Food, Inc (PG)

A shocking, if preachy, exposé of the food industry.

Where there is an exposé of the American food industry, Eric Schlosser will not be far away. Even before his name appeared in the opening credits of the documentary Food, Inc, I thought I recognised the reassuring voice, as soothing as the anaesthetist counting you down from ten, which was pondering the ability of supermarkets to transcend the seasons. Now it's asparagus in November, strawberries for Christmas. All must have parsnips! And consider, if you will, the ubiquitous tomato.

“Although it looks like a tomato, it's kind of a notional tomato," purrs Schlosser. "The idea of a tomato." It's a good starting point, that pseudo-pomodoro, for a film that wonders how our delusions - about where food comes from and what it will do to our bodies - have come to overrule reality.

Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation, and co-scripted Richard Linklater's fictionalised adaptation of the book. Although not written by him, Food, Inc feels like an attempt to claim back the subject from Linklater's unloved film. Some of the material here will be familiar from the earlier book and movie, in a greatest-hits sort of way: the exploitation and betrayal of migrant labour, the ease with which ammonia and faecal matter find their way on to the dinner plate. (As a cattle trader in Fast Food Nation, played by Bruce Willis, reasoned: "We all gotta eat a little shit from time to time.")

Food, Inc isn't preoccupied with lobbing rotten tomatoes, notional or otherwise, at the fast- food business, though it does demonstrate how the industry's philosophy - that instant gratification is simply too slow in coming - has permeated food production beyond the golden arches. But the picture also shows how consumption, farming and obesity levels have been dictated by a dependency on corn. It is the great stowaway in our larders; if there's an ingredient that is a bit of a mouthful (maltodextrin, ethyl lactate), chances are it's derived from that crop. The animals we eat are reared on the stuff (or other grain). Research shows that a corn diet leads to a higher incidence of E coli in cattle, but at least it gets cows nice and plump in no time. Truly we have become children of the corn.

“Then why eat factory-farmed meat?" I hear you cry between mouthfuls of salad. (Don't get too smug: there are many cases of spinach carrying E coli.) The film sets out the economic reasons as it goes shopping with a Mexican family whose budget is already eaten into by the cost of the father's diabetes medication. A head of broccoli sets them back $1.29, whereas a cheeseburger, grabbed at a drive-thru at the start of the working day, is $1 a pop.

Not that it would make any difference if they could afford steak Diane: 80 per cent of the US meat industry is controlled by the top four beef suppliers, who all preside over Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (Cafos). The film contains footage of these Cafos, where each animal, you'll be surprised to learn, does not get its own en suite bathroom. But then the industry is big on banal euphemism.

Take the "redesigning" of the modern chicken, which might conjure images of a fancy makeover prior to a credit-card blowout on Rodeo Drive, but in fact refers to changes in the animal's breast area, which has been artificially enlarged to meet the demand for white meat. Step forward, the modern chicken, from birth to 5½lbs in seven weeks. I say step forward, but with that amount of heft on its puny bones, chance would be a fine thing.

Food, Inc moves towards a positive conclusion, taking heart in consumers' ability to vote for organic produce at the checkout, and comparing the fight for better food production with the successful campaign against the tobacco industry. But one problem for those of us whose viewing habits were transformed by The Day Today is that we lose both faith and composure at the first sign of wacky graphics; how unfortunate, then, that the film-makers are fond of plastering statistics on to the sides of animated cattle heading to the abattoir on conveyor belts. A series of pious closing messages also sticks in the craw. Bumper-sticker slogans such as "Cook a meal with your family and eat together" and "If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us healthy" had me briefly craving a patty in protest.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.