Published on July 7th, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer5
“Farmageddon,” which opens tomorrow at Cinema Village, argues compellingly that in the United States, the freedom to make, sell and buy healthy, nutrient-rich foods, such as raw (unpasteurized) milk, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, is both worth fighting for and, unfortunately, under continual attack by our government in the form of harassment, illegal raids and unfair regulations. Common sense would suggest that the right to farm and consume healthy foods is an inalienable right. But in case after heartbreaking case of good, decent farmers being treated like criminals, “Farmageddon” reveals how determinedly government agencies at both the state and federal levels are working to prevent small farmers from practicing ethical, traditional and sustainable agriculture. These agencies claim to be protecting the public’s health, but by subjecting tiny family farms to the voluminous paperwork and complicated laws written for the regulation of multibillion-dollar, multinational corporations that practice factory farming, they cheat small farmers out of their livelihoods, cheat consumers out of the foods that they should have the right to consume, and cheat taxpayers out of the many millions of government dollars needlessly spent investigating and shutting down perfectly safe family farming operations.
In drawing attention to the plight of our country’s small farmers, Canty’s film recalls some of the saddest segments of Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary “Food Inc.” and much of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book “Eating Animals.” In fact, the aforementioned Joel Salatin, an amiable farmer who features prominently in “Farmageddon” and whose story is one of the only ones in the film that isn’t tinged with tragedy, was also one of the stars of “Food Inc.” and a name dropped in “Eating Animals.” But whereas Kenner’s film and Safran Foer’s book pointedly attack factory farming—and with good reason—“Farmageddon” takes a more libertarian approach (especially apparent when Ron Paul appears during the film’s final minutes) of primarily insisting on the upholding of our right to choose what to eat.
Canty first became interested in the kinds of foods provided by small, local, independent farmers eleven years ago when raw milk from grass-fed cows successfully cured her then four-year-old son’s severe allergies and asthma. “The effects of raw milk on my son,” she writes in the film’s press release, “inspired me to make an effort to introduce healthier foods into our diets. We decided that we didn’t want to eat factory farmed foods tainted by antibiotics, steroids and genetically modified grains.”
“Farmageddon” ostensibly addresses the government’s infringement on farmers’ and consumers’ rights to make, sell and buy many of the products of small, sustainable, ethically managed farms. But it becomes clear over the course of the film that the government agencies’ primary targets are raw milk and any products made from it, such as yogurts and cheeses. The film devotes so much time to cases somehow involving raw milk that it feels somewhat ambivalently focused. I found myself wanting to know more about raw milk’s purported health benefits, as well as wondering why exactly the FDA and USDA were so terrified of it.
In the film’s press release, Canty asserts, “‘Farmageddon’ is in no way meant to convince anyone to drink raw milk, or eat grass-fed beef, but rather [is] an argument to allow those that want to make those choices to do so.” Unless this statement is aimed at vegetarians and vegans, however, it seems disingenuous. For the film’s argument to succeed, it has to convince us that the right to drink raw milk or eat grass-fed beef is not only imperiled but also worth upholding.
In the case of grass-fed beef, limited access to slaughterhouses may be the only real problem. No one contests that it is both safe to eat and healthier than grain-fed beef.
But the safety of raw milk is highly controversial, and although several of Canty’s interviewees, most notably a pediatrician, attest to its health benefits, other interviewees warn of its dangers. The film deserves credit for presenting a variety of perspectives, but it nonetheless left me feeling somewhat uncertain as to whether raw milk was safe. As a result, until I read other sources, I was not completely convinced that the government was wrong to restrict its sale.
“Farmageddon” should be required viewing for anyone in the United States who eats. But it is only one of many important pleas for changes to the way our country thinks about food. “Food Inc.” and “Eating Animals” are two others. Those works are, either in part or in whole, similar to “Farmageddon” in being inspired by parental love and concern, which makes all three feel intensely purposeful. Although their messages may vary, these sources and others, such as Ben Hewitt’s “The Town That Food Saved” and Nina Planck’s “Real Food: What to Eat and Why,” are hugely important for raising public awareness about our country’s dysfunctional relationship to food. As Michael Pollan writes at the beginning of his highly influential book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu?”