The animation itself has been online since last August, but thanks to Chipotle, it was seen by millions of people that night. It also got the attention of Big Ag, which expects to be the one doing all the expensive ad buys when it comes to agriculture.
Case in point: The Chipotle ad inspired Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst (author of the provocative anti-foodie screed “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals”) to pen this New York Times op-ed. The article is nothing less than a full-throated defense of factory farming that even includes a strong endorsement of one of the worst factory farm practices — pig gestation crates.
In Hurst’s view, gestation crates are the “flux capacitor” of factory farming, or the one thing that makes it possible. He maintains this position despite the fact that, as Twilight Greenaway wrote recently, the crates represent “the especially despicable practice of confining pregnant sows in spaces roughly the width of their bodies.”
For Hurst, it probably feels like a betrayal that companies such as McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Bon Appétit Management Company have all committed to requiring suppliers to end the use of gestation crates. As Hurst sees it:
Many big multistate operations will … be able to afford to make the changes, or will at least have the political sway to resist them. But the small farmers now raising hogs will be pushed out of the industry.
It’s worth noting that Florida, Arizona, California, and Ohio and several other states have passed bans on gestation crates, with more states considering them. Resistance does appear to be futile.
Still, it’s a legitimate point; small operations may only be able to compete in the commodity markets if they resort to such brutal techniques. But maybe it’s time to question whether the chance to sell to the lowest bidder is worth the moral cost.
Blake also points to the fact that humanely raised meat will cost more, which is true. But just how much more is another question (it is unlikely to make bacon completely unaffordable, as Hurst fears, but we may have to consume a little less). If the Chipotle ad errs, it’s on the side of turning livestock husbandry into an all-or-nothing equation. After all, intensive agriculture without antibiotics, gestation crates, and other tools of the factory farm trade is possible. And — if slaughterhouse expert Temple Grandin is to be believed — it can even be done humanely. But that doesn’t seem to be the debate Hurst wants to have.
In fact, later in the op-ed he explicitly mocks concern for animal welfare in general in observing that “we can’t ask the pigs what they think.” As if any farmer who knows his way around animals can’t tell a happy pig from a stressed one. He goes on to say:
We can all agree that production methods should not cause needless suffering, but for all we know, pigs are “happier” in warm, dry buildings than they are outside. And either way, the end result is a plate.
We kill and eat the pigs anyway, he says, so what’s it matter if their lives are nasty and brutish, as well as short?
To Hurst the ad is nothing more than the first step towards agricultural Armageddon, where bacon is prohibitively expensive and farmers have joined “the entertainment industry … selling expensive pork chops with heaping sides of nostalgia.”
I’d like to suggest that Hurst review his own industry’s latest research, which found overwhelming support for animal welfare. If he did, he’d find that it’s one of the top five issues of greatest concern to consumers. Maybe part of the problem is that Hurst and most livestock farmers like him don’t have any interaction with consumers — they sell their products to large processors who care only about price.
Yet companies like McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Bon Appétit Management Company clearly do care what consumers think — heck, even Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world, claims it will drop gestation crates by 2017. It’s not simply out of the goodness of these companies’ hearts that they have begun to make the commitment, however fitful, to animal welfare. It makes good business sense. But don’t tell Blake Hurst!
Let’s also not allow Hurst to elide alternatives to the crates by saying that the only ways to end their use “are complicated, expensive or dangerous to the pigs.” That’s just not true. In fact, Hurst, I think what you’re saying is that you don’t know how to farm that way. But farmers raising pigs in many European countries (and all of them by 2014) — as well as in many U.S. states — are doing so without gestation crates at a large scale.
Hurst is lucky that Chipotle didn’t air this video produced by the Humane Society of the United States instead:
That’s the real face of factory farming; Chipotle did Hurst a favor by presenting a more abstract version.
Farmers like Hurst are certainly in the unenviable position of needing to find new ways to farm and new ways to sell their product. But perhaps the problem is not with the gestation crates, but with Hurst’s business model. Manufacturing is coming back in this country precisely because American companies are learning that they can’t compete with Asian companies in commodity markets like electronics. But when they find a specialized niche, manufacturers can thrive and grow.
Farmers can benefit from thinking the same way. What would it look like if, rather than gripping ever more tightly to the ways they’ve always farmed and sold their products, farmers like Hurst sought out new ways to distribute and sell their product? What would happen if Hurst became one of the loudest proponents for the USDA’s efforts to enhance local food systems and build food hubs?
I suppose Hurst would think it best if Americans don’t learn the truth about factory farming. But the truth is out there and it’s horrific stuff. Americans have a right to know what industrial farmers are doing inside their supposedly hermetically sealed barns.
The fact is that some of those Americans doing the learning are executives at large food companies. And even they aren’t willing to defend the status quo anymore. Perhaps it’s time for Hurst to wake up and smell the pasture.