food chains resized

movie review: food chains

food chains resizedBefore I got really sick recently, I sat down to watch Food Chains – a documentary about labor abuses in the produce industry. I had seen a lot about this documentary online and in social media, and when it was added to Netflix, I knew I wanted to watch it.

The documentary spends a lot of time profiling the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a workers advocacy group in Immokalee, Florida – home to some of the nation’s largest tomato fields. I had learned about the CIW back when I read Barry Estabrook’s fantastic book TomatolandI’d also read about labor abuses in the produce industry from  The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebees, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan. Both of those books aren’t exclusively focused on labor abuses, but they play a huge part in understanding what goes on behind the scenes in the plant and produce side of Big Agriculture.

I think most people would balk at the idea that we have slaves in this country in 2015.  Often if we hear the term “modern slavery” we think of sex trafficking. But 150 years after slavery was legally abolished, we have slavery and indentured servitude in our fields – you know, those same fields that we sing about in “America the Beautiful.” And even those workers who aren’t slaves are working for what we’d call “slave wages,” unbelievably far below the poverty line. You don’t even have bootstraps to pull yourself up by when you work 13 hours a day in sweltering heat, being sprayed with pesticides and if you’re a woman, likely being sexually harassed, and come home with $40 for that work. Where’s the American dream in those fields?

The film goes into a lot more detail about the issues with worker rights, including why so many migrant workers have come to work in American agricultural fields from Mexico (big surprise here – we caused it). An interesting section details the disparity in the Napa Valley between the people who work in the vineyards and the people who buy the wine. That’s an area of the country I never think about when it comes to Big Agriculture, though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The nation’s wealthiest have long been supported by the work of the nation’s poorest. I could go on, but you should really just watch this film.

I think Food Chains comes at a good time in this nation’s food consciousness. We’ve seen awareness of animal cruelty and the public health issues involved in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) come to the forefront in ways never seen before. More and more people are concerned about where their meat and dairy comes from and how animals are treated. Consider the rise in people eating vegan diets in an effort to not be a consumer of any animal products. I think this has led to many people considering how what they eat can have ethical implications – something that wasn’t even on the radar outside of a handful of activists a few decades ago.

All human diets contain fruits and vegetables because they are the building blocks of our health. So even a vegan diet is not without ethical implications, because being plant-based means that like all diets, it is very likely supported by workers who are enslaved, given poverty wages, harassed, sprayed with pesticides, the list goes on. I absolutely respect the desire to not harm animals or participate in cruelty toward them, but it’s also really important to consider the human cost as well. This is not a sweeping generalization of vegans, by any means. It’s just that anyone who consumes plants (basically everybody) needs to be aware that there are ethical implications present when you eat Florida tomatoes or California berries that go beyond pesticides and GMOs.

But that’s the really difficult part. Every decision that we make in our modern lives is fraught with ethical implications. It’s difficult to consider each and every one of them. I think about my mornings – whether or not the coffee I drink is fair trade, if the lunch I pack contains items that were produced by animal suffering or worker abuse or represent a public health risk, if the plastic bag that holds my pretzels will end up in a landfill, if the clothes I wear were made in a sweatshop, if my smart phone was built by children, if the diamond ring I put on is a blood diamond, whether or not my car is harming the environment with emissions. You can see how this gets easily overwhelming. I got overwhelmed writing that paragraph.

At the end of the day, you have to do the best that you can to reconcile those things. I think the key is being educated about it and being open to questioning your choices and determining which ones you can reasonably make. And that’s why films like Food Chains are so important, because they make you aware of these issues and dispel the ignorance surrounding them. So that perhaps when you go to the grocery store, you choose a store that participates in the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Or you support a local CSA and farms in your area, where you can confirm for yourself that there are no labor violations happening.

Perfect is the enemy of good. It’s better to focus on one or two ways you can make a better choice than to be overwhelmed and make none at all. You can support efforts to hold companies accountable for their own labor practices and lift your voice in support of those programs and government accountability. You can’t change everything for everyone, but you can open your mind and heart to others and look for opportunities to allow that knowledge to inform your purchases and choices.


TV review: Food Forward on PBS

food.forward.logo_-e1307320024221I recently started watching through episodes of a series called Food Forward on PBS via online streaming. The full episodes are available on their website – all 13 of them for the first season.

The series focuses on “food rebels” – people and groups across the country that are trying to make the food system more sustainable and just – as well as delicious. I watched the first three episodes (each about 25 minutes long) to determine if I wanted to go through the whole series, and I definitely do.

