Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution
01 Jan, 2010
The Gard district of the French countryside is singularly beautiful. Nestled at the foot of the Cévennes mountain range, it is a vision of rolling hills, trees, crops and wildflowers. Against this backdrop, in the small village of Barjac, we see a true story come to life in the French documentary Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution. It is a rebellion through organic food, courtesy of a town that set out to make a difference.
This “revolution” is not fought lightly—it is fought of necessity. There is a particular situation in the region, and in France in general: there have been unusually high instances of cancer and other serious illnesses in children and adults who have been exposed to chemical pesticides in the air, the ground water and the food itself.
The film begins with a stark contrast: children playing hopscotch in a street of the rustic village, while vital health statistics are superimposed over them. A random sampling: In Europe, 70 percent of cancers are linked to the environment—30 percent to pollution and 40 percent to food. Every year 100,000 European children die of diseases caused by the environment. In France, the number of cancers in males has increased by 93 percent in 25 years. Sperm counts have dropped by 50 percent in 50 years.
“The landscape around Barjac is already fabulous, and I’ve tried to pay tribute to this beauty,” director Jean-Paul Jaud told Organic Connections. “It’s actually the contrast between the idyllic image of agricultural France and the reality of the poisoning of our lands that I’ve worked with in Food Beware. In a way, I wanted to show that ‘under beauty, there is poison.’”
Additional statistics are provided in interspersed comments from a symposium of leading medical experts at a recent UNESCO conference. During the conference, it is revealed that France is the number one user of pesticides in Europe by far, and second or third in the world. Agriculture accounts for about 90 percent of the pesticides used.
Given the alarming statistics of disease and chemical use in the countryside around him, the mayor of Barjac decides to take a stand: he is going to make the school canteen organic.
A Town Comes to Life
Inserted into the beginning of the film is footage of the children learning a song that eventually becomes their own “fight song.” Entitled “Aux Arbres Citoyens,” it was originally recorded by French singer Yannick Noah and was a number one hit in France. As rendered in raised voices by the children, it is irresistible. Some of the lyrics translate as follows:
Cement in the plains flows to the mountains,
Poison in our countrysides and in the fountains,
Cyclones and storms, our story’s starting to sink,
But our ideal remains, pretend we’re in the pink.
We have to change things around,
To the trees, citizens,
It’s time for us to propound
A better world for tomorrow.
Stop asking whose fault it is,
Counting on blind luck or others,
Now we fight!
As the mayor’s new organic program begins, the local farms and suppliers that can provide organic food begin to deliver it to Barjac’s central kitchen, where meals are prepared for the town’s schools and “meals on wheels” for shut-in senior citizens.
At the first fully organic meal served to the children, the providers don’t know what to expect. But the kids dig in, and many of them light up with “I love it!” One child comments that organic bread is better; non-organic bread is “all dry.” From the beginning, the children are very excited about the whole project, which for them includes their own garden being grown under the supervision of a teacher. It echoes the work of Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard program (see Organic Connections, September–October 2009).
Several problems are encountered. The chefs discover that cooking some of these meals takes longer. At one point, the mayor comments at a town meeting that the chefs will spend three hours preparing fresh marrow, wondering if the children will even like it. But, as the chefs soon report, the kids “eat it all up.”
Shortly the children are going home, telling stories of the organic food. Mothers begin investigating. It is a small town, and soon organic is starting to take hold. When asked about the progress of the organic program, the mayor reports, “It’s not just about eating differently; it’s something that’s had an impact throughout the village: on the farmers, on the shopkeepers, on the baker, on the behavior of families, and on councilors—an impact everywhere.”
The camera follows this impact into homes, where families are brightly enjoying these meals and children are lapping them up. The children are excitedly telling stories of the food they ate at school that day and the progress of their school’s organic garden.
The Poisonous Contrast
On the darker side, Jaud does not leave us with simple numbers on a screen to illustrate the casualties of chemical farming; he takes us out to the farms near Barjac and we see sights and hear individual stories for ourselves.
The first disturbing vision is that of a tractor moving slowly through the beautiful countryside, spraying a fog of pesticide. The driver is wearing a full-body protective suit and an entire head-covering with a gas mask.
A professor of endocrinology and pediatrics, named Charles Sultan, is out among the farms, and he comments to the camera that there are children throughout the Gard with serious malformations because their parents live in rice fields over which planes spread chemical products. He talks about the peach farmer he spoke with who uses no less than 22 different chemicals in raising his crop; that particular farmer had two children affected with genital malformations and neither endocrine nor genetic factors were to blame.
