If you haven't yet been made depressed by this long PSA (or short film, take your pick) released by Chipotle, you can curse me later. But you should see it:
That's a mournful cover of classic Ed Bruce country song, made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, sung now by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The film was released by The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, to raise awareness of their key issue as outlined in their mission statement:
"The Cultivate Foundation will carry forward the tradition of giving set out by Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has contributed more than $2 million in the past several years to help fund initiatives that support sustainable agriculture, family farming, and culinary education."
It is also raising funds for Farm Aid, begun by Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young in 1985.
A great thought. But can it work? Will average people, especially Americans, be willing to give up their preference for massive servings of cheap food for a more expensive but conscionable way?
I last covered this foundation in August, when they released another great video against factory farming (an issue close to my heart). Then, as now, it almost seems too good to be true.
I really, really want it to work, however. I want to see food — even fast food — come from healthy, humane and (where possible) local sources. I want to see farming return to the hands of small and family-based entrepreneurs who are motivated to come up with innovative systems for producing better meat without cruelty and pollution.
The problem is, these seem to be elitist issues at the moment. Industrial food production has made meat easily accessible, on a daily basis, by all but the poorest of North Americans. And the demand for cheap hamburgers will continue to be a major pressure against purposely increasing the cost of a staple food.
The real solution, in my opinion, is not increased regulation by public health authorities, but rather removing the economic interference that makes fast food so cheap.
In the United States, corn is heavily subsidized by the federal government. The Eating Well blog claims that from 1995 to 2006 federal corn subsidies totaled $56.2 billion, saving the American beef industry on average $501 million a year.
(Canada also subsidizes large farming operations, although not as much as The US.)
While government subsidies would on surface seem to be providing a lifeline to the very farmers the video shows as in need, they create a system that favours large industrial farming operations and the commoditization of food.
I have seen this first hand. My wife's uncle has a small beef farm in New Brunswick. He puts all of his free time (since he needs another day job to make ends meet) into hand-raising his herd. But in the end, he gets paid no more per pound than any mechanized operation churning out cows for slaughter on the cheap.
Thankfully, the huge resurgence of local farmer's markets has provided an economic shortcut that links good farmers with enlightened consumers. If you're going to eat meat (like I do) it's reassuring to be able to talk to the person who raised the animals and arranged for their slaughter. In such a marketplace, pastured and antibiotic/hormone free meat warrants a premium price.
But back to the commodity meat market. What would happen if the economic protections that let BIG MEAT (and corn, and grain, and soy) produce so cheaply were reduced? What if a Big Mac cost $10? Would people adjust to better eating habits they could afford, or would they simply put too much of their budget into food?
The saddest part is that real food can already be cheaper than fast food, at least according to this New York Times infographic:
The real barrier is educating people how to prepare food, making sure they can store it safely, and getting them to care.
So, what is my point on this Blog Action Day? Well, I guess I'd just encourage you to think about the world you want to live in, then make the personal choices that will help make it happen. As a consumer, you can decide to pay more for better meat, eat less (or none) of it, and start to question your supermarket, your butcher, and your restaurants about the sustainability of their suppliers. Then support those that make an effort. As a voter, you can question your elected representatives about what they're doing to ensure a healthy and fair market for independent farmers.
As I wrote on Change Marketing, some social scientists believe that it only takes a core group of 10% of the population to be activists inspire progressive social change. You can be one of them.