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Brave New World

Films have some 'splainin' to do about food and our future.

By Dorothy Woodend 9 Dec 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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Digging the economic dirt

Sometimes, it's tough to read Harper's magazine. Yes, the writing is excellent and the information is first rate, but it can still leave you feeling like you want to slit your wrists.

The most recent issue just piles on the despair. Lewis H. Lapham, soon to leave the magazine, is heading off still in full-frothing fury at the state of US politics. In his editorial, "The Simple Life," Lapham states, "If President Bush and his companions in arms delight in all things shallow, derivative, and dumb, they take their sense of ease and comfort from the assurances of a consumer market and a popular culture that place a high value on those qualities."

And yes, popular culture certainly does have a fair amount of 'splainin' to do, (film, in particular) but, like everything in this complicated, old world, there are two sides to every story. And sometimes, there are even more than that.

'It's not just empty space'

At the Whistler Film Festival, in amongst the heaps of Canadian shorts, there was a 30-minute film from Tony Papa called It's Not Just Empty Space. The film is a platform for our very own Dr. David Suzuki to talk candidly about his life.

And talk, he does -- everything from growing up in Vancouver and Ontario, to his mother and father's last years, the house he lives in, and how the world has changed since he was a child hiding out in a swamp, collecting frogs' eggs and tadpoles. His swamp is now an enormous shopping mall, and Suzuki, himself, a world-renowned authority on the environment. Much of the film is taken from an essay published in an anthology entitled Life Stories: World-Renowned Scientists Reflect on their Lives and the Future of Life on Earth.

It is well worth reading, but the film is an equally compelling visual interpretation of this changing world from the perspective of one human person, (albeit, a very well spoken and extraordinarily informed person.) One of Suzuki's philosophies about human existence is taken from the native belief that we are part of the Earth, an idea that is actually backed up by some serious science.

Out of this world

Says Dr. Suzuki, "When I first encountered First Nations people, they told me we are made of the four sacred elements: Earth, air, fire and water. As I reflected on that, I realized we've framed the environmental problem the wrong way. There's no environment "out there" for us to interact with. We are the environment, because we are the Earth. For me, that began a whole shift in the way that I looked at the issues that confront us and the way we live on this planet."

Suzuki uses a number of different examples, including Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley's experiment that followed the path of argon (an inert, nonreactive element) in a single human breath to illustrate the idea that nothing ever really goes away. The most surprising thing that Dr. Suzuki has to say is that the spirit and science aren't necessarily opposed. In fact, they are often oddly conjoined. It is economics that is utterly screwed. Dr. Suzuki states that the soul sickness that pervades much of Western culture stems from the idea that we have cut ourselves off from everything truly necessary to existence: clean air, clean water, good food and some type of spiritual connection to the place we live.

Our poor, sad world, we have not been kind to her.

Despite this, Suzuki, interviewed recently at the world climate change conference in Montreal, seems unusually chipper about the issue of global warming, citing the number of grassroots movements that have popped up across North America that simply ignore the Bush administration and are taking matters into their own hands.

Bathtub philosophy

The term "grassroots" is an indicator of the biological nature of our mammalian perspective. No grass, no food, no humans. Which returns me, again, to Harper's magazine, in particular, to an article from Bill McKibben, "Letter from China: The Great Leap, Scenes from China's Industrial Revolution." Reading it in the bathtub one night, all I could say was "Oh my God!" over and over.

The sheer scale of possible catastrophe was simply too large to comprehend. Writes McKibben, "Forget pollution for a minute -- the bigger problem is that almost every natural system in China shows the effects of thousands of years of hard use, and especially, of the last half century of ideologically inspired misuse...Without roots to hold the soil, much of the countryside has simply turned to sand. Deserts advance by hundreds of miles annually, and the dust storms of April and May are now a recognized Beijing season, just like the Dust Bowl circa 1934..." The article also explicates the possible effects of mass migration from the rural, farming countryside, to the city, where people move from becoming "food independent to food dependent", a change that has already taken place in other countries (Brazil, Africa, Mexico, etc.) to the great detriment of human life.

'The Future of Food'

The documentary, The Future of Food, makes a similar point about the move from subsistence farming to industrialized commercial farming meant to support a rapidly swelling urban population. The film takes on one of the most important subjects of this time, maybe of all time, and in this light, I wished that the filmmaker was more up to the challenge. Deborah Koons Garcia (widow of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia), is certainly impassioned about her subject, but she is not necessarily a great documentarian.

This is a problem with many recent (often politically motivated) documentaries -- the subject may be fascinating, but the films don't measure up. It isn't simply a matter of assembling a collection of facts and training the camera lenses on some talking heads. There needs to be an overall argument.

That said, some of the information in the film is truly startling. The sheer size and scope of Monsanto's empire, aided and abetted by the US government in successive administrations, puts the work of Darth Vader and Darth Sidious to shame. If they want to compete with the suits at Monsanto, they should hire lawyers instead of stormtroopers.

Evil farmers?

