movie review: vanishing of the bees

It’s amazing to think that something as tiny as a honeybee, which we routinely swat away from us, can carry the fate of billions of dollars of produce and the food supply of a nation on its shoulders. But honeybees are an essential part of our ecosystem and they are threatened by modern agriculture.

Vanishing of the Bees takes a look at the issue of colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD is the term used to describe when a colony of bees disappears, leaving behind no dead bodies, but only the queen and a few young bees. No “official” scientific cause has been found for this phenomenon, though this film investigates the different possibilities. 

I’ve written about bees briefly before, where I mentioned I have always been scared of bees. After watching this film, I’m more in awe of them than afraid. Did you know one single bee can hit up 100,000 flowers every day? That’s some productivity. Bees are responsible for pollinating $15 billion in crops in the U.S. alone. I think we owe them our attention.

The documentary talks about the religious, historical and cultural significance of the honeybee and how for centuries, bees have been thought of as an indicator of environmental quality – the healthier the hive, the healthier the environment. If bees can’t thrive, we can’t either. 

And right now? Bees are not thriving. CCD is affecting billions of bees and thousands upon thousands of hives with no exact known cause. 

Some who are proponents of organic/holistic beekeeping believe that it’s a byproduct of industrial/commercial production of bees. Practices like artificially inseminating queens to select for certain traits (thereby reducing genetic pool) and taking honey away from the hive and replacing it with sugar syrups are blamed for compromising the health of the colony, making it more susceptible to diseases and sickness. Makes sense – that’s happened for other animal species due to our industrial farming practices, so it’s not too far fetched to believe it could happen to bees.

When colonies in 37 states were affected by CCD in the mid 2000s, scientists started trying to understand the cause. Even theories about cell phone towers or Russian sabotage were floated. They found viruses and bacteria in many of the colonies that collapsed that can kill bees, but not in enough of the collapsed hives to determine that these diseases were the cause of the collapse. 

More and more beekeepers and scientists started to look to our modern farming practices as the culprit. Our vast fields of monocultures are incredibly susceptible to pests, which explains the vast use of pesticides in our crops (you know, the same chemicals that were developed to kill people in WWII, which are now sprayed on our vegetables). But pesticides were put in use in agriculture years ago – and CCD is a more recent phenomenon. So how are they connected? 

Older versions of pesticides were sprayed on crops, and bees could be removed from the fields during spraying time. The pesticides were on the surface, where insects would eat portions of the leaves and die from system failures – not necessarily in the flower/pollen portion of the plant that bees access. If you had an issue where bees were affected by these pesticides, you would know it from the dead bees present.

It was when systemic pesticides were introduced that bees started to be affected. Systemic pesticides are part of the plant’s seed and express themselves in the growth of the plant through its life, including pollen and nectar, which makes bees susceptible. When these pesticides were introduced, the only testing done on them was whether or not a dose was lethal. One flower isn’t enough to kill a bee, so they were deemed “safe” (or the risk was deemed “acceptable”), but no research was done on low level, sublethal doses – the kind that accumulate over time and are brought back to hives. These pesticides have been found in high levels in hives, but science has yet to prove that CCD is caused by them. 

I find it highly problematic in this country that minimal testing needs to be done to prove something is an acceptable environmental risk, but conclusive testing must be done to be able to take it off the market after the fact. Our government throws caution to the wind and relies on the industry to do its own testing instead of doing independent, third-party testing. (Sound familiar?) Even watching European countries such as France ban these systemic pesticides and see bee populations recover somehow doesn’t convince people in our country to take the same action. We’re too concerned about the welfare of our corporations and our greed. 

I don’t want to give away everything about this documentary, because I highly recommend you watch it for yourself and evaluate the science presented. Also, note that it’s not just the organic loving people that are raising the alarm about bees – industrial beekeepers and industrial farmers that rely on bees to pollinate their crops are speaking out too. If you eat ANY fresh food whatsoever, you need to care about the plight of the bees. What’s happening to our honeybees is a sign that our current system is unsustainable (one of many signs, actually.) 

