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Even among Americans who believe organic farming is the right thing for the environment, there’s a widespread belief that, for reasons of price and productivity, the world can’t do without the system as it is — that Whole Foods and its kin are luxury merchants who hawk self-righteousness to those who can afford of it, and the rest of us must wrap our consciences around buying inexpensive food produced in problematic ways. That’s a mass delusion, according to Matt Wechsler’s Sustainable, which argues that only politics and propaganda keep small farms from competing with agri-giants. Refreshingly upbeat but not Pollyanna-ish, the doc will play well with conscientious foodies and deserves broad exposure on TV and video.
Though Wechsler enlists both celebrated chefs (Rick Bayless, Dan Barber) and best-selling authors (Mark Bittman) to make his case, the documentary’s star is Illinois farmer Marty Travis, whose Spence Farm now sells to 200 chefs in the Chicago area and has been a hub for other small farmers hoping to make a living on specialized crops. Looking at family-based businesses like this, Bittman reminds us what an anomaly the “conventional” farming experiment has been: “That’s what everybody did 50 years ago,” he observes.
After making some familiar points about the environmental benefits of crop diversity and the governmental policies that threaten it (thanks to subsidies, we hear, 91 percent of cultivated land in Iowa is devoted to corn and soy), Wechsler shows what a boon diversity is for eaters: A sequence following Greg Wade of Chicago’s Publican Quality Bread turns the righteous pursuit of rare and ancient grains into edifying food porn.
Mark Smallwood counters “organic can’t feed the world” myths with claims that, in 34 years of study at the Rodale Institute, yields from organic and conventional plots have proven to be the same. Moreover, organic plots fare better in droughts and serve as a natural form of carbon sequestration.
John Ikerd, a University of Missouri professor who was an early proponent of industrialized agriculture, discusses how he came to realize that “it simply didn’t work.” Not only were the policies he favored “destroying cultures,” he admits, but they were directly linked to the nation’s obesity crisis and other health problems.
While many food-centric eco docs work to stir our indignation over clueless (or corrupt) lawmakers, Sustainable avoids a muckraker tone even when that’s what it’s doing. Rather than offer a five-minute coda where how-you-can-help optimism attempts to counter 90 minutes of gloom, the doc behaves from the outset as if it’s simply encouraging a shift already in progress. While it leaves some important questions underexplored — how, for instance, U.S. farm policy could shift to make these crops affordable to us all — it strongly points viewers toward investigating those issues for themselves.
Venue: Brooklyn Film Festival
Production company: Hourglass Films
Director-director of photography: Matt Wechsler
Screenwriters-editors: Matt Wechsler, Annie Speicher
Producer: Annie Speicher
Executive producer: Kevin Iwashina
Composer: Killer Tracks
Sales: Preferred Content
Not rated, 95 minutes
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