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Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 12:01 am

Slow Food Film Festival

Have you ever seen a film so powerful, so mind-boggling, so eye-opening that you had the urge to rush out and grab total strangers off the street and insist they see it, too? To think that it should be a required topic of study in high schools? That was my reaction when I saw The Future of Food, a 2004 documentary as dramatic and intriguing as any thriller flick.

The Future of Food is just one of the movies that will be shown at Slow Food Springfield’s 4th Annual Film Festival on Jan. 25 at Benedictine University’s campus. In past years, the Slow Food event consisted of a single film. This year, it’s become a real festival, with multiple movies from 2 until 8:30 p.m. Participants will be able to choose between two films (shown separately) at 2 p.m. and again at 4:15 p.m. After a break for dinner (which, along with refreshments during the day, will be provided by 5 Flavors Catering), participants will come together for a final film, followed by discussion.

The Future of Food investigates genetically engineered products that have entered our food system without being tested or labeled, as well as the politics and corporate interests manipulating and promoting them. In 2004, The Future of Food was groundbreaking: the first documentary to examine the genetic engineering and proprietary patents of mainstream food.

In the most basic sense, food has been genetically engineered for almost 12,000 years, when early peoples first planted crops and domesticated animals. Seeds from the best-yielding or tastiest plants were saved for the next year. Animals were bred for such things as good milk production, egg-laying ability and hardiness.

As knowledge and methods became more sophisticated, thousands of varieties of thousands of plants and animals arose, adapted to varying climates, soils, locations and human needs. At one time, there were more than 5,000 varieties of potatoes. In the 19th century there were more than 7,000 varieties of apples in the United States alone.

Today, estimates say that 97 percent of the plant varieties that existed at the beginning of the 20th century have become extinct. Only four varieties of potatoes are widely grown. Virtually all poultry raised commercially for eggs and meat comes from one breed.

Biodiversity is important for many reasons, not least because it provides choice and variety. But the biggest argument for biodiversity is that it acts as a fail-safe mechanism against the possibility that disease, climate change or other disaster could wipe out a type of plant or animal. In the mid-1800s, for example, the Irish grew only a few types of potatoes. When blight struck their potato crop, more than a million people died of starvation. When the same blight came to Peru, which had hundreds of types of potatoes, it had little effect.

Reasons for biodiversity’s decline are complex, rooted in agricultural history and the increasing influence and control of large corporations. It started with the development of monocultures: huge tracts of land planted with just one crop, depleting the soil of nutrients, a problem formerly solved through crop rotation. Application of nitrogen fertilizers developed to use excess produced to manufacture nitrogen bombs during World War II – a product in search of a market.

Monocultures were – and are – more susceptible to disease, pests and weeds. The first insecticides were created as offshoots of nerve gases used during World War I (see above). It became a vicious circle. As farmers used chemicals more, more and stronger chemicals were needed as insects, weeds and diseases developed resistance.

Enter the biotech industry. It’s clear – not just in The Future of Food but also in books such as the excellent history of the biotechnology industry, Lords of the Harvest, by Daniel Charles – that most genetic engineering scientists were genuinely committed to ending world hunger, be it through developing plants resistant to herbicides or adding a vital element such as vitamin K to rice. It was their corporate front offices, intent on profits regardless of any potential harm to the environment, people, or even farmers themselves, that engendered a sorry tale of political intrigue and corporate coercion.

U.S. patent law played a major role. Patent protection is guaranteed in the Constitution, but living organisms were exempt on “moral grounds.” In 1978, things changed. A General Electric biologist won a patent for an oil-eating bacteria to control oil spills. The bacteria was never used – it ate a lot of other things besides oil – but the floodgates had opened. Now companies had the ability to own and control Earth’s species, and the U.S. pesticide industry raced to buy seed companies. Ever since then corporations – most significantly St. Louis’s Monsanto – have vigorously sued and/or harassed farmers who’ve chosen not to buy their genetically engineered weed-resistant/high-production seed; even when their patented GMO seeds sprouting on farmers’ land blew there from participating farmers’ wagons going to the railway station.

There’s more in The Future of Food, not the least of which is an accounting of the revolving door of folks who move with the political winds: as their (aka their company’s) executives in “unfriendly” administrations, they move into highly influential government positions when the reins of power change, back and forth as opportunity dictates.

I could continue extolling The Future of Food endlessly. I’d been reading about the problems of monoculture farming, loss of diversity and similar issues for years. But The Future of Food was the first time I’d been persuasively presented with interconnections between all of them, as well as others in such a cohesive and compelling narrative.

Regardless, the other movies shown at Slow Food’s 4th Film Festival – two of which I’ve seen and two I haven’t, will and should be equally intriguing to anyone who eats.

Ingredients, the Movie – Farmers and chefs who are dedicated to – and creating – a “truly sustainable food system” are collaborating to create “great tasting food and an explosion of consumer awareness about the benefits of eating local. Ingredients explores how people nationwide are revitalizing the connection between the land, farmers, health and community. It’s “a journey that reveals the people behind the movement to bring good food back to the table and health back to our communities.”
Food, Inc. – While its themes are similar to The Future of Food, this film has a different slant, dealing with government’s desire to provide cheap food regardless of its nutritional value and a few multinational corporations’ quest for evermore enormous profits and control.
Two Angry Moms – What happens when a mom who has been trying for years to increase community awareness of what kids eat at school (and is a documentary filmmaker) joins forces with a “rabble-rouser banned from her kids’ school cafeteria” for advocating healthy school meals? Two Angry Moms, a film that is “part how-to and part exposé.” While showing what’s wrong with school food, it also offers strategies and solutions.
Mad City Chickens – Decades ago the practice of having chickens in city backyards was normal. It never totally died out; I personally know two local families that had backyard chickens for years, one on Edwards Street, just a block from the Capitol; the other on Illini Road in Leland Grove. Mad City Chickens documents urban chicken farming in Madison, Wis. A panel discussion of “local urban chicken professionals” will follow the film.
The 4th Annual Slow Food Springfield Film Festival will be held on Jan. 25 at Benedictine University’s Library, 1500 N. Fifth St. from 2-8:30 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for Slow Food Springfield members, and free for students with a student ID.

Visit Slow Food Springfield’s website, www.slowfoodspringfield.org for a film schedule, or call Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, extension educator for local food systems and small farms, 217-782-4617, for more information.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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