“We feed the world – Essen global“ is the most successful documentary in Austrian history. Its subject is the global food industry, but the film is an appeal to Austrian, European and western audiences in general to rethink just what havoc they might be wreaking by their very choice of the menu.
Scene from Erwin Wagenhofer's documentary 'We feed the world' (Austria, 2006)
“We must change the way we live” is the basic message of this merciless take on the modern food industry. Director Erwin Wagenhofer wanted to know where the Europeans got their foodstuffs from – and got some pretty disturbing answers. He followed the trail of the tomatoes from the Naschmarkt market in Vienna back to gigantic greenhouses in Spain, and chicken breast cutlets on the shelves of supermarkets back to industrial feeding farms. This was followed by a further question: why was it that mountains of surplus foodstuff were being disposed of year after year in Europe, while so many people were dying of hunger in other parts of the world.
“A child that dies of hunger today, has been murdered”
In the film, UN hunger expert Jean Ziegler makes the rather startling statement: “World agriculture is capable of feeding 12 billion people with ease, which means that a child that dies of hunger today, has been murdered.” A whole series of interlocutors, of many nations and professions, air their opinion in the film, but none so often and so repeatedly as Jean Ziegler. Otherwise Wagenhofer takes his camera to Brazil, where thousands of hectares of primary rainforest have been sacrificed for the purpose of growing soya for cattle feed in Austria. Biologist Vincent José Puhl has a rather pithy way of putting it: “European cattle are eating up the Amazon rainforest.”
“A company does not have a heart”
The ‘Pioneer’ company is the world’s biggest producer of crop seeds – and Karl Otrok is Pioneer’s production chief in Romania. Standing in the middle of Pioneer’s fields Otrok has no difficulty – or trepidation – in confessing: “You know, we’ve ruined the West and now we’ve come to Romania and we’re going to ruin the whole agriculture here. After all, a company is just a company. And a company does not have a heart.” In France, Wagenhofer speaks to a French fisherman, Philippe Cleuziou, who takes a dubious look at his day’s catch and says: “It’s like this. I wouldn’t eat that stuff. It’s not meant for eating, it’s meant for selling. That’s the way we put it.” Nestlé chief Peter Brabeck paces his luxurious office and speaks coolly and objectively about water being just another commodity - like any other foodstuff – that should be bought and sold on the open market. Elsewhere in the film one sees poor Brazilian peasants worrying about water pollution because the water makes their children fall sick.
“We must change the way we live”
Wagenhofer’s film is also about political awareness, in that sense: “If you go to a supermarket in Europe, you can buy Argentine grapes in the middle of winter – and at a laughable price: roughly, a kilo of grapes for around 4 kilos of kerosene. Question is: is that what we want?” As Wagenhofer pointed out in an exclusive interview with DW-WORLD.DE, the possibility of influencing much larger processes of commerce and politics simply by deciding – consciously – to eat certain things and not to eat others: this possibility has been indicated in the title itself. “If we intend to find a rational and realistic mode of coexistence, then we must change the way we live. That’s why the film is called ‘We feed the world’ and not ‘They feed the world’.”
It’s quite possible that people who’ve seen the film will think twice before entering a supermarket the next time. ‘We feed the world’ has had an able predecessor in Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Super Size Me’, which created a furore in America by highlighting the fattening effects of fast food. Both films are an appeal to think about the kind of food we eat. But ‘We feed the world’ goes a step further: it shows that the individual consumer’s choice and decision is not without its working in the larger commercial-industrial context - the rest being a matter of will.