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Future of Food, The
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by Jay Seaver

"An important subject that mostly overcomes a rather ham-fisted movie."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: To say that The Future of Food is a bad documentary would be untrue. It contains interesting information about a subject which merits attention. That subject is not, however, "the future of food", or genetically engineered crops in general. The material is here for a solid movie on the abuse of the patent system and the need for it to evolve and/or reform. Frustratingly, writer/director/producer Deborah Koons doesn't talk much about this subject, except in terms of how the Monsanto corporation uses it as a tool to screw people over.

I should have known what I was getting myself into. The program for the festival referenced a film which played at the last IFFB, The Corporation, and all weekend, whenever the folks at the Somverville would hawk festival T-shirts, it was prefaced with how all us Massachusetts liberals would appreciate that they were made outside sweatshops. Still, I figured that perhaps there'd be something for us Massachusetts tech-geeks, too. Not really the case - this is a movie by and for activists, or anyone else who enjoy watching corporations and Republicans be painted as evil.

Though the movie is strident, its anger is far from misplaced. The film's primary target is Monsanto, the pesticide company which manufactures RoundUp, and during the 1990s bought out several leading seed companies. They then released "RoundUp Ready" seeds with proprietary genes to make them resistant to the company's own pesticides. If they'd stopped there, it would be merely disturbing industrial consolidation and greedy attempts to synergize their products. It's when the lawyers come out that Monsanto makes the leap into outright villainy. We see footage of defendants being sued by Monsanto, family farmers accused of using Monsanto technology (seeds) without a license. The farmers don't stand a chance, considering how their resources compare to the corporation's - Monsanto simply has to show that there is corn/canola/soybeans with Monsanto's proprietary DNA in the farmers' fields. It doesn't have to be intentional; a farmer in British Columbia makes a compelling case that the genetically engineered crops in his fields come from seeds that blew in off the top of a truck traveling on a nearby road.

Even scuzzier are charges that Monsanto and other companies are patenting genotypes that occur naturally, in the wild. That is a hell of an allegation, and one which the film spends a lot of time on. We hear about it mainly in terms of how it's a terrible development for the Mexican farmers, who are unable to sell the varieties of corn that their families have been growing for generations because an American corporation has patented it. What is aggravating is that Koons does not describe how this can be legal. Most in the audience will assume that a patent cannot be granted without evidence that the person or company applying for it has, in fact, developed the advance. That a patent for an existing, naturally-occurring genome can be granted to a corporation without documentation defies common sense, but the alternative - that the corporations are engaging in outright fraud - would seem juicy enough that these filmmakers would jump all over it. I'm not saying that the assertions are untrue, but there seems to be section missing from the filmmakers' arguments.

Similarly, Koons and company never really mount a convincing argument as to why genetically engineered foods are bad. It seems to be taken as a given throughout the movie, but, again, the reasons why remain nebulous. There's footage from a CBS News report about one person who appears to have gotten sick from genetically engineered foods, and pointed comments that European and Japanese markets will not accept certain types of enhanced crops from the US, and they must know something, right? And if one is predisposed to think that tampering with nature is bad, bad, bad, that's all the film needs to say. If that's not your mindset, though, it can sound a whole lot like fearmongering.

Koons uses a lot of familiar documentary techniques, which the alert, seasoned viewer can easily recognize. The film is narrated by a soothing female voice; the video of farmers talking about their run-ins with Monsanto is probably sourced from VHS, and the grainy look gives it a conspirational, we-smuggled-this-past-big-brother air. Compare the happy, upbeat music used when the film shows organic farming or traditional Mexican farmers to the dark, foreboding soundtrack used when Monsanto takes center stage. It's also sure funny that they can't find a scientist willing to say something good about genetically engineered food. The corporations must be doing it with laypeople.

(Not really part of the movie, but during the Q&A afterward, Koons talked about how she didn't really want anything describing the virtues of genetic engineering, deriding the information Monsanto and other companies put out as "propaganda". I guess that word only applies if you disagree with the message.)

Look, I'll be honest - I am not the ideal audience for this movie. I look at genetic engineering and see "cool science" as opposed to "playing Frankenstein", and the underlying message that everything was better before we started messing around with the building blocks of life, and would be much better if we'd just embrace traditional methods is more or less guaranteed to rub me the wrong way. The film takes things as a given that I need to be convinced of - for instance, that living things should not be patentable - and I don't think that makes for a top-tier documentary.

All that said, even if The Future of Food is not top-tier, it's still a worthwhile movie that most of the audience will learn from. It could use some refocusing, and to maybe be a little less obvious in its technique. Watch it and absorb it; it's interesting information, at the very least.

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originally posted: 05/03/05 11:18:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston. For more in the 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

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Directed by
  Deborah Koons Garcia

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