Friday, May 04, 2007

Force Feeding

Back in March I reviewed the Austrian documentary Our Daily Bread, which took a cool, dispassionate look at the production process in European agribusiness. Despite the formal placidity of the film it was implicitly critical of the practices it portrayed and now another film has come from the same country that covers much of the same ground while taking a more avowedly polemical stance. We Feed the World (which takes its name from the motto of the German seedling multinational Pioneer, which features in the film) is directed by Erwin Wagenhofer and its target is the commodification and over-rationalisation of food production. While Our Daily Bread offered a critique by its simple unvarnished mounting of scenes of industrial labour, We Feed the World goes straight for a broadside against the deleterious effects of homogenised food and the food subsidies of the developed world (in particular the EU, the US and Japan) and its subsequent dumping of food in markets such as West Africa, making it impossible for local farmers to survive.

The chief protagonist is the Swiss sociologist and UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler, who delivers statistic after damning statistic to give the film its primary argument - the pauperisation of the Third World in order to benefit Western producers. The other side is represented in the opening scene by an Austrian farmer who affirms that the only way to maintain one's standard of living at previous levels is to expand one's farm by up to five times. This has resulted in a third of Austrian farmers leaving the land since the country's accession to the EU in 1995 and as the farmer says, a chief motive for this is the public's demand for cheap food. Free marketers will of course ask here what the problem is as according to them, the market resolves such problems of its own accord. There are however too many ill effects to allow this argument to go unchallenged.

One of these is the homogenisation of food production, witnessed in a visit to a fish market in Lorient in Brittany and a trip aboard a the trawler of a small Breton fisherman who prides himself on making small hauls, thereby bringing in fish unblemished by the effects of enormous nets and increased underwater pressure. There is also Karl Otrok, the head of Pioneer Romania, who admits that he prefers organic vegetables to the uneconomical, tasteless and aesthetically attractive specimens produced by his company's products, and who says that Western agribusiness has already 'fucked up' the West's agriculture. A visit to the enormous greenhouses of Almería (the 'winter vegetable' capital of the world) shows the effects of an economic miracle that is now in danger of producing an environmental catasprophe. The last word is given to Peter Brabeck, CEO of Nestlé, who is obviously on a different wavelength to the film's makers, and who speaks optimistically of the future, seeing only progress. Ziegler has already argued that Brabeck is himself at the mercy of the shareholders and not in a very good position to be too cocksure of his own future prospects.

We Feed the World is occasionally a bit too didactic and its arguments are likely to be already shared by many of its audience but it has a number of qualities that make it compulsive viewing: firstly, all the interviewees - from Ziegler to Brabeck - are all brilliant, fluid speakers, secondly, there is a lot to learn from the film, particularly in terms of agronomy and botany and thirdly, the scenes of people at work are fascinating, the repetition and attention to detail mesmerising just like Gustave Caillebot's celebrated 'Les raboteurs de parquet'. When this labour gives way to mechanical rationalisation later in the film the effect is jolting. If the arguments of the film are somewhat predictable, its method and formal composition are superb. Should be seen, preferably on a double-bill with Our Daily Bread.