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Chipotle, Sustainability, and Questions

At the Grammy’s last weekend, a commercial for Chipotle, a mexican grill, debuted. It has received a lot of attention from the agriculture industry, good and bad.

If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it here so you’ll know what I’m talking about:

When I first watched this video, I really didn’t know what to think. On one hand, it’s a great illustration of a company that prefers working with family farms that produce food organically. On the other, it’s a slap in the face to the agriculture industry. I don’t know which one is more correct.

I wonder what Chipotle meant the message of their ad to be. It’s probably safe to say that they were promoting organic agriculture. Their website refers to “food with integrity” and sustainable agriculture. Now, the chain restaurant is still supporting the ag industry, so they’re probably not trying to insult the industry. However, they exclusively serve relatively inexpensive burritos. My next question was who is the person behind the ad and the company? What I found out was rather odd. Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, has a degree in Art History and also attended culinary school. He doesn’t have a background in agriculture, but on the company’s website, he claims to know a lot about how food is produced.

As Chipotle began to grow and expand, I learned quite a bit about the way most of the food in the US is produced and processed — and what I learned was pretty grim. Pigs are raised in stark confinement, produce is grown on vast factory farms with little or no regard for the environment, and dairy cows are confined and injected with hormones that make them produce 8 times their normal amount of milk.

I don’t deny that in this country exist farms that might fit this description, or have at some point in time. Once in a while, somebody gets caught up in new technology or making money and loses track of what customers expect about their food. However, the issue with Mr. Ells’s view on the subject is the word most. Most of the food in the US does not come from the ugly farm he describes. Most of the farms in the US don’t look anything like that. It is also possible that the description is an exaggeration of the truth. Many farms feel the pressure to deliver low cost food, which cannot economically be produced on a farm with descriptors like “free range, organic,” etc.

We as an industry have come a long way from the defamed “factory farm,” but we still have a long way to go. One of the issues the industry is facing is an ever-growing demand for agricultural products, meanwhile small groups of consumers and voters are tying our hands when it comes to meeting that demand. If a solution is found that allows more bushels of grain to be produced per acre, someone somewhere is against it. It’s even worse if the same idea is applied to animal agriculture.

Small groups of people make their voices heard on such issues, meanwhile a silent majority continues to buy (and therefore fund) the products as they are already produced. It’s confusing for producers. Do you listen to the loud minority, or follow the bottom line? If the average consumer truly prefers food from sustainable or organic sources, the best way to communicate that to producers is to vote with their dollars. The more people who are willing to pay more for the organic foods some say are the best, the more producers will sit up and listen.

Regardless of what consumers do, our industry does have a responsibility to work to find ways to operate in ways that are more sustainable. That is, once we can agree on the definition of the word.

What do you think about the Chipotle ad? How do you define sustainability? How should we react to people and companies who choose to get our attention this way?

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do know that the voice that’s missing in the ad is ours.

Farm Out LoudĀ !