Sustenance – A Movie Review

Sustenance is a documentary film by Toronto film maker Yasmin Gerami. It explore two themes – sustenance and sustainability. She questions the compatibility of these two themes in our food world today. The opening scene is Yasmin on a bench overlooking tall grasses blowing in the wind, tranquil water flowing by. It is peaceful.

This is a journey for Yasmin and her questioning invites us to also reflect on our food choices. She begins by defining sustenance:
1 – Food and drink regarded as a source of strength, nourishment
2 – The maintaining of someone or something in life

Later on she will define sustainability, which incorporates sustenance. I was a little confused at first because the title of the movie is Sustenance but the first 30 minutes is about sustainability. I didn’t understand at first why she was focused on sustainability. Gradually I came to understand it was about both.

It begins with a challenge to her friends. They would report what they had to eat for a day. Yasmin would research and determine how sustainable the food was.

Yasmin Germani (left)

Following this path she would herself discover what food is sustainable. As a guide she defines sustainability in food as:
1 – Local, seasonal
2 – Organic – no artificial fertilizers, non-GMO
3 – Low carbon footprint
4 – Ethical
5 – Nutritious and healthy. This category is where I place sustenance. An unhealthy diet will not sustain a person.
6 – A minimum amount of waste. I would have included this in low carbon footprint. But later in the movie she equates footprint to the burning of fossil fuels.

The next section in defining sustainability is a short history lesson on nitrogen and factory farming. World War II saw a mass production of nitrogen for bombs. At the end of the war, this surplus of nitrogen was used to grow corn. Corn was fed to cows (instead of them eating grass as nature intended). The corn fattened the cows more quickly, meaning bigger profits. This led to factory farming.

She has interviewed an extensive group of authorities. Their views are presented during the film. And the information is compelling. But it is one side of the story. We hear from a Spanish cattle breeder who has a small, sustainable, organic farm. We do not hear from a representative of the factory farm.

Is a vegan/vegetarian diet sustainable? No. We come to understand that our brain needs certain fatty acids to function. Fatty acids that can only come from animal sources. A former vegan tells us how eating soy over 20 years affected her health. And there is an ethical problem to vegetarianism. There is a large population of the earth that exists on non-agricultural land. They depend on their grazing animals for sustenance. They cannot grow crops. For them to adopt a vegetarian diet would mean transporting food over thousands of square miles – high carbon footprint. And could their bodies adapt to the change? Not likely. These people would die in the name of vegetarianism.

Two of her friends in the challenge have children. The film looks at the dietary needs of children and what the last 50 years has introduced into their diet – sugar. It also explains the need for infants to have fatty acids to develop their brains.

The organic food industry comes under fire. Many of the big agri-businesses have bought into the organic idea – commercializing and industrializing for the sake of profit.

There is a quick overview of the pesco-vegetarian diet. She looks at fish farming in British Columbia and concludes it has a high carbon footprint and destructive to natural species.

Recognizing that factory farming is not the answer, she visits my friend Lisa Peterson and her pasture pigs. You can read more about Lisa and Stone Horse Farm in my previous post. Lisa introduces Yasmin the idea of pasture farming and one of the pioneers – Joel Salatin. Yasmin discovers her only sustainable food from Lisa – pork bone broth. Yasmin heads down to his farm in West Virginia to get a detailed explanation of how beneficial this type of farming is.

The idea of grasslands has come up several times. She heads over to Zimbabwe and The Savory Institute. Allan Savory has been working on building grasslands and de-desertification through the use of livestock. He is very well spoken and clearly explains the nature of the problem and the solution. There are some spectacular – before and after – photos of his work.

As he explains, with current agricultural practices, over 75 billion tons of dead eroding soil is produced each year. Grassland production through pasture animal farming can turn that around. “We are running out of time, but we have not run OUT of time.”

She heads to Central Asia and tells us about the Aral Sea. Once the 4th largest lake in the world, it is only about 1/10th its size due to agriculture and desert encroachment.

She presents the same situation in Iran, speaking with farmer’s who once had a a large, intricate irrigation system that has now dried up.

The final section of the film asks if cities and even civilization is sustainable. Can we continue on our current path. Countries are planting billions of trees. Will that work? No. It will take a change in the mindset of an entire people. One person quotes Upton Sinclair – “It’s hard to make people understand something when their entitlement depends on not understanding it.”

The final scene returns to the bench she was sitting on in the opening scene – watching the grass and water. She gets up and begins to walk across the bridge. She is crossing one of Ontario’s 400 highways. You can see the water and grasses in the background as motor vehicles speed pass. The metaphor of encroachment of highways and natural settings. The sound is overlaid with Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN and news reports of climate devastation. It leaves us pondering the question, can we sustain ourselves in the future at our current rate of exploitation?

Sustenance is available to rent or buy on Apple TV

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