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film review

Food, Inc. 2

Directed by Melissa Robledo, Robert Kenner

Opens in select theatres April 12

At the turn of this century, the way we viewed food was undergoing rapid change. Organic foods, locavorism and farm-to-table dining entered the common vernacular, alongside a rising suspicion of fast-food conglomerates, factory farming and grocery retail monoliths. These ideas were not new, but in the early aughts, they got a name: the good food movement. It was a watershed moment in the collective consciousness in regard to food, centred on a rising desire for that food to be – in both the material and ethical sense of the word – better.

A flashpoint in the movement was the release of Food, Inc., the 2008 documentary that took a square, unflinching aim at factory farming and agribusiness in the U.S. The film, directed by Robert Kenner, was narrated by – and, in a way, starred – Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, both titans of the good food movement for their respective books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation. The film was bold, chilling in its revelations (Google categorizes the movie as “documentary/horror”) and set a template for food documentaries for the decades to come.

Only perhaps it set that template too well. Released this week, Food, Inc. 2 follows the formula of its predecessor so closely, it’s difficult to understand why it was made at all.

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The documentary, which features Kenner, Pollan and Schlosser returning to the roles they held for the first film and sees Melissa Robledo, a producer on Food, Inc., sign on as co-director, begins promisingly enough, with a two-pronged look at the precariousness of our monopolized food supply, first through the supply-chain instability and unfair (and unsafe) labour practises that were highlighted and worsened by the pandemic, then through the baby formula shortage of 2022 that resulted from the shutdown of a single plant.

And while the film could have exhausted its entire 94-minute runtime on just this – and maybe should have, considering the fact that the supply chain and all of its ancillary issues have been the hot-button food-system topic for the last four years – it instead then falls into familiar platitudes about the evils of corporate food producers and fast-food conglomerates (this time including new players such as Impossible Foods and lab-grown meat) and the holy grail of family farming, taking aim at the same villains as the film’s first instalment and, annoyingly, offering similar solutions.

It’s not that what the film is saying is wrong, or that these points don’t bear repeating. Nor is it that Food, Inc. 2 doesn’t present these points well, with all the good research, compelling character studies and smart production that made its first instalment an Academy Award nominee. It’s just that in the decade and a half since the original film’s release, new, more urgent cracks have appeared in our global food systems.

It is perhaps the case that the solutions to these problems – which exist not within the buying power of individual consumers, but at the government level – are far more complicated and complex than a 90-minute film could possibly tackle. And while Food, Inc. 2 does note that policy makers are the key to long-term agribusiness change (New Jersey Senator Cory Booker gets some great screentime here advocating for better ag policies), the film makes essentially no mention of the cash-crop subsidies and corporate government lobbying that make this change next to impossible. It’s a frustrating omission.

Frustrating, too, is the demographic makeup of the film’s talking heads: With few exceptions, the champions of the good food movement of 2024 are here presented as establishment figures, largely male and mostly white, including but certainly not limited to Pollan and Schlosser, who are co-producers on the film.

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While Food, Inc. 2 does note that policy-makers are the key to long-term agribusiness change, the film makes essentially no mention of the cash-crop subsidies and corporate government lobbying that make this change next to impossible.Mongrel Media

In choosing to amplify mostly establishment voices, Food, Inc. 2 both underlines the fatal shortcoming of the good food movement of the early 2000s – a reliance on an academic, privileged perspective that mostly ignores the real-world barriers to access that prevent many from simply choosing “better food” – and acts as an unwitting continuation of it.

This is of particular significance in the case of Food, Inc. 2 because it is not just a film examining a movement; its makers, and its key voices, were (and are) also leaders of that movement. It may have been interesting, then, to see a sequel that reckoned with the ideological failures of its predecessor. It would have been more interesting to see a film that examined how the movement it underpinned has failed to prevent our global food systems from getting, without question, categorically worse.

The doc is not entirely absent of that hubris. In its opening moments, Pollan admits that, when the first film was released, he and the good food movement’s other leaders “really thought we could change the food system one bite at a time. And as important as that is, it’s not enough.” Food, Inc. 2 grapples with this, but instead of doing the problem-solving of its predecessor, simply copies its answers.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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