The film also suggests some things you can do to take action for the bees – contacting your legislators is one way, but buying local, unadulterated U.S. honey, refraining from using chemicals on your lawn, eating organic produce that doesn’t use systemic pesticides, growing a garden with a habitat for bees with lots of flowering plants – those are all important ways you can make a difference.

I can’t recommend enough that you watch this film (I watched it on Netflix). Visit their website at and follow them on Twitter at @vanishingbees to keep up to date on the latest info about how you can help. For locals, check out Edible Allegheny‘s info on bees and CCD in western PA from their August/September issue.     

movie review: hungry for change

Hungry for Change is a film made by the same people that made Food Matters, which I previously reviewed. Like the first one, I think this is a compelling documentary with a lot of salient points. Plus, I think it touches on a lot of great points about the diet industry – which is something a lot of food studies/clean eating resources forget about.

Diet and weight loss is an industry that brings in $60 billion a year. At the same time, 2/3 of all dieters regain more than they lose. So why do we keep pumping money into diet foods and weight loss programs when they clearly don’t work, and we’re sicker and more malnourished as a nation than ever before? 

This film delves into the chemical processes in your body that make you crave and retain fat (and sugar and salt). Which goes to explain why when the “no-fat” crazy gripped the nation, tons of people didn’t lose weight – they just started eating carbs like crazy and then got addicted to sugar. We become habituated to the effects of things like sugar and caffeine over time – which isn’t surprising, because they are drugs. The film notes that more people die from food related chronic disease (like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes) than illegal drugs each year.

Hungry for Change spends a lot of time on the harm that we do ourselves when we make ourselves miserable dieting and don’t give our body and minds what they need to be healthy. Dieting can trigger feelings of deprivation and desperation that aren’t a part of a generally healthy lifestyle change. This film makes the compelling case that you’re much better served by looking at your diet as a way to achieve health and balance and not as an enemy.

It did delve into JUICING IS AMAZING territory, as well as DETOXING IS AWESOME-ville, which induced my usual eye rolls. But if juicing gets people to stop eating Doritos and drinking Pepsi, I’m down.

All in all, this film was a good reminder of the most basic principles of healthy living – and that the benefits of eating clean are myriad, from whatever perspective you hold.

movie review: Vegucated

If the point of a documentary is to get people to critically think about an issue, Vegucated certainly met its goal for me, though it caused me to scribble furious notes and get riled up more than any other documentary I’ve watched so far.

Vegucated follows three people who agreed to go vegan for a period of 6 weeks, undergo a health screening before and after, and be educated about why someone should choose to be a vegan. Childish cinematography aside, I didn’t want to hate this film. I felt like it meant well, but veered off into a lot of what I felt was misleading information.

First, my disclaimers. I think anyone should be able to pursue the diet of their choice. I respect vegetarians and vegans for their diet choices and see the myriad of benefits diets such as these provide, not only for animals and the environment, but for individual health. However, if the choice to live by those diets involves twisted logic (which is then used to attack what I’d call an ethical omnivore diet), that’s where I have an issue.

When the three participants decided to go vegan for the purposes of the film and were beginning the transition, the filmmaker/narrator emphasized that they should look for vegan versions of their favorite products to ease the transition. This film was so full of processed foods, it made me ill. I’m not sure why someone would choose to give up dairy or eggs, only to constantly eat heavily processed foods with artificial additives and GMO soy. Processed foods have a huge impact on the environment and vegan versions of regular processed junk are not at all more healthy. To wave GMO soy milk and veggie/soy burgers packed with a list of 30 ingredients and claim that it’s the epitome of health is misleading. If I saw one more person waving a container of Earth Balance around acting like it was health food, I was going to scream.

