“You are what you eat.” We’ve all heard it, but the saying doesn’t seem as simple as it used to. The question of a healthy diet now extends beyond “broccoli or beef?” These days, we’re left wondering how substances like pesticides, antibiotics, and GMOs affect us when we consume them. We’re not even sure how to tell which ones end up on the table.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Anthony Suau had these same questions when, in 2008, he returned to the United States after spending 20 years living in Europe. “I realized that I basically couldn’t eat the food, specifically the meat. It just tasted terrible. I found myself very quickly gaining weight. I didn’t understand what was going on.” So he began to research, watching Food Inc., reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Foodopoly, trying to figure out why he was having a hard time with eating in America. He says he began to realize that “the issue that was going on was enormous.” And he knew that he needed to do more than change his own diet.
Suau, who has covered war, genocide, natural disasters, and civil strife, explains that the jump from documenting these intense issues to food is pretty obvious. He references a study published by the American Journal of Public Health in 2013, which states that nearly 1 in 5 American deaths are related to obesity. “That’s larger than a genocide. It is a genocide,” he says, “I’m not bound to a story about food, I’m walking into a situation that’s affecting this country in a really terrible way.”
But there’s a difference between the story he wants to tell about the organic movement and the other stories he’s covered in the past: “As a journalist for 30 years, the stories that I’ve covered whether the crisis in the Ukraine, which I covered for National Geographic six years ago, or any of those stories, I couldn’t tell you what the solution was. But there is a solution with this problem. The idea is to examine that and provide the educational information to people. To answer the questions for people that were the same questions that I had when I went into this story.”
He’s working on a film, Organic Rising, that he hopes will help viewers navigate America’s current foodscape. He’s creating a solutions-focused story that will educate viewers and help them to connect to the information that’s out there so they can make decisions about food that are based off of understanding rather than default acceptance of the status quo.
Suau also wants to highlight those who are already successfully working in the organics market. One story he told me that illustrates the burgeoning movement was about Tom Beddard of Lady Moon Farms in Florida. He says that when he interviewed Beddard he spoke about, “when organic farming was considered a real oddity. He’d walk into restaurants and try to sell his products and they didn’t want them because they were organic. Now [Beddard] is one of the biggest suppliers in the country. He sells to Whole Foods. He basically can’t keep up with the demand.”
For the film, Suau traveled to California, Florida, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and New York, documenting distributors, chefs, investors, farmers, war veterans, activists, food advocates, and even seed-savers. It’s a more intricate story than just the farmers and the consumers. “There are a lot of parts of this movement,” he says.
Suau thought that a film would be the best way to communicate the scope of the subject matter. Documentaries “have the ability to explore issues in depth in a way that TV, the nightly news, and even 60 Minutes can’t … You go out to dinner and people talk about documentaries they’ve seen on Netflix. Whether about fracking or the economy, it’s become an amazing cornerstone of where we go to get our news. Doing this film, I’m working on the forefront of what people are interested in in terms of obtaining information. That’s really exciting and very encouraging. It keeps my momentum up.”
Organic Rising is Suau’s first feature-length film. The production process is about 70 percent complete, and the film is expected to be released in September 2015. To contribute to Organic Rising’s crowd-sourcing campaign, visit their Indiegogo site. The campaign runs until June 7th.
The May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicked off an eight-month series about the future of food. As part of that effort, Proof is highlighting independent projects that look at food production and consumption.