Forget Widgets and Factory Farms – Beef Production is the Circle of Life

The Chipotle short film “Back to the Start” which was featured in a commercial break during the GRAMMY awards on Sunday has been one of the most discussed topics on Facebook and Twitter in the past week.

It is incredibly powerful film. Beautifully animated and featuring Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, the cartoon pigs are pink and symmetrical; the dairy cattle graze green grass (before their incarceration in a barn) and antibiotics come in cute little capsules. It’s even more potent because it represents a classic human theme – a mistake followed by redemption. Walking alone in the cold winter night, the farmer realizes his mistake in intensifying his production system, tears down his barns and lets his animals roam free. Who doesn’t love a classic redemption film?

Many of my agricultural friends have responded to this film with the entirely valid argument that Chipotle lack integrity by producing this film as they only source natural or local-produced meat where available. This marketing strategy therefore condemns a significant proportion of their suppliers who produce conventional meat and dairy. However, the average consumer, who only sees the film because they’re waiting to watch Adele’s latest GRAMMY acceptance speech, don’t read about the integrity conflict, and if they do, may assume it’s a reactive response by the ‘inherently biased’ animal agriculture industry.

The question then becomes, how do we overcome this powerful, yet discriminatory message with the fact that all systems have a valid place in food production? Bill Donald (Immediate Past President of NCBA) attended the World Food Prize in Des Moines this week and told me that the hot topic was the concept of future farms with ‘circular economies’. This means taking the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle‘ concept of a circular economy and incorporating it into agriculture, so that the consumer can see that every stage within the process reduces waste, saves resources and produces both nutritious food and useful by-products. It’s a huge hit with consumers in China who are becoming more concerned about environmental issues.

Ironically, this is nothing new – it’s the basis upon which beef production is founded. We take a human-inedible product such as grass, feed it to animals that provide us with meat, leather, pharmaceuticals and other by-products, use their manure to fertilize and grow the grass, produce more beef… It’s a closed and continuous circle of life that has used fewer resources and emitted less greenhouse gases year on year. Yet that’s a very different image to the intensive, inefficient system portrayed by the Chipotle film.

Agriculture is not and never has been a collection of factories pumping in antibiotics, churning out identical widget animals and releasing toxic green waste into rivers. The challenge ahead of us is to be proactive and to demonstrate beef’s circle of life to consumers – not only the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), but the 4 F’s – food, fertilizer and fuel for the future.

5 thoughts on “Forget Widgets and Factory Farms – Beef Production is the Circle of Life

  1. Great post. Unfortunately, activists and conspiracy theorists have ruined the whole concept of subject matter experts with their cynicism. What this means is that no matter what the expert says, it will be rejected as biased. I know that it’s the science and the facts that matter, not who says them, but the real challenge is getting others to understand that.


  2. I too am frustrated with the Chipotle commercial, but what frustrates me even more is hypocrisy. Where is the outrage from farmers about the new Got Milk campaign? It incorrectly states that plant milks have”unnatural” ingredients when those ingredients are really are quite natural (seaweed, etc) and safe. It uses loaded words like “spooky” and in no uncertain terms tells the consumer that anything but cow milk is gross. Don’t even get me started on the cute cartoon cow on grass (when only a small percentage of dairy cows are pastured) and all the health claims that milk is the best way to get vitamins when we all know that it’s good, but still just one of many vitamin laden foods. This ad is just as misleading as the Chipolte ad in my eyes, but because it’s pro dairy no one’s complaining. We should all work encourage truth in advertising for all sectors, not just the ones we like.


  3. Pingback: Agriculture in response to Chipotle « The Meat of the Issues

  4. Everyone takes this commercial so literal. There are no towers pumping antibiotics and growth promotants into the hog buildings. But they do put antibiotics and growth promotants in the animal feed. There are no tubes discharging green slime into rivers. But hog manure lagoons do sometimes contaminate our waterways…remember Hurricane Floyd?

    You mention how grass is the basis for beef production. I agree! Then why do you suppose we fatten cattle on feedlots with corn for ~ 120 days before slaughter? It’s not a closed loop if we start adding in grains. Grains make the cycle that much more complicated and unstable.

    At least you didn’t knock Willie Nelson’s rendition of “The Scientist” — everyone else seems to just want to hit him below the belt and say he “butchered” it.

    People like myself don’t want to eliminate livestock production…we just think the current system of production needs some adjusting. Thank you for sharing your opinions in this post!


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