Along those same lines, the filmmaker points out all the wonderful restaurants where you can eat vegan – like Subway! and Johnny Rockets! My question is this – even if you eat a vegan option at Subway, you are supporting a corporation that does not support environmentally sustainable practices, and sources the meat it serves to other people from the worst of the factory farms they claim to not support. So it rings false to me when you claim veganism is good for the environment, but give your money to the exact corporations that destroy it. 

There was a great deal of footage from factory farming operations in this film, which in some ways is great. I applaud any effort to get people to stop eating factory farmed meat. I’ve written about that before, as well as made clear my support for defeating Ag-Gag laws. If the only meat available were from factory farms, I’d never eat another bite for the rest of my life. Factory farms are atrocious and disgusting in the extreme and should not even be allowed to exist. However, the filmmaker/narrator doesn’t just stop there with farms – she visits a “small, family farm” and claims it’s just as bad as factory farms. No kidding. The “small, family farm” that she showed had a CONFINEMENT SYSTEM for its chickens. 

The farms where we source our meat absolutely would never use a confinement system. I’ve been there and seen it – I don’t have to go undercover with a camera because they openly welcome people to visit. While I think people can legitimately have ethical issues with eating animals, it is unfair to paint all meat eaters as people who allow animals to suffer. Not everyone who drinks milk sources the milk from a cow who had her calf ripped away from her at birth.    

Another argument that doesn’t hold up is that all animals raised for food contribute to environmental decline. It’s true that factory farmed meat is terrible for the environment, and the majority of grain production in the country (as well as most of the antibiotics, incidentally) goes to raising these animals. Last time I checked, our farms allowed their cattle to graze on pasture, not grain shipped in from across the country. They also use their manure to fertilize fields, not trap it in a waste lagoon and then spray it everywhere, contaminating water supplies. They use rotational grazing methods that are sustainable. They don’t destroy the earth – they nurture and protect it.  

And this doesn’t even touch the health portion of this film. Yes, in 6 weeks the three people each lost a few pounds and saw benefits in their blood pressure and cholesterol. And it’s a fact that a plant-based or plant-heavy diet that’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol is great for your health. But these people were not active and also continued to eat junk food – but it was vegan junk food, so it was “healthy” (ooh, Teddy Grahams are vegan!). These people are obviously not representative of all vegans, but to promote it as a healthy lifestyle while still encouraging people that they can eat processed cookies is wrong. “Vegan” doesn’t equal health any more than “organic” equals health.

Ultimately, to paint all farms and meat eaters with such broad strokes is irresponsible. I know many vegans and/or vegetarians that eat a whole foods diet and don’t rely on processed garbage as an “easy way out.” But this film made me feel like I was on one side of a war, good (vegans) versus evil (everyone else). In actuality, I think an ethical omnivore has a lot more in common with a vegan than most people would assume – both are conscientious eaters, aware that what we eat involves much more than just mindless bites. So why can’t we just get along?  

movie review: Forks Over Knives

Forks Over Knives surprised me, in that it’s the same message that many other documentaries have covered, but it somehow felt different. The film makes the argument that a whole foods, plant-based diet is vital for long term health and well being. At the same time, a diet that includes animal products, such as meat, dairy and eggs, and highly processed, refined foods, contributes to long-term health issues.

We’ve heard that message a lot – it’s one of the ideas that has made veganism so popular. And I think it’s true that a diet heavy in plants, low in animal products and without processed foods can have dramatic impacts on your health. It has on mine. 

But where this film differed from others, including Food Matters, is that it was focused on science and clinical studies. It seemed much more solid on clinical evidence and research. At the same time they interviewed many people who also had their own anecdotal evidence to contribute (including a champion MMA fighter who is a vegan athlete!). The narrator also decided to pursue a plant-based diet after getting some troubling blood work that showed that he was at high risk for heart disease. Just 13 weeks of a diet change completely reversed his risk factors.

