Corporations are killing America. Powerful companies have manipulated their way to a commanding control over the institutions of this country. Their board room greed, their lack of conscience, their unbridled and shameless methods of total domination of greater parts of the economic landscape are a breathtaking  tragedy.  They’ve proven that capitalism without controls and rules is disastrous.

Their methodical lobbying and their huge campaign contributions have won them lawmakers who do their dealing to reduce regulations and oversight and make it easier to create multinational monopolies that cannot be touched. Government regulators are recruited out of the industries they regulate, ensuring coziness all around. Americans’ blind eyes and their attitude that the business of America is business have  given corporations a license to exploit this nation without compunction.

Today, I watched the 2009 documentary, “Food, Inc.,” whose subtitle is “You’ll Never Look at Dinner the Same Way Again.”  It carefully and profoundly examines the veritable takeover of the American food industry by about a half-dozen  behemoths that are insulated from regulation — companies like Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM),  and meat-packing giants like Tyson Foods, Perdue and Swift. The film dispels idyllic myths about  family farms, which, if they survive, are really still run by farmers kept under the thumb of the conglomerates and often in debt.

The film, directed by Robert Kenner, examines factory farming, food-borne illnesses, food labeling, pesticides, genetically engineered food, farm worker abuses, animal mistreatment, putrid conditions that livestock live in, environmental violations and methods that penalize poor Third World farmers.  One of the most revealing segments is how Monsanto bred several superior soybean varieties, patented them and gain a virtual 100 percent hold on the seed market.  Should any farmer try to save seed from a crop to plant the next season, Monsanto protects its patent with swift tyrannical enforcement with goons sent to a farm in the night with the means to intimidate and viciously sue any farmer into compliance.  Even anyone in the business of “cleaning seeds,” presumably for replanting, are put out of business.  Monsanto’s ruthlessness with farmers seems inconceivable in a “free nation,”, but farmers and consumers have few, if any, advocates with the will or the authority to challenge the agri-industrial Goliaths.

Bio-technology and genetics have allowed for the development of master-race chickens from egg to slaughter in 39 days, with bigger breasts and more white meat.   Tyson Foods and other chicken producers contract with farmers to raise the chickens in dark, fetid conditions. They are made to grow so fast without exercise that the chickens are barely able to lumber around or  bear their weight. The mega-chicken packers banned cameras in the humongous buildings, but one woman did allow cameras (only to get a swift cancellation of her contract), though she earned only $18,000 a year and was deep in debt for $250,000 building construction.

Meat packers are notorious for hiring undocumented workers, many actively recruited and transported from Mexico. Food Inc. details how the government does not go after companies for illegal hiring, but the companies do nothing to defend their workers who are rounded up in the middle of the night by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The film carries a strong indictment of corn — actually  the way it is used inefficiently through the guts of farm animals.  (About 2.5 pounds of corn for a pound of finished beef).  It shows the infinite number of products that are essentially a “rearrangement of corn.” Researchers at my own alma mater, Iowa State University, discuss how far corn science has come in product development.  (It is  the same college that graduated George Washington Carver, who would later developed several hundred uses of the lowly peanut.)

A heartening part of “Farm Inc.” is  showing a healthy alternative to factory farming. A farmer, Joel Salatin, from the Shenadoah Valley in Virginia shows what can be accomplished by old-fashioned conventional farming, including cattle raised on grass and chickens raised on regular grain and without antibiotics.  Salatin is captivating with his story and his articulate passion.   Director Kenner has managed to find numerous whistle blowers in the food industry, an shameless industry whose mantra seems to be ”fatter faster, bigger cheaper.”  Companies are big on  a formula for the cheapest production costs. They are high on space-age mechanization, with workers assigned to the same repetitive work. Yet, there is a resistance to transparency or scrutiny from the outside.  The company boast that American wants the cheapest food possible — never mind the diabetes, obesity, cheap calories, e-coli, salmonella and near- tasteless tomatoes.

With the best attorneys mega-companies can buy, the food giants can stamp out any “little people” in their food chain and expect no scrutiny from inspectors or the Feds.   Certainly, the recent salmonella scandal in the Iowa egg industry gives more urgency to “Food Inc.”  The average supermarket carries 47,000 individual products. What most of us don’t know is how few companies produce and supply them.   They resist consumers’ demand for label ingredients and send their most convincing spokesmen to legislative hearings to make the case for “free enterprise” and self-policing.

In the end, the viewer is challenged to vote with his dollars for food.  Purchase local, buy organic, read labels, resist eating foods that leave a large carbon footprint, grow a garden, write letters, don’t buy from companies that have poor records on food production, don’t buy genetically engineered foods and insist on integrity in agriculture.

I grew up on an Iowa farm and we sold milk, eggs, corn, soybeans and hay and raised hogs, cattle, chickens and ducks for commercial food.  It was nothing like a factory farm.  Though the chickens didn’t run free on the farm yard, they had plenty of space to get around in the chicken houses.  Our cows and pigs roamed freely.  For eight years, I was the farm editor for the Waterloo (Iowa) Courier and watched evolution of farming, with relentless specialization and expansion of farm fields from horizon to horizon.   Land I own in Iowa today produces some of the corn and soybeans so discussed in “Farm Inc.”

Consumers will never regain a say about what they eat until something is done to curb the money and influence that the giant gorillas in the food industry have on lawmakers and regulators. Beware of the consolidation of companies continually led by  untouchable barons, whose factories compromise sanitation and food safety for profits. Too little is known about the ultimate safety of genetically altered food.  When an Oprah Winfrey criticized the beef industry, Texas cattlemen went after her with a vengeance, claiming she had the influence to sharply hurt beef sales. Oprah ultimately won, but it showed how risky it is to take on such a powerful force.

Watch what you eat. It looks pretty in its packages in the lighted aisles and walls of refrigerated cases. But how it got there isn’t exactly pretty.

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