Matt Wechsler’s Sustainable: Changing the American food system

Matt Weschler's SustainableAs the world deals with the ever increasing challenges that come with maintaining the lives of a growing human population (around 7.4 billion people by recent estimates) at the same time that many of the planet’s most populace nations are lifting literally hundred of millions of people out of poverty, the need to find new efficient approaches to the way we live has never been more important. Add in the looming threat of climate change, and the necessity of living more sustainably is undeniable. This is the premise that lies at the core of Matt Wechsler’s documentary, Sustainable, which juxtaposes the problems facing the American food industry and the practices being applied by one farmer to combat these issues.

Sustainable, which will premiere in Australia at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival this weekend, presents the argument that the United States is facing a multilayered crisis in food production. Firstly, the fact that food production is driven primarily with an eye to maximising corporate profits means that the nutritional quality of produce is of minimal consideration. This, it is argued, is one of the many elements contributing to obesity and overall poor nutrition in the United States. And secondly, it is argued that the need for corporates to meet consumer demand places unrealistic pressure on the agricultural industry, resulting in unsustainable farming practices that are having damaging effects on the land that will prove counter-productive in the long term.

Enter Marty Travis, an Illinois based farmer who has developed a farming model designed to have negative impact on the land whilst also functioning as a viable business. Wechsler follows Travis and his entourage as they explain and demonstrate the problems facing farmers today, and the various solutions they have experimented with to avoid such issues. What’s most inspiring about Travis’ model is the way in which he has developed direct relationships with restaurants across the state of Illinois, working closely with them to anticipate their needs and meet their demands in a responsible manner.

Matt Wechsler takes a straight-forward and informative approach to his subject matter, often allowing his interviewees to delve a little deeper into the practicalities and principles governing sustainable farming than would generally be expected in a commercially minded documentary. It’s a credit to his abilities that he’s able to have his interviewees communicate quite involved issues and processes in an easily digestible way, assisted by occasional animations.

The film is also given a great deal of credibility thanks to the quality of the interviewees that Wechsler is able to engage. Former New York Times food critic and television personality Mark Bittman provides great insight on the state of the food industry in the United States, as does renowned scientist and obesity expert, Professor Kelly David Brownell, currently Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. And highly respected chefs like Dan Barber (Blue Hill at Stone Barns) and Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill), who also happen to be customers of Marty Travis, add further weight to the material. Their passion for high-quality ingredients and sustainable farming practices is quite inspiring.

Clear, well argued and convincing, Matt Wechsler’s Sustainable is a great primer on the state of the American (and I suspect global) food industry, and some of the solutions that might help fix it.

Tickets for Sustainable are available at:  

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James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

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