Suits is the name of the game, lawsuits that is; the company has reportedly sent 9,000 patent infringement letters to farmers, and at the time of the film's making, the company was involved in 100 lawsuits. Evil of this magnitude almost needs a map, or some similarly helpful visual aid to make it graphic and clear just what "they" have been up to (gene splicing, the conjunction of the seed industry with the pesticide industry, countless corporate mergers and buyouts, influence peddling, not to mention changing the genetic code of multiple species).

And more importantly, why? A particularly ominous tactic of companies like Monsanto, is their ability to rewrite laws, in order to promote their own corporate interests. Of course, they had Dan Quayle on side. The rest was easy.

Until quite recently, companies weren't even required to label genetically modified foods because they were considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the FDA. Whether this was, as some scientists argued, merely a means of avoiding liability, is difficult to say. There is simply so much information, much of it incredibly complex, that this film can really do little more than scratch the surface.

Is that food?

While Koon's narrative is mainly concerned with food production in the US, the rest of the world has taken a different route. Europe, and England especially, have continuously said no thanks to genetically modified foods. Japanese scientists are quoted as saying, "We will watch the children of the US for the next ten years." Meaning, what will happen to a generation raised on such foodstuffs may not be immediately apparent, but rats fed genetically modified corn have developed lesions, impaired growth and suppressed immune systems.

One of the most disturbing stories is that of the "terminator" genes. These cause a plant to produce for one season and then commit suicide and become sterile, which then forces farmers to buy more seeds. If this gene outsources, meaning it crosses with regular non-GMO wild plants, what you could effectively have is no more food. If the seeds from "transgenic" plants are from invasive species, they might have the ability to enter a monoculture, and effectively, wipe it out completely. Good-bye world.

The problems associated with a monoculture are already well apparent to the residents of British Columbia. The mountain pine beetle infestation in BC is destroying large swathes of trees in the province. But while this is may devastate the forest, we aren't strictly dependent on trees for food. But what if a similar occurrence happened to something like wheat or potatoes?

When a small group of companies provides most of the worldwide seed supply, you have an even greater threat because, as one of the scientists interviewed in the film says, "Whoever controls the seed, controls the food." Often, the people in control don't have any interests other than the growth of the corporation they serve. Government is simply another tool, bought and paid for. The most damning assertion the film makes is that the Bush administration has long been cuddled up in Monsanto's massive lap. Numerous government officials have previously been on the payroll of Monsanto, including Linda Fisher at the Environmental Protection Agency, Ann Veneman, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Clarence Thomas. When FDA scientists protested the lack of regulation, Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto official, was hired to author a softer FDA policy.

'Art and information interlocking'

Presto, no more problems with meddling scientists, or pesky testing. The fact that no one, not scientists, nor government, truly understands what happens when viruses and bacteria are used to carry genetic cell material from one organism to another (fish into tomatoes). Ignacio Chapela, a U.C. Berkeley professor states, "Transgenic manipulations are probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into." And, he adds, "If we understood what it is we were doing, we would stop this research for the next fifty to one-hundred years." His university is given $25 million in grants from the biotech industry. His own research was funded with $2000. Despite the dire predictions, The Future of Food ends on an upbeat note with the rise in organic farming. It is a tiny flame of hope, but it can grow, quite literally.

Separating the film from the issues it explores is a tricky business. The information is important, and in some cases, much deserving of wider exposure, so does it matter if the film is actually a good film? Other investigations such as Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me, or Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, are better examples of information and art interlocking. Here is where art begins to take on larger function, bridging the real, and the more-than-real world.

John Berger writing about a book by Geoff Dyer called The Ongoing Moment, says, "Suppose prophesy is for a moment taken out of its Koranic or Talmuidc contexts and inserted into the context of photography, the most momentary of art of all? Suppose photography relays the visual prophesies we often fail to see, thereby offering us a second chance?" It's a different way of seeing, unencumbered, the larger, infinitely more mysterious, world. Seeing is believing, and more importantly, understanding. Dr. Suzuki calls it interconnectedness.

'Jesus without the miracles'

What Lapham says, what Berger says, what Suzuki says, Thomas Jefferson and even old Jesus had to say. In "Jesus Without the Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible" and "The Gospel of Thomas," by Erik Reece (yes, also in Harper's), the author sets out to explore the history and implications of Thomas Jefferson's "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth" and "The Gospel of Thomas" (that's "doubting Thomas," Jesus's skeptical twin brother).

The similarity between these two texts is that they are very much about how to behave in this world -- no heaven, no miracles, just the simple, hard road of trying to be a better person. Writes Reece, "The world's values are all upside down in relation to the kingdom of God." A statement that is eerily reminiscent of David Suzuki saying, "There's something funny about an economic system that puts value on things that are not nearly as important as those that are regarded as trivial." Which paraphrases the parable "Consider valuable the things that have no material value." Not even in the religious sense, but in the hard, clear facts of this world, this existence, this place.

The agrarian impulse is one of the most central ideas in Jefferson's philosophy, and Reece sees this not merely as an economic model, but as a fundamental difference in world (and heaven) views. One view maintains that the world is a shit pile, we don't need to worry about it, since we'll have our reward after death; the other says this is it, right here, right now. Writes Mr. Reece, "It is time we inverted Pascal's famous wager to say not that we should believe in heaven because we have nothing to lose but rather we should believe first in this world, because in losing it we may lose everything." Amen, to that.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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