food for thought: on hollywood

there are so many reasons why i don’t live in the u.s. any more. why i can barely stand coming back here at all. but i do it to see my grandma because she is the one reason that it remains difficult for me to live abroad. i’ve spent the last couple of weeks cleaning up her house, cooking, grocery shopping, taking her to doctor appointments, and taking her to auditions. a few years ago my grandma was encouraged to start an acting career at age 85 and she’s had a few bit parts in short films and commercials since then. she’s had two since i’ve been here. one was some italian movie called “christmas in beverly hills” and the other was for an episode of some fox tv show called “house md,” which i’ve never seen. that audition was on the 20th century fox studio lot.

sound stage for "the simpsons"

we drove onto the lot and into the parking garage where my grandma’s agent told us to park. but he also gave us a map showing that we had to walk from there all the way across the studio lot in order to get to the building where the audition would be. i told the guard that it would be impossible for us to do that and asked him for to arrange for us to drive onto the lot so we could park next to the building. silly me: i thought that there would actually be handicapped parking spaces out front. but there were none. all the spaces outside building #52 were reserved for people who work on something called “bones” and “futurama.” so i parked in some other reserved space a bit closer to the building. the only handicapped spot i gleaned was in front of building #1, which was too far of a trek for my grandma and her walker. and i did not think that it would be a good idea to push her into an audition in her wheelchair.

where are the handicapped parking spots?
where are the handicapped parking spots?

when we got into the office building i saw a line of women my grandma’s age and then i saw photos on the wall about this “house md” show that stars someone called hugh laurie (also someone i’ve never heard of, but apparently he’s a big name in hollywood). we went through all this effort for my grandma to utter one line: “ooooooohhhh!” it was funny standing outside the door and listening to all the women go inside and utter this exclamation. i think the scene is a patient in bed and this is obviously a response to something the doctor does. well, it turns out that it was worth the effort because my grandma got the part. she’s going to be in an episode of “house md” this season in a scene with hugh laurie. and it is even a bigger deal because now she has enough credits to join the screen actors guild (sag), a union for actors. this means my grandma will have an easier time getting acting gigs. so tomorrow we are going to get her a sag card.

the acting thing is great for my grandma as it gets her out of the house and interacting with people. otherwise she stays at home too much, which is not good for her physical or mental health. but the whole hollywood thing is one reason i left los angeles way back in 1987. the individualistic and narcissistic attitudes that plague people in hollywood infect everything in the city. for the most part, everything and everyone strikes me as fake. and i’ve never liked this aspect of my home town.

but sometimes good things come out of hollywood. my grandma and i went to see the movie “food, inc.” last night. it featured two writers i really like a lot when it comes to food issues: eric schlosser and michael pollan. the film is important in the way it draws connections among labor, class, environment, health, nutrition, government control and censorship, and what we eat. here is a trailer for the film, which gives you an idea of the subjects it covers:

the film’s one main failing is its lack of attention to how u.s. food policy affects the rest of the world. rami’s blog addresses this issue on a daily basis. michael pollan’s open letter to then president-elect barack obama addressed these issues and showed how they are intertwined in crucial ways:

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study. Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.

In addition to the problems of climate change and America’s oil addiction, you have spoken at length on the campaign trail of the health care crisis. Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960 to 16 percent today, putting a significant drag on the economy. The goal of ensuring the health of all Americans depends on getting those costs under control. There are several reasons health care has gotten so expensive, but one of the biggest, and perhaps most tractable, is the cost to the system of preventable chronic diseases. Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health. You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.