The episodes are very well produced. They feel like mini documentaries, but the editing on them is so good – there’s nothing extraneous (with the exception of a guitar player that has shown up in two episodes and makes it feel more hipstery than it has to). I found all of the first three episodes engaging, even though they dealt with topics that are old hat to me in some ways.

The episodes are sponsored by Chipotle and Applegate – two companies that in theory are dedicated to more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. In a culture where everything is sponsored and naming rights to everything are for sale and funding for public broadcasting is slim, PBS (I’m assuming) chose companies that operate under a mission most closely related to the programming. I can give them credit for that.

So about the episodes.I really like that the episodes focus not on problems with the current food system, but on solutions that are actually happening. Save for a brief outline of the problem that the food rebels are trying to solve, the episodes really focus on normal, everyday Americans who took an idea and ran with it. There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit that you can feel behind the people in the episodes. And they’re not all Berkley hipster “foodies.” They are just regular Americans.

I watched the episodes in streaming order, with the first one being the pilot called “Urban Farming”. The episode asks the question – what if we stopped importing food into cities and grew it within the city limits? It focused on farmers (“food rebels”) doing some pretty innovative things, from rooftop aviaries in New York City to an urban farm with integrated hydroponics (fish and produce production together) in Milwaukee – from a CSA operation in an area of Oakland, California with no grocery stores to rebuilding vacant lots into farmland in Detroit.

An episode called “Meat of the Matter” addresses the issue of the cost of America’s meat consumption. Centering on the idea that we should eat less meat in general and eat higher quality meat when we do, it profiles several different ranchers and farmers who are producing meat by raising bison, cattle and hogs in a new way. Their practices focus on humane treatment, understanding the animal as more than just a commodity. They also spent a lot of time on the benefit to the earth of a polyculture system, where no one species is in isolation from the others surrounding it.

Overfishing is a big issue, not just in America, but worldwide. An episode called “Go Fish” profiled several American “fish rebels” who are fishing in different ways – going back to the way that fishing happened several generations ago. The practices used by these family and small businesses and cooperatives are less damaging to the environment and the fish population, and they are bringing a higher quality product to the marketplace while supporting their local economy. The most interesting part of this episode was a program called Dock to Dish, which is like community supported fishing. Subscribers get the freshest catch possible – same day caught. That would be so great – makes me want to move to the coast!

I will definitely be working my way through the other episodes. Take advantage of the free streaming of these, especially if you like documentaries and are interested in food systems.


movie review: fed up

fed up resizeFed Up came out in May of this year, and at the time, I kept meaning to see it in theaters, but I missed it. It came out on video in September (I still say video, like I could go rent a VHS at Hollywood Video or something), and I have been on the waiting list for it at the library for weeks. Finally, I was able to watch it this weekend with my mom.

Going into it, my expectation was that it would be well done, but that I wouldn’t hear much that was new to me. I was pleasantly surprised – not just at what I learned, but also the fact that I’ve been mulling it over since I saw it several days ago.

The basic premise is that what we’ve been taught for decades about the keys to a healthy lifestyle – eat less and move more – isn’t exactly right. And that the obesity epidemic is less “our fault” than we think it is. The film details the history of this epidemic and what factors have led to it, and how science no longer backs up the “all calories are created equal” mantra that Big Food likes to spew when the safety of their products is questioned.

Type 2 diabetes cases are skyrocketing, particularly in children and adolescents, to the point where Type 2 is no longer called “adult onset diabetes.” We spend the GDP of a small nation on weight loss drugs and gym memberships, and every container of food in the supermarket has some health claim on it. Yet if America had a blood work panel done, it would show that by and large, as a nation we are pretty sick.

Setting aside the idea of the “obesity epidemic” for a moment, let’s talk about what got us to this place.

The filmmakers (as well as the World Health Organization and other esteemed health science groups) believe the primary culprit is sugar. When your body digests sugar, it needs fiber to slow down the absorption of the food. When something is high in sugar, but lacking in fiber, the body digests it quickly, overloading the liver and creating both fat and insulin. And that fast sugar digestion is what creates “sugar highs” and the related “crashes” once your body comes down off of the sugar. (They often liken sugar consumption to heroin or cocaine consumption, because it lights up the same parts of your brain.) It’s because of the way your body processes sugars that not all calories are created equal. 160 calories of almonds has a different effect on the body than 160 calories of soda.

