The French enjoy a time-honored reputation as culinary epicures; foie gras, crème brulee, and boeuf bourguinon are but a few Gallic staples of international high-end dining, and TV viewers of a certain age surely recall the obligatory sitcom episode in which the haplessly uncouth cast visits a French restaurant inhabited by a snooty server, and an unwary diner orders escargot, only to discover slimy, flower-munchers littering his plate. The press – particularly America’s – has also trumpeted the fact that the French eagerly wolf down a high-fat diet, while snubbing their noses at vigorous exercise, yet remain surprisingly lean. Prodigious imbibing of red wine supposedly is the miracle element, but that debate won’t continue here.
In more recent times, the citizens of République Française have embraced a new food-related trend, a desire to eat organic items only, and this issue – an increasingly rancorous one in France – is the subject of Jean-Paul Jaud’s documentary Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution. It’s a curious title, either exhorting the populace to be wary of what sits on market shelves, or a warning to inanimate foodstuffs of the industrial variety to prepare for obliteration by the forces of au naturel wholesomeness. And Francophone demands for naturally-produced food seem a logical extension of that country’s belligerent rejection of American-based GMO products a few years back.
And therein lay the problem. Many academics have argued that, with the global population pushing seven billion souls, it’s patently impossible to feed humanity via organic agriculture. In counterpoint, a lecturer in Jaud’s film insists that if societies switched to vegetarian or near-veggie diets, then grain currently shuttled into the mouths of livestock would be available to hungry people, who exist in nearly every country. Of course, those who suggest that organics only won’t work consider such arguments to be the “Kool-Aid” of organic propaganda.
It’s clear that Jaud sides with the organics lobby, as his film unblinkingly presents the sad details of what appears to be a health crisis in contemporary France. Cancer rates are up dramatically, and at least 40 percent of European cases have been linked to food. I suppose it’s pointless to argue that alcohol consumption and heavy smoking are primary culprits in this rise, as the French have enjoyed tobacco and spirits for centuries, yet the skyrocketing illness rates are relatively new.
Early on, Jaud alerts us to the presence of numerous troubling substances – many risky or dangerous—found in seemingly innocuous foodstuffs, and a rural farmer tells us that 22 (!) separate chemicals are sprayed on his peach trees. Also, according to one interviewee in the film, imported products often have scant labeling regarding their ingredients and nutritional properties.
Food Beware devotes much of its screen time to schoolchildren and their perceptions of the issues swirling around food production. In the opening, a group of youngsters approach two elderly friends on a park bench, announcing their brioches for sale. Among the first questions from the gentlemen, “Are they organic?” Later, in a classroom, kids are taught an environmentally-themed song, a sort of Marseillaise as rewritten by Rachel Carson, Mother Nature’s new anthem for the impressionable set. Still other students learn about vegetable cultivation, and are quizzed on principles of organic food-growing during a hiking trip. A movement is definitely afoot!
Most poignant are the interviews with parents of ill or deceased children, their confusion and grief making evident the sense of urgency in France over this problem. One mother also mentions – Americans please listen! – that going vegan has brought about the unintended consequence of cutting back on the amount of food she purchases and consumes. Hmm…ponder that.
Jaud also touches on a few trendy terms of the new culinary eco-consciousness, like “peasant” agriculture, i.e., raising food the old-fashioned way, crop rotation, allowing the soil a chance to rest and breathe, etc. Or locavorism, all the rage in well-read American circles, and a key tenet of the Slow Food mantra, which originated on the Continent. We even see a tres francais wine-and-cheese gathering, featuring wine pressed from, no surprise, organic grapes.
We armchair travelers are so besotted with the City of Lights and the tony Riviera, so I found it refreshing to observe the rural French countryside, with no Louvre or star-studded film festival as distraction. Also present in Food Beware, albeig subtextually, is a stubborn, uniquely Gallic iconoclasm which is quite heartening when applied appropriately. I applaud the French for attempting to protect their language, their hugely influential cinema culture and now, it seems, their physical well-being, though it’s amusingly paradoxical that they refuse to banish smoking to the history bin.
Much of the information Food Beware presents is hardly fresh, and it has the flavor and design of a PBS documentary, not a bad thing by any means. It is an important film, however, as it gives voice, along with several other recent non-fiction documentaries and books about the food-industrial complex, to a distinct change in the “weather” if you will. Including “revolution” in the title is quite apt, because that may in fact be occurring. At least, it seems so on the shelves of my neighborhood market.