Chipotle’s new satirical series about factory farming premiered Monday on Hulu.
With its humorous new show, Chipotle hopes to air the industrial food industry’s dirty laundry and start a conversation about where our food comes from. But before you end up in that conversation, let’s review which punchlines are closest to the truth.
1. Do industrial farms really feed oil to cows? NO.
The series follows Petro Pellet, a new oil-based animal feed, from its testing at Animoil, the evil industrial food company, through its PR campaign and into grocery stores.
“It’s a completely fictitious product,” explains Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director. “Petro Pellet came into play as a way to dig into the reliance on fossil fuels.”
2. Are cows really exploding from eating oil? NO.
The fictitious Petro Pellet has a minor “side effect”: Sometimes the cows eating it blow up.
While there is no real life Petro Pellet and so no cows exploding from it, the feces and farts of industrial pigs and cows have caused enormous explosions in the last couple of years.
In the U.S., 30 to 40 pig farm explosions were reported before the culprit was ultimately identified in May 2013 as a “bubbling layer” of poop foam that accumulated in manure pits. The foam of excrement, sometimes several feet high, releases methane gas, which is highly volatile and can lead to an explosion with even the tiniest spark. And just last month, the farts of 90 dairy cows blew up a barn in Germany. Thankfully, no cows were reported killed.
3. Are Middle Eastern oil barons really profiting from the U.S. farming system? YES.
Mick Mitcherson, the fictional tycoon at the helm of Animoil, says Petro Pellet will cut the country’s dependence on foreign oil because it will cut out the “energy required to irrigate, fertilize, and harvest” animal feed. This may cause your average viewer to wonder, Does our food system makes us more dependent on the Middle East?
While the global food system is using an F-ton of energy, most of it isn’t coming from the “oil sheikhs” Mick refers to. Food production accounts for for 30% of global energy use. That comes out to three-quarters of a gallon of oil for every pound of beef or 283 gallons for one fully grown, 1250-pound steer. (Take a look at the picture above for a visual on that.) And a chunk of the money for that oil does go to the Middle East. But it’s a lot less than you might think: In 2012, only 12.9% of the oil used in the U.S. comes from the Persian Gulf. We get more from Latin America (19.6%) and Canada (15.1%). And the No. 1 supplier of our oil? Us, at 38.8%.
4. Does livestock really “consume more than half the crops we grow in America”? YES.
Another “benefit” of Petro Pellet, Mick says, is that it will cut the need for all the plants our animals currently eat — and it’s a lot.
Sixty percent of corn, the United States’ No. 1 crop, and 47% of soy, the No. 2 crop, is used for livestock feed, according to a 2006 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
5. Is there an “Industrial Food Image Bureau”? BASICALLY.
The Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB) is the fictional PR firm defending Animoil and Petro Pellet. While IFIB is made up, public relations is a major component of the food industry. PR firms spend millions of dollars on influencing public opinion as a matter of course.
The Corn Refiners Association, for example, has spent $30 million since 2008 on a public relations campaign to defend high-fructose corn syrup. That doesn’t just go to cheesy television commercials and scientific research: The association spent $41,000 a month to keep a cardiologist on retainer as an outside expert, asking him to defend the sweetener’s additive in public forums.
Another example: Chipotle spent a reported $250,000 per episode to create Farmed and Dangerous.
6. Is it true that “dairy cows don’t ‘need’ sunlight”? YES.
In a conversation on the show between fictional IFIB head Buck Marshall and good guy/sustainable farming advocate Chip Randolph, Buck tells Chip that “dairy cows don’t need sunlight.”
OK now in real life:
“Strictly speaking,” says Chris Galen of the National Milk Producers Federation, “that claim would be true for most mammals, since they don’t rely on photosynthesis.”
When asked how much sunlight America’s dairy cows get, Galen said it varies and that metric would be impossible to track. “The cows supplying Chipotle are no different than cows supplying McDonald’s, or any other fast-food chain,” he said. But Chipotle says there is a difference.
“The industry would like for you to believe that everything is the same and there are not real differences in terms of how animals are raised,” says Arnold. “But that is not the case.” When it comes to access to sunlight and outdoors, “most of our dairy comes from pasture-raised dairy cattle, and we are working to get all of it that way. Conventional dairy has no such requirement and cows are generally kept confined in barns.”
7. Are small farms in the U.S. really at risk? YES.
The show’s bad guy, Buck, wants to know why, if environmentally friendly farming techniques are so “sustainable,” do so many of those farms go under every week?