This film was a good reminder that we have more power over our own health than we think. Perhaps my favorite line was when someone mentioned that if you think your health and wellness is based solely on your genes (and that you’re doomed to taking pills because of them), you are a victim. Yes, you might have to take some pills for some conditions. But we don’t have to be victims of the drug companies pushing blood pressure and blood sugar pills. 

This is a good film to watch if you aren’t really convinced that there’s scientific evidence that supports clean eating or are still on the fence about its benefits. It’s less hippie, more science. Which is right up my alley. You know, wanting to farm in space and all.

movie review: DIVE!

DIVE! actually came out in 2010, but as part of my quest to watch as many food and environment documentaries as I can, I added it to my queue. The film focuses on waste – in particular what America throws out. The dive to which the title refers? Straight into a dumpster.

In just the first few seconds of the film, we’re reminded that America wastes 3,000 pounds of food per second. So in the time it has taken you to read this far, we’ve wasted several thousand pounds of food. 

It’s true that 40% of the food that’s wasted is thrown out in our households. But what about the other 60%? The film follows people who actually dumpster dive for discarded food from grocery stores. 

I was shocked to see how much food they would find on a nightly basis that was perfectly edible. Entire bags of avocados or packages of tomatoes, where one had gone soft or moldy, but the rest were fine. Slightly wrinkled blueberries or bags of salad greens that were one day away from “expiring.” Even more shocking was the amount of meat wasted. In the span of seven evenings, the people in the film found enough meat to feed a family for a year. Being outside in the cold night? It stayed refrigerated and sealed. And in the garbage.

The people who do this see it as civil disobedience – actively opposing the immorality of perfectly good food thrown out by corporations when millions of Americans go to bed hungry each night. I see it that way too. Because of the Good Samaritan Act passed during Clinton’s presidency, companies are protected from liability for food donations. But many still throw out food in advance of expiration dates. And refuse to donate it, even when asked.

Regardless of the morality factor, it’s not even good business practice. We waste 50% of the food produced in this country, to the detriment of our environment, economy and our societal well being. One person in the film is quoted as saying “when you waste food, you waste life.” Every time you throw food out, you’re not just wasting that food, but all of the resources that went into producing it – water, time, labor, etc. 

This film reminds us that we’ve forgotten that food is precious. It’s a valuable gift. We take it for granted and consume it divorced from its true cost. Say you throw out leftovers. What if you also dumped 1,000 gallons of water down the drain at the same time, and then put $5 on your kitchen counter and set it on fire? Would you be more likely to eat, share or preserve that food if you were aware of what you were truly wasting?

While this film felt like a “first documentary” from the filmmaker, with a lot of footage that seemed like it was recorded on someone’s iPhone and a lot of “I tried to get someone from X store to speak with me and they refused,” it still kept my attention. It also made me interested in reclamation programs that work with companies to salvage discarded food before it’s lost to rot or spoilage and help get it where it needs to go to feed people. Even though I probably won’t be dumpster diving anytime soon, I will probably ask my grocery store what they do with the food they throw out when I visit this week.

movie review: Food Matters

As a geek that loves documentaries, I recently added a bunch of food/environment/science related films to my Netflix/Amazon Prime queues (one of my favorite benefits of streaming vs. cable!). After reading a lot about it on Twitter, I started with Food Matters.

This film focuses around the basic idea that you are what you eat. Garbage in, garbage out – that kind of thing. From the outset, I felt like the filmography was relatively rough – almost manic, with distracting backgrounds and too many vintage clips of instructional films from the 1950s and 1960s.

However, I agreed wholeheartedly with the premise – that this country suffers from an epidemic of chronic malnutrition (as opposed to acute malnutrition or starvation). Far too often in my own experience, I’ve gone to the doctor with an issue and was just given pills and pushed out the door. When I had constant headaches in grad school, the first doctor I saw just wanted to give me pills, even when he knew I was crazy-addicted to caffeine.

