Food Inc: Will It Connect the Dots on Food System Problems?

Over the past decade, issues such as fast food and obesity, organics and pesticides, genetic engineering, and factory farming have each captured their share of attention from engaged citizens and advocacy groups. Focusing events, such as the 2008 factory farming ballot initiative in California or the 2000 Starlink GM corn episode have generated spikes in news coverage. Popular books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, and Pollan's NY Times article "Farmer in Chief" have reinforced concerns among an attentive public and generated reactions from policymakers. Still, however, with the exception of obesity, each of these issues remains relatively low on the overall news agenda.

The inability of these food-related issues to break out into wider public focus can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably that none of them fit neatly into a traditional partisan divide as issues such as climate change and stem cell research do. But what has also been missing is a larger meta-frame that ties these trends in the food system together into the perception of a bigger problem.

But now comes Food Inc. The title is a potentially powerful frame device for audiences, connecting each of these food-related issues under one perceptual umbrella. Specifically, the title instantly conveys the film's dominant narrative that responsibility for these issues can be attributed to "big farming" and multi-national corporations who are serving their own private interests rather than the public interest. To correct the problem, tighter regulation, government oversight, and greater responsiveness to citizen and consumer concerns are needed.

As the Food Inc trailer above strongly emphasizes, the relevance of these food issues can be reduced down to a matter of "public accountability," a commonly appearing frame applied to issues of science and the environment. The trailer repeats several key phrases often used to actively translate this frame, including notably "controlled by multi-national corporations" and as the woman at the end of the trailer describes ominously: "The companies don't want the farmers talking, they don't want this story told."

Will framing food-related issues as a matter of public accountability galvanize wider public and media attention? The public accountability frame sometimes backfires, mobilizing a base of already concerned activists while also leading to further polarization. This often happens when the "bad guy" is one of us. (See as an example "war on science" claims.)

Moreover, as I note in this short introduction to a report on documentary film advocacy and in this analysis of the film Expelled, history also shows that even the most successful political documentaries have problems breaking out beyond a like-minded audience and reaching a wider public.

Yet as we write in the Commentary published last week at Nature Biotechnology, when the "bad guy" in public accountability claims is not a political party but is privatized science and multi-national corporations--defined as existential threats to our health, well being, and governance--there is the strong potential for wider public alarm and the undermining of public trust not just in corporate science but also affiliated university science.

I am looking forward to seeing the film and tracking its impact. I will be especially interested in its influence relative to attention and perceptions of food biotechnology. As I have described in several studies, despite a fair amount of advocacy work on this issue over the past decade, food biotechnology has never really climbed very far on the U.S. public or media agenda.

However, when it comes to public attention, there is strength in numbers. If the film successfully connects biotechnology to other food-system related issues such as obesity, the potential for wider public attention grows. From the conclusion to our study on food biotechnology and media attention:

There are two emerging trends, however, that might eventually weaken the ability of biotechnology proponents to control the scope of participation in policymaking about plant biotechnology. First, critics have added narrative fidelity to their framing efforts by connecting plant biotechnology to other contemporary issues. For example, in her recent book, scientist and ecologist Jane Goodall (2005) links plant biotechnology to parallel controversies confronting the American food system including childhood obesity, the survival of traditional farmers, organics, and animal welfare. If and when plant biotechnology becomes a topic of widespread attention and concern in the U.S., it will likely be because it resonates and is framed in combination with these other food system issues.

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