Chipotle has been on the forefront of national restaurant chains in the movement toward more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. Their first foray into viral marketing was “Back to the Start,” a video with Willie Nelson singing that emphasizes the importance of not continuing on the path of industrial animal production.
Next was “The Scarecrow,” which I talked about here. This one pushes its indictment of Big Ag even further (and also suggests that burritos are a good choice). And now they’ve gone even further, with a four-part TV series available on Hulu Plus called Farmed & Dangerous. I waited until all four episodes were available to do my week free trial of Hulu Plus and watch.
The series is centered around a PR firm called the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB, hee hee) which has as its primary client a Big Ag company called Animoil (a stand-in for Monsanto, obviously) which wants to market a new product called Petro Pellet, which is pure petroleum. In the first episode, they realize that Petro Pellet makes cows explode. A group called the Sustainable Family Farming Association gets a copy of the video of this happening and it goes viral.
The episodes that follow are about the relationship between the daughter of the head of IFIB, who also works there, Sophia, and the head of SFFA, Chip. Over time, Sophia comes to be sympathetic to Chip’s cause, but not before a lot of chaos ensues. It hits on all the big issues – sustainability, pesticide and herbicide resistance, GMOs, government subsidies, lobbying and government corruption, Ag-Gag laws, CAFOs (which they call MegaFarm, the Death Star for Cows).
First, the good. I will always applaud Chipotle for trying as a large national chain to bring these issues into the forefront of the public’s awareness and concern. They have at the very least opened up a lot of conversation. And Farmed & Dangerous in some spots is genuinely funny (particularly due to Buck, the head of IFIB).
While critics have suggested that the series really takes aim at farmers with a broad brush and paints them in a bad light, I actually didn’t think the series was much about farmers at all. I think who it really skewered was PR firms and industry front-groups that blindly promote Big Ag to the point of absurdity.
In one particularly interesting segment, Chip is on a morning show and points out how alternate realities exist for Big Ag depending on what they want at a given moment. Sometimes Big Ag wants GMOs to be seen as unique, which is why they voraciously protect their patents. But they argue that when it comes to public health, GMOs aren’t unique – they aren’t any different than the regular corn. Which is why they oppose labeling on consumer products. In the case of the viral video (a stand-in for the types of CAFO whistleblower videos that Ag-Gag laws aim to curtail), they claim that the videos are fabricated or exaggerated, but then claim that they own the video because it was shot on their property. If it’s false, why are you claiming it as your own?
So I think that exposing the crap that comes out of the PR firms and departments protecting industrial agriculture is something that’s sorely needed. Front groups often have deceptively friendly names, which make consumers think they are advocating on behalf of us, when they are really advocating and lobbying for their big clients.
But. Here’s my issue with Farmed & Dangerous. With this series, I feel like Chipotle is really starting to mislead by obscuring facts and using hyperbole and satire in a subject that already has a lot of misinformation and passion floating around. When Jon Stewart uses satire to bring communicate news, he typically brings it with a lot of video clips and facts that support his points. He may go over the top, but the message is there as well as the proof. This series doesn’t do that.
For example, Chipotle wants to position itself as a sustainability advocate, and this film makes it seem like all farms that it sources its meat and other ingredients from are like Chip’s farm – idyllic and full of pasture and sunlight. In reality, that’s not the case. Chipotle sources a lot of meat and often substitutes conventional products when they run out of the “better” choices. If you were really committed to better practices, you’d just not sell the option that you couldn’t properly source. But that would eat into their profits and would be unpredictable, and the customers want their chicken when they want it. I would be more compelled to believe they care about humane animal treatment if they stopped selling conventional products at all. There are animals who are not given hormones or antibiotics that are still raised in confinement operations and are not out frolicking in fields for most of their lives like Chip’s cow friend.
I can see farmers’ points of criticism that the series seems to pit big farms against small farms, making it seem like all big farms are evil and all small farms are virtuous. In reality, it’s not really the size that determines the quality of practices. You can’t lump in broad categories like that when it’s really the underlying system of agriculture in this country that is flawed. It’s not as easy as good guys and bad guys when you dig below the surface. What we need is less control over the food system by a select few corporations, not to be lecturing farmers on what they need to do.
And Chipotle needs to stop equating sustainability with small, family farms and throwing that word around. Not all small farms are “sustainable” – a word which is really hard to define. Not giving your cows hormones doesn’t mean that your operation is sustainable. And not all family farms are small. Some mid-size and large farms have been in families for generations. Chipotle isn’t knocking on the doors of tiny family farms in my area asking them to provide their tomatoes and peppers. Sustainability is a buzzword that you use to mislead unless you have facts to back up your practices. Using compostable plates isn’t enough. And I don’t even know that they do that.
In all, I didn’t really think Farmed & Dangerous was effective satire. (They need to take a lesson from Jon Stewart on that one.) If they extended the series and added to it, I would be unlikely to watch. Chipotle needs to focus its efforts on making its business live up to its marketing, instead of marketing a business that doesn’t actually exist in reality.