to deliver a disturbing indictment of the kind of industrial food production which has developed in the US and elsewhere over the last few decades.

"We have learned to produce food with incredible efficiency," Michael Pollan, a writer who has extensively researched the industry, told the audience at a panel discussion following the film's European premiere on Sunday. "But the system we have developed is not sustainable. It is destroying the conditions on which it depends."

Pollan and fellow author Eric Schlosser provide the theoretical backbone to the film, which features ideas that first got the workshop treatment in books such as Pollan's "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" and Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation."

In interviews in the film, the two journalists deliver a devastating critique of the food industry. The industrialization of food has, they argue, led to health risks for consumers in the form of increasing outbreaks of potentially deadly E. coli infections and a rise in cases of type 2 diabetes.

They also argue that the US government subsidizes the production of the wrong types of food -- what the authors call "bad calories." Here the main offender is corn, which is sold at below the cost of production and fed to beef cattle, promoting the growth of E. coli and artificially driving down the price of meat, or used by food scientists to produce ingredients for an enormous range of processed foods. The result is that the poor are unable to afford healthy whole foods and buy processed foods instead. Farmers too are victims of the system, being in thrall to the huge market power of litigation-happy agribusiness corporations. Growers are forced to buy new genetically modified seeds each year and may quickly find themselves being taken to court if they try to use seeds from previous seasons.

Add to that the environmental impact of the oil-hungry food industry, the exploitation of undocumented workers by agricultural firms to keep costs down and corruption in government agencies, and it's enough to put you off your food.

Pollan admits he doesn't know if the world's population can really be fed using organic, sustainable agriculture. "But we have to try," he says. "We really have no choice."

The film offers a ray of hope in the -- somewhat improbable -- form of retail giant WalMart, which has reacted to consumer demand by stocking increasing amounts of organic products. One of the central messages of the film is that consumers have the power to change the system, simply by "voting" for organic food at the supermarket checkout.

Director Kenner says making the film, which took six years, changed the way he thinks about food. "I became much more conscious about what I eat," he says. "Now I read the labels at the supermarket and avoid things I don't know."

"I'm very optimistic about this change coming," says Schlosser, explaining that over the last 10 years there has been an extraordinary change in attitudes toward food among "well-informed and well-educated" people. "As this knowledge expands, change is inevitable. People will think more about what they're eating. Lies are being exposed."

Pollan shares this optimism, talking about the rise of an increasingly powerful social movement based around food, including people campaigning for healthy school lunches, animal welfare activists, groups concerned with public health and environmental groups. "Anyone interested in tackling global warming has to take an interest in the food system," Pollan says. "But they're up against deeply entrenched power."

Hope for the Future

That movement is portrayed in "Terra Madre," another documentary in the Berlinale's Culinary Cinema series. Directed by renowned Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi, it focuses on the bi-annual Terra Madre conference which brings together food producers and food activists from around the world, including farmers, fishermen, peasants and nomads. The conference is organized by the international "eco-gastronomic" movement Slow Food, whose vice president, California chef Alice Waters, is also on the jury of this year's Berlinale.

The idiosyncratic, lyrical film examines how participants at the Terra Madre conference are working to save the planet's food systems. Those people include environmental activist Vandana Shiva, who is working to preserve traditional varieties of seeds in India, or American high school student Sam Levin, who planted a garden at his school which has since inspired many similar schemes elsewhere.

"It's not a protest film," Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini said at a press conference for the film. "It's not just raising environmental awareness. It's a film that offers us hope for the future."

Petrini told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview that a new philosophy of low consumption is needed. "I believe that one of the solutions to escape from being a slave to consumerism is to understand that we do not need it," he said. "We need to consciously think about our consumption habits and realize that we don't need so much."

But Petrini emphasizes that consuming less does not mean going without. "It's not a curse," he says. "It's a pleasure."

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