Beginning in the 1980s, America became obsessed with eliminating fat from our diets, and “low fat” became synonymous with health. But when an essential part of the processed foods trifecta (sugar, salt and fat) is removed, the others have to go up to make the food palatable. So those low fat products that we all were convinced by the food industry were healthy? FULL of added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends that adults only consume 6-9 grams of added sugar per day. Every teaspoon is 4 grams, so you really should be consuming only about 2 teaspoons per day of added sugar. The average American daily intake? 41 grams. And that’s AVERAGE.

Sugar comes in many forms on nutrition labels – and it’s not just high fructose corn syrup that is the problem. The backlash against HFCS has actually become a good thing for the food industry – they take it out of their food, add back in a ton of sugar, and then sell it as a health food because it doesn’t contain HFCS. Now I’m no fan of HFCS, but your body reacts the same way to that as a million other sugars, even natural sugars. But the difference between naturally occurring sugar in fruit and sugar in a soda is that the fruit has the digestive benefit of natural fiber. Most people don’t get a sugar rush from eating apples, and they get full on apples before they could eat enough to produce that effect. Getting a sugar rush from something like soda also means that your pancreas produces insulin to deal with it, which blocks the receptors that tell your brain you are full. Which is why you can often mindlessly eat junk food way past the point of excess without ever thinking you are full.

All of the metabolic diseases that Americans are sick with – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, strokes – have links to excess sugar consumption. And the average American has no idea how much they are consuming, because sugar doesn’t just appear in things like cookies and soda that we know are “sweet.” Virtually every processed food has added sugars – even ones that we would traditionally associate with health, like yogurt.

The film also touches a lot on the impact of this sugar intake on children, and how it’s particularly harmful to them because it sets them up for a lifetime of trouble. And we don’t do them any favors by marketing the food specifically to them (which the industry actually claims they don’t do). Yet somehow, 50% of schools in the U.S. serve fast food directly from restaurants. There are actually Pizza Huts in schools.

Speaking of industry, when the World Health Organization released a report that sugar was the primary culprit for the “obesity epidemic” and recommended that no more than 10% of daily calories come from sugar, the U.S. Health and Human Services lobbied the WHO to take that information out of the report, and threatened to withhold the U.S. contribution to the WHO. The WHO caved, took it out of the report, and the U.S. extorted the WHO out of making a recommendation in the interest of public health. Government for the people, indeed.

Fed Up has much more information on all of these areas I’ve touched on, and the cinematography is really engaging and well done. Many different types of experts are interviewed, and virtually every possible industry company was asked to participate and declined. I’d definitely recommend that people give it 90 minutes of their time – particularly if you struggle with sugar (or if you have kids that eat a lot of processed foods).


I had one significant issue with this documentary, and that’s the constant focus on weight as an indicator of health. The documentary frames itself around the “obesity epidemic,” but I keep referring to it in quotes because I think it’s a misnomer. We don’t have an epidemic of obesity – we have an epidemic of metabolic disease. The film itself points out the staggering statistic that 40% of people who are in the normal BMI category actually have the exact same underlying metabolic conditions as people who are overweight or obese. It isn’t what you weigh. It’s what you EAT. You can be fat and healthy. (I know this because my scale and bloodwork say I am both overweight and super-humanely healthy.)

So then why are all the kids interviewed in the film severely overweight? Why not interview a “skinny fat” person – a kid who lives on nothing but sugar and is on their way to diabetes, but they’re skinny? Because it’s a lot easier to stigmatize and shame fat people than it is to convince the public that skinny people are just as unhealthy. One poor 12 year old girl who was interviewed just kept crying. They used her shame to make a point. Why not interview a 12 year old girl who has significant behavioral issues that result from being hyped on sugar constantly? Because we don’t really care how healthy our kids are as long as they are not fat. No individual parent would say that, but collectively, it’s true. So while the film seeks to tell people that fat people aren’t responsible for their own “condition” because they have no idea what their diet products are doing to their bodies, I feel like it’s a hollow message, since it’s directed at only a portion of the people who need to hear it – the ones we don’t like to see because their bodies bother our sensibilities.

As a nation, we want the government to protect our public health. Look at the outcry over Ebola and the CDC handling of it. But diabetes is going to kill many more people, including children, than Ebola ever will in the United States. But we don’t mind that our government panders to industry and its wealth instead of keeping us safe. If kids went to school and drank water that was contaminated, there would be a public outcry. But they go and eat Pizza Hut – being told by industry that it’s a vegetable – and we do nothing.

