‘At Any Price’ Challenges Apathy About GMO Farming

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in: Media

Before his death, Roger Ebert wrote a review of the new Ramin Bahrani film, “At Any Price,” and said, “This is a brave, layered film that challenges the wisdom of victory at any price.”

Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”

“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory,  films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.

Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.

This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he  expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.

Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.

On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.

Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.

In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”

Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’

‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”

The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.

The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.

Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani


Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, "Digging Out" (Penguin). Her most recent book, "Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists" won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Leiner's next novel is due out this year.

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Comments

christina
on: 5/14/13
True to form, Katherine Leiner writes with much knowledge of her subject and always percolates the reader to explore.
katherine leiner
on: 5/14/13
Thank you Christina. We all want the same thing, good, clean food from farmers that are treated with respect and treat us to their good wares. Thanks for reading Zesterdaily!
Maryann Macdonald
on: 5/14/13
Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Katherine. I want to know more, and will try to see this film.
katherine leiner
on: 5/14/13
Thank you Maryann. Let me know what you think of the film and the issues it raises! Thanks for being part of this conversation,
Bette Glenn
on: 5/15/13
As always, Katherine's articles are engaging and informative. They make you stop and give serious thought to important issues. I will make a point of seeing this film.
sally cook
on: 5/15/13
Katherine Leiner's clear writing advocating on behalf of consumers and farmers is always thought-provoking and inspiring. I hope to see the film soon.
JoAnne
on: 5/17/13
As an urban dweller I so appreciate Katherine's insightful looks at various aspects of the food industry. I learn something important from every one of her pieces. This film sounds compelling. I'll check it out!
Gretta
on: 5/18/13
This review highlights the complicated issues involved in the choice to use GMO seeds and the complicated issues involved in making a film that portrays these choices. What are the reasons that lead farmers and filmakers to make their choices and what are the resulting effects? We are more likely to have greater understanding if we can look at the gray areas. Thank you, Katherine!

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