Every once in a while my tendency towards procrastination pays off. I started writing this post some time ago, not knowing Chipotle restaurant had plans to run its Back to the Start commercial during the Super Bowl and Grammy Awards show. I’s been around, playing mostly in movie theaters since last summer, but since the Internet has blown up with controversy over it since then, now seems as good a time as any to share my thoughts. And they’re not what you’ve probably been hearing from either the organic or conventional ag circles.
It’s not that I don’t take issue with Chipotle’s depiction of farmers; as most conventional agriculture groups have, I do. And it’s not that I don’t dream of a “better” agricultural future, in many ways something like what organic groups are envisioning and Chipotle is appealing towards, I do that too. It’s that I don’t think the stark differences drawn between the two groups in the commercial are the biggest of our problems.
Sure, it would be nice if yet another piece of media didn’t depict conventional farmers as dejected individuals, shackled to a factory process. And it would be equally as nice if organics weren’t idolized as if there are no barriers to production. But the oversimplification of livestock production, the notion that all the meat industry’s problems are some kind of insidious pest that begins with even simple livestock management, and the false hope that is given the public by seeing a farmer simply fling open the barn doors is far more disconcerting. It is, after all, consumers’ detachment from and misunderstanding of the livestock industry — across production barriers, both conventional and organic — that has led to these perceptions to begin with.
The fact of the matter, is, as I’ve written before, that Americans may like the idea of idyllically produced food, but they’re not prepared for the reality of it. Livestock raised outdoors, in alternative systems require more space, more feed, more management and still present some of the same issues as those raised inside. They still die, they still get sick, they still have complications with birth.
And finally, the fact of the matter is that it’s not so simple. Even if we were to accept all the nitty-gritty details that go along with the reality of completely overhauling the livestock industry as we know it, today’s conventionally farmed livestock are not suited to pastured production. Throwing open the barn doors would result in a tremendous amount of pain and suffering for all parties involved; livestock, farmers and consumers, but especially the livestock. Pigs, for instance, that are commonly raised in conventional pork production systems today lack the fat cover to withstand cold temperatures, are incredibly susceptible to sun burn and heat exhaustion and most lack the maternal instincts to successfully farrow and raise litters in outdoor set-ups.
By all means, let’s stop the in-fighting. No one likes to be inaccurately portrayed, regardless of their career path of choice. But if we really want change, what we need to take issue with is the pervasive over-simplification of what agriculture really is. Consumers today are more removed from their food supply than at any other time in history, but they’re also probably more curious then ever. Now isn’t the time to wage petty fights about opinions and perspectives — no one person is going to see any one facet of any industry exactly the same way as any other. Now is the time to harness that curiosity for education. Now is the time to explain why things are done the way they are, and give consumers the tools to make decisions in light of what they’ve learned. The truth is, they don’t really care why farmers are fighting with each other; they care why their food is being produced the way it is and what that means for their families.
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Diana Prichard is a hog farmer, freelance writer and speaker from Michigan. She raises the best pork you’ll ever eat, writes food and ag commentary and speaks to farmers about the business of ag. She also authors Cultivating the Art of Sustenance in her free time.