Archive for the ‘Industrial Food’ Category
The environmental case against raising animals for food becomes increasingly stronger as more and more research emerges. A closer look at the finer points on the comparative water usage between livestock and plants highlights this correlation quite clearly.
According to researchers recently cited in a Mother Jones article, beef has a water footprint of 15,415 cubic meters/ton. The water footprint for “sugar crops” is 197 cubic meters/ton; for vegetables it’s 240 cubic meters/ton. This dramatic disparity alone raises serious questions as to why anyone seeking to analyze the current California drought would highlight the water footprint of nuts—admittedly, a relatively high 9,063 cubic meters/ton—when cattle consume so much of California’s scarce water supply, most of it in the form of alfalfa. Doing so strikes me as a case of distraction journalism.
A related issue when it comes to comparing the ecological impact of the food is methane–which has 72 times the global warming potential as carbon. Last year was a big year for methane research. Scientists discovered that U.S. methane output is 50 percent more than the EPA was estimating and 70 percent more than the figure cited by th European Environmental Agency’s Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). Especially revealing was the fact that livestock related emissions were twice the current estimates, accounting for up to 33 percent of global methane emissions. Cows burp and defecate, methane escapes, it harms the environment. This claim holds true for factory farmed and pastured animals.
Given these kinds of figures, in addition to the urgency with which environmentalists rightfully urge humans to adjust their behavior to prevent planetary implosion, it strikes me as a little ridiculous that we’re actually having serious arguments over whether or not veganism is a good move for the environment. Of course it is.
Let’s close that case and start talking about why the eco-foodies who wring their hands so earnestly about ecological destruction are not taking the obvious and in many ways the most accessible step of exclusively eating plants.
For those who follow the travails of factory farming nothing is shocking anymore. We’ve endured pink slime and Mad Cow and McFibs and we know the industry will literally shove all manner of deception down our throats while telling us how important their products are to human and economic health. But diarrhea? Yup. Add that one to the list.
Last night I got a call from a friend at HSUS. He told me about the details of an undercover investigation they’d just completed at a Kentucky pig operation named Iron Maiden Farms (yeah, I know, too much). Pig farms have suffered massive outbreaks of a disease called “porcine epidemic diarrhea” (PED)–which primarily kills piglets. To combat this disease, Iron Maiden has sought to foster immunity to PED in sows by feeding them a puree made from the infected intestines of their dead piglets.
In response to the accusation, the executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (according to Nicholas Kristof’s reporting), said that “From a public health standpoint, I don’t think there’s a risk there.” He also noted, though, that pig farmers were doing more than feeding PED infected piglet intestines to sows. They were also, as Kristof explained, “increasingly finding that it’s more effective simply to use diarrhea from an infected animal to expose sows to P.E.D.”
Kristof goes on to note that this sinister stew is yet another reason to not eat pigs from factory farms–places that disregard the basic welfare of pigs, not to mention the people who eat them. To guide consumers in the right direction, he contrasts Iron Maiden with the Niman Ranch Pork Company which, according to Kristof, raises “animals humanely.” But this is the wrong lesson to take from the HSUS’s Iron Maiden discovery. In fact, it only ensures that the Iron Maidens of the world will continue their awful work.
HSUS’s undercover work was exceptional. It provides an opportunity to remind ourselves that when people own animals for the purposes of killing them and profiting from that killing for food we don’t need, animals will suffer immensely. Iron Maiden confines it’s pigs and feeds them the diarrheal excretions of their offspring before killing them. Niman allows pigs more pasture time and does not feed them piglet intestines before killing them. But in both scenarios, animals smarter than your preschooler die prematurely and unnecessarily. Both animals become objects from which their owners will benefit. Both are slaughtered for no other good reason than the whimsical human desire to eat them.
