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Monday, February 13, 2012

What's missing from the Chipotle ad?

Millions of people tuned in to watch the 54th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, February 12, 2012. While the creators of these events always have something up their sleeves for the viewers, I don't think most Americans were prepared to see the 2-minute ad by Chipotle.
The ad first caught my attention several months ago when the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation released it alongside a sustainability initiative. In August 2011 I wrote about the ad and the initiative, "It appears that Chipotle is taking, and has been taking, a critical step toward going where no fast food chain --and few restaurants-- have gone before."

And while I continue to applaud Chipotle for boldly leading the over-indulgent fast food industry to a more sustainable and humane place, the video gets a very important fact wrong. 

The video shows a small farm getting bigger and bigger until it has  ballooned into a factory farm, pumping out caged animals as processed food. Eventually the farmer looks around and realizes that this is not what he wants. And so he goes "back to the start" as the song goes, and downsizes the factory to its original small farm. 

And here is where Chipotle gets it wrong. 
The farmer just didn't wake up one day and say, "Gee... I think I want to get rid of my fields, and put in hog warehouses that will confine my sows in gestation crates and dig huge manure lagoons that will pollute my town's water."

What happened to the farmer in the video, and most farmers across the United States, is quite different. Due to the political influence of the powerful meat, dairy, poultry and corn industries, the U.S. government heavily favors and subsidizes factory farming operations that process these foods on a massive scale. With 75 percent of farm subsidies going to the largest companies like Smithfield (pork), Perdue (poultry), and Dean (dairy), the once-small farmer has two choices: "get big or get out."

Many end up getting big, and we have heard their stories in the likes of Food Inc, the Omnivore's Dilemma and Eating Animals - of how the big company came in and turned them into something they never wanted to be.  

But they can't just tear down the walls when they realize what has happened. 
Quite the opposite. In fact, many of these farmers essentially end up as "contractors" for the top 10 percent, getting poorer and poorer and owing more and more to the companies they supply. The conditions for their workers, animals and environment deteriorate, and only a lottery ticket that could compete with the corporations' earnings could get them back to the start.
What is missing in the video is the guy from Dean Foods or Perdue coming onto the land and giving the farmer a choice: get big or get out. 

But what the video does show is part of the solution: big companies like Chipotle who are willing to go against the BigAg machine and use their money to help farmers get back to the start.  Farmers' autonomy is limited- they respond to incentives.  Chipotle's biggest contribution is creating incentives for them to raise animals on pasture without antibiotics, as opposed to what most of the (fast) food industry accepts.

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