The impact of the American food system on the rest of the world will have implications for your foreign and trade policies as well. In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. Nations that opened their markets to the global flood of cheap grain (under pressure from previous administrations as well as the World Bank and the I.M.F.) lost so many farmers that they now find their ability to feed their own populations hinges on decisions made in Washington (like your predecessor’s precipitous embrace of biofuels) and on Wall Street. They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Expect to hear the phrases “food sovereignty” and “food security” on the lips of every foreign leader you meet. Not only the Doha round, but the whole cause of free trade in agriculture is probably dead, the casualty of a cheap food policy that a scant two years ago seemed like a boon for everyone. It is one of the larger paradoxes of our time that the very same food policies that have contributed to overnutrition in the first world are now contributing to undernutrition in the third. But it turns out that too much food can be nearly as big a problem as too little — a lesson we should keep in mind as we set about designing a new approach to food policy.

Rich or poor, countries struggling with soaring food prices are being forcibly reminded that food is a national-security issue. When a nation loses the ability to substantially feed itself, it is not only at the mercy of global commodity markets but of other governments as well. At issue is not only the availability of food, which may be held hostage by a hostile state, but its safety: as recent scandals in China demonstrate, we have little control over the safety of imported foods. The deliberate contamination of our food presents another national-security threat. At his valedictory press conference in 2004, Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, offered a chilling warning, saying, “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”

if you click on the link at the beginning of the above-quoted text you’ll find that pollan goes a lot further–both historicizing these problems and offering solutions to them. the film, too, asks people to take action after viewing it as all the participant film productions do. the film people have a website where the update various items that encourage action on the part of their viewers. this is, of course, rare in hollywood. and not all of this film company’s productions on the various social issues are on the mark politically from where i stand. but i think this food film is important and raises issues. the question is if americans can get off their asses and do something about it. that remains to be seen.

there was another really great food documentary i saw last year called “king corn” which was an independent film about how the food industry is destroying agriculture, health, and the environment. it traced and tracked how and where corn travels across the united states and beyond (to a certain extent) in all of its various forms (“food, inc.” covers the subject, too). and they also have a link on their site where you can find out what to do to take action. you can get a good idea about the film from this extended clip (and the film is available for download on itunes):

but as much as i appreciate the various threads these filmmakers pull together to show us how damaging our eating practices are on a national scale, i think some further attention to the ways american agriculture is affecting the planet is necessary. one of the key evil mutli-national corporations featured in the film “food, inc.” is, of course, monsanto. and the film does a great job showing how monsanto bullies farmers into submission, compliance, and bankruptcy. but at the same time this is what is going on globally for the same reasons. just look at what nancy scola explains the u.s. and monsanto are doing in places like india and iraq:

In short, Order 81 was Bremer’s way of telling Monsanto that the same conditions had been created in Iraq that had led to the company’s stunning successes in India.

In issuing Order 81, Bremer didn’t order Iraqi farmers to march over to the closest Monsanto-supplied shop and stock up. But if Monsanto’s experience in India is any guide, he didn’t need to.

Here’s the way it works in India. In the central region of Vidarbha, for example, Monsanto salesmen travel from village to village touting the tremendous, game-changing benefits of Bt cotton, Monsanto’s genetically modified seed sold in India under the Bollgard® label. The salesmen tell farmers of the amazing yields other Vidarbha growers have enjoyed while using their products, plastering villages with posters detailing “True Stories of Farmers Who Have Sown Bt Cotton.” Old-fashioned cotton seeds pale in comparison to Monsanto’s patented wonder seeds, say the salesmen, as much as an average old steer is humbled by a fine Jersey cow.

Part of the trick to Bt cotton’s remarkable promise, say the salesmen, is that Bollgard® was genetically engineered in the lab to contain bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that the company claims drastically reduces the need for pesticides. When pesticides are needed, Bt cotton plants are Roundup® Ready — a Monsanto designation meaning that the plants can be drowned in the company’s signature herbicide, none the worse for wear. (Roundup® mercilessly kills nonengineered plants.)

Sounds great, right? The catch is that Bollgard® and Roundup® cost real money. And so Vidarbha’s farmers, somewhat desperate to grow the anemic profit margin that comes with raising cotton in that dry and dusty region, have rushed to both banks and local moneylenders to secure the cash needed to get on board with Monsanto. Of a $3,000 bank loan a Vidarbha farmer might take out, as much as half might go to purchasing a growing season’s worth of Bt seeds.

