Don’t let small farmers become a Chipotle casualty

It probably hasn’t been a fun time to work at Chipotle.

Since E. Coli broke out last fall in Chipotle stores across the country, the company has faced public fear, a stumbling stock price, and, as of last week, news that investors would take action against the company for being misled regarding its food safety measures.

It’s clear the company’s executives have some work to do to win back the hearts and minds of its customers and investors. But while Chipotle no doubt has the resources to combat negative press, there’s another player that should not become collateral damage: small farmers.

Over the last few weeks, there has been an increasing sense that the small scale, locally-sourced produce that set Chipotle apart from competitors is to blame for the outbreak, or could at the very least make other chains reluctant to embrace the company’s approach. “Chipotle Scandal Could Ruin Locally-Sourced Food for Restaurant Chains,” said one Money headline. “Can Chipotle’s farm-to-fork approach be sustained?” asked another on MarketWatch.

These headlines are more damaging than they may know. As a country, we have finally begun to recognize the damage associated with Big Ag. Americans have woken up to the reality that factory farms are bad for the environment, our health, and our moral consciousness. The absolute worst thing that could happen now is to backtrack.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the food sector accounts for around 30 percent of the world’s total energy consumption and accounts for around 22 percent of total Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Our current food system encourages this — produce that travels great distances to get to its point of consumption naturally requires fuel to get there. Monocrops, the hallmark of big farming, deplete soil fertility and endanger our ability to grow food in the long-term. And then there are the health ramifications. Having too much food, with little insight into where it comes from or how it’s grown, has encouraged us to take our food for granted. We don’t appreciate our meals, and thus we carelessly consume them, without considering the nutritional value or whether we’re eating too much.

The reality is that we don’t know what caused the Chipotle outbreak. We may never know. But considering that the outbreaks occurred in different geographies across the country, it’s hard to conclude that “local farming” is to blame. At the time of the initial outbreak, Chipotle could not confidently identify the source of the problems and that added to the already immense pressure to provide answers.

These situations are very dangerous for small producers, who often become scapegoats. It’s too easy to insinuate the blame falls on the nameless, faceless “local farm suppliers” because they’re small and are most frequently not in a position to defend themselves. While large corporations and entities scramble to find the real culprit, they can insinuate that smaller farms are to blame. By the time the truth emerges, the relationship is tarnished; the public can’t get past the perception that local farms are unregulated and untrustworthy and the farmers themselves become too shy to engage with the kinds of large-scale chain operations that are best positioned to bring healthy, fresh food to the masses.

Let’s not forget what motivated Chipotle to embrace small, local farming in the first place and why it was celebrated for doing so. When people know that their food has come from a place where animals were treated humanely, that their produce was grown with care, they feel good about it. Having major chains source their food from small suppliers is a major statement — it communicates that it’s possible for restaurants of all shapes, sizes and price points to do the same. It is that kind of thinking that drives real change.

What we all really want is to feel good about what we’re putting into our bodies. Food is what sustains us. Don’t let the Chipotle outbreak affect how you feel about local farming. We are on the right path. Let’s stay on it.