Want ethical food produced in an ethical manner?

By Blake Hurst

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



The Wall Street Journal reports that Nestle' USA is enjoying a boom in sales of bottled water to homeowners.  At a time when unease about the environment, climate change, and "sustainability" is at a peak, this enterprise can't help but raise a red flag.

Since Nestle's business model involves trucking plastic bottles of a commodity available by walking into one's kitchen, home delivery of bottled water would appear to be the very antithesis of sustainability. Not only that, but Nestle' has been criticized for bottling water in California during a historic drought. One might get the idea that Nestle' USA doesn't care that much about the water shortage in California, climate change, or any of the other environmental concerns of the day.

Of course, Nestle' is hardly alone in staking out ground in the crowded field of corporate actors on the wrong side of the hypocrisy line. Ben and Jerry's, a Vermont ice cream maker famous for its social activism and owned by the multinational Unilever, was forced to remove the “natural” label from its confections, alkalized cocoa among the ingredients deemed unnatural.  Whole Foods, that bastion of corporate responsibility, was recently forced to pay a fine for overcharging customers. According to New York Department of Consumer Affairs commissioner Julie Menin, “our inspectors told me it was the worst case of overcharges they've ever seen.”

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Chipotle, famous for its “Food with Integrity” campaign, has had its share of labor disputes and problems with hiring undocumented workers. Chipotle is, at least on my twitter feed, famous for signs warning customers that integrity-laced food is temporarily unavailable.

Ben and Jerry's menu is GMO free... except when it isn't. The dairy products used in their ice cream are from cows fed GMO corn and soybeans. That's a “problem”, if it is one - that could be prevented by a small premium in the price Ben and Jerry's pays dairy farmers for their ingredients - but that is never mentioned in the company's advertising. 

As their website says: “if you eat a corn chip containing GMO corn, it doesn't make you a genetically modified human.”  Exactly.  If only that bit of common sense extended to the rest of their menu.    

It would seem from this list of corporate misdeeds that none of these corporations are much interested in “sustainability” and integrity, but if you believe that, you are mistaken.  Nope, all of these companies are more than happy to pay obeisance to the gods of sustainability, as long as they can outsource their ethics.  At a recent speech to an agricultural group in Kansas City, Nestle's Responsible Sourcing Manager outlined the steps the company is taking to improve the sustainability of Nestle suppliers. “ Sustainability” being more palatable once removed with someone else bearing the burdensome costs of Nestle's corporate conscience.   The company promises to concentrate on energy use, climate change, human rights, (including the U.S.,as the responsible sourcing manager was at some pains to point out) water, labor, ethics, and animal welfare.   

Leaving aside the issue of just exactly what widespread human rights abuses are rampant in these United States, and what possible moral authority Nestle' might have to opine on said failings, farmers are anxious about Nestle's demands. Nestle' is late to this party; major food companies have been requiring changes in production practices for quite a while.

Livestock production is a low margin commodity business and producers have limited ability to pass on higher costs.  Each of the changes demanded will mean increased investments for farmers with absolutely no guarantee, at least not by the Responsible Sourcing Manager and his counterparts, that consumers will consider the changes worth the extra costs.  Farmers borrow to invest in livestock barns that should last for many years.  Without considering the consequences for the family farmers making those investments, companies are declaring those facilities unsustainable and unethical.

Some livestock farms are operated in the traditional manner by a farm family that owns both the facilities and the animals. Other livestock farms are owned by larger companies with multiple facilities.

However, probably the most prevalent model in the pork and poultry business is a contracting arrangement. A large company actually owns the animals and the farmer supplies buildings, land, and his labor. Often the farmer will borrow several hundred thousand dollars to build livestock barns, receive enough income to service the loan over the life of the mortgage, and receive a few thousand dollars a year for his labor. If the farmer retains the contract after the mortgage is paid off, then - and only then - does the transaction make any kind of economic sense. 

So consider that these new requirements may mean that farmers will be forced to abandon or retrofit those barns. While presumably aiming at large multinationals, major food companies have successfully managed to target smaller U.S. producers. Farmers who have made long term investments in good faith will be left with empty buildings and a mortgage.

What is never discussed in these conversations is the tension between the different demands that companies are making and the farmers who supply them. Sustainability has many definitions, and often seems to be nothing more than a proxy for the good and true. But surely sustainability means, at least in part, increasing output without increasing inputs. 

When we contrast two production systems, both producing the same amount of food yet one using fewer inputs, then the latter system is surely more sustainable, both in economic and environmental terms. 

Producers have adopted present systems for raising livestock because they are more efficient than older methods. If animal welfare regulations prohibit farmers from using modern facilities, sustainability will suffer. If we have to house hogs in a different way, we'll have more birth loss, more injuries to both pigs and people, and smaller litters. We'll waste feed because we no longer have the ability to easily control each animal's consumption. 

Farmers may well alter livestock barns because consumers demand changes in the way we raise animals, but we ought to at least make sure that consumers are aware that we can't accomplish all of their goals. To adhere to the definition of animal welfare being adopted by many food companies will lead to a less sustainable food system.  Even when we're talking about pigs and chickens eating corn and soybeans, there are no free lunches.  

As I mentioned earlier, when Chipotle runs short of meat “produced with integrity,” they typically secure their meat through more traditional channels. Famously, they committed to “ethically” raised meat when one of their founders toured a hog farm and found the conditions there “horrific.”  But how horrific could it have been, if they're willing to use those same types of products in a pinch?  

Chipotle recently removed a menu item from the menu after discovering problems with a supplier. Although this is a more honest means of dealing with a shortage of “acceptable” inputs, a cynic might wonder if the company benefitted more from the publicity than they suffered from loss of sales of one menu item. Chipotle is famous for documentaries about modern farming, but we know that show business at Chipotle isn't limited to animated films. 

The cynicism in this invocation of food production ethics is remarkable, even in our cynical age. To hold others to a standard you so clearly fail to adhere to yourself is, I suppose, nothing more than a distasteful example of “oh so” human behavior. But at the very least, consumers, and more importantly journalists, should understand this emphasis on “ethics” and “sustainability” for what it is: nothing more than marketing. 

Consumers should no more expect these companies to deliver morally superior candy bars and burritos than they would expect a beautiful sunset and two bath tubs to appear in their backyard if they buy Cialis. Want ethical food produced in an ethical manner?  Trust the multitude of farmers whose livelihood depends on the care they give their animals 365 days a year.

About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.

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