And the same goes the next season, and the next season after that. In traditional agricultural, farmers can recycle seeds from one harvest to plant the next, or swap seeds with their neighbors at little or no cost. But when it comes to engineered seeds like Bt cotton, Monsanto owns the tiny speck of intellectual property inside each hull, and thus controls the patent. And a farmer wishing to reuse seeds from a Monsanto plant must pay to relicense them from the company each and every growing season.

But farmers who chose to bet the farm, literally, on Bt cotton or other GM seeds aren’t necessarily crazy or deluded. Genetically modified agricultural does hold the tremendous promise of leading to increased yields — incredibly important for farmers feeding their families and communities from limited land and labor.

But when it comes to GM seeds, all’s well when all is well. Farming is a gamble, and the flip side of the great potential reward that genetically modified seeds offer is, of course, great risk. When all goes badly, farmers who have sunk money into Monsanto-driven farming find themselves at the bottom of a far deeper hole than farmers who stuck with traditional growing. Farmers who suffer a failed harvest may find it nearly impossible to secure a new loan from either a bank or local moneylender. With no money to dig him or herself out, that hole only gets deeper.

And that hole is exactly where farmers have found themselves in India’s Vidarbha region, where crop failure — especially the failure of Bt cotton crops — has reached the level of pandemic.

In may be that Bt cotton isn’t well-suited to central India’s rain-driven farming methods; Bollgard® and parched Vidarbha may be as ill-suited as Bremer’s combat boots and Brooks Brothers suits. It may be the unpredictable and unusually dry monsoon seasons that have plagued India of late. But in any case, the result is that more and more of India’s farmers are finding themselves in debt, and with little hope for finding their way out.

And the final way out that so many of them — thousands upon thousands — have chosen is death, and by their own hands. Firm statistics are difficult to come by, but even numbers on the low end of the scale are downright horrifying. The Indian government and NGOs have estimated that, so far this year, at last count more than a thousand farmers have killed themselves in the state of Maharashtra alone. The New York Times pinned it as 17,000 Indian farmers in 2003 alone. A PBS special that aired last month, called “The Dying Fields,” claimed that one farmer commits suicide in Vidarbha every eight hours.

But let’s not be so pessimistic for a moment, and say that Iraqi farmers see the risks of investing in unproven GM seeds. Let’s say they reject the idea that the intellectual property buried inside the seeds they plant is “owned” not by nature, but by Monsanto. Let’s say they decide to keep on keeping on with nonengineered, nonpatented agriculture.

The fact is, they may not have a choice.

Here is where Order 81 starts to look a lot like the forced and mandatory GM-driven agricultural system that cynics tagged it as when it was first announced. Read the letter of the law, and the impact of Order 81 seems limited to using public policy to construct an architecture that’s simply favorable to a company like Monsanto. The directive promotes a corporate agribusiness model a lot like the one we have in the United States today, but it doesn’t really and truly put Monsanto in the driver’s seat of that system.

Actually handing the keys to Monsanto is instead biology’s job.

Biology — how so? That’s a good question for Percy Schmeiser, the Saskatchewan farmer featured in the film The Future of Food, who found himself tangled with Monsanto in a heated lawsuit over the presence of Roundup® Ready canola plants on the margins of his fields.

The Canadian farmer argued that he had purchased no Monsanto canola seeds, had never planted Monsanto seeds, and was frankly horrified to find that the genetically modified crops had taken hold in his acreage. Perhaps, suggested Schmeiser, the plants in question were the product of a few rogue GM seeds blown from a truck passing by his land?

Monsanto was uninterested in Schmeiser’s theory on how the Roundup® Ready plants got there. As far as the company was concerned, Schmeiser was in possession of an agricultural product whose intellectual property belonged to Monsanto. And it didn’t matter much how that came to pass.

