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While venture capitalists, biotech startups and Big Food corporations invest in lab-grown foods, gene editing technologies and digital agriculture, farmers and consumers across the country have been transforming agriculture from the ground up — reviving traditional practices and innovating new ones to build healthy soils that make healthy food, people and ecosystems.
Two new films, “Organic Rising” and “Common Ground,” are raising awareness of this movement, highlighting the farmers, researchers, advocates and consumers who have been hard at work building the foundations for a healthy, sustainable planetary ecosystem rooted in the soil.
“Organic Rising,” written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning National Geographic photojournalist Anthony Suau, examines the rise of the organic food movement in the U.S. over the last several decades and provides a practical guide to consumers seeking to understand the contemporary food landscape.
“Common Ground” brings together an all-star cast of narrators that includes Laura Dern, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Jason Momoa, Rosario Dawson and Ian Somerhalder to advocate for regenerative farming — a set of principles and practices geared toward building soil health in order to manage natural resources and grow nutritious food, as a viable remedy for a sick planet.
Both films juxtapose these overlapping approaches to farming with the conventional industrial agriculture practiced by 90% of U.S. farmers who rely on genetically modified seeds and synthetic chemicals that damage the soil and human health.
Both promote healthy soil as the foundational building block for a healthy world.
‘Organic Rising’: biology vs. chemistry
The fundamental difference between organic and conventional farming is in the science behind the practices, Mark Smallwood, former executive director of the Rodale Institute, a foundational organic research institution.
“In organic, we use a well-known, well-respected science called ‘biology,’” Smallwood says in the film. “Conventional farmers, they use another well-known and well-respected science called ‘chemistry,’” he says. “The critical piece is what happens to the soil in those two systems.”
Filmmaker Suau told The Defender he started investigating these two systems over a decade ago when he returned to the U.S. after 20 years abroad and started gaining weight and getting sick.
Suau traced his health issues to a food system that had become “totally different” — full of high fructose corn syrup and agrochemicals. He set out to understand why, and what could be done about it.
“Early on, I learned that it was very complicated and it was far more interesting and intriguing and inspiring than what I had even ever imagined,” he said.
Suau interviewed organic and conventional farmers, consumers and more than 50 experts in the organic food movement and industry — including Native American activist, economist and author Winona LaDuke, organic movement legends like Ronnie Cummins, Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes, Ph.D., and Indian scholar, environmentalist and food sovereignty advocate Vandana Shiva, Ph.D.
Their message was that recuperating the food system begins with the soil. Living soils developed without chemical inputs have a better structure for retaining water, cycling nutrients and defending against pests, weeds and soil-borne pathogens.
By contrast, conventional farming adds nutrients and kills pests and weeds by applying chemicals throughout the growing cycle — chemical fertilizers prior to planting, herbicides to kill existing weeds, weed suppressants to stop new ones, and fungicides and insecticides to prevent disease and pests as plants grow.
Glyphosate disrupts the human endocrine system, causes cancer, disrupts gut bacteria and causes the inflammation associated with numerous chronic illnesses.
The film describes how glyphosate also destroys organic matter in the soil, which has led to the reemergence of more than 40 plant diseases.
Atrazine, an herbicide banned in Europe but still widely used in the U.S., also is an endocrine disruptor that lowers testosterone levels. It has caused male frogs to turn female at levels of exposure lower than what is permitted in U.S. drinking water.
This damage to human health, the film explains, has epigenetic effects that can be passed on to the next generation.
Through interviews, “Organic Rising” traces the growth of the organic movement, which began as a small countercultural movement concerned with the introduction of chemical inputs into farming after World War II.
Over several decades, it expanded into an industry addressing now-mainstream demands for healthy and safe food.
Farmers markets, community-supported agriculture and organic supermarkets expanded as the broader public learned about the chemicals in their foods from news shows such as 60 Minutes, whose coverage of those issues was later criticized and censored, Suau said.
The film also explains how the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) regulatory system for certifying organic products grew out of efforts by a group of California farmers who wanted to standardize the meaning of organic and hold one another accountable to those production practices.
With some trepidation, they eventually worked with government regulators to establish organic standards.
The film addresses some common consumer concerns, like the difference between “organic” and synthetic pesticides. Organic pesticides, the film explained, are of limited use, made from botanical ingredients and break down more quickly.
Synthetic pesticides, on the other hand, often generate more resistant pests and illnesses over time. This resistance forces farmers to apply ever more toxic pesticides, which the film portrays as putting them on an eternal “pesticide treadmill.”
Controversial questions around issues of “industrial organic” are presented by giving voice to different positions. For example, the film shows large-scale organic farmers who say industry consolidation allows organics to compete with conventional food giants, alongside critics who say those conglomerates use their lobbying power to weaken the power of consumers and small farmers and skirt USDA regulations to farm in ways that destroy the soil.
“Marketers know what many of us are hungry for when shopping for organic food — the story behind the label.
“But increasingly, since corporate agribusiness interests have acquired many of the most prominent labels in the organic market, these stories are being concocted as a façade to divert attention from industrial models of food production.
“Many of the best documentary films focusing on organics lift that veil by introducing us to exemplary farmers, who are dedicated not only to the letter but the spirit of the law, as well as exposing the corporate interests that seem to include duplicity as one of the standard ingredients in their food. The juxtaposition is striking and vital information for every organic consumer.”
Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association who passed away in April before the film came out, told the filmmakers that small farmers, consumers and environmentalists constantly struggle for the representation they need.
But, he said, “the public is on our side. And people act — they sign petitions, go to meetings and make themselves heard.”
