Filmmaker Robert Golden’s latest film, a powerful statement about the planet on which we live, is scheduled for a world premier in Bridport in January. He spoke to Fergus Byrne.
Documentary filmmaker, Robert Golden, had a powerful motivation for making his latest film: ‘They are killing people’ he told me from his home outside Bridport. ‘These people should be arrested and charged with crimes against humanity.’ It is Robert’s strong belief that politicians, indeed governments across the world, are in the pockets of large corporations that are ‘perpetuating market places and ways of doing things that are actually going to kill their grandchildren.’ He goes on to say that these corporations are ‘already causing terrible destruction around the world’ and says ‘there is not much difference between them and the SS of the Second World War.’
These potent and damning beliefs are part of the reason he was compelled to make his latest film, This Good Earth, which is to be premiered in Bridport on 21 January at an event that will be live-streamed around the world from the Bridport Arts Centre. Afterwards there will be a discussion with Robert Golden and several of the interviewees from the film about the necessity and power of storytelling to bring change. Tickets will be available in the beginning of January from the film’s website, https://this-good-earth.com.
A ninety-two-minute documentary, This Good Earth paints a picture of global food markets skewed for profit, with farmers strangled by the greed of businesses whose motivation is naked self-interest. It is the story of a food system that causes environmental destruction, obesity, hunger and increasing levels of food-related diseases. A story of how intensive farming—using agrichemicals designed to create efficiencies and higher profits for large corporations—is damaging resources to a point where some may never recover. The film also highlights the enormous amounts of workers poisoned by pesticides, quoting a figure of 40,000 fatalities; a number that doesn’t attempt to include the huge impact of long-term health issues.
The film came about when Robert had been asked to make an update to a locally-based episode from his Savouring Europe documentaries—a series of beautifully filmed profiles of food production from different countries around the world. However, the idea of making an update changed. ‘It became less and less a celebration of what’s around here, although of course in some senses it is’ he explained ‘and more and more a critical look at what’s going on in our world.’ He found himself drawn back to research he did on a project many years before, then titled Toxic Harvest. It had been shelved due to the 2008 economic crash. But the lessons Robert learned from that, along with his need to tell that story, had never left him. ‘I decided to take all the different elements from soil all the way through hunger and bad diet and disease and show them as a whole picture, and pay attention to the fact that we live in a holistic world. The degradation of soil has a direct link to climate change and people accessing food.’
He learned an enormous amount from the farmers, producers, scientists and professors he had interviewed when researching the project. ‘I began to realise that not only was it a much darker story than even I could think of—and I have a pretty dark view of the world—but that the connections were even more sinister. That’s when I began to understand that I had to make different kinds of linkages. The soil question is directly linked to climate change; the question of landscape is directly linked to the disappearance of species, and the long food chain is definitely linked to peoples’ illnesses.’
He hoped that step by step, the story would be clear. ‘But there was an underlying thing I wanted to do which is basically to say, “look at how extraordinarily beautiful this planet is”. Seduced by the beauty of the earth and its stunning landscape, Robert hopes that people will ask who is really causing destruction and why is this happening. ‘We all know the answers’ he says. ‘I realised that all these professors and the farmers know what the answers are. It’s not a question of a lack of knowledge; it’s a question of something else. And the something else, obviously, is a combination of policymakers, politicians and corporations whose vested interests are not to let anything change. So they mendaciously stand in the way just like the tobacco companies did, knowing full well the consequences of what they are doing, and yet still doing it.’
Although discussed in dozens of books, reports, magazine articles and television documentaries over recent years, each view offers fresh eyes and this is a story that, as Robert points out, needs to be told as often as it takes to stop the destruction of the planet and the poisoning of its people.
Set in and around West Dorset, the film is beautifully shot and simply presented without the use of a narrator. It is told using comments from farmers, producers, scientists and academics whose compelling arguments against the tactics and philosophy of large agrichemical, distribution and sales organisations, makes it clear that this message cannot be ignored.
In the opening scene, a local farmer walks through a freshly ploughed field using his feet to kick through and test the dry soil. The ground he walks on is the starting point of the growing cycle and the source that constantly gives up nutrients for the benefit of whatever is harvested from it. The first segment of This Good Earth makes the point that without constant care and respect, the organic material that creates the nutrients that allow plants to thrive will no longer support our needs. Decades of chemical intervention to try to control nature has made and continues to make it harder and harder for the soil to survive.
In the film, interviews with local farmers are interspersed with testament from scientists and officials such as Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy; Erik Millstone, Emeritus Professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex; Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex and Liz Bowles from the Soil Association. Set against the backdrop of West Dorset small-scale farming, their comments starkly highlight the need to wake up to the damage intensive farming is doing.
Aware of the corporate need to create efficiencies to increase yields and therefore profits, Ellen Simon at Tamarisk Farm points out that, small-scale operations like hers are obviously not the most efficient in terms of output, but they, therefore, do not contribute to global warming in the same way. Relying on local markets, smaller operations, especially organic and those supplying local markets are not so much bound by the rules of forces out of their control.
