Think Global, Act Rural

HOPSCOTCH: French filmmaker Coline Serreau’s low-budget documentary examines the apocalyptic consequences facing us and the planet if we fail to change the way we grow and consume our food.
Think Global, Act Rural
Think Global, Act Rural joins a canon of powerful films about modern industrial agriculture and its effects on health, society and the environment. Like earlier films such as Food Inc. and The Future of Food, it traces the myriad problems of mass food production in the 21st century, ranging from soil erosion and resource shortages to loss of biodiversity, and examines what this all means for public health and the health of the planet.

The film explains how, before chemical corporations exploited the new agricultural market in the 1950s, humble animal manure, freely available on most small farms, was a key organic component of soil. It contributed to its bacteriology and allowed plants to grow without added fertilizer. Commercial nitrate fertilizers have gradually replaced manure in our soil. But what are the long-term effects of the repeated use of chemical nitrates and petrochemical by-products and the loss of manure, an important component of a flourishing ecosystem? The soil ceases to become an independently nutritious environment for plants.

As the film progresses, a range of issues are considered by a series of experts – organic farmers, seed conservationists, community organisers, soil microbiologists, physicists and other academics – and it soon becomes clear that there is more at stake than poor-quality soil, itself a troubling prospect. Among the propositions put by the film’s contributors are that the industrial complex is poisoning the water supply, devouring resources, and destroying the planet’s delicately balanced ecology.

The fortunes of farmers make a fascinating documentary subject because, as the film points out, farmers are on the front line of most current global environmental and political battles. Think Global, Act Rural makes the military metaphor more literal in its opening salvo: “Western agriculture is an agriculture of war”. The opening monologues link the agricultural revolution and the decline of small farming to the surplus of chemical by-products from World War II, which were used in fertilisers and pesticides in industrial quantities following the war. The film claims that the sale of these products for farming, which had up to this point been a reasonably self-sufficient and sustainable activity, increased the dependence of farmers upon big industry and drove the developing world’s debts to the West.

The problems are also sociological. The film contends that farming, once a feminine activity (“women were the seed keepers and toiled the land”) has, since its industrialisation, become an economic, and therefore predominantly masculine activity and that this has devastated small communities and traditional societies, and displaced rural peoples, creating thousands of refugees. Diverse issues such as bad city planning, the spread of genetically modified organisms, the threat of fast-approaching peak oil production, and indeed, the erosion of democracy are all linked to the loss of basic farming know-how.

Small farmers have been disenfranchised and discarded by industry, and with them, the knowledge of the sustainable agricultural practices they have passed on through generations. These practices are simple and non-commercial in nature, and include saving seeds, returning organic goodness (manure and compost, via earthworms and microbes) to the soil and rotating crops. The ramifications of this loss of knowledge are gloomy and diverse: rural refugees in urban ghettoes, cities whose populations cannot feed themselves, social unrest and dwindling natural resources and biodiversity. Each problem taken on its own is a matter of global significance – combined, they constitute global catastrophe.

This low budget film by French independent filmmaker Coline Serreau is not easy to watch. Its 113-minute duration feels like a test of endurance. There are endless facts and figures delivered by subtitled talking heads. But what makes this film hardest to digest is its message: the problems it examines have apocalyptic consequences if we fail, as societies, to address them; and solving them will require political will and vision of the sort that often seems in short supply.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Think Global, Act Rural
Dir. Coline Serreau, France, 2010
Released on DVD March 28
Rated E (Exempted)
Hopscotch Entertainment

Susanna Nelson

Wednesday 21 March, 2012

About the author

Susanna Nelson writes about health, infrastructure and the environment by day and film, music and theatre by night.