All of which makes you kind of wonder why Niman wastes so much time and effort tending to their pigs’ welfare in the first place. They’re going to treat them like junk at the end of the day anyway, just like the factory farms do. Consumers are foolish to think that eating from Niman exonerates them from the horrors of Iron Maiden. In the long run, by reiterating that it’s fine to eat pigs, consumers choosing “humane” pork only guarantee that the Iron Maidens of the industry get to keep pulling off the same old shit.
When we will realize the implications of this connection? When will we react to these scandals in a way that actually prevents them from ever happening again?
Note: Here’s a link to a site on pig management that explicitly directs farmers to add diarrhea to the pigs’s water.
Maureen Ogle is a historian whose work, which includes a history of beer, relies on some pretty big—and, as far as I can tell—perfectly sensible interpretations of the global food system.
The most significant of these is that the entirety of our food reformist ideology—be it local food, slow food, organic food, seasonal food, whatever—is based on the consumer-driven quest to have food that’s cheap, ecologically responsible, and, when possible, humane. In other words: the impossible.
Integral to this chimeric goal, one that frequently traps the sustainable food movement in cycles of contradiction, is the mythical notion of agrarian independence and virtue that foodies routinely promote as a realistic model for change. The damage done by the myth of the happy and hale independent farmer, explains Ogle in her new book, In Meat We Trust, prevents these critics from taking a more sober and historically grounded look at how we ended up with the food system we now have and, by extension, how we might fix it.
This book is bound to be misinterpreted by meat and non-meat eaters alike. There’s a lot of nuance in it (I’m about 1/3 through it). And while I don’t agree with Ogle’s suggestion that, like it or not, we’re locked into ceaseless carnivory (the book has little interest in vegetarianism or veganism), I do support Ogle’s effort to frame the rise of agribusiness in broad and perhaps inexorable historical forces rather than blaming all our culinary ills on a cabal of evil corporations run by sinister capitalists bent on making us fat and sick.
This refocussing matters a great deal. The successful attempt on the part of the food system’s critics to pin the excesses of agribusiness on feckless corporations establishes the foundation for a sort of oppositional hero worship. There’s a reason the food movement tried to draft Michael Pollan to be the Secretary of Agriculture under Obama (and it wasn’t strictly because they were being delusional): the current food movement thinks in terms of heroic individuals rather than broadly conceptualized, and comparatively dull, patterns of cultural change.
Thing is, though, it’s through the ladder category that change happens.
In this respect, Ogle inadvertently creates ample space for the introduction of animal ethics into the growing discourse of food reform. Elsewhere, she has treated animal rights activism with dismissive insouciance. But her productive efforts to sever our ties with a mythical lost agrarian age, in addition to her work separating individuals and movements, appeals directly to a movement that eschews mythology, is suspicious of heroes, and is ready to translate compassion into action.
Although she would not agree, I’d say her analysis suggests that the time has never been riper for a movement that embraces animal liberation.
(You can read my supplemental analysis of Ogle’s work later this week in Forbes)
My piece on dairy at Forbes last week has generated considerable discussion. That’s good. The bulk of it has centered on my decision to refer to artificial insemination as a procedure that causes—here come the controversial words– ‘immense suffering.” That’s frustrating. When I wrote those words, I had two things in mind. First, that the physical process caused suffering and, second, that the consequences of that physical process caused suffering. Together, I reasoned, the suffering was not normal. It was abnormal. Immense came to mind.
Putting aside the point that this emphasis on such a small aspect of the article only affirms the legitimacy of piece’s underlying message, it is worth wondering if, in fact, artificial insemination is a procedure that would cause suffering. Did I overstate? “Aaron” thought I was off the mark, writing,
I have artificially inseminated many cows, and it would be the equivalent of a prostate exam for humans—intrusive, but not painful (haven’t had one, but my M.D. wife tells me that). Vets employ the same technique to assess any number of things going on inside cows and horses. Sure, the animals are restrained, but no more than when they would to be given a vaccine, milked, whatever. Depending on a cow’s personality and intensity of her heat, some even stand still in the middle of a wide open pen or pasture to be artificially inseminated.