Philip Colfox from Symondsbury Estate talked about how the lack of contact with the customer left many farmers trapped in a cycle they had no control over; a cycle where an intermediary supplied the raw materials including agrichemicals to help increase yields, and then, through a related intermediary, purchased the harvest. It was a system that tied the farmer to a process which had to be adhered to or they would be quickly dropped as a supplier. ‘He’s stuck in a vice and not able to negotiate his own price’ explained Philip. ‘He’s not able to create his own products to sell to his customers, he’s just growing commodities.’ This made it very difficult for the farmer to do what he could be proud of; ‘to simply create good quality food for the customer. He’s just someone running a sort of factory, almost a captive in the good old-fashioned sense—and he’s sold his soul to the company store.’
Buyers that dictate what is grown have less interest in the long term view that environmentalists or those concerned with health issues share. Profit over a small number of years is their motivation and one that results in land use more likely to destroy nutrients and local ecosystems rather than allowing them to regenerate or thrive.
That loss of nutrition and the residue left by chemical additives also help produce products that lack the same natural health value; products that may indeed feed the many, but with little thought for their long-term health.
Erik Millstone, Emeritus Professor of Science Policy at The University of Sussex points out that ‘after agrochemicals have been sprayed on land and crops, they inevitably contaminate the food that we subsequently eat. And while it’s common for officials and their government advisors to say “Oh the residual levels are safe” I’m not at all convinced. On the contrary, I think there’s quite a lot of evidence that even the pesticide residues in common foods are problematic.’ Professor Millstone wants to see a proper system of testing and assessment that he says ‘ought not to rely just on evidence from chemical companies but also from independent scientists such as academic scientists or people working in public health institutes.’ He says that all evidence gathered should be registered and pooled so that companies can ‘no longer have the option of concealing unfavourable evidence.’
Diet and our over-reliance on mass-produced meat is a problem that has become a much-debated issue. Talking of the overuse of land for animal feed and the lack of concern for biodiversity, Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, says ‘the figures don’t add up’. If we only focus on the short-term needs of humans he says: ‘basically the planet stops functioning.’
Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at The University of Essex points out that we pay four times for the food we eat; first at the till, then for the cost of cleaning up the environment and thirdly in Government subsidies from our taxes. On top of that, he says there’s actually a fourth way that we pay for our food and that is in the result of the choices that we ultimately make about the food that we eat. Those choices are not necessarily free choices; ‘they are constrained by our own resources’ he says, alluding to the food poverty that has seen a huge increase in food banks, ‘or strongly shaped by advertising or other corporate interests to encourage us to eat certain sorts of foods. The result of that is that a large amount of ill health worldwide now is related to the kinds of foods we do eat.’
This Good Earth focuses on three elements; soil, land and food. Within these three broad subjects, the film tackles a myriad of issues that cannot be described in a short article. However, the message is clear and the film asks for our response and action to deal with a system that can easily be interpreted as criminal.
Tim Lang describes a truth that is all too often apparent. He talks of the fantasy world of hour after hour of ‘TV chefs tantalising, and competitions tantalising you with totally unaffordable foods and tastes’ against the reality of very big companies, ‘trying to sell you cheap pap which is tasty, sweet, fatty, lovely instantaneously, but makes you obese and you die early.’ He believes ‘diet is one of, if not the major cause of premature death.’
Patty Rundell from the International Baby Food Action Network cited the addictive nature of sugar: ‘You get hooked on sugar’ she says. ‘It is addictive, all these things are addictive and they know it. And the corporates behind it know exactly what they are doing in the way that they sell it to us.’ She cites how the baby food sector was one of the first to pinpoint something called ‘commerciogenic malnutrition’—a term for something that means you actually cause harm or death by commercial practices.
While many people make the point that social movements are vital to help affect change, it is also clear that the law must play a role in challenging these commercial practises that could be seen as criminal. Human Rights Lawyer, Richard Harvey, makes a point that echoes Robert Golden’s belief that there are criminal activities to be dealt with. ‘Food is big business, very very big business’ Richard says. ‘Just like oil, just like gas, these are substances that really are all about money as far as the big manufacturers are concerned.’ He says that while we know what we should be doing to the land and what we should be eating, ‘the really smart people that run those big businesses’ know that better than anybody, because they’ve been studying their industry and how to manipulate it for years. ‘So when you know that the quality of the food that’s being produced is actually damaging the people that it is destined for, it’s a bit like saying that you are poisoning them. And there are laws against poisoning.’
He says that one can prosecute a CEO or the very highest board members of those companies, but he also knows there are strong forces in play and doesn’t believe the law is the final solution. ‘There are clearly cases where the companies control the courts to the extent that individuals have got very little chance of winning against them’ he says. But he believes we all have a human right to a clean, healthy, safe and nutritious environment, one that is all about human dignity. He asks a hopeful question: ‘isn’t that really what we all want?’
Robert Golden believes that ‘corporations own most of the politicians and the political parties’ and that one way or another, big business is able to put huge pressure on politics. He believes their terror of potential unrest by interfering with existing food systems is part of the reason for political inertia. ‘I think a combination of their terror and their pocketbooks and their paying for elections means they are not servicing us—they are servicing the corporations.’
This Good Earth makes a solid case and although it doesn’t set out to offer all the answers, dissecting the issues is a way of finding a route to a better future. Perhaps there is the chance that a combination of the law, along with social movements for change and individual efforts to live better can alter the future for our grandchildren—but only if everyone cares about their grandchildren.