The villain in Chipotle’s new online comedy satire series is a corporate agriculture company driven solely by profit with complete disregard for public interest or protecting the environment. The popular burrito chain is attempting to capitalize on the decades-long shift in consumer attitudes about food and agriculture and the growing mistrust and skepticism of “Big Food.”
That skepticism can be traced back to the late 1960s when America lost trust in institutions. The King and Kennedy assassinations, troops and police attacking protesters at the Democratic National Convention and the war in Vietnam with related protests on campuses across the country fueled public disillusionment. The frequency and visibility of violations of public trust by government, military, business and religious institutions (Iran/Contra, Watergate, Enron, BP oil spill, sub-prime mortgage collapse, Penn State, Catholic cover-up, etc.) has been consistent enough and visible enough over the past 50 years to breed broad skepticism about whether or not institutions are worthy of trust.
Over the five plus decades, food and agriculture have become more consolidated and integrated and technology has replaced labor. While those changes generally make food safer, more available and more affordable, they also support the growing cultural bias that the food system has become another institution and is therefore no longer worthy of public trust. There is growing suspicion that “Big Food” is out of touch with the values of consumers and likely to put profit ahead of public interest.
Unfortunately, today’s debate about food is following the current path of polarized politics where there is only “good food” or “bad food,” with some suggesting the only way to save the American diet is to roll the clock back and reject the conventional system that feeds most of us on a daily basis. The hyper-partisan nature of the current debate overlooks the complex nature of the challenges we face in an effort to find a handy victim, villain and vindicator to create a compelling story.
While it may not have the appeal of a satirical series on Hulu, I’d like to offer a different perspective.
Joel Salatin of PolyFace Farms is one of the most visible examples of how a relatively small operator can become a diverse and profitable local food producer. His 550-acre Virginia farm produces eggs, chickens, beef cattle, hogs, turkeys and rabbits with production methods that have been used since 1961 when his family began the farming operation. His mission is a noble one: To promote an environmentally sustainable and healthy approach to raising food.
Critics of more intensive farming methods hold PolyFace Farms up as an example of what sustainable agriculture should be. Supporters of conventional agriculture scoff at the notion that such an operation could be viewed as a viable model amid rapid global population growth and food shortages. Must they be mutually exclusive?
In addition to allowing us to produce more food with fewer natural resources, the responsible application of technology can offer significant benefits to society. Researchers from Germany and Switzerland developed Golden Rice, a genetically modified crop to address vitamin A deficiency that affects 400 million people and kills 2.7 million children globally each year. The scientists spearheaded an effort to have Golden Rice distributed for free to subsistence farmers around the world.
Supporters of biotechnology in food production say Golden Rice can save millions of lives in underdeveloped countries. Opponents say it’s a thinly veiled public relations campaign to win global acceptance for biotechnology companies.
It’s time to move past the oversimplified diatribes and address the very real challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition, obesity and the related health care costs, growing global demand for food amid limited shrinking resources and the impact of climate change on agriculture productivity.
Consumers in the U.S. can celebrate the amazing variety of food choices we enjoy. From burgers on the grill to a vegan feast, quick service to white table cloth, conventional to heirloom, there is something for everyone. It’s time to move past dinner table dogma and embrace and celebrate our culinary diversity.
If the Chipotle series encourages a more informed public discussion about the complex issues facing the food system, I’m all for it. If it simply creates more polarization and heartburn, I’ll pass and binge watch some serious political intrigue on House of Cards.
Those in the food system can use heightened consumer interest in food to actively participate in a more informed conversation about how food is produced. The Center for Food Integrity offers help in identifying when and how you can contribute at our Engage Resource Center. http://www.cfiengage.com/
Charlie Arnot is CEO of The Center for Food Integrity.