April 23, 2007

Breadbasket

Some time ago, I co-wrote a screenplay with a good friend of mine that I'm hoping to make into my feature film directorial debut sometime in the next year. The film is set in Nebraska, and when I talk to movie people about the project, I keep hearing about all of the ways to make the movie without actually going to Nebraska (i.e. shoot in central California so you don't have to go so far, shoot in Louisiana for the tax incentives, shoot in Romania for the cheap labor, shoot in Canada because everybody shoots in Canada now, etc.).

Which is all well and good, but, even though I've never actually BEEN to Nebraska, if there is a way to make the logistics and economics work, I would much rather shoot it there. I mean, I'm really not convinced that I can get production design like this....
....for free outside of the heartland of America.

Which is why, when I happened to strike up a conversation with a native Nebraskan over breakfast at, of all places, San Francisco International Airport last month, my ears were standing at full attention.

His name was Sam, and, in many ways, he was a living embodiment of all the good things we associate with the Midwest. A tall, burly, silver-haired fellow in a cowboy hat, he told me that he split time between a stretch of land he owned up in the wine country in Sonoma County, CA and his real home in The Great Plains State, where he builds (I kid you not) waterfalls.

So, just a bit of context: the year before I moved to California, I read Bill Bradley's memoir, Time Present, Time Past, where he talks about his own fascination with the politics of water in The Golden State during his time in the U.S. Senate. For those of you who know the actual history behind the movie "Chinatown", you know that Los Angeles wouldn't even exist were it not for people like William Mulholland (as in "Mulholland Drive" Mulholland) straight-up jacking the water from (and, consequently destroying) whole farming communities in the central valleys in the so-called "California Water Wars".

For you long-time Macroscope readers, you know by my previous posts, New World Water and New World Water: The Sequel, H2O is an extremely big deal, socially, politically, economically, and all of the above.

And, more to the point, a big part of my Nebraska movie deals with the so-called "Dust Bowl" - where years of drought & ecologically irresponsible farming techniques, coupled with near Biblical wind storms, literally blew ALL of the farmland in Nebraska & neighboring states into the Atlantic Ocean.

When I mentioned my project to Sam, he replied that his home state was, at that very moment, STILL in the grip of a drought that had actually lasted LONGER than the Dust Bowl.

Now, mind you, the Dust Bowl and the stock market crash in 1929 were the two biggest catalysts for the Great Depression. I watch and read ALOT of news. How could something of that magnitude be happening right under my nose?

Well, let's ignore the obvious counterargument this presents to my claims of omniscience for a moment.

The real issue is that we have, in many ways, become a city culture nationwide, in the sense that very few of us are directly involved in the regular production of the raw materials we need to survive on a daily basis. We just go to Ralph's and buy it. Most of us don't need to devote much thought to where the food actually comes from. As such, most of us don't really think about farms, farmland, or anything really related to it.

Having lived with a women allergic to wheat AND corn for going on 2 years now, I, on the other hand, have become extremely aware of the origins of the food on my table.

Which is why, when I read this article on Salon by Michael Pollan, I immediately bought his latest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan is a professor at Berkeley who regularly writes about what my roommate called "the politics of food". And, in his book, he describes how the mass production of corn has basically reshaped the human race.

Consider this: when you go to MacDonald's, something like 90% of that meal was originally corn. That includes the beef, because cows, who naturally eat grass, are being force-fed corn on these big industrial farming collectives and then pumped full of antibotics so that they don't puke up the corn that their digestive system isn't built to process in the first place.

Why are these cows being fed corn? Because there's so much f'n corn now, it basically costs nothing.

And because the corn makes them get really fat really fast.

So, if that same corn is used to blow up the cows, is anyone out there surprised that we now have a skyrocketing obesity rate in this country?

We live in Leimert Park, a predominantly black neighborhood here in Los Angeles. And we've been complaining that we have to drive for miles to find any kind of restaurant that isn't MacDonalds, Jack in the Box, Burger King, or Taco Bell. And let's not even get into the local soul food chains, all of which serve their own brands of disguised corn gift-wrapped in a delicious layer of lard.

So, is anyone surprised that we, as Black people, have both an obesity problem AND a diabetes problem? After all, doesn't non-hereditary diabetes occur after your body has been so overloaded with sugar that it breaks and can't process it anymore? And most of us eat most of our corn today in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which has an unnaturally elevated sugar content and is used as a sweeter and flavoring in EVERYTHING.

But, as Michael Pollan points out in this article from the New York Times that I've linked to in the title of this post, food politics goes way, way deeper than health.
  • Because we've artificially depressed the market price of corn to virtually nothing, we've, in essence, destroyed the corn industry in every other country, most notably, Mexico - so now, with millions of corn-based farmers out of work, they try to make a living by legally or illegally crossing the border into the United States.
  • All that corn is being fertilized with the nitrate-based by-products of crude oil processing & refining. so, it's not just our gas mony, but our food budget is helping to line the pockets of the Saudis and the like, and, consequently, financing terrorism.
  • And why do you think my friend Sam is building waterfalls in Nebraska? Because the current irrigation systems that are put in place by the massive farming collectives are completely screwing up the water table beneath the surface, with environmental impact for decades to come.
Why am I talking about this now?

Because there's a new "Farm Bill" coming up for approval in Congress very soon. These things get renewed every 5 years, and this is year #5 for the current one. And, for most congresspeople who are not actually from a farm state, the minute you say the word "farm", they immediately check out of the conversation.

But this one bill has massive ramifications for health care, immigration, energy policy, and environmental policy.

So, you may want to drop a line to your congressional representatives in the House & the Senate and ask them to actually pay attention this time.

I'm writing e-mails to Madames Watson, Boxer, and Feinstein right now.

On his way out of the restaurant, Sam just paid for my breakfast that morning before I could say a word. I thanked him profusely, and he just tipped his cap before we shook hands, and went our separate ways.

Maybe next year, if I can get the financiers and producers to see things my way, I'll get to return the favor.

Did I mention that the restuarant's breakfast specialty was New England Clam Chowder?

So, if a young brother from Baltimore breaking bread over a bowl of New England Clam Chowder with a native Cornhusker in San Francisco doesn't just make you want to have a Yakov Smirnoff moment and shout "what a country?" I don't know what will.





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