Closing the Gate: First World Dilemmas

March 21, 2014 08:47 PM
Greg Henderson cropped

"Why do you insist on bashing organic farmers?" That’s the theme of correspondence I received last month in reference to a couple of Grazing the Net eNewsletter stories that mentioned Chipotle Mexican Grill and Whole Foods Market. Both of those highly successful companies present consumers with a dilemma, what I like to call a first world problem—the kind that arises from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation.

The first world dilemma. Do we eat at a fast-food restaurant, or do we eat at Chipotle, where they promise "Food With Integrity?" Do we buy our groceries at a traditional supermarket, or do we go to Whole Foods for the natural, organic and spectacularly over-priced vegetables and meats?

The success of both Chipotle and Whole Foods hinges on their ability to paint this dilemma for consumers while offering themselves as an ethical and moral solution to modern agriculture, or their term: factory farming.

That Chipotle and Whole Foods are successful is not in doubt. Chipotle employs 37,000 people at its 1,500 locations with revenue last year of $2.7 billion. Whole Foods has 365 locations that employ 58,000 people and gener­ated nearly $20 billion in revenue last year. But the burr under my saddle blanket is the fact that both companies have no problems cast­ing American agriculture in a bad light while painting themselves as standard-bearers for this new wave of "ethical food."

Many have called out Chipotle for its misleading "Farmed and Dangerous" video series. It features, for instance, a cow exploding after eating a fictitious feed of "petroleum pellets." Chipotle claims the videos are satire, but few farmers find anything amusing about a marketing campaign that blatantly confuses consumers about the safety and wholesomeness of their food. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau calls "Farmed and Dangerous" simply "divisive propaganda."

Whole Foods is under fire for a laundry list of practices, including an aggressive policy of promoting its own in-house brands at the expense of smaller, local, independent ones. Writing for The Daily Beast, Michael Schulson claims "a significant portion of what Whole Foods sells is based on simple pseudoscience," and he says there’s a lot of "quasi-religious snake oil" at Whole Foods, too.

Clarity. In theory, there’s nothing about Chipotle and Whole Foods’ business models that are offensive. But in practice, Chipotle and Whole Foods use propaganda to cast consumer doubt on food produced with modern agriculture practices and technology.

Therefore, to clarify, I’m not opposed to farmers of organic and natural products. In fact, I applaud those who have identified such a market and are finding rewards for their efforts. But the applause stops when organic and natural marketing campaigns rely on casting doubt on the safety and quality of traditional-raised foods. That’s when the "bashing" begins.

greg henderson

Editorial Director, Beef Today, writes from Mission, Kan.

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