Advocacy documentaries come in all colors and flavors, but only rarely are they as staggering as Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. which like most examples of the form commits the sin of assuming that you agree with it beforehand, but unlike most gets away with it, given that the statement "it is a bad thing to eat things that are not healthy" is pretty fucking hard to disagree with, or to politicise ("pretty fucking hard" not, of course, meaning "impossible", and indeed part of the film's focus is on how that issue has become political). The film considers the state of industrial agriculture, observes some of the processes that have become ubiquitous in the creation of food in America, raising the question with no small level of panic and alarm, do we actually know what we're eating.

The answer is "yes, pretty much" for anyone who has read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma or Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. By and large, the new film replicates most of the observations made in those books, largely because Pollan and Schlosser appear in the film at great length. Still, the mere fact that for some of the people who see Food, Inc. there will be nothing new to come out of it, does not change its value: it is an important issue and one that has not yet been solved just because two slightly popular non-fiction books have been published.

Like those books, Food, Inc. is not a reasoned discourse, it is not meant to open a dialogue, and it is not nice. It is a strident, angry, finger-pointing " j'accuse!" aimed at the lack of transparency and accountability in the large companies responsible for nearly all of the food products sold in American supermarkets. Kenner denies that he's just trying to muck-rake against the companies discussed in his film, but to demonstrate that they are permitted to operate without effective oversight by either the government or the people, and why this is a bad thing; and I'm willing to take him at his word when he says this. Because that is, really, the film's big argument: that Monsanto and Tyson and Smithfield and so on are oligarchs, and that people ought to be aware of it. Because people ought to be aware of it. But just because his argument is essentially one for greater transparency, that does not mean that he cannot approach his topic in righteous anger; he is not trying to politely ask these companies to be nicer, but to publicly shame them, which has customarily been the only way to actually change the behavior of companies in the United States.

The list of offences the film depicts is long and varied, from health issues (how easily e. coli can enter the food chain, and how easy it would be to prevent that) to economic issues (how the cheap price of U.S. corn drives farmers throughout the world out of business, how monopolistic practices crush small business owners) to political issues (how the food industry, like so many others, was largely responsible for its own regulation under the Clinton and Bush II administrations). For the most part, Kenner focuses on the most horrifying elements of the food production process, assuming, I think correctly, that the best way to make people angry enough to demand change - and let us not mince words, Food, Inc. is exactly an attempt to make people angry enough to demand change, because people who are not angry do not demand change, and this is a universal and historical constant - is to tell them the awful, nightmarish things that go on every single day; hardly the most disgusting fact in the movie, but somehow the one that freaked me out the most, is the quick little observation that ground beef is cleaned of bacteria using ammonia.

If there is one problem with the film's argument (outside of the people who just don't give a shit about the environment or people's health, and there are far too many of those people), it's that the filmmakers often posit that something is undesirable just on the face of it, without necessarily indicating why, exactly, that is so. E. coli and ammonia in beef are obviously bad things; but other than certain ewww factor, there's no inherent health reason to object to cloned meat (there are, of course, significant ethical and religious reasons). Nor is it plainly the case that fatter chickens grown faster are worse than regular chickens as we find in nature - that I know why it's the case doesn't change the fact that the movie does not tell me. And a lot of the film's emotional impact - which is not pro-vegetarian or pro-vegan in the least, by the way - hinges on our inherent revulsion to seeing cute animals treated brutally, which is not a very honorable way to make an argument. Though I do respect the filmmakers quite a lot for showing one of the "good guys", an organic rancher in Virginia, cut a chicken's throat; it's the only time we see an animal actually dying onscreen, and it demonstrates that Kenner isn't just working on fuzzy emotional grounds.

There are those that would claim that Food, Inc. fails because Kenner says "all these things are bad" without showing how organic food production is sustainable. This first misses the point entirely, that all these things are bad; the first step to figuring out how to make sustainable food sustainable for 6 billion people (which is probably, yes, impossible; that's what "overpopulation" means) is to get enough of those people anxious to stop eating factory food that is stuffed full of empty calories, refined sugar, corn byproducts, and potentially harmful chemicals. The film is a call to action, not a handbook; agitprop, in a nutshell, and let's not pretend that it's an ugly word. Food, Inc. is a good-faith effort to make the world a better place to be alive, probably the most energising, angering and effective liberal agitprop film since An Inconvenient Truth.

Insofar as its preaching to the choir, it's because they're the only people who are likely to see it; but that's not the movie's fault. It's actually one of the more persuasive political documentaries I've seen in a long time, sure of its positions but ready and able to explain why. Yes, it is a Dirty Fucking Hippie movie, but that shouldn't keep anyone from appreciating its point of view. This isn't about political opinion or questions of lawmaking process, or anything like that; it's about what we are eating and what that does to our bodies. It is as important a film as I have seen in many years, and essential viewing for anyone with even a slight interest in the quality and substance of their health and food, which damn well ought to include everybody.

Of course, not everyone can or will see the movie, but in the interest of furthering the filmmakers' mission, let me share for those interested the film's website:

Though it does not recreate in all detail the film's arguments, it is a useful launching point for anyone learning more about industrial food production, what it means, and how to fight for a more sustainable way of living.