The film makes the claim that modern medicine too often treats symptoms and not the underlying disease or condition. Much of what currently ails us as a population can be attributed to our lifestyle – poor diet, lack of exercise and stress. Makes sense. It’s made sense in my own life. I agree with the film’s assertion that the human body has an astonishing capacity to heal itself from many ailments, if given the chance.

Food Matters does a good job of reminding consumers that just like Big Agriculture, Big Pharmaceutical is a half a trillion dollar industry. There is a lot of money involved in treating illness with medicine in this country. Every time you take a blood pressure pill or a blood sugar pill, you are putting money in the hands of drug companies that have a vested interest in you never actually getting off their medication. They make no money from wellness. For the vast majority of the population, it’s affordable and safe to change your diet and start exercising. So why would you want to just stay on the pills when they won’t prolong your life or more importantly, improve your quality of life?

As is the case in Big Agriculture, supporting research for drugs is often sponsored and paid for by the drug companies themselves. Drug companies don’t want to pay for research that suggests that a plant-based diet and an abundance of vitamins and minerals can lead to health. The film also talked about high dosage vitamin therapies that have been studied for years as treatment for various chronic illnesses, including serious illnesses like cancer.

While much of what the film discusses makes perfect sense – that nutrition should be our primary prevention strategy against disease, etc. – it also veers off into more alternative therapies that left me interested, but highly skeptical. For instance, there’s a lot of information on colonic therapies that “cleanse” the body of toxins. As I explained in my post about why I don’t do juice cleanses or lemon juice/maple syrup/vinegar cleanses, a healthy colon doesn’t need help cleansing your body. Don’t put toxins in your body and you won’t have to force them out uncomfortably by drinking 2 liters of water after you get out of bed and having nothing but high fiber juice for days.

The film highlights the Gerson Institute, which champions a holistic therapy for cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases. The therapy, according to their website, includes activating “the body’s extraordinary ability to heal itself through an organic, vegetarian diet, raw juices, coffee enemas and natural supplements.” They claim a great success rate and honestly, I’m not doubting them. Anyone who has ever seen someone suffer from cancer knows that chemotherapy is awful in every possible sense. And anyone who wants to treat their cancer with vitamins and enemas should absolutely have the right to do so. (It’s ridiculous that all of the Gerson clinics have to be out of the country even though they are staffed by MDs that go to the same med schools that other doctors in the U.S. attend.)

But I’m still skeptical that raw juices and enemas are cure-alls. Sometimes disease happens, regardless of the health of your lifestyle. For instance, eating raw foods isn’t going to make my lungs stop being asthmatic. I have a decrease in asthma symptoms because of my increased lung health due to cardiovascular exercise, but I don’t stop having the disease. I also don’t want to go back to my life before being on thyroid replacement hormone – even though my lifestyle has also contributed to a reduction in symptoms.

Overall the film had interesting food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun. And it serves as a great reminder that the diseases plaguing the west – particularly heart disease and diabetes – can be not only prevented but REVERSED by true lifestyle modifications. I would not put it in the same class of documentaries as Food, Inc. or A Place at the Table, but it wasn’t a waste of an hour.

why you need to watch “A Place at the Table”

I actually saw A Place at the Table about a month ago, thanks to Amazon Prime allowing me to rent it while it was in theaters. I’ve been stewing on it since, wondering whether or not to write about the issue of hunger. After all, I live in a two-income household where we are most decidedly NOT food insecure, and I also grew up in a family where I never went one day hungry. I’ve always been grateful for that, at least on a surface level. But I’ve never felt that gratitude so profoundly as I did when I saw this film.

Here’s the synopsis, from the film’s website:

Fifty million people in the U.S.—one in four children—don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush examine the issue of hunger in America through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity: Barbie, a single Philadelphia mother who grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her two kids; Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school; and Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford.