First, notice that he calls a prostate exam “not painful” (um, Aaron, when that special day comes, you will retract these words faster than you can say “ever do time, doc?”). Notice also that he makes this assessment on the grounds that his wife tells him so (Aaron really is in for a shocker!). Also notice how he makes it sound as if a cow will often act as if she wanted to have a pipette of semen placed in her vagina– “some even stand still” for the penetration. If this all sounds crazy, Aaron has Brian to keep him company. Brian writes,
Cows do not mind being inseminated. I inseminate about 125 cows per year. I am right behind a cow when I inseninate [sic] her, if she did mind being inseminated, I would get kicked very hard.
Hmm. Now might be a good time to consider exactly what must happen in order for a cow to be artificially inseminated. By way of foreshadowing, let’s speculate that the cow might not be able to kick Brian to the curb because she likely has an arm up her rectum. Anyway, here’s this, from a medical manual:
Once the cervix is located, it must be grasped and controlled so that the inseminating instrument can be inserted. Encircle the cervix with the thumb and fingers in such a way that the thumb is on top of the cervix and the fingers re under the cervix. The thumb should stay on top without rotating the wrist. This can be difficult and tiring – it takes effort to stretch the rectal wall. As the inseminating instrument is slid forward the cervix must be pushed forward to straighten out the vaginal folds. Remember, the cow is trying to force the cervix toward the vulva and thus creates more folds. If the cervix is not pushed forward, the tip of the instrument can get caught in a fold and stretch or puncture the vagina.
We discussed Tim Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds in my “eating meat in America” class today. For those who don’t know this book, you should. You must. Pachirat’s material comes from his work as an undercover employee in an Omaha slaughterhouse. For five months, as fieldwork for his anthropology dissertation, he studied the Nebraskan abattoir from every angle, every nook, every cranny, documenting in finely grained detail the 121 stages of production required to bring meat to our plate, leather to our jackets, and, of course, fecal blood to our research laboratories. Of course. Of course.
Better than any analysis I’ve ever read, or could imagine reading, the book explores the interlocking politics of concealment and surveillance required to convince civilized society to go collectively brain dead over mass slaughter, worker abuse, and ecological degradation.
As near as I can tell, my students were moved. But in weirdly different ways. The arc of emotions expressed in class ranged from denial to silence to tears. What I mean is that some talkers stayed silent while others took safe refuge in cold intellectual abstraction while another bravely just let it all go. Pachirat writes almost antiseptically about death. He doesn’t hype up anything. He’s about as engagingly objective about the mechanics of killing sentient beings as one could be. And that’s exactly what’s so chilling about his book. Cramming for class this morning, I, too, kept crying. Not your normal day at the office.
Before discussing the book, my co-teacher, a philosopher (who was a NY Times Magazine finalist on justifying eating animals), led a beyond intriguing discussion about the moral implications of disgust. Does disgust signify immorality? Or is it merely an evolutionary response to disease that’s been periodically highjacked by rogues and psychopaths to sow seeds of xenophobia and tribalism? In the end, we sort of nodded in the direction of both options, but we did so under the agreement that disgust should be evaluated in terms of the contemporary goal it’s attempting to legitimate. At the least, we were intrigued by disgust, which more than I ever was as an undergraduate.
What struck me the most was how Pachirat’s conceptual framework kept framing our own discussion. I could see it in too many faces that never spoke: the concealment of big ideas in silence, the surveillance of professorial authority and external expectation. I remarked how stunned I was by the power of crass capitalism to create an institution so perverse that it could, under one roof, make room for paper pushers and fetus bleeders.
And then it was 3:2o and time to move on to who knows what.
The best thing that humans could do for wildlife is to leave wildlife alone. This seems like an axiom so sensible it need not be said. But it must. In fact it cannot be said enough.
