Farmed and Dangerous, Chipotle's latest foray into "values branding," once again takes on the sins of industrial agriculture. Predictably, the four-part series is raising the hackles of Big Ag who claim it is "anti-farmer." It is also making some middle-of-the road agriculture groups squeamish. They're afraid Chipotle's marketing strategy pits small farms against big farms.
The antagonism between big and small farms in the U.S. is a historical condition that has little to do with Chipotle, of course. The superior market power of large economies of scale, the overwhelming preference for large-scale, capital intensive technologies in the Farm Bill, the USDA, the land grant colleges and the seed and chemical corporations (to say nothing of the favors and financial preferences of banks, investors and farm-state politicians) are all reflections of the deep agrarian divide that separates large and small-scale operations. Some groups may choose to elide these differences in the hopes smallholders can benefit from Big Ag's policy crumbs. Or they might shy from these conflicts for strategic political reasons. That's all fair enough. Heaven knows small farmers desperately need resources and are in no position to engage in a frontal assault on their industrial counterparts. But the reality is that the underlying structural inequities in agriculture rip a much bigger hole in the "big tent" approach to farm advocacy than does Farmed and Dangerous.
Chipotle's series actually takes irreverent aim at the ruthless corporate suppliers and sleazy public relations firms that don't farm at all, but make their money off of farmers. True, the series' premise is that big, industrialized chemical-intensive agriculture is bad for people, animals and the environment. But that critique is widespread, well-documented, and has been around a lot longer than Chipotle.
Farmed and Dangerous is outrageous. Petropellets and viral videos of exploding cows? Seduction, intimidation and PR spies? (Favorite line: "Those people died from eating, not starving -- that's progress!") The plot unfolds like a cross between Food Inc. and Austin Powers. The problem for detractors is not that the series is over the top, but that it's too close to the truth. They're mad because they've been punked; exposed and ridiculed... people are laughing at them. The food emperor has no clothes.
Farmed and Dangerous states the obvious by making it absurd. People laugh because they're tired of Big Ag's deceptions. In Hans Christian Anderson's tale of The Emperor's New Clothes wily tailors convince the king and his court that only stupid people are unable to see the "special cloth" they use to sew his expensive new robes. Boy, did they feel like idiots when in the middle of the grand royal procession a little kid in the crowd cries out "the king is naked!" Everybody laughs at the stupidity of power.
Sound familiar? The GMO and chemical giants dress up their product in their own self-serving research and accuse anyone who questions their findings as being "anti-science", i.e., stupid. They send their top executives back and forth through government's revolving policy doors to ensure their products hit the market without any serious scrutiny. Politicians repeat their fictitious claims, quite clear that their re-election donations depend on publicly admiring the food emperor's magnificent clothes.
No wonder they're hating on Farmed and Dangerous.
Whatever your feelings on the series, Chipotle's marketing approach blows Big Ag's ponderous infomercials out of the water. As Jon Stewart discovered, people no longer look to the news for truth or to advertising for product information, they look to comedy -- satire, to be exact -- to find out what is actually going on. Corporate science, industry and government are no longer trusted either. And even though people have learned it's not wise to openly challenge global monopolies, industrial agriculture's deafening claims of "protecting the environment," "saving the world from hunger" and being in the "service" of family farmers, are quite simply, no longer believable.
Whether Farmed and Dangerous is a successful marketing ploy for Chipotle depends on just how unbelievable Big Ag has become. I am more intrigued by seeing who is furious, who thinks this kind of humor is "unhelpful" and who -- like me -- thinks it's hilarious. As with all things political -- and satire is nothing if not political -- where one stands on Farmed and Dangerous depends on where one sits within today's corporate food regime.
Farmed and Dangerous was produced by Chipotle and production company Piro. Chipotle is the sponsor for the Food For Thought initiative.