let's talk farm animals

Attack video renews call for farming advocates

By Owen Roberts

This column first appeared in the Guelph Mercury. It is reprinted with permission from the author.

A renewed call is being issued for modern-era farming advocates to stand up and be heard, following a new attack by a popular U.S.-based Mexican restaurant chain.

The company, Chipotle—with five outlets in or near Toronto—teamed up with Academy Award-winning Moonbot Studios to create a sappy but sophisticated animated video that takes an opportunistic, mean-spirited shot at commercial-scale agriculture.

The video, which has drawn more than six million views in the past couple of weeks, is heavy on generating pathos for farm animals. Among other things, it shows animated livestock getting pumped full of drugs, one of the greatest myths about farming that agriculture just can’t shake.

The approach reflects the disdain company founder Steve Ells, a chef, has for modern farming in America. On his company’s website, he says what he’s learned about the way most of the food in the United States is produced and processed is “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 can make them ill in an effort to increase their milk production.”

Farmers have heard all this before and try countering it with “No we don’t!” rebuttals that resonate with some people, but not with those who think they have little control over what they eat and how it’s produced.

Ells says he’s learned that there is a better way to produce food. He says he’s also met ranchers and farmers dedicated to raising livestock and growing produce using “responsible, respectful and sustainable techniques.”

In other words, he’s met modern farmers, the very kind he’s trying to crucify.

Modern farmers operate farms, not factories. They subscribe to environmental farm plans so they don’t cause undue pollution. They take sick animals out of production when they’re being treated.

Sure, they can always do better. Livestock specialists and animal welfare researchers at the University of Guelph and elsewhere are constantly working towards improving the lives of food animals. But the further reality is feeding billions of people is a job that does not lend itself to Norman Rockwell paintings.

Attack campaigns such as this seem to emerge every few years. Back in 2006, you may recall The Meatrix—a play on The Matrix—that sent the farm sector spinning. Animation has matured even in these few short years. The Meatrix wasn’t nearly as visually sophisticated as this new offering from Chipotle, which has renewed calls for farmer advocacy to counter it.

One of the calls is from Alberta farmer Shaun Haney, who runs a website called RealAgriculture. He’s peeved at what he considers to be unfair the accusations by Chipotle, whom he claims has a market capitalization of US$13 billion. And he wants others to join in, despite farming’s historic hands-off approach to defending itself, let alone being publicly proactive.

“I hear from many readers that they feel being an advocate for agriculture is a complete waste of time and not a practical role for a farmer,” he says.

But Haney doesn’t buy it.

“In reality it is the farmer, producer, grower or whatever title you give them, (who needs) to step up and start getting more involved. Don’t roll your eyes, start getting involved. Too many times farmers have this notion that their only role is to produce food, but they underestimate the importance to lobby and fight for the industry they love so much. Every individual voice from farmers matters.”

Haney’s right. People believe farmers . . . but only when they hear from them, which is not often enough.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays.


Posted by Farm and Food Care on September 23rd, 2013 :: Filed under Activism,Agricultural Advocates,Animal care,Education and public awareness,Farm life,Misconceptions,Social media,Speaking out
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