Two recent films deal with a topic that is central to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in the midst of, namely the toxic chemicals that are intrinsic to industrial farming, the gains of the so-called Green Revolution.
The first is a narrative film titled “Runoff” that opened yesterday at Village East in New York. It is about the struggle of a family-run farm to stay afloat as agribusiness closes in around them. Their income comes from the crops they sell, including at a roadside stand of the type that was ubiquitous to the upstate NY county I grew up in, and farm supplies—mostly pesticides and herbicides that modern farming relies on.They are just one step ahead of bank foreclosure and forced to consider breaking the law in order to come up with the funds necessary to stay afloat.
The second is a documentary titled “Our Daily Poison” that is available as a DVD from Icarus films. Although it is an English-language feature, it was directed by a French woman named Marie-Monique Robin who also wrote a book of the same title. It is an investigative report on the incestuous ties between big business and the government regulators who are charged with protecting the public when in fact they are far more interested in protecting profits.
In “Runoff”, the questioning of chemicals is only implicit as the husband and wife lead characters rely on questionable sales to keep a roof over their head. As mom-and-pop business owners, their nemesis is not the agricultural-chemical complex but a competitor that has systematically wooed away all their old customers and is now angling to buy their land from beneath their feet. After a banker pays them a visit to demand the mortgage payments they owe him, the wife decides to resort to desperate measures. She agrees to dispose of chemicals illegally on behalf of a farmer who used to be their customer in order to save him some money. The money she makes from dumping the chemicals into a nearby river will help keep the roof over her head and presumably allow the family to continue doing a business that although legal is a crime against nature and humanity.
Director Kimberly Levin was trained as a biochemist and worked in Kentucky where the film was made on a shoestring budget (she also attended NYU film school.) She had a project lined up with HBO that starred James Gandolfini as a mob-affiliated New Jersey restaurant owner who becomes a government agent conspiring against North Korea (shades of “The Interview”) but his death put a kibosh on it. Maybe her enthusiasm for that project carried over into this film since dumping toxic chemicals into a river is so…Tony Soprano.
I can recommend this film but only as a fascinating study of how farms operate today. Filmed on location near Louisville, chemicals seem ubiquitous with an airplane crop duster reminiscent of “North by Northwest” and the male lead injecting hogs with antibiotics administered through something that looks like a pistol.
In a way, the film reminded me of “Promised Land”, the Matt Damon vehicle about fracking that deliberately avoided any kind of “message” about the dubious technology but preferred to tell a story about how the main character got deceived by a company plant whose dishonest advocacy undermined a local struggle against fracking. As an unrepentant Marxist, I guess I prefer the message.
Message aplenty is what lies in store for you in “Our Daily Poison”, a movie whose title should tell you were its heart is.
The film is divided roughly into three parts. The first takes you to a farming region in France where the director grew up and where local farmer’s health has been ravaged by exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (mushroom killers) whose use became widespread after WWII when the Green Revolution arrived in France as part of a Marshall Plan meant to bring prosperity to farmers and the people who consumed their products. Of course, a certain amount of prosperity was enjoyed even if it cost people their physical well-being. We meet a group of farmers who have been plagued by one health problem or another, including Parkinson’s which seems to be an epidemic among those who used chemicals.
Part two shows the impact of the crops that come out of industrial farming on the general public. In some truly eye-opening scenes, we see the director pressing regulators in the FDA or their European counterparts to defend their arbitrary guidelines for ADI (Admissible Daily Intake). This is the amount of chemicals you can ingest with your apples or green peas, defined as a percentage of your body weight. The Europeans, despite their reputation for being less bought off by evil corporations, are much worse than the Americans with people serving on regulatory bodies who are serving as consultants to outfits like Monsanto.
Part three deals with chemical additives that become part of the circulation of commodities after they are harvested, either as sweeteners, preservatives and the like as well as the plastic that encases them.
One of the more egregious examples of how government and big business conspire against the consumer is how Donald Rumsfeld greased the slids that made the deployment of aspartame on a massive scale possible. That word might not ring a bell but you probably know it as Nutrasweet, the sweetener in Diet Coke, a drink that will never pass through my lips again, and a million other foodstuffs.
A Huffington Post article on all this is quite useful:
In 1985, Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held the patent to aspartame, the active ingredient in NutraSweet. Monsanto was apparently untroubled by aspartame’s clouded past, including the report of a 1980 FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, which confirmed that it “might induce brain tumors.” The FDA had previously banned aspartame based on this finding, only to have then-Searle Chairman Donald Rumsfeld vow to “call in his markers,” to get it approved. Here’s how it happened:
Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president January 21, 1981. Rumsfeld, while still CEO at Searle, was part of Reagan’s transition team. This team hand-picked Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., to be the new FDA commissioner. Dr. Hayes, a pharmacologist, had no previous experience with food additives before being appointed director of the FDA. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan issued an executive order eliminating the FDA commissioners’ authority to take action and Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener. Hayes, Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision. So Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor.
One of Hayes’ first official acts as FDA chief was to approve the use of aspartame as an artificial sweetener in dry goods on July 18, 1981. In order to accomplish this feat, Hayes had to overlook the scuttled grand jury investigation of Searle, overcome the Bressler Report, ignore the PBOI’s recommendations and pretend aspartame did not chronically sicken and kill thousands of lab animals. Hayes left his post at the FDA in November, 1983, amid accusations that he was accepting corporate gifts for political favors. Just before leaving office in scandal, Hayes approved the use of aspartame in beverages. After Hayes left the FDA under allegations of impropriety, he served briefly as Provost at New York Medical College, and then took a position as a high-paid senior medical advisor with Burson-Marsteller, the chief public relations firm for both Monsanto and GD Searle. Since that time he has never spoken publicly about aspartame. FYI, here’s Rachel Maddow on Burson-Marsteller: “When Evil needs public relations, Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.” Evil, thy name is chemical food additives.
In the closing moments of the film that was shot in Orissa, an Indian state, I found myself troubled by the implications of its critique of industrial farming—not that I would ever take the side of Monsanto but finding myself wondering about how we can move to a healthier world.
It seems that the people of Orissa never get cancer. That we are told is a function of their healthy lifestyle—they grow their own food and have no environmental problems to deal with like air pollution from factories or automobiles. What the film does not mention is that nearly 3000 farmers committed suicide in the last 10 years, victims of the same sort of economic desperation depicted in “Runoff”. Nor does it consider what it means for the world to adopt the mode of production in a place like Orissa even if it means avoiding cancer. Minutes after watching the film, I told my wife that for people accustomed to urban life in an industrial society, where cancer is a virtual epidemic, the life of an Orissa farmer might be a fate worse than death.
Somehow there must be a resolution of the environmental/capitalist crisis that promotes healthy living in a setting that is far less “advanced” than the one that we live in now. Surrounded by luxury buildings in New York City that are becoming homes to Russian oligarchs and CVS stores on every block, that would be the best outcome for me even if it was a disaster to the superrich who live a few blocks to the west of me on Fifth Avenue.