Monsanto’s interpretation of the impact of seed contamination is, of course, a good one if its goal is to eventually own the rights to the world’s seed supply. And that goal may well be in sight. In fact, a 2004 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that much of the U.S. seed pool is already contaminated by GM seeds. If that contamination continues unabated, eventually much of the world’s seeds could labor under patents controlled by one agribusiness or another.

In one agricultural realm like Iraq’s, GM contamination could in short order give a company like Monsanto a stranglehold over the market. Post-Order 81 Iraqi farmers who want to resist genetically modified seeds and stick to traditional farming methods may not have that choice. Future generations of Iraqi growers may find that one seed shop in Karbala is selling the same patented seeds as every other shop in town.

And when that happens, what had been a traditional farming community — where financial risk is divided and genetic diversity multiplied through the simple interactions between neighboring farmers — finds itself nothing more than the home to lone farmers caught up in the high-stakes world of international agribusiness.

It’s a world not unfamiliar to former CPA honcho Bremer, if the company he keeps is any indication. Robert Cohen, author of the book Milk A-Z, talks about the Bush administration as the “Monsanto Cabinet.”

Among the many connections between that company and the current White House: Former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman served on the board of directors of Calgene, a Monsanto subsidiary; one-time Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld had an eight-year stint as president of Searle, another Monsanto subsidiary; Clarence Thomas worked as an attorney in Monsanto’s pesticide and agriculture division before coming to the Supreme Court as a George H.W. Bush appointee.

Those connections, as much as anything else, might help to explain the impetus behind and timing of Order 81. Let’s suppose for a minute that GM-driven globalized agriculture is, indeed, in the long-term best interests of the new Iraq. Even in the best of circumstances, such a significant policy shift in so core an economic sector can be expected to cause short-term pain. When Bremer issued the directive, Iraq was hardly in a good place: It had recently been invaded, its government dismantled. Considering the desperate need for immediate stability in Iraq in April 2004, Order 81 begins to look like the triumph of connections and ideology over clear-headed policymaking.

vandana shiva, one of my favorite thinkers and activists, speaks about the danger of allowing multi-national corporations hold intellectual property rights for seeds:

so what is the point of all this? the point is to buy locally. to eat what’s in season. to buy from family farmers. to buy as little as possible from any corporation as much as possible. of course, living in palestine that is much easier to do, especially with food. though not with coffee. and this is one last thing i want to say on the subject. coffee is obviously not grown in the levant. so it is imported. and i have not seen much research on the facts about where it gets imported from and how or who works the coffee bean farms and what are the conditions of those workers? all of these things are really important to me when i buy food. when i buy anything for that matter. and one of the main things “food, inc.” was encouraging towards the end was better labeling. but there is no one who labels like groundwork coffee in los angeles. here is a photo of what the coffee and its label on the shelf of their shops looks like:

where my coffee comes from
where my coffee comes from

and here is their mission statement–if only all businesses could think and act in this manner:

groundwork coffee company dates back to 1990, when Richard Karno decided to expand his rare book & café business by roasting his own coffee. The demand from local restaurants became so great, he began roasting around the clock. groundwork then went on to become one of the very first certified organic coffee roasters in Southern California (as well as the largest organic coffee roaster in Los Angeles), while pioneering sustainable, relationship-based, and organic coffee sourcing.

Coffee is one of the earth’s great resources. In dollars it’s the world’s second most traded commodity. When it comes to pesticides it’s the world’s third most sprayed crop– that’s why we went organic.

Organic certification insures the coffee and the community that grew it are not exposed to harmful pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.

groundwork is committed to advancing both the economic and environmental sustainability of the Arabica coffee bean (it’s actually a “seed,” but bean sounds nicer!). Our goal is to purchase and roast the best organic coffees from around the world, while helping to improve the lives of farmers, processors, roaster operators, and café baristas.

3 thoughts on “food for thought: on hollywood

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