So am I fed up? Yes. Have been for a long time. And I’m inclined to write another letter to legislators the next time health standards are up for debate.

See the documentary no matter what you weigh and you will learn something. But especially consider it if you are a “normal” weight and think you’re immune to health problems from your diet. Because you aren’t. None of us are.


movie review: the garden

While I was perusing the documentaries on Netflix recently, I found a short one about the attempt to save an urban garden. It wasn’t spectacular as far as documentaries go, but the events it concerned made me want to find out more. In doing a little research, I realized a longer documentary was done on the events – a film that was nominated in 2009 for an Academy Award for best documentary. So I ordered it from our library and checked it out.

The Garden is the story of an urban garden/farm that occupied 14 acres smack in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, an area that had been ravaged after the Rodney King riots in 1992. The farm had 350 plots, which provided food for families, most of which were low income. It was like an oasis of earth and growth surrounded by concrete and urban decay.

The documentary goes into the history and timeline in more depth, but basically the city of Los Angeles decided to sell the land that the farm occupied in a back room deal for drastically less than fair market value to the owner who had lost the land to eminent domain laws 15 years before. The farmers had been on the land because the city let them – they had no formal agreement. The owner decided he didn’t want the farm on the land and tried to have them evicted.

A legal fight ensued. I won’t tell you exactly what happened because the documentary tells it powerfully, but it wasn’t good. It was another tale of the rich and powerful using the government like puppets to advance their own desires, regardless of the needs of the community. 

It seems to me that governments should be doing anything they can to support groups who want to reclaim urban spaces that have been left to decay, particularly those that can be turned into gardens that feed people. I see a lot of rhetoric about low income families needing to “help themselves” – and this is a classic case of people who try to do just that and get thwarted by the roadblocks of power and money. 

The Garden left me wondering how willing I’d be to chain myself to a fence and be arrested if someone was trying to bulldoze the way I provided for my family. How much would I fight? Do we listen to those who do, or do we assume they are just disturbing the peace? This is a great documentary, especially for people who are interested in issues of economic justice and community activism, as well as urban agriculture. Definitely worth a watch, even if it leaves you unsettled (which is kind of the point anyway, right?).

movie review: frankensteer

Have you ever had the experience of reading or watching something thinking it was current, and then realizing it’s actually a lot older than you thought? And then it dawns on you how scary that is? That describes my experience watching Frankensteer, a documentary I didn’t realize is 8 years old until after I watched it. Because the issues it raises are all still relevant today.

As far as the documentary itself, it was clearly on the low-budget side, without the polished feel of more widely released films. It’s also not an American film – it’s Canadian – so some of the information is geared toward Canadian governmental policies, though it does look at things from a “North American” perspective as well.

For me, the best part of the film was in its opening line – that in order to produce cheap food, we have taken a benign, naturally flatulent vegetarian and turned it into a cannibal and vampire. We push these creatures to within an inch of their life until ultimately they lose it in a slaughterhouse to end up on our plates.

The film makes its way through a discussion of the dangers of growth hormones and sub-therapeutic antibiotics, two things that in 2014 the public is demanding be removed from our food supply more than ever. In discussing the differences between government policies on these items and showing the disparity between what Europe feels is safe and what North American nations do, it occurs to me that it’s amazing how we think that science and nature relate differently on this issue depending on your country’s borders. I think it’s safe to say that if it’s not safe for a member of the European Union, it’s not safe for me. Why that science cannot cross national boundaries is beyond me.

Frankensteer lays out all the basic reasons to avoid industrially raised beef, and in particular the health risk to humans of mad cow disease (not as much of an issue now as it was in 2006, but still nothing to dismiss) as well as E. coli and food borne illness. We shouldn’t have to take a product home from the grocery store that’s intended for consumption and have to treat it like toxic waste until cooked. 

Frankensteer doesn’t get into industrial agriculture’s effect on the economy, environment or workers, but that’s understandable for a film that’s only 44 minutes long. Honestly, there are 500 page books on the subject that can’t even cover it all. All the more reason to not eat or purchase it. 

