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Cruelty-Free Eating?

Today on my college campus, just like every day it seems, there were some random people passing out random pieces of paper that will soon end up in a trash can.

Veganism Booklet

Many of the people who spend their days giving information to people who are less than interested possess radical beliefs about controversial issues. The paper they distribute is usually an advertisement (these are the more “normal” people), or propaganda supporting their cause. Today, I got the latter – a booklet about veganism and factory farms. I would love to just brush this off, laugh at it, maybe even publish a parody version about the mistreatment of plants. However, the spread of misinformation is an ever-present problem for agriculture, and this example is no different.

I don’t doubt that some people who operate animal harvesting facilities do so inhumanely. I don’t doubt that some animals live their lives in dismal conditions – food animals or not.

However, the challenge is how reliable and timely this information is. I don’t know anything about when this booklet was published or what methods were used to acquire the photos, but I do know that other similar materials have been known to use and reuse photos and video from one example – as in, you’re seeing the same video of the same cow from 1998(ish) nearly every time a news source comes up with a scare about mad cow disease.

The booklet raises other questions, as well. Obviously, the funding for the handout came from vegan sources, and not from animal farms. A photo has been floating around Facebook in the past couple of weeks, which makes an interesting point (check out the photo to the right). I agree with one of my Facebook acquaintances who made this comment, “[This photo is] aimed at those people (most of whom have never even visited a farm/have no animal science education/consider all animals to be pets) who tend to “tell” ranchers and farmers that the way that they do things is wrong and inhumane when said ranchers and farmers have spent years and generations working with their animals and caring for them 24/7 (many even studying for years in college on animal behavior and psychology).”


This quote (left) from the booklet caught my attention as well. Although I certainly don’t agree with the manner in which this idea was presented, I must admit that I’ve wondered some of the same things. Is it possible that people in the agriculture industry are too often on the defensive, trying to prove that no one should be telling them what to do, when consumers are demanding something completely different? Perhaps we should be thinking about how to be transparent and welcoming instead of defensive and proud. I’m not sure what an ideal balance between transparency and the right of citizens to operate businesses with limited oversight – I just know that something needs to be done.

One of the last things included in the booklet, after a long description of how veganism works, was this phrase: Cruelty-Free Eating. I think that people have varying definitions of cruelty, but in general would be alright with “cruelty-free” just about anything. In fact, many farm families choose to buy their meat and other products from local sources because they know more about how the products are made, cared for, harvested, etc.

This booklet offers veganism as the only alternative to buying from “factory farms.” While much progress has been made regarding conditions in large farms (which, coincidentally, are just as likely to be family-0wned as many other farms), it is possible to reduce your support of practices that you are uncomfortable with, without giving up meat and animal byproducts altogether. You can research the companies you are giving your grocery-store purchase dollars to, and decide how you feel about them. If any of them give you a bad impression, you can choose to buy from a local meat processing business, ranch, or other farm with whose practices you are comfortable.

Maybe our best bet is to open our doors, take some photos, and produce a booklet much like this one – only with factual content and unedited photos. Perhaps if we let our voices be heard, someone will listen.

Farm Out Loud!

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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 Loud !