The number of small farms in our country is actually growing according to the most recent census of agriculture (conducted in 2007). But the new farms are mostly tiny, part-time operations serving farmers markets and CSAs, and are not large enough to really impact our food supply, says Jennifer Fahy of Farm Aid. Large farms continue to produce more and more of our food. “Two and a half percent of all farms accounted for nearly 60% of all farm income in 2007,” according to Fahy.
That leaves the midsize farms as the ones most at risk. “They’re too big to benefit from direct markets like CSAs and farmers markets, and they’re too small to compete with the mega-farms,” Fahy says.
8. Are “industrial farms subsidized by the government”? BIG TIME.
According to Chipotle’s fictional, pro-sustainability guy, Chip, industrial farm subsidies are the reason family farms are struggling. But there’s a lot more to that story.
Subsidizing farms is practically an American pastime at this point, dating back to the Great Depression when consumers couldn’t afford to buy all the food farmers were growing. Food prices got so low that in 1933, the government started both paying farmers not to use all of their land and buying up their excess grain at above-market prices to keep farms afloat.
Fast forward to 2013: What began as a benefit to the poor had become a taxpayer-funded subsidy to the rich, with the government paying farmers regardless of their need or the market for their crops. Even non-farmers got in on the action, with former NBA player Scottie Pippin and billionaire mogul Ted Turner collecting government checks.
The 2014 farm bill, though, changed things a bit. “We eliminated direct payments,” says Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, thereby tying subsidies back to marketplace realities. But crop insurance will still cost taxpayers an estimated $90 billion over 10 years.
Hoefner adds, “All different kinds of farms are subsidized by the government.” Not just the industrial ones.
9. Are “more antibiotics given to livestock than to sick people”? NO DOUBT.
Telling Buck to reconsider his understanding of “progress,” Chip cites this notorious complaint about industrial farming from food reformers and public health advocates.
As much as 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to animals raised for food. As former FDA Commissioner David Kessler wrote in the New York Times, “These drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another’s waste.”
Groups like the World Health Organization say the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock is a major factor in the rise of the “superbugs,” aka the new batch of antibiotic-resistant bacteria responsible for 23,000 deaths each year.
10. Are “people dying from eating contaminated meat”? YES.
Despite all the antibiotics used to make industrial food, Chip says, contaminated meat is still killing people.
And unfortunately that’s true: Recalls of tainted beef and poultry occur with regularity these days, and meat-borne bacteria like E. coli, salmonella, and listeria are responsible for an estimated 1,600 American deaths every year.
11. Does it really take 25 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of meat? PRETTY MUCH.
IFIB’s campaign for Petro Pellet is built on the premise that it uses less oil than feeding them the corn, soy, etc. they are getting now. The joke works because industrially raised meat really does require a crazy amount of oil.
According to one study, while it takes an estimated 40 calories of fossil fuel to produce a single calorie of beef, the ratio is significantly lower for pork (14:1) and chicken (4:1). It takes only 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy to make a calorie of plant protein.
12. Is our livestock really genetically modified? NO.
Chip accuses Buck of “feeding genetically modified livestock crude oil,” but at this point, the first half of that sentence is as fictitious as the second. While genetically modified pigs were developed in Canada, the project didn’t move forward and the pigs weren’t brought to market because the public just wasn’t ready for it.
13. Does the public have a “right to know” how their food is raised? SHOULDN’T THAT BE UP TO YOU?
When Chip tells creepy Animoil exec Zach that the public has a right to know how its food was raised, Zach is quick to respond, “No they don’t.”
Zach could be referring to so-called “ag-gag” bills that six states’ legislatures have passed since 1990 to criminalize the act of secretly videotaping conditions on farms. Idaho is the latest to advance this kind of legislation. But those bills might be getting less popular among legislatures: 2013 saw 11 states defeat ag-gag bills.
And while the consumer “right to know” hasn’t been broadly codified in, say, the Constitution or a federal law, it has been recognized ever since JFK outlined what is now known as the Consumer Bill of Rights in a 1962 speech.
14. Does a raw food diet really “loosen you up”? ABSO-POOPLEY-DOOPLEY.
Chip tells stuck-up love interest/Animoil heiress Sophia that the raw food diet would loosen her up. And it would.
“A raw food diet does make you less constipated,” explains Food Coach Dana James, because when you cook vegetables you lose some of their fiber as it gets converted into sugar.
Do with that information whatever you’d like.