In the boardrooms of Madison Avenue, they call it "values branding": a marketing strategy in which a company tries to instill a feeling of righteousness in the customers who buy its products.
But what kind of values would inspire a corporation to wage a smear campaign against America’s farmers?
That’s the question I asked after learning about the latest ploy of Chipotle Mexican Grill: a series of four 30-minute videos, scheduled to debut next week on Hulu, the online television service. Called "Farmed and Dangerous," it is, in the words of the New York Times, "a full-throated attack on ‘industrial agriculture,’ complete with a Dr. Strangelove-like scientist inventing eight-winged chickens."
Apparently the show also features exploding cows.
Maybe it’s funny, if you enjoy that sort of thing. Like a Super Bowl commercial with a laugh-out-loud gag, however, the point is not simply to earn a chuckle. Chipotle wants to boost its sales. "Farmed and Dangerous" is an expensive scheme to suggest that the act of buying burritos and tacos at Chipotle is morally superior to the act of buying them elsewhere.
As a business decision, it may make sense. But let’s not forget what this really is: propaganda. And it is intended to mock and discredit the honest work of farmers like me.
That’s rich, coming from a corporation that owns more than 1,500 restaurants and boasts a stock-market value of more than $15 billion. Its shares currently trade at about $550 apiece.
Chipotle was once a small fast-food restaurant chain in Colorado. Then, in the 1990s, McDonald’s became a major investor and Chipotle experienced super-sized growth. By the time McDonald’s sold its stake, Chipotle was a fast-food success story.
For the last few years, Chipotle has tried to brand itself as a source of "natural" and "sustainable" food. Steve Ells, its CEO, recently wrote about Chipotle’s "commitment to remove GMOs from our food to the fullest extent possible." He added that "there is an active debate" over the safety of foods with GMO ingredients.
That’s true, in the sense that there was once an "active debate" over whether the earth is round or flat. Every responsible organization that has studied the safety of GMOs has come down squarely on their side, from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization. The only people who dispute these findings are modern-day flat-earthers.
Not only are GMOs a proven source of good nutrition, they’re also good for the environment. They help farmers conserve soil and let us grow more food on less land. Mainstream foods with GMO ingredients can and do exist side-by-side with organic foods and other options. That’s what happens on my farm in California, where I raise GMO cotton alongside organic onions.
As a practical matter, Chipotle is going to have a tough time keeping its food-sourcing promises. I once did business with a major retailer that considered moving its entire line of t-shirts and underwear to all-organic cotton. It quickly became obvious that there wasn’t enough organic cotton in the world to meet this demand. Organic crops are niche products, hard to grow and expensive to sell.
The same rules apply to Chipotle. The fast-food chain is almost certain to hike its prices this year, according to accounts in the business media. Perhaps consumers are willing to open their wallets. And who am I to say they shouldn’t? Choices are good, and Chipotle is free to try to persuade people to pay a premium for their food.
Yet Chipotle’s customers should think twice about their options. Last year, the progressive magazine Mother Jones took a close look at the corporation’s claims and offered this advice: "If … you want to eat organic, avoid GMOs, and get food that’s locally sourced—your best bet is to go to a grocery store."
As a farmer, I welcome an open dialogue and discussion about how I grow the food my family and yours eats. It’s a great story and I’m very proud of what I do. Sarcasm, however, is not a productive route to building that type of conversation.
"Farmed and Dangerous" shows that Chipotle is not content to promote a positive image of itself, or to achieve a peaceful coexistence with American farmers who participate in modern agriculture. Instead, it wants to build itself up by tearing others down, rejecting the famous observation of Irwin Himmel: "No one has ever made himself great by showing how small someone else is."