The Ethical Burrito

Rarely do advertisements have a particularly immediate or visceral impact. They tend to whiz by muted and unnoticed. Why would we pay attention to something we've seen (in one form or another) a million times before? How many different types of animal will it take to sell me car insurance?

There are exceptions to the rule. Such exceptions tend to debut in one loud, Technicolor chunk during the first week of February in front of what is often considered to be the world's largest consistent television audience. But occasionally an advertisement bucks both these trends, grabbing our attention without the aid of the biggest football game of the year. Against all odds Chipotle seems to have done just that. Their animated short, which sketches out the evils of factory farming, is compelling and intensely watchable.

That is not to say that Chipotle didn't have help achieving this miracle of modern marketing (they are trading on familiar tropes, and the Willy Wonka song sung by Fiona Apple certainly doesn't hurt). Nor is it to say that Chipotle's ethically-informed stand against factory farmed meat grants the company the ethical high ground in all cases. They haven't received a free pass for dubious hiring practices. However, at least some credit should be given for bringing attention to an issue that needs brought closer to the public eye.

Factory farming in the United States is more or less a product of the last century. As the technologies of the industrial revolution made large-scale farming a profitable business model, corporations began to gobble up the smaller, traditional family farms of yesteryear and turn them into the vast agricultural depots that we know today. First came supplements for chickens that allowed them to be raised exclusively indoors, and then (perhaps inevitably) followed the industrialization of all large-scale livestock production. This, coupled with a drastic spike in urbanization, meant that small-scale farming was no longer economically feasible, and agro-business quickly became the hulking behemoth it is today.

Factory farming -- and in particular animal husbandry and meat production -- is an issue that is worth discussing and one that has been gathering grassroots attention for several decades. Recently, Americans seem to be getting more conscious about the food they put into their bodies. Regrettably this awareness does not seem to translate into action. More Americans are more obese then ever before (currently just over 35 percent of the population qualifies). This alarming weight gain has been caused in large part by the proliferation of cheap, grossly unhealthy foods that are found in many supermarkets and stores. Unfortunately Chipotle has it right. A great deal of the foods we consume are grown, harvested and processed in ways that are far from healthy either for the environment, or for us.

It would be easy to simply say that heightened awareness should result in dietary change. If we are aware of the junk we are shoveling into our systems then we should effect a change. In some sense this is right -- it would be much harder to change without some type of awareness (even if the change was externally mandated). We can see reflections of this awareness in the rise of local farmer's markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and locally raised, organic, hormone free, food.

While all of this is lovely it is to some extent beside the point. Organic meat, farmer's markets, and farm-to-table can be prohibitively expensive. Eating healthily isn't always easy, or even an option. The biggest driving-force behind factory farming is reduced production costs. As a result, factory-farmed foods can be profitably sold at remarkably low prices. Farmer's markets and farm-to-table are simply unable to compete. That is to say nothing of the fact that many Americans live in 'food deserts' where it is almost impossible to find healthy food for sale, let alone pay for it. Just as the introduction of, and subsequent domination by, factory farming models are rooted firmly in economics, so too are many of the issues that must be addressed in order to change the status quo.

Not all hope is lost. There are groups around the country (and the world) that are making concerted efforts to revolutionize our current state of affairs. One such group is Healthy Planet USA, a non-profit that originated in the UK. Healthy Planet partners with businesses in Northern California ( Whole Foods among others) concentrating on educating children on the ways in which they can begin to make more healthy dietary choices, and also on activities that will help support those choices. Specifically they link their business partners with schools to build sustainable, seasonal school gardens, planted and maintained by the children. Healthy Planet also provides a curriculum that combines education on sustainable agricultural practices, the merits of healthy eating along with lessons on entrepreneurship. So far they have 10 school gardens and are planning for many more.

With the efforts of organizations like Healthy Planet we can begin to see light at the end of the tunnel. However, that is not to say that these problems will be easily, or quickly overcome. It seems right to think that once we are able to not only recognize the value, but also grow our own produce we will begin to develop the tools and the economic power to combat the factory farming epidemic.