For me, I try not to eat meat at all when I don’t know where it came from (as in, which farm). However, lately I’ve found it harder to make those choices when traveling, especially when I need protein and there are no vegetarian options that include any. While I didn’t find this film incredibly compelling in and of itself, it served as a good reminder for why I don’t eat industrial meat and a push to recommit to being strict about it in my own diet, even if it means making sacrifices.     


thoughts on chipotle’s ‘farmed & dangerous’

Chipotle has been on the forefront of national restaurant chains in the movement toward more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. Their first foray into viral marketing was “Back to the Start,” a video with Willie Nelson singing that emphasizes the importance of not continuing on the path of industrial animal production. 

Next was “The Scarecrow,” which I talked about here. This one pushes its indictment of Big Ag even further (and also suggests that burritos are a good choice). And now they’ve gone even further, with a four-part TV series available on Hulu Plus called Farmed & Dangerous. I waited until all four episodes were available to do my week free trial of Hulu Plus and watch.

The series is centered around a PR firm called the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB, hee hee) which has as its primary client a Big Ag company called Animoil (a stand-in for Monsanto, obviously) which wants to market a new product called Petro Pellet, which is pure petroleum. In the first episode, they realize that Petro Pellet makes cows explode. A group called the Sustainable Family Farming Association gets a copy of the video of this happening and it goes viral.

The episodes that follow are about the relationship between the daughter of the head of IFIB, who also works there, Sophia, and the head of SFFA, Chip. Over time, Sophia comes to be sympathetic to Chip’s cause, but not before a lot of chaos ensues. It hits on all the big issues – sustainability, pesticide and herbicide resistance, GMOs, government subsidies, lobbying and government corruption, Ag-Gag laws, CAFOs (which they call MegaFarm, the Death Star for Cows).

First, the good. I will always applaud Chipotle for trying as a large national chain to bring these issues into the forefront of the public’s awareness and concern. They have at the very least opened up a lot of conversation. And Farmed & Dangerous in some spots is genuinely funny (particularly due to Buck, the head of IFIB). 

While critics have suggested that the series really takes aim at farmers with a broad brush and paints them in a bad light, I actually didn’t think the series was much about farmers at all. I think who it really skewered was PR firms and industry front-groups that blindly promote Big Ag to the point of absurdity. 

In one particularly interesting segment, Chip is on a morning show and points out how alternate realities exist for Big Ag depending on what they want at a given moment. Sometimes Big Ag wants GMOs to be seen as unique, which is why they voraciously protect their patents. But they argue that when it comes to public health, GMOs aren’t unique – they aren’t any different than the regular corn. Which is why they oppose labeling on consumer products. In the case of the viral video (a stand-in for the types of CAFO whistleblower videos that Ag-Gag laws aim to curtail), they claim that the videos are fabricated or exaggerated, but then claim that they own the video because it was shot on their property. If it’s false, why are you claiming it as your own? 

So I think that exposing the crap that comes out of the PR firms and departments protecting industrial agriculture is something that’s sorely needed. Front groups often have deceptively friendly names, which make consumers think they are advocating on behalf of us, when they are really advocating and lobbying for their big clients.

But. Here’s my issue with Farmed & Dangerous. With this series, I feel like Chipotle is really starting to mislead by obscuring facts and using hyperbole and satire in a subject that already has a lot of misinformation and passion floating around. When Jon Stewart uses satire to bring communicate news, he typically brings it with a lot of video clips and facts that support his points. He may go over the top, but the message is there as well as the proof. This series doesn’t do that. 

For example, Chipotle wants to position itself as a sustainability advocate, and this film makes it seem like all farms that it sources its meat and other ingredients from are like Chip’s farm – idyllic and full of pasture and sunlight. In reality, that’s not the case. Chipotle sources a lot of meat and often substitutes conventional products when they run out of the “better” choices. If you were really committed to better practices, you’d just not sell the option that you couldn’t properly source. But that would eat into their profits and would be unpredictable, and the customers want their chicken when they want it. I would be more compelled to believe they care about humane animal treatment if they stopped selling conventional products at all. There are animals who are not given hormones or antibiotics that are still raised in confinement operations and are not out frolicking in fields for most of their lives like Chip’s cow friend. 

I can see farmers’ points of criticism that the series seems to pit big farms against small farms, making it seem like all big farms are evil and all small farms are virtuous. In reality, it’s not really the size that determines the quality of practices. You can’t lump in broad categories like that when it’s really the underlying system of agriculture in this country that is flawed. It’s not as easy as good guys and bad guys when you dig below the surface. What we need is less control over the food system by a select few corporations, not to be lecturing farmers on what they need to do.

