Policy Point Wednesday: Conventional Farmers Face Off with Chipotle

Policy Point Wednesday: Conventional Farmers Face Off with Chipotle

CNN's food blog, Eatocracy, posted this op-ed from agricultural advocate Ryan Goodman:

Farmers and ranchers are upset about how a burrito company is portraying their business. If you haven't seen them already, Chipotle has run a series of ads during the past few years centered around "Food With Integrity" and the idea that we can "Cultivate a Better World" by eating their burritos....

Chipotle's marketing campaigns rely on stirring up emotion with imagery that paints a bleak picture of a futuristic food system that is factory-like and systemic problems with nefarious and imagined solutions. Chipotle wants to stand out from other fast food chains by convincing their customers that eating at Chipotle will help fight the good fight against the ‘bad guys’. With everything from scarecrows to serenades by Willie Nelson, Chipotle captures the attention, and emotions, of their audiences with plenty of fear and misinformation.

For a company with gross sales over $3.2 billion last year, Chipotle touts themselves as champions for the little guy in the food supply.

As an interested party, I follow blogs about both conventional and alternative agriculture.  I see a discussion of extremes: embracing innovation vs a more cautious approach, large corporations vs small family farms, etc.

I wish we had room for the middle ground.

I don't like how Chipotle (a large national corporation) is presenting itself as the friend of small farming while it has 1500 locations worldwide and a need for a LOT of food. People don't understand that increased demand is incompatible with small agriculture; this is illustrated by the difficulty Chipotle's 1500 locations have in sourcing food that meets their standards. How often have you seen a substitution sign at your local Chipotle?

On the other hand, while there are good farmers on all sizes of farms who care about the environment, workers, and animals - there are definitely flaws in our food system. As in any system, for every group of responsible farmers there is an irresponsible one. It's been shown that many tomato growers in Florida use what amounts to slave labor. The DeCoster farm continued to produce and sell eggs despite knowing their product was contaminated with salmonella. Farm workers in Wisconsin were filmed beating and dragging sick dairy cows with a tractor.

Like many of us who are willing to listen to both sides of a story, I wish that advocates of large-scale farming were more willing to talk about the imperfections in that system. I find that many Ag advocates belittle the concerns of the public at best, and side with clearly problematic farmers at worst. For instance, while I don't pretend to understand the complexities of GMOs, at the very least it has benefits and drawbacks like any other system. Ag advocates (and, it must be said, environmentalists) rarely present the pros and cons together.

While Chipotle's ads ring my alarm bells, Mr. Goodman – so do many Ag advocates who stand with "big food" companies. I'd like to hear a more measured response to the public's concerns about our food and environment – one that includes a perspective on farm workers and human rights, (as opposed to farmers and ranchers, who if I'm correct own and manage farms and ranches?) policies addressing foodbourne illness, environmental impact and a frank discussion of the long-term costs and benefits of agricultural innovations.  I don't understand why, if Ag advocates think GMOs are safe, they oppose informing the public about the foods they are in and why they're there.

Part of the reason the public is so responsive to Chipotle's message is because farmers and Ag advocates appear to be hiding something. When the public brings concerns to the table, agriculture tends to respond with litigation instead of information. While I agree that our food system is contentious from the soil to the grocery store, we still need measured voices from within the system. The days of asking the public to have faith and look the other way have gone; we need a new system of agricultural advocacy that considers the wants and needs of the general public.

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