Intervention efforts, even when the motives are altruistic, routinely–nay, inevitably– backfire. When we intervene, we assume we know more about ecosystems that we could ever possibly know. We work under a set of assumptions about plan A leading to consequence B that are, for all the science justifying them, haphazard and untested. The results speak for themselves.
But here’s the thing: we are human, we are going to manipulate resources to serve our wants and needs, to innovate, to feed our curiosity and, yes, to quest for power. That’s what we do. But we must do two things if we are to sustain ourselves: carve out proper space for our activities and reduce our numbers.
Population control and density: these are the most environmentally responsible goals we can puruse. We would all be better off if humans undertook most of our transformative endeavors in settings where resources and people were densely packed and there were a hell of a lot of rules that were enforced. I know this is all vague, but work with me because, somewhere in here, I think there’s a Big Idea.
Robert Bryce’s piece in today’s WSJ is instructive. It drives home the ironies of altruistic interventions into relatively natural ecosystems. We want to save the world with wind power so we propose to construct turbines in places we rarely see, places that are landscapes of the imagination. Seems like a progressive plan. But then the turbines spin and we we find ourselves faced with the prospect of killing bald and golden eagles, violating a federal act and, more importantly, mucking up an ecosystem we have no business exploiting to our benefit. “[I]f more turbines are built,” writes Bryce, “more eagles will be killed.”
In other instances, our actions are less altruistic but harm wildlife in unexpected ways as well. Currently Bighorn sheep are dying of pneumonia in the Mohave Desert. One hypothesis is that an angora goat shot by a hunter may have spread the infection. Hunting is often justified as a proper conservation measure. Not in this case. Not in most cases. Another, more likely, possibility is that truckloads of domestic sheep being driven through the region are spreading the disease.
Either way, interventions for food we don’t need is harming wildlife in systematic ways. Our unnecessary crossover into peripheral landscapes, in this case for cheap meat, is to blame for our destruction of wildlife and undermining of biodiversity. If we simply stayed out of the few relatively undeveloped regions we have left, allowed them to exist on their own terms, and gradually expanded their range, the fate of wild animals would be much better off. As would that of humans.
Too often we’re our own worst enemies. Our forays into the peripheries are whimsical. And, on the flip side, too often our behavior at the centers are retrograde and romantic. We fail to tolerate potentially beneficial technologies—such as nuclear power or bioengineering—to enhance the power of density to save ourselves from ourselves. We say these are “unnatural” and dismiss them.
Again, all vague at this point, but what I’m proposing is a way of thinking about the human-ecosystem relationship such that we allow wilderness to be wilderness, humans to be humans, innovation to be innovation, cities to be cities, rural areas to be rural areas, and our thoughts about nature to become supple enough to accommodate nuclear reactors and bald eagles at the same time.
A version of the following piece of mine ran yesterday in Pacific Standard. To research the story, I spoke with several Chipotle representatives who genuinely believe that they are building a company with different values than those driving typical fast food chains. I believe them.
My argument here is not that we should rise up and tear down all the Chipotles in the world because they serve animal products. Even though I certainly support the theoretical elimination of all animal product consumption, I also know that the order of our world is currently such that we’re nowhere close to crossing that threshold.
So when the third largest publicly-traded fast food company in the world decided to make animal welfare a priority—even if only rhetorically— I find myself inclined to see that move as a form of progress. Honestly, what choice do we have? What follows is highly critical of Chipotle, but also written in the spirit of thinking that this is a company that, as “responsible meat” gets more expensive and harder to source, will evolve toward an all-veggie fast food company. That prospect is not beyond the pale of the possible, and it would be worth celebrating.
Should you be moved to comment, please do so here. Also, thank you for the great comments in yesterday’s post. Tomorrow morning I’ll be excerpting them in the letter I’m sending to the Austin City Council, which will consider revising my city’s urban farming regulations next week.