And Chipotle needs to stop equating sustainability with small, family farms and throwing that word around. Not all small farms are “sustainable” – a word which is really hard to define. Not giving your cows hormones doesn’t mean that your operation is sustainable. And not all family farms are small. Some mid-size and large farms have been in families for generations. Chipotle isn’t knocking on the doors of tiny family farms in my area asking them to provide their tomatoes and peppers. Sustainability is a buzzword that you use to mislead unless you have facts to back up your practices. Using compostable plates isn’t enough. And I don’t even know that they do that.

In all, I didn’t really think Farmed & Dangerous was effective satire. (They need to take a lesson from Jon Stewart on that one.) If they extended the series and added to it, I would be unlikely to watch. Chipotle needs to focus its efforts on making its business live up to its marketing, instead of marketing a business that doesn’t actually exist in reality.   


movie review: tapped

It’s really easy in the world of sustainable agriculture and food advocacy to forget about water. Water is an even more basic human need than food – we can go longer without food than water. Only 1% of the earth’s water is drinkable, and there are increasing concerns about access to clean water worldwide. (See last week’s post about the UNICEF Tap Project.) 

Tapped is a documentary that looks at how the bottled water industry affects our water supply and what we as consumers can do differently to help to preserve the integrity of our water supply. The film was made in 2007, so I’d venture to guess that some of the statistics have changed over the last 7 years, but much of what they discuss seems to still be true today.

While lakes and rivers are part of the public trust, groundwater often falls under state laws that grant “absolute domain” – which allows anyone with a permit to take and use the groundwater as they see fit. This has led in many states to the bottled water industry coming in, filing for a permit, and then pumping millions of gallons of water out of rural areas and into plastic bottles for resale. In effect, taking the resources of a community and then selling them for their own profit with no benefits back to the community whatsoever. The examples shown in the documentary were from Maine and Poland Springs, a subsidiary of Nestle, which is the largest bottled water company in the world. (Coke and Pepsi being next in line.) 

These communities often have companies pumping groundwater out of their land in the midst of horrible droughts, where their own sources dry up and people are placed on water restrictions. Efforts to fight companies doing that have been fruitless. There are no laws restricting what these companies can do to water supplies – they just show up and take it. Governments don’t want to fight these companies because they employee many people throughout the country, in not just the extraction process but the bottling process, etc. So they choose to avoid job consequences over environmental consequences and leave the community and the pubic hanging.

This film does a good job of not just blaming the companies, but blaming us as consumers for buying into the ridiculous marketing hype surrounding bottled water. So many ads claim that their water is pure or comes from mountain springs (ever notice how many mountain graphics or the name ‘springs’ are on bottled water labels?). None of the water comes from mountain springs and some companies have been forced to put words like ‘public water source’ on their bottles. 

Because what you’re getting in that bottle? It’s tap water. Tap water that’s basically less regulated and less tested for quality than what comes out of your home’s tap through your municipality (if you don’t have your own well). While municipalities have to test their water multiple times daily, bottled water companies do their own tests at will, and aren’t required to do any of them. So when you see a label on a bottle of water that says “pure” – it’s no more pure than tap water and not filtered.

Once it’s packaged and sold back to consumers, bottled water is 1900 times more expensive than the same amount of tap water. And it creates an inordinate amount of waste, since we as a nation are not good recyclers. (At least in 2007 we weren’t!) We think of plastic bottles as disposable – that’s what makes them so convenient. But they end up in the ocean gyres of garbage or in landfills, leeching plastic chemicals. The film goes into details about the pollution issues of plastic bottles and how they threaten marine life and ecosystems, as well as how the manufacture of the plastic bottles in the first place affects the people who live near the refineries, with many medical issues. (The film also was created before the public decided it didn’t want BPA in its plastic anymore, hence the plethora of BPA-free plastic products out there now.)

The film makes a pretty compelling argument for why if you’re environmentally conscious at all, you should be drinking tap water out of reusable bottles. (They encourage buying a water filter system of some kind – whether it’s on the tap or a pitcher, etc.) It also is beneficial for its explanation of what kind of water is actually in these bottles and how it’s no different than tap – I’m not a fan of hype and health washing in marketing, so it’s nice to have confirmed that the water coming out of my water filter at home is probably more pure than anything I could buy in a plastic bottle. 

