Sunday, February 3, 2013

"Farmageddon: The Unseen War on American Family Farms"

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          Farmageddon:The Unseen War on American Family Farms, a documentary written, narrated, directed, and produced by Kristin Canty, presents itself as an exposé of the tyranny of the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies concerned with the regulation of food production and sales. Canty identifies herself at the beginning of the documentary as a mother of four children who strongly believes in the health benefits of consuming organic food and (especially) raw milk. She tells the story of how one of her sons suffered from severe allergies and was effectively cured by drinking raw milk from grass-fed cows and eating organic food from small farms. After this experience, Canty and her children began consuming raw dairy products and other foods from small organic farms exclusively, and Canty became friends with many of the farmers who produce them. From these farmers, Canty learned about the overbearing government regulation of small, organic, sustainable farms, the horror stories of legally-questionable searches and seizures of small organic farms, and the restrictive regulations regarding organic foods, unpasteurized dairy products, and cooperative markets.
            Canty’s documentary does an excellent job of making the viewer (or at least, me) feel sympathetic towards the farmers she interviewed, and even morally outraged by the ways in which some of their cases were handled by government agencies. However, throughout the documentary I felt that the message of the health benefits and morality of raw milk and grass-fed meats was much more prominent than the criticism of the ways in which small organic farms are treated by state and federal governments, which was presented at the beginning as the primary purpose of this documentary and of Canty’s investigative work. The former message certainly supports the latter in this case, because part of Canty’s argument is that the strict regulation (and at times, blatant exploitation and bullying) of small organic farming initiatives and the near-criminalization of natural food is absurd. But the prominence of this first message sometimes muddied her argument, and at times made the tone of the documentary seemed more proselytizing than informative.  I was left wondering if the message that Canty was really trying to convey was something more along the lines of “These small organic farmers are being unfairly persecuted. P.S. The food they produce is better for you and for the environment.” or “Food from small organic farms is healthier and it makes you a better person, so it’s ok if small organic farmers and/or the people who purchase food from them kind of break the law here and there. P.S. GOVERNMENT CONPIRACY!!! P.P.S. DRINK RAW MILK!!!!!!!!!!” And it's ok to make those arguments—I think people should be able to eat the kinds of foods they want to eat, and if they want to encourage other people to eat those foods too, that’s ok. But I’m a little frustrated when that’s done under the guise of a different argument.  It’s kind of like being invited by a new friend to go out for coffee only to find out once you get there that his or her real intentions are to tell you about the saving power of Jesus. It’s ok to drink raw milk, and it’s ok to feel like you were saved by Jesus, but it’s not ok to sneakily lure someone in to try to force either of those things upon them. No one likes false pretenses.
            There were also some interesting messages in Farmageddon regarding privilege and femininity. For one thing, all of the “concerned parent” consumers interviewed in the documentary, not to mention Kristin Canty herself, were specifically concerned mothers. Both Canty and a prominently featured interviewee named Liz Reitzig (who was first identified as a “concerned mom” and only later as a raw foods activist and president of the Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association) say that they became interested in buying their food from small organic forms and consuming raw dairy products because they are moms, and they feel that they are doing what’s right for their children by raising them with a type of diet associated with food activism and small, sustainable, organic farming. Furthermore, both Canty and Reitzig are white and educated, and based on the appearance of their clothes and their homes and the fact that they have time and resources to do things like drive hours away each week to do their food shopping and participate in a cow-share program that involves milking the cow oneself, are also economically privileged. And in addition to the way in which both Canty and Reitzig self-identify primarily as mothers (as opposed to as activists or professionals), each one of these women has four children, which is about double the national average of children per family in the U.S.. This *might* suggest that within the organic food/raw milk/small farm movement(s) a relatively privileged status is often considered the norm, and a particular “brand” of femininity in which motherhood is idealized and the role of childbearing and childcare is expected to be a woman’s primary concern is being promoted.
            It is also worth noting that many of the farmers interviewed in this documentary were very well educated ex-professionals (such as NASA scientists, biology Ph.D.s, lawyers, etc.) who became disillusioned with their work and decided to “go back to the land.” And when these farmers talked about their customers, they specified that they too tended to be very “smart” people who held doctorate degrees and/or worked at post-secondary educational institutions. This suggests two things: (1.) that consuming foods (and especially raw foods) from small, organic, sustainable farms is something that (only?) more educated or smarter than average people do, and (2.) that these consumers are trying to use “natural food,” an “old-fashioned” way of living, and physical labor to morally purify themselves. Even the name of the documentary, Farmageddon, is a religious reference that suggests that the disagreements between food activism/small organic farms and government food regulations is a “final and conclusive battle” between good and evil (for the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of Armageddon, click here), and is meant to instill fear in those who haven’t yet “seen the light” of organic, raw, or “natural” food. And again, I think it’s ok to try to make that argument. And I’m even interested in the argument. But personally, I was a little put off by how it was made.

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