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Panelists debate morality of agricultural practices

Saturday, March 17, 2012 | 8:09 p.m. CDT; updated 4:59 p.m. CDT, Sunday, March 18, 2012

COLUMBIA — Those who watched this year’s Grammy Awards might remember “Back to the Start,” the two and a half minute Chipotle commercial that stirred up quite the buzz among consumers and livestock producers alike. 

The commercial depicted a farmer’s guilt over his farm’s industrialization and promoted the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation.

The advertising campaign served as a conversation starter for a heated panel discussion Friday night at Broadway Brewery about the public's knowledge of how food, particularly meat, is produced. 

The panel included four guest speakers: Mike Adams, host of the syndicated program "AgriTalk"; Chris Chinn, fifth generation Missouri family farmer; Bruce Friedrich, senior director for strategic initiatives for Farm Sanctuary; and Wes Jamison, associate professor of communication at Palm Beach Atlantic University. The discussion was presented by KBIA /91.3 FM in partnership with Harvest Public Media.

As a farmer, Chinn argued that the Chipotle commercial provided an inaccurate and one-sided view of livestock production. 

“It didn’t show the real story of why farmers have moved their livestock indoors to protect them, she said. "It didn’t show the animals in the winter time when there’s two feet of snow on the ground trying to stay warm and protect their young. It didn’t show the predators attacking the animals and killing them.” 

Jamison countered Chinn’s argument by emphasizing that advertising has never been intended to convey accurate depictions of reality.

“One thing that could be argued is that all sides of the debate tend to shape the perception and spin it a certain way that makes them look good," Jamison said. 

The bottom line of the issue surrounding public opinion on how food is produced, Friedrich said, is a matter of moral consistency. 

“Ninety-seven percent of Americans believe that animals should be legally protected from abuse, and yet what happens on modern farms and slaughter houses would warrant felony cruelty charges if these were dogs and cats instead of chickens and pigs and cows,” he said.

Jamison agreed that the controversy surrounding agricultural transparency is primarily a moral argument.

“What we have to remember is that American consumers are hypocrites," he said. "They live with one animal in their house as a companion and another animal on their plate as cuisine.”

In modern agriculture, there’s a tradeoff between welfare and profitability, Jamison said. Whatever systems farmers believe will allow them to stay in business and remain profitable are the ones they will rely on, he said.  

"(Farmers) are going to have to eventually answer the moral argument, otherwise they're going to have difficulty continuing to operate,” Jamison said.  

A consensus was reached that whether choosing a vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous lifestyle, consumers need all of the information from each side of the issue to make an informed decision.

“For all these years farmers have been so busy caring for their land and caring for their animals, we’ve forgotten about consumers," Chinn said. "So we need to be reaching out, letting people know why we’ve made the changes that we’ve made on our farms."

Many farmers’ inclination against permitting outsiders to view the insides of their farms is rooted in health and sanitation concerns, she said. Chinn’s farm released a YouTube video in 2008 illustrating their farming practices.

The idea of labeling foods with information regarding how food is produced was introduced into the discussion as well, and most of the panel agreed that a food labeling or ranking system could help educate consumers on the origins of their meat.

One challenge that was addressed pertaining to food labeling and ranking is the capability to provide truly accurate and balanced information when all sides have their own agendas.

At the end of the panel discussion, many audience members expressed their concern for the under-representation of the average consumer and the small, unindustrialized farmer.

"We’re not talking about what is one of the largest groups of consumers, which is people who care about where their food comes from and care that it’s raised sustainably,” said Tim Gibbons of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a nonprofit family farm organization.


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