I realized while watching the film that I already made this switch awhile ago. I use a Camelbak bottle that I love at work and at home – and I take it with me on the go to people’s houses and on vacations, etc. I have found many places that have water bottle fill stations that don’t cost anything. So while I do buy bottled water from time to time, it’s not nearly as frequent. I have no idea when the last time was that I bought a case of bottles. I’d like to keep it that way.


movie review: TED Talks: Chew on This

TED Talks: Chew on This is pretty much what the title indicates – a compilation of TED Talks about food. Never heard of TED or seen a TED Talk? According to their website:

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

I have seen TED Talks of different topics randomly online, about body image or technology or something like that. But I didn’t realize that Netflix offers groups of TED Talks on different topics, and food is one of them. So I made my way through Chew on This. (If you don’t have Netflix, you can watch all of these talks on You Tube or TED’s website.)

I really enjoyed the format of these speeches. They were quick enough that you didn’t feel like you were attending a long lecture, and the presenters were generally engaging in their delivery.

Jamie Oliver kicks it off with a mini lecture about school food. He even brings a wheelbarrow full of sugar out on to the stage to make a point about how much sugar kids consume. Other speakers touch on food in schools too, including Ann Cooper, a California lunch lady on a crusade. Mark Bittman of New York Times fame also has a lecture, on what’s wrong with the way we eat, which you could expect.

Several lecturers talked on worldwide hunger and famine, including Josette Sheeran, who at the time, worked at the UN’s World Food Programme. A few addressed the issue of feeding an ever-growing world population – and the viewpoints were diverse and not all anti-industrial agriculture. 

Some were chefs, talking about specific issues like waste or finding ethical seafood options or even *gasp* ethical foie gras. A few speakers covered specific foods, like bread and the many transformations it undergoes from wheat to finished product.

But perhaps most surprising were the talks about food that didn’t have to do with any other category, but were just plain interesting. Nathan Myhrvold, who worked on the tome Modernist Cuisine talked about the amazing photography and graphics used in that work, and he was so excited about the thing it was hard to not get sucked in. My favorite was actually Jennifer Lee’s talk on the history of “Chinese” food in America, and how most of what we call Chinese food actually isn’t. It also made me want takeout.

Being only 15 minutes in length, they don’t take up much time. Even if you aren’t interested in all of the topics, they are definitely worth checking out. 

movie review: the end of the line

This week, Marty’s Market hosted a screening of the documentary, The End of the Line. Marty’s has recently partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to sell seafood that is approved by Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch program, so this was a fitting educational program for them to host. They also are partners with the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium – the first store in the area to do so.

(As a side note – great place to watch a documentary. Comfortable tables, delicious coffee and nice people. Also a great place for brunch – I’m just sayin.)

I’ve known for awhile about the problem of declining seafood populations, having read Four Fish by Paul Greenberg.The End of the Line is based on a book of the same name by Charles Clover, and challenges the idea that we have operated under for centuries – that the sea is inexhaustible in its resources. (Come to think of it, we’ve pretty much thought that about land and underground resources as well.)

The film highlights the myriad of issues that overfishing creates – from environmental issues like drastically changed ecosystems. When a  species higher on the food chain collapses, there is a proliferation of the lower species. When those are overfished, there’s no way for the system to rebound. Bi-catch is also a big problem – the other sea life that is caught in trawlers and nets in addition to the intended population – making up 1/10 of what is caught. Bi-catch goes back over the side of the boat, dead. Bottom trawlers drag the ocean floor and destroy the life on the sea bed. None of it is so simple as putting a lure on a line on a fishing pole, which is the idea we have about fishing from the recreational fishing that people do as a hobby.

1.2 billion people depend on seafood as a key part of their diet, and many hundred thousands of jobs are dependent on it as well – everything from indigenous fishermen to international corporations. Overfishing might sustain jobs now, but as the populations of the fished species dwindle, those jobs will disappear anyway, since there will be no more fish left to catch. This is where the logic behind quotas and protected areas comes into play – but these are often completely disregarded. Indigenous fishermen in developing nations are also threatened by their own countries selling the rights to off-shore fishing to developed nations. The coastal areas where theses people have fished for centuries are now depleted, making it harder and harder for them to make a living in their own home areas.

The film also touches on farmed fish – often thought of as the solution to dwindling wild populations. But the problem is that farmed fish EAT wild fish. So using aquaculture for a species that eats fish isn’t actually sustainable in any way, since it takes many pounds of fish like anchovies, herring and mackerel to feed the farmed fish that seem to be such a great idea. There are also problems with these fish farms polluting and/or contaminating the wider ocean.

