Friday, January 11, 2013

Kinks in the Food Chain

As we begin a new year, people are seeking new ways to cope with increasingly dire economic predictions. New technologies and forces of globalization have offered surprising new techniques to overcome obstacles that were previously considered insurmountable.

To start the new year off with a bang, Andrew Sullivan announced that his popular blog, The Dish, would go independent in an attempt to use what he calls "freemium-based metering" as a means of growing reader-supported journalism.  In an interview with entitled Andrew Sullivan Goes Indie, he explained that:
"With every jump like this, there’s a risk of failure. We know that. If we fail to make a decent living at this, we will find other ways to make a living. But if we succeed, we will have helped pioneer a new model for online journalism: lean, reader-based and ad-free. Rather than stay in the comfort of a big media company, we thought we should try and pioneer something. That’s part of why I started the Dish when the MSM would have kept paying me handsomely to do old media. I’m interested in innovating. You only live once, and in my case, I never expected to live this long. So why the fuck not?"

Blogger Andrew Sullivan

"The truth is our contract was ending Dec. 31 and we had to decide to renew or not. We wanted to become independent for our own reasons, and Tina [Brown] could see the logic. I also felt that if we could bypass the advertising morass and go straight to our readers for support, we might have a more stable future. It was a bet on the readership. It is a bet on the readership. So we’re in their hands. There’s something cathartic about that. And we all need to get people paying for content online or there will no longer be content online. So since we have a large, devoted readership, and a small staff, we thought we’d be an ideal vehicle to test these waters. And if you don’t try, you’ll never know."

Nowhere is the need for new technologies more urgent than in the safe production and distribution of food to feed the world's growing population. The Obama administration recently announced new rules for food safety aimed at lessening outbreaks of diseases caused by listeria, E. coli and the side effects from certain pesticides. Writing in The Observer, Jonathan Margolis described a fascinating breakthrough in his article entitled Growing Food in the Desert: Is This the Solution to the World's Food Crisis?

Other ventures have not been quite as successful. Near Port Lincoln, Australia, Clean Seas Tuna had developed a pioneering method for breeding southern bluefin tuna in captivity. But according to a recent article on The
"Chief executive Craig Foster said the company had so far been unable to secure a strategic partner to make a 'significant investment'' in Clean Seas because of the poor investment climate, the cost of a funding the now-suspended southern bluefin tuna breeding programme and the losses from excess mortalities in the Yellowtail Kingfish division."

Those who are hungry never stop dreaming about the wonders of being able to eat at any time. The following two clips (the first from the 2009 London revival of Oliver! and the second from the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Hansel und Gretel) show the enormous amount of creativity brought to bear in depicting the food-centric dreams of poor, starving children.

On one hand, we face a future in which people are grappling with GMO-modified seeds, salmon, and other sources of food. On the other hand, we have foodies fetishizing artisanal cheeses and other delights, locavore sourcing, and tasty new treats brought about through the use of fusion cuisine and culinary foaming.

The biggest problems faced by anyone involved in food production seem to be sustainability, scalability, and securing sufficient financing to ensure a stable operation. Two films seen at the 2012 San Francisco DocFest offered interesting insights into the challenges inherent in making one's dreams about food production come true. Although neither was a particularly riveting documentary, both films earnestly tried to dramatize situations that demand closer scrutiny.

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Andrew Grace's film, Eating Alabama, is infused with the enthusiasm and occasional wide-eyed naivete of many hipsters who have fallen in love with old-fashioned ways of doing things. As the filmmaker explains:
"My granddaddy grew up on a farm, but made a pretty difficult and conscious decision to leave around World War II. But he was never truly able to leave -- he moved to a house overlooking farmland, grew a huge garden every year, and told me countless stories about life on the farm. So as I began to investigate how our food system had gotten so mechanized and corporatized in such a relatively short amount of time, I couldn't separate myself and my family from the story. Suddenly, it struck me as odd that I didn't know a single farmer. How could I know so little about my food -- about this primal thing that keeps us alive, this thing I do three times a day? So my wife, Rashmi, and I decided to do something bold: We decided to eat only food grown or raised in Alabama. We would go out into the rural parts of the state, find all the farmers I assumed were out there, and make a movie about how rewarding and gratifying it was to eat locally."

