CUESA Interview: Robert Kenner Discusses Food, Inc.

June 5, 2009

cropped cowFood, Inc. director Robert Kenner talked to CUESA recently about what he learned while making a hard-hitting film about the increasing corporate control of America’s food system.

CUESA: What do you think about the term “conventional agriculture”?  Does it reinforce the idea that when people are not buying sustainably produced food, they’re doing what’s “normal”?

Robert Kenner: If you call chemical-laden agriculture conventional, yes. But it’s important to realize that’s only been in existence for 40-50 years. For ten thousand years “conventional” was the opposite of what it is now. The world’s food has been fundamentally transformed in a way that these agribusinesses want to keep you from seeing. And that was the most shocking thing for me in making Food, Inc. I knew there were big factory farms out there, but I didn’t know agribusiness was essentially keeping us from really talking about it. So the idea that this highly mechanized, often unhealthy system is “conventional”? There’s something Orwellian going on there.

CUESA: Who is the film’s target audience?

RK: I want to reach people who haven’t thought about where their food comes from. I’m not going after highly educated people who read about this all the time. I think this is an issue that can really reach people.  

I think it’s a minor miracle that we get these three meals a day — and I thought that tracing where it all comes from would make an interesting story. I was also curious about the industrialization of the system. We spend so little on food — less than at any time; I wanted to know how that was possible. Of course, I learned that there’s this incredibly high cost that comes with that “cheap food.”

food inc chicken houseCUESA: Even those who are involved in the sustainable food movement will be impressed by some of the footage you include in the film. Can you tell us about how Monsanto has responded to the film?

RK: Monsanto just created a whole page on their website dedicated to Food, Inc. They’re coming after us. They refused to be interviewed and now they’re claiming that their voice wasn’t heard.

CUESA: What changes do you see on the food horizon?

RK: I’m a total pessimist but I’m starting to feel optimistic. I feel like these things are seeping up. If we get angry enough and if awareness spreads beyond progressive urban areas, I think change will follow and people like Tom Vilsack will be ready to listen. Obama really didn’t care about food, not because of lack of interest but because there were too many other disasters on his plate — and that’s changing. Because you can’t care about health care and not care about food (nearly one out of every three Americans has diabetes, for instance). You can’t care about the environment and have water not be drinkable in Iowa, or a giant dead zone caused by agriculture in the Gulf of Mexico. You can’t care about energy issues or workers’ rights either — not without caring about food.

I think this is a movement that can spread to other things; the food revolution will be about much more than food — just like the financial crisis was about so much more than real estate.

CUESA:  Why try to comment on so many facets of this system in a single film?

food, inc familyRK: I was really hoping to connect the dots between these issues. But it’s really about the bottom line and about the bottom line gone berserk. It’s about Corporate America being willing to serve you food that’s not good for you — on so many levels —  in the same way that they can sell you a bad mortgage.

CUESA: What did you learn about corporate organics in this process?

RK: I think it’s really tough for the small farmer to have a successful business. That is the big challenge — all the laws are designed for larger corporations. And that’s going to be the challenge in this country; it goes beyond food.

Gary Hirshberg [C.E.O of Stonyfield Farms, which is now owned by Groupe Danone] was very proud of the fact that many small organic producers had been bought out by larger companies. That, to him, was a sign of success. He’s a complicated character — so it fills the film with certain ambiguities.

CUESA: How did you get access to Wal-Mart?

RK: I was so relieved to get a corporation that would speak to me. I spent two years trying to get them and it really was because of Gary that they agreed to it. Obviously Wal-Mart’s wrongdoings are well documented and I have no sympathy with how they treat their workers and all that. But I felt that it was important to use them to show the power of the consumer and how we can even change a company the size of Wal-Mart.

What I don’t say [in the film] is even if they make changes for the good, it’s wrong to have that much power. It’s part of the monoculture. The same thing that’s happening in crops is happening in corporations.

Food, Inc. opens in San Francisco on June 12. Watch the trailer >

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