Another farmer, with a helmet that looks as if it should be worn by an astronaut, talks about the fact that the helmet has not protected him; he’s had serious neurological problems that could not be diagnosed. He was even given antidepressants to combat them, to absolutely no avail.
In a nearby village called Orgnac, a woman remarks that there are a number of cancers in the village and says she has lost several relatives to them. Her aunt had died the previous year of generalized cancer. Her uncle died of lung cancer, and both her mother and mother-in-law had had breast cancer.
A woman farmer recounts her conversation with an agricultural advisor, who told her she should have treatments for cancer. When she asked him what was causing such a high rate of the disease, he replied that he didn’t know. Her son has leukemia, and she says that local hospitals are filled with children with the same and similar diseases.
In an especially poignant moment, a baby is born in the village, at home. No commentary is given during this scene; we simply experience, through the darkness of night, the wondrous cry of the child as it comes into the world and the excited shouts of “It’s a girl!” Afterwards, a statistic is discussed that some 300 different chemicals are routinely discovered in the umbilical cords of babies.
“I was deeply affected by lots of things in the making of the film,” Jaud said. “I was greatly touched by learning that the umbilical cord of a baby may contain up to 300 chemicals, and I was very moved by the different testimonies of mothers.”
The Movement Takes Hold
Back in the village, the organic movement is gathering steam. A consciousness-raising event is held, called a “day of taste,” in which many people cook and bring dishes to share. The meats and vegetables are a huge hit, and as a viewer you can almost smell their delicious aromas. The citizens of the town, in sharing with others who haven’t caught on yet, talk about the fact that, yes, it’s more expensive and they have to buy a bit less because of it, but they don’t care; they prefer quality over quantity.
As Christmas approaches, a celebratory organic meal is served at a Barjac private school. The menu is announced proudly by the school principal, and fully nutritious food is hungrily consumed as the children sing French Christmas carols. Outside, the rustic town is decorated with festive lights.
The mayor of Barjac is shown at a regional meeting with other mayors, and they are questioning him about placing organic canteens in their towns. The mayor tells them that the matter was not put to a popular vote; the town council simply voted among themselves and took control. He says that it was too costly for them to continue eating “contaminated food,” so they decided not to. He poses the question, “What were the costs of not doing it? In money and human tragedy—how much? Don’t listen to the accountant first; listen first to your conscience.” For this, he gets a round of applause.
On another occasion the mayor is mediating between organic and conventional farmers. The mayor points out that Barjac, in needing to provide 200 to 400 meals per day, has created a good-sized market for local organic farms. He indicates that there is still a need for certain products. One farmer argues that he doesn’t want to “gamble” on organic, that he only wants to pursue “reasonable” farming. Another, who has ceased using chemicals, says that despite the lack of pesticides, his farm is producing just fine. A third farmer asks how he can fight mildew on grapes if he can’t use chemicals; another one comments that the answer is to not make the plants fragile but to feed the soil rather than the plants.
The life of healthy soil is illustrated in a different scene, where an organic farmer is standing on the border between his property and that of his neighbor, a conventional farmer. The conventional farm looks bleak and almost dead, while the organic farm looks very much alive. The farmer demonstrates the difference in soils. The conventional farmer’s soil is packed and stratified, and the rain doesn’t penetrate it because there are no wormholes. The water simply carries off the top layer, year after year, and chemicals along with it. Then, crossing to his own property, he points out that the soil is clumped—a complex and healthy humus-rich clay. His soil also contains worms, which help to form the soil structure. The clumps allow oxygen and rain to penetrate.
Winning the Fight
The mayor of Barjac realized at the beginning he was taking a chance with his own political future. He comments toward the end of the film that he knew telling conventional farmers that they were “feeding their children rubbish” and that they must practice healthy farming wouldn’t win him votes, but he felt he had to do it, albeit in a friendly way.
As it turned out, though, his future was not in danger. The end of the film shows the entire village assembled, singing the same fight song that the children were singing at the beginning. The mayor’s program has been a resounding success.
And how has the program done since the documentary was released? “Barjac is still moving forward with their organic meals program, more than ever,” Jaud related. “The mayor has been reelected and he’s become a dear friend of mine, and I have been given the title of ‘honorary citizen’ in Barjac.”