Poster art for Eating Alabama

"That was the simple story I thought I would tell. But, as often happens, the truth became much more complicated. As we began our journey, I quickly realized that there just aren't that many farmers left in Alabama. Fewer farmers worked larger acreages, more of whom had to have additional jobs off the farm. And all these realizations kept pointing back to my own family's story. The result is Eating Alabama –- a personal essay about why food matters. It's not a movie that proposes grand and sweeping changes to fix what's wrong with our food system. Instead, it's a movie about how slowing down, working hard, and sharing good food can go a long way toward living a good life."

A community dinner scene from Eating Alabama

What Andrew and Rashmi eventually learn is that modern day agribusiness is all about scaling. spreadsheets, and how to make farming processes less (rather than more) labor intensive while battling the fickle tyranny of the bottom line. Some may see Grace's film as a touching portrait of a young man trying to revive a family tradition. Others may view Eating Alabama as a classic example of how the best intentions can fall victim to a lack of business smarts. Here's the trailer:

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What happens when someone has business smarts, good connections, an easy source of a lucrative and highly desired gourmet food product, and the willingness to take enormous risks? Sometimes that person can succeed against all odds.  In other circumstances, his dreams can be destroyed by a lethal combination of petty politics and recalcitrant bankers.

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's depressing documentary, Downeast, gives a brutally candid view of what happened to Massachusetts businessman Antonio Bussone's efforts to convert an abandoned sardine cannery (that ceased operations in April 2010) in the small coastal town of Prospect Harbor, Maine into a lobster processing plant. The lobster may be plentiful and quite a few of the people who used to work at the sardine cannery (many of whom are low-income seniors) are willing to give it a try. There's even a chance  that Bussone could capture a $200,000 chunk of the Obama administration's stimulus money for small businesses.

Unfortunately, reality can be a bitch. As the filmmakers explain:
"We read about the closing of the last sardine cannery in the United States in The New York Times and decided to pursue the building as the character in the story. In other words, our original intent was to document the transformation of the factory. What will happen to it? Will it become demolished? Will it deteriorate? Can the space itself be a story? Then, we heard about Antonio Bussone’s intent to buy the factory. We immediately contacted him for permission to film. He gave 100% access. We had 24-hour access to the story.  Our approach is simultaneously hands-off and direct involvement. We repeatedly wait and observe by putting ourselves in the middle of action and mundane activities (when possible). Living in Prospect Harbor [during the shoot] provided a sense of texture and the patterns of daily life that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to capture episodically.
As the story progressed, Antonio became the central character. We realized the central story was about a businessman coming into a small community as an outsider and his struggles as a business owner. The larger story is about the federal government’s involvement in providing grants and loans to business that try to develop jobs in high-risk, impoverished areas for people without work, and how large banks can make whimsical decisions that impact thousands of people in these rural regions. Our story connects Antonio directly to the lobstermen who reside on the working waterfront of Maine, the elderly women who want to work in the factory, and the current climate of working people who are directly impacted by the decisions of a business owner, local politicians, the federal government, and private banks. In this sense, Downeast is told from the point of view of the complexities Antonio experiences as he embarks on financing the building of a factory in the United States."
Entrepreneur Antonio Bussone
What Downeast lacks in the form of any narrative voice, it more than makes up for with an unforgiving lens that captures one crushing disappointment after another. As Bussone struggles to ingratiate himself with the residents of Prospect Harbor, he encounters the distrust some locals feel for an outsider, the unwillingness of his Boston-based bankers to give him the benefit of the doubt, and the kind of crushing defeat symbolized by the clinical methodology with which each lobster's body is torn apart by his workers. Here's the trailer:

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