Anyone looking for a more practical horror film than ''The Fog" should try ''The Future of Food," a new documentary about the slippery slope of genetic modification in agriculture. In the name of enlightening us about the insidious homogenization of American farming, the movie presents a series of facts, legal cases, statistics, and shots of unconscionable scientific procedures.
The representative villain is the Monsanto Corp., which in the 1990s decided to get into the seed business to increase the market for one of its herbicides, Roundup. It created through genetic manipulation seeds that could withstand the herbicide and called them ''Roundup-ready," and was able to patent them. Monsanto then used the new exclusive products as a license to crack down on farmers whose seeds showed traces of Roundup-ready genes, generally transferred through airborne pollen.
Produced and directed by Deborah Koons Garcia (Jerry's widow), the film is more than just the usual Northern California hippie paranoia about government or business conspiracy. In fact, until it gives in to its activist urges, ''The Future of Food" is a tenacious work of journalism.
Early on, the film finds one Canadian canola farmer who went up against the company, after it accused him of patent infringement. A soybean farmer from North Dakota, who settled with the company in a similar case and thus can't talk about it, appears via a home video his wife made that explains how Monsanto has put the screws to him. According to Garcia's film, the company had sent out 9,000 threatening but unfounded letters to farmers in an attempt to spook them out of reusing their own seed and presumably going with Monsanto's.
From here ''The Future of Food" ventures to Mexico to explain how biodiversity is being compromised by genetically modified seeds. It also gathers scientists and people from nongovernment watchdog groups to explain the changes in the world's food production. A few speak in biology argot that would be intimidating if the terms were less self-explanatorily dangerous. This rush of information is offered as part of the film's mission: to get genetically modified labels attached to foods. It won't be easy. As we're told, the Food Right to Know Act, introduced in the US Senate in 2000, hasn't passed.
Of course, the folks at Monsanto don't think that's their problem. The company's director of corporate communication, Phil Angell, told the New York Times Magazine in 1998 that making sure genetically modified food is safe is not their job, it's the Food and Drug Administration's. And in the film's most disturbing passage, it sniffs out compelling collusive action, showing us the names of people who've moved from Monsanto or its subsidiaries to the Supreme Court (Clarence Thomas) and upper echelons of the Bush administration (you'll have to see for yourself).
The heartening news comes from Mexico. One corn farmer says he knows he could buy genetically modified American seed and save money. But he wouldn't be able to live with himself. And he says his corn tastes better.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.