Berlin films journey into agribusiness wastelands

1 / 3
Documentary film makers at the Berlin festival are focusing on the impact of modern industrial agriculture

From bulldozers ripping through virgin forests to planes spraying pesticides on village schools, documentary film-makers in Berlin are showing the high toll of modern industrial agriculture.

They take viewers on road trips through Big Food's wastelands, from Indonesia where rainforests are razed for palm oil plantations to Argentina's soy and grain fields that produce cash crops for export and as animal feed.

The vast scale and numbing uniformity of monocultures is the visual subject of "Imperial Valley - Cultivated Run-Off", a short film which uses a drone for a rare bird's eye view of endless plantations on the US-Mexican border.

Set only to electronic music, the hypnotic aerial footage scans across endless planted rows as symmetrical as an Excel table, and follows irrigation pipelines and dead-straight canals that dump the run-off into a lake.

The Austrian artist who made the film, Lukas Marxt, told AFP that "the idea is to show that we are already living in a kind of post-apocalypse -- to show the dimensions, scale, impact, fatal cause and ironic beauty" of the corporate farmlands that feed us.

High-yield monocultures are the ultimate "commercialisation of nature," said Kathrin Hartmann, who was at the Berlin film festival for the premiere of another ecological documentary, "The Green Lie".

"In the end, they're just vast industrial areas, you can't call it nature."

- Hungry planet -

To its proponents, intensive, mechanised agribusiness offers the economies of scale needed to feed a hungry planet.

Modern industrial farming has vastly increased yields and made food cheaper and available to more people worldwide.

But to its critics -- including the unashamedly activist film-makers at Berlin's cinema festival -- they destroy species-rich habitats, impoverish soils and wreck family farms and local communities.

"Monocultures require huge amounts of pesticides, they degrade the soils and consume incredible amounts of water," said Hartmann.

"The cash crops are usually not even food, they're mostly animal feed or energy crops."

To make "The Green Lie", she joined Austrian film-maker Werner Boote ("Plastic Planet") on a global journey to investigate corporate sustainability initiatives, concluding that most voluntary labels amount to "green-washing".

They visit places such as the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where massive fires are set annually to clear rainforest for palm oil and other plantations, and Brazil where powerful land barons kick indigenous people off their lands.

"It's a global thing, and it hardly matters whether it's soy or sugar cane or palm oil," Hartmann told AFP.

"They earn a lot of money for a few companies and displace the local population which previously practiced a very different kind of local agriculture that nourished people and was ecologically sustainable."

- 'Green desert' -

The same point is made forcefully in the Argentinian documentary "A Journey to the Fumigated Towns", which explodes the romantic myth of gauchos on horseback rounding up cows grazing on rolling pastures.

Filmed by Fernando Solanas, who is also a senator for Buenos Aires, it explores Argentina's shift to soya and other transgenic crops and the impact of agrochemicals on workers, residents and the environment.

It shows companies using heavy earth- moving equipment to clear native forests, and land grabs displacing indigenous communities.

At a rural school, a teacher talks about pupils being exposed to fumigating aircraft, while university researchers and doctors blame the chemicals for birth defects and higher cancer rates.

Deserted homesteads bear testimony to a rural flight brought by a type of agriculture that relies on machines more than people.

In one scene, agricultural expert Adolfo Boy, a proponent of organic farming, walks through a soy field that is free of weeds, insects, butterflies, birds and other animals.

"We're in the green soy desert," he says. "It's for these damn beans that Argentina has sold its soul."