You read that correctly. 25% of American children are food insecure, meaning that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. 1 in 6 Americans don’t have enough to eat. Among countries with advanced economies, America ranks worst for food insecurity among its citizens. 1 in 2 American children will receive supplemental food assistance during their lifetimes. Half. More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, where the availability of fresh, healthy food is severely limited if it exists at all and a grocery store with the amenities most of us take for granted is a car ride away.

This documentary was powerful, not just because of the facts and statistics it presented about how bad the problem actually is, but because it made you look into the faces of hungry people. It forced you to confront the grim realities that families across America confront every day – how do you put your son to bed at night when he asks for more food and you have no money and nothing in your cupboards and you’ve already exhausted your allotted food pantry distribution? What do you do when you know your daughter isn’t doing well in school because she’s so hungry she can’t concentrate? How do you get a nation of simultaneously obese and hungry people? How is this happening in America, of all places?

For the first time in history, we have a hunger problem in our country that is not due to a shortage of food. America produces more food than we could ever possibly consume, and as we know, much of it is wasted. But we have spent trillions of dollars on food subsidies for corporations and not individuals; we spend more money bailing out banks than we do our own working poor. We give government subsidies for unhealthy calories – as the price of fresh, healthy food rises, the cost of packaged, corn based junk goes lower and lower. If you need calories to survive, you can get the most caloric bang for your buck on the fast food dollar menu. Why are we surprised when this type of diet takes its toll?

This film highlights some great work food banks are doing. In my area, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank does amazing work. Mark and I are even planning on growing an extra raised bed of food this summer for its produce donations. But food banks can’t provide for every need, and they have to function with what they are given. Donations that come from grocery stores are often processed, shelf-stable foods. We can’t feed America on charity alone. We need real, bipartisan legislative protections for food assistance and school lunches. Hunger doesn’t have any regard for party politics and it doesn’t discriminate. Many of us who are food secure now could just as easily not be, given the right combination of circumstances.

Which brings me to the biggest lesson I learned from this film. A reminder, more than a lesson. I think that one of the legacies American society inherited from its forefathers was the attitude that if you just work hard enough, you’ll be fine. Self-sufficiency has been our motto for centuries, to the point where people hear the words welfare and food stamps and equate that with laziness and fraud. Any system that we try to run as humans will have its share of fraud and people that manage to take advantage of the system. But there are people who work more hours a week than I do, in harder circumstances, that still need welfare to feed their kids. And they aren’t sitting at home watching cable drinking booze and collecting the government’s money. I worked at a grocery store in graduate school, and the people that came through with EBT cards weren’t flaunting their good fortune for everyone to see, that’s for damn sure.

This film reminds you that people just like you are going to go to bed tonight with an ache in their stomachs because they didn’t eat today so their kids could. Or they ate today, but have no idea whether they will tomorrow. If it was your child asking you for food because he was so hungry he couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t you hope that someone had stood up for you in the halls of Congress and in the White House to give you a stronger safety net? Food is fundamental and we need to treat it as such. 

We cannot hope as a country to accomplish real social change until we feed our people. Food and water and shelter are among the most basic of needs, and in a country with overflowing wealth, it’s a travesty that we allow the basic needs of our citizens to go unanswered. How can we expect to develop the leaders of tomorrow when malnutrition stunts children’s ability to learn and grow? Which future scientist or world leader is going to bed without a full belly tonight?

Challenge yourself and watch A Place at the Table. Find out what you can do to take a stand against hunger here. Consider also donating to your local food bank to help meet immediate needs, especially if that food bank takes fresh food donations. When you are drowning in zucchini and tomatoes in a few months, stop and be grateful for the bounty with which you are blessed and share. 

Starting with a food bank garden bed and letters to my legislators, I’m making a commitment to myself to revisit this issue again until I’m satisfied that I’m doing my part to give everyone a place at the table. Will you?