Suau said he hopes viewers learn that anything labeled “organic” is “a far, far cry from conventional,” which allows harmful chemicals and genetic modification.
And, he said, the film is meant for farmers, too. He met with numerous conventional producers looking for ways to transform their farms who are angry over the industry’s lies about the safety and utility of chemical inputs.
Suau hopes the film, which can be streamed online, will inspire people to get involved in advocating for the organic food that they want and need.
‘Common Ground’: ‘If the soil dies, we die’
“If the soil dies, we die,” actor Laura Dern says in the opening moments of “Common Ground.” But, she adds, “The good news, there’s a way to save our precious soil. It’s called ‘regeneration.’”
The film, by Rebecca and Josh Tickell, premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the festival’s 2023 Human/Nature Award.
“Common Ground” makes the case that transitioning to regenerative agriculture will restore human health, stabilize the environment and revive American farming and farmers.
The film aims to inspire viewers to support a movement to transition 100 million acres of U.S. farmland to regenerative agriculture by 2025.
Rebecca, raised in a mid-western family that has been farming for generations, told The Defender “Common Ground” is “a love letter to future generations.”
“We made it as a love letter to our kids and the narrators in the film, they did it as a love letter to their kids. And I think that that’s collectively a huge motivator for many people in this movement.
“It really is the kids that are affected by this more than anybody, their development, their growth, their hormones, everything is affected by what they eat and the chemicals that they’re exposed to.
“‘Common Ground’ is meant to provide a powerful tool so that we can actually go about protecting our children’s health.”
Like “Organic Rising,” the film juxtaposes two farming systems — conventional and regenerative.
Gabe Brown, farmer and key leader in the regenerative movement, says in the film, “One system is working to kill things, one is working in harmony in synchrony with nature, with life.”
Gesturing to his field, Brown said, “You can hear the birds, you can hear the insects. This to me epitomizes life.” Pointing to a neighbor’s barren, conventional field, he says, “This to me is death.”
The filmmakers connect industrial farming’s emergence to the destruction of Native American and African American farming practices through colonization. This context gave rise to modern conventional agriculture, a toxic “combination of specialized seeds, deadly chemical sprays and fossil fuel-powered machines,” the film says.
The film blames this system on profit-seeking by the agricultural and pesticide industries and the corresponding corruption of lobbyists, politicians and university researchers who suppress research into non-industrial ways of caring for the soil and produce “the kind of science that money can buy.”
Like “Organic Rising,” “Common Ground” details the devastating health consequences of pesticides like glyphosate and also describes how Roundup creator Monsanto tried to suppress public knowledge of Roundup’s effects by seeking to destroy the credibility of the scientists exposing it.
When litigators finally started to prosecute the company, it was sold to Bayer in 2018.
Filmmakers Rebecca and Josh Tickell describe themselves as “100% behind organic.” They say the regenerative label complements and expands on the organic label by guaranteeing that some industrial practices that can harm the soil, like tilling or mono-cropping, don’t happen.
The film links the monocropping of key commodity crops corn, soy and wheat to the explosion of processed food and meat produced on concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, which is directly linked to skyrocketing rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke and mental illness.
The food landscape is complicated to negotiate, Josh told The Defender, because there are a lot of examples of Big Food “co-opting healthy ideas and turning them against people.”
For example, the film shows how the famed “plant-based meats” like the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger are really just processed foods introduced by venture capitalists to take advantage of the public’s interest in protecting health and climate.
Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., former adviser to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, explains the process in the film:
“A plant sounds good, but an agro-chemical company grew the plants. Then the plant goes into a factory-like setting where it is mixed with caustic chemicals to separate it all out and then purified on filters, heated, dried, cooled, evaporated.
“It’s an entire factory process just to generate one of the dozens of ingredients you often find in these alternative protein foods today.”
Josh said the Big Food corporations popularized the idea by having elite chefs promote the fake meats before taking them mainstream. He said:
“They went to McDonald’s because ultimately their market is to sell garbage to people who cannot afford the time and don’t have a tremendous income to spend on healthy food.
“They want to sell garbage to moms who are pressed for cash and pressed for time, and they co-opted health food and they co-opted veganism, and they gaslit an entire group of people who wanted to do the right thing.
“And if that’s not evil. I don’t know what is.”
He also said that as he and Rebecca negotiate with major streaming platforms to pick up the film, “that’s the very part of the film they want us to censor.”
Some of the people who suffer most as a result of all of this, the film says, are the farmers themselves.
“The state of mental health among farmers is in crisis,” Brown reports. Farmers and ranchers are among the occupations with the highest suicide rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the film promises that a large-scale turn to regenerative agriculture is an all-around “win” that can address all of the problems it lays out. Not only does it restore soil and therefore human health, but it can also be profitable, according to interviewees.
Christine Morgan, Ph.D., of the Soil Health Institute tells the filmmakers that in a study of 100 corn and soy farmers across the midwest who introduced regenerative practices, 8 of 10 also reported greater profits.
The film ends by calling on the public to support regenerative farming by buying regenerative food and calling on Congress to support regenerative agriculture in the Farm Bill.
This is not a partisan issue, the filmmakers argue, because human and environmental health is an issue where everyone shares a “common ground.”
Josh said that seeing the film, which is playing at theaters across the country, is a “vote for farmers to pay attention. It’s a vote for big media conglomerates to pay attention. It’s a vote for everyone to work towards a better, safer, healthier food system that keeps our soil intact.”
The future, Brown says at the end of the film, is up to the people. “We have a choice to make, which path do we want to go on?”