One of the ideas this film presents that I hadn’t really considered before was how we look at seafood as a different type of life than other animals, like dogs, cats, zoo animals, or even livestock. If restaurants served panda on their menus, the public would be outraged. Endangered species! How can we eat them? But yet restaurants across the country highlight bluefin tuna, which is highly endangered. As a society, we classify the life of animals according to our own use. We wouldn’t treat our dogs the way we treat cows and pigs. And we definitely wouldn’t treat a panda or cheetah the way we do bluefin tuna. 

So what do you do? The film suggested asking your legislators to “respect the science” – which I think is a great way of phrasing that governments can’t let private interests try to refute established scientific evidence. Both the film and Monterey Bay also suggest asking businesses and restaurants – is your seafood sustainable? If they answer that they don’t know or say that it isn’t, ask them to look into the issue and leave them with a Seafood Watch card. 

Also, if you’re going to purchase seafood on your own, choose from the Best Choices list, and from the Good Alternatives list, if the Best Choices aren’t available. Look for restaurants and businesses that prioritize sustainability and support those organizations. Download the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch app and check it out the next time you’re in the market for seafood.  

movie review: Blackfish

Every so often, a documentary gains some traction in the mainstream media and catches the public’s attention. Blackfish is the most recent film to do that, backed by CNN and released to a wider audience. The story of Tilikum, a male orca whale which has been in captivity since 1983 and has been responsible for the death of several trainers, the documentary questions the ramifications of keeping orcas in captivity, and particularly using them for shows at amusement parks such as Sea World.

I didn’t expect the film to really be one I would review for this site, but I wanted to watch it to see what all the hype was about. It was definitely worth my time, and for reasons beyond just the specific plight of the orcas.

Blackfish begins by explaining the circumstances that led to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suing Sea World, claiming that training orca/killer whales in such close proximity is inherently dangerous. The suit was brought after the violent death of a trainer at Sea World Orlando, after Tilikum attacked her. It then goes on to explain the history of this particular whale, from it being taken as a baby away from its pod in the wild to its current place at Sea World.

His history is a sad one, full of seclusion and isolation. Orcas being highly social creatures, to be ripped away from his mother as a young calf and put with other whales not part of his pod, is difficult enough. Add on top of that years of being penned in small concrete tanks when you are used to swimming freely in the ocean, punished by having your food withheld when you didn’t cooperate and do behaviors on cue. 

Many critics of this film have talked about how zoos and wildlife in captivity are exploiting animals for profit. That’s an entirely different argument and probably one worth thinking about. (Though this film does make clear a distinction between amusement parks and zoos, from the quality of their care to their purpose for existence.)

But more than anything, this film made me think about how we look at animals and their treatment in general. Much has been made of artists canceling performances at Sea World parks and people boycotting the parks in general, in protest of the way orcas are treated. But no matter how many videos are shown of the horrific treatment of animals in factory farms, people continue to purchase and consume animals who lived miserable lives full of suffering, in the farthest thing from their natural existence possible.

One particularly moving portion of the documentary details the first baby orca born in captivity at Sea World, and how she was removed from her mother to another park. When she was removed, the mother orca stayed in the spot where she was taken and shook, making agonizing vocalizations that experts say were meant to be long-range. She was calling out for her lost calf, which she would never see again. It seems awful, and it is. But this happens every time a calf is taken from its mother cow on factory farms, whether used for veal or sold off to another feedlot. There are documented cases of mother cows bellowing for their lost calves, standing in the spot they were last together, emotionally distraught. But we find this okay.

Perhaps it’s because orca whales are honestly beautiful creatures, majestic in size and beyond graceful as they glide through the water. We also give them names and think of them with personalities. I recall my sister and I riding on a rubber, blown-up Shamu whale in our tiny kiddy pool growing up. We certainly don’t glorify farm animals in such a way. Most people don’t look at a cow in pasture as beautiful, let alone seeing that same animal standing knee deep in waste on an industrial feedlot.

Perhaps it’s because it’s much easier to simply boycott Sea World than it is to stop eating factory farmed meat. After all, there are many great places in this country to amuse ourselves or to learn about wildlife in general. And it’s easier to bring out someone’s inner activist when the price isn’t very high and it doesn’t require us to leave our comfort zones.

If you have the opportunity, watch Blackfish. It will make you think critically, which is the hallmark of a good documentary. And the actual cinematography is beautiful. But when you watch it, consider if the orcas are so much different at the end of the day than cows, chickens and pigs and whether or not they deserve the same kind of consideration and respect as Shamu.