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We Feed the World

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Helmut Grasser
Directed by Erwin Wagenhofer
DVD, color, 96 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Agriculture, Business, Economics, Environmental Studies, European Studies

Reviewed by Janis Tyhurst, Reference Librarian, George Fox University

Date Entered: 1/14/2008

We Feed the World provides a thought provoking look at the global food industry. Most first world inhabitants are unaware of how or where their food comes to them. Erwin Wagenhofer takes on a journey to various food producers—interviewing an Austrian wheat farmer, a Breton fisherman, an Austrian fish buyer, a German agronomist in Spain, a German biotech engineer in Romania, soy bean producers in Brazil and industrial poultry farm managers in Europe to introduce us to the food production cycle in these areas. Most of the interviews are in German or French but there are excellent sub titles.

There are 5 sections, each dealing with a specific issue concerning the food producer and the global picture. Wagenhofer interviews people directly involved in the food production, often small producers, and juxtaposes their comments against corporate food company practices. After each segment, Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, comments on how the particular practice affects those who face hunger and starvation daily.

In the first segment, an Austrian farmer talks about the state of farming today, highlighting some startling facts. For example, when his father farmed, his father needed 12 hectares to make a decent family living. Today, this farmer needs to farm 6 times more land in order to make a comparable living. He comments that the price of sand for sanding the roads in bad weather is higher that the price of wheat. Another dismal fact is that since Austria joined the European Union, 25% of the farmers have stopped farming. Yet the low price of wheat allows the city of Vienna to throw away, on a daily basis, enough bread to feed all the people in the second largest city in Austria.

The second segment shows a Breton fisherman as he goes about his daily routine. He talks about the requirements that the European Union has imposed. He now has to keep a daily log detailing all fishing information such as where he caught the fish, when, what types of fish he caught and how much profit he made. The EU wants this information so that the industrialized fishing fleets will have access to his fishing grounds. The Breton fisherman states that he will fish for 2-3 more years and when he retires, his boat will be scrapped. His feelings are that the industrial trawlers will over fish the ocean, reducing fish stock below a recoverable level. After the Breton fisherman, Wagenhofer takes us to a fish buyer who shows the difference between the fish caught by the small operator and those caught by the industrial trawlers. The small operators have the freshest fish and are more selective about the fish they take since they fish daily, whereas the industrial trawlers put out to sea for 15-20 days at a time. Their haul is quite clearly not fresh and everything caught is sold. Industrial trawlers need to operate year round to maintain profitability. Once you see this, you will think twice about where to get your seafood.

The next segment looks at the “Miracle of Almeria” in Spain. Starting in the 1960s, greenhouses were built to produce vegetables. Today there are over 25,000 hectares of greenhouses. Other countries such as Italy and Morocco have also built greenhouses to produce vegetables and the competition for market share is fierce. So fierce that now European produce is being dumped into African markets such as the one in Senegal and at a price that is lower than what the African farmers can produce. Africans quit farming and instead head up to Spain or Italy to get jobs that will help support their families.

Paired with the Miracle of Almeria is the issue of hybrid seeds. We head over to Romania to see the coming change in agriculture. Romania is still farming using 19th century farming methods and is second only to France as an agricultural producer. They still use horses and plows, scythes and hoes to farm their land. But change is happening. In the past, farmers would save seeds from the current year’s crop to plant in the next year. However, biotechnology companies such as Pioneer have established a presence and are promoting their hybrid seeds. One of Pioneers bio tech engineers, Karl Otrok, talks about the pros and cons of hybrid technology. The three major issues are that while the hybrid produce is larger and looks better, it lacks taste; secondly, hybrid seeds must be purchased each year—hybrid seeds are sterile, third and most important, who will maintain viable non hybrid seed stock. Currently the Romanian government is subsidizing the purchase of hybrid seeds for farmers. The underlying question is what happens when the farmers no longer have ‘real’ seed stock and the government stops subsidizing the hybrid seed stock. However, Romanian farmers need to compete in the EU marketplace and hybrid crops, with the larger, more beautiful vegetables produced, allow them to be competitive.

Next Wagenhofer takes us to Brazil, where the Amazonian rainforest is being destroyed so that soybean fields can be planted. Unfortunately, the rainforest soil is not good for growing soybeans and additional fertilizers need to be used. The destruction of the Amazonian rainforest is receiving much attention these days due to its importance in maintaining the global climate. One of the lesser known issues that Wagenhofer brings out is the detrimental effect of soy farming on polluting water resources for the local residents. From Brazil, we head back to Europe to see industrial chicken farming from beginning (chickens producing eggs) to end (slaughterhouse). This pairing occurs because much of the soy raised in Brazil is exported to Europe to feed broiler chickens.

The final segment is an interview with Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman and CEO of Nestlé Corporation, the largest food corporation in the world. He gives a fascinating justification of profit maximization and how Nestlé is socially responsible. He also discusses why privatizing water rights would be beneficial for mankind. What remains unspoken is who will control the water rights and how they will profit from having them.

This documentary can be long in certain sections yet it provides an excellent starting point for discussion of several important topics. The problems of overproduction and food waste, global corporate policies and their impacts, government regulations and subsidies, the dark side of biotechnology, environmental degradation both of the ocean’s resources and the Amazon, and water rights are just some of the subjects that can be further studied and discussed after viewing this film. The English version website for the documentary has more facts and links. There is an interview with Erwin Wagenhofer on the making of this documentary that gives additional insight into the film.

(The distributor website states that there are subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as scene selections and an interview with the director but my copy did not include these options).