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Chipotle's pork shortage

I had intended to write an agriculture-related post today about a completely different topic, but current events happen. Chipotle restaurants decided to stop serving pork that didn't meet their high standards for animal welfare and now we've been thrust into a national debate about, of all things, pig housing. Which, as an "ag nerd," I find both strange and awesome.

Probably the best thing about the Chipotle news yesterday was the positive reaction it received from consumers. Most of the media and public seems to think the move to reject substandard pork reflects highly on the company. They make fresh, delicious, ethical food and it makes people flock to their locations. But if you dig around awhile there is--and has been--a dark undercurrent of farmers who are not fans. They were already boycotting the chain, generally, after the campaign against conventional/factory farming. They dislike the growing movement to transform the food system. They dislike what they see as false distinctions between their farms and "sustainable" type organic, humane, cage-free, non-GMO, whatever.

Many conventional farmers resent the implication that they are part of an industrial, factory food system. "We're family farms," they say. They grow our fresh food to what they feel are high standards and are understandably defensive about their livelihood and way of life being criticized.

And I totally get it. In fact, the longer I'm around farm people and more I learn, the more diversity in operations I see. There are many types of farmers. They're some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. In short, they mean well. This is, perhaps, why it becomes extra personal for many farmers to hear that on the consumer side there is a growing disillusionment with their work. That's hard to hear. And, for many, it's become a (counter?) educational movement. If you're a cynic, some of these educational attempts come from big companies involved in agribusiness trying to downplay their negative image. But there are also genuine attempts out there where farmers feel like if they can just answer questions and talk to the public, the problem is that the urban eating population doesn't understand. They don't "get" what farming is all about and are simply misinformed. Of course, that's a two-way street. Consumers, on the other hand, have built organizations and an entire market driven by grassroots desires to eat in a more ethical, healthy way.

When you look at what humane standards are all about...and, yes, there are rules just like with organic that are made by veterinarians so it's not just throwing around a vague term...the focus is on animals. And, for my two cents, that is where I think conventional farming gets the short end. Farming outside the niche markets that lets you add special status to your crops/livestock is risky business. Post-WWII it became less about diverse, small family farms and farmers had to scale up and "get big" to compete and make money. Monoculture became the norm with vast fields of corn, soybeans, etc..

So here's my confession as an aspiring sheep farmer...it's not just about the farmer. To compete, the farmer has to have a place to slaughter, a place to sell, a place to buy seed at a reasonable price, access to land, access to information. access to customers. Conventional farming has worked for many, many farmers up to now. We have Holsteins capable of producing gallons and gallons of milk each day in a highly regulated environment and let's be real here...the thought of a new food system where consumers value something besides price and quantity becomes scary. I don't blame the conventional farmers as evil pawns of giant global corporations mistreating our animals. I blame people caught in a system they're struggling to compete in already who now face a public demanding a higher level of service. That's a tight spot. I'd like to think a wider return to small scale, sustainable farming would help. But I also think there's room for technology and efficiency and science-based aid.

But back to those animals...getting into whether pigs should be raised indoors on slatted floors. Clean or not, if I were a pig that's not what I'd want. Granted, I wouldn't want to be outdoors in this weather. But I'd probably like some bedding. Wide open spaces to root around and be a pig. I think there's a perception among conventional farmers that a clean, efficient, well-run facility is modern and desirable. Of course, the vegans among you will probably shout that if I were a pig I wouldn't want to be slaughtered for bacon. Insert discussion here about the numerous breeds of livestock that are threatened to go extinct if we don't raise them for food in greater quantities. That's a discussion for another time. My real point here is that there is a simple, moderate solution here...listening to the animals. What are the animal's natural behaviors? I can't speak for pigs so much, but for sheep I can tell you they prefer to be out in open pasture munching on grass, together as a flock. Should they be in a barn for the winter? Maybe. It depends on your situation and that's a matter for debate, I suppose. I know I have a whole variety of concerns about having my future flock off pasture and indoors.

I'm happy to see the news today that Chipotle is taking the high road still...they're not naming the problem supplier and they're working with them to meet the housing standards required. There will probably still be a contingent of American farmers who still don't like what Chipotle stands for...the bossy company trying to revolutionize the food system and making them feel like what they're doing is inferior. But I'd try and remind those folks that it's not personal...or shouldn't be, at least. It's about the animals and what a food system should look like and keeping American agriculture held to the highest possible ethical standards. My go-to quote in this area is always this: if you don't like some outsider coming in and telling you how to farm then take the initiative and make the change yourself. Don't be the one trying to play catch-up with your practices. Be cutting edge. Be the trustworthy source your consumers want you to be and then there's nothing to complain about. And if you're one of those old-timers who doesn't want to change the way you farm because it's been done that way for several generations? Cool. I think the public can respect that, too. But I recommend transparency and an explanation so the public can judge. Just don't be surprised if you find the market headed in the opposite direction.

Comments

  1. Hey Dad

    Hope you get this; i am putting together some online interviews of interesting triathletes before our online event on January 27th, for http://fittriathlete.com/

    what do you say? I can arrange it all

    John Bennett MD
    InternetMedicine.com

    ReplyDelete

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