Fast-food empires—McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so on—fuel the engine of agribusiness. They support an industrialized supply stream clogged with hormone-laden beef, genetically modified corn and soy, and an endless flow of processed “food-like substances.” They support the alienation and mistreatment of farm laborers, who are paid a pittance for their neck-down work. They support meals weighted with alarming quantities of sodium and fat, leading to an obesity and diabetes crisis. Fast food means high volume and high volume means industrial agriculture and industrial agriculture means food that’s bad for animal welfare, bad for the environment, and bad for people’s health (PDF). For any conscientious consumer, this paragraph is, unfortunately, very old news.
Perhaps more surprising, though, is the fact that Chipotle Mexican Grill—the foodie’s alternative for a relatively quick and responsible meal—is often complicit in these culinary crimes and misdemeanors. Despite the company’s savvy effort to brand itself otherwise, it inevitably finds itself ensnared in an industrial system that effectively churns out a smorgasbord of meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, salsa, and a steady flow of condiments. Insisting that, as spokesperson Danielle Winslow told me, “our first priority is to accommodate our customers”—which effectively means supplying all ingredients at full capacity all the time—Chipotle has yet to roll a burrito that evades the reach of factory farming.
You’d never know this from the company’s successful promotional campaigns. Through advertising endeavors such as its “Food With Integrity” program, or its declaration that a Chipotle burrito is a “hand crafted, local farm supporting, food culture changingcylinder of deliciousness,” or in-store signs that declare “no prescription needed” (if the meat is antibiotic-free), or, most recently (and virally), a short video—”The Scarecrow“—thoroughly lambasting the industrial food system, the publicly traded company with 1,500 stores nationwide has established a reputation so deeply infused with agrarian virtue that many consumers simply assume that the company really is leading a revolution to produce burritos high in rectitude, low in guilt, and wrapped in responsibility. For the effectiveness of its advertisements, Chipotle is in a league of its own.
To its credit, the company hasn’t ignored the disparity between its advertised ideals and actual choices. It’s usually the first to recognize its shortcomings and, as conversations with company representatives reiterate, transparency seems genuinely valued. Generally, it adopts a sensible “we’re doing our best under the circumstances” approach to external criticisms about its linkages to industrial agriculture, arguing that by demanding “all-natural” and “humanely raised” meat it’s incentivizing the current food system to scale down, decentralize, and return to more authentic methods of production. This position seems reasonable enough, if not revolutionary, given that it’s coming from “the third largest publicly traded restaurant in terms of market capitalization” behind McDonald’s and Yum! Brands.
But here’s the deal: The logic only sticks if the company decides to buck up and honestly adhere to the sustainable food movement’s most basic tenets, ones to which it so vigorously appeals in its marketing endeavors. Two precepts in particular—eating what’s in season and deciding that when the supply of one responsibly sourced ingredient declines you make up for it with another responsibly sourced ingredient—are, according to the movement that Chipotle has so successfully tapped into, critical to achieving the genuine change it promotes. When it comes time to walk this walk, though, Chipotle goes risk averse.
Consider Chipotle’s recent response to declining supplies of “responsibly raised” beef. In 1999 the company started sourcing “all-natural” beef from producers that raised animals mostly on pasture and eschewed antibiotics and growth hormones. Over the years Chipotle has formed strong relationships with smaller-scale beef producers including Niman, Country Natural, and Meyer. Last August, however, the beef supply lagged. This was not an unusual experience. Historically, when pork supplies declined, the company waited patiently until they resumed. Beef, however, is a more popular menu choice than pork. So Chipotle now faced a critical decision: it could accept the diminished supply of all-natural beef or it could replace it with what Winslow called “commodity beef”—that is, factory farmed beef.
Chipotle chose the latter. A month before its influential anti-factory farm video went viral Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells, citing declining supplies of all-natural beef, said in a press release that, with regards to allowing antibiotics back in the company’s beef supply, “we are certainly willing to consider this change.” Winslow made it clear in a phone interview that this change had been considered and a decision had been made. The “short-term disruption” in the supply of beef from smaller suppliers, she said, “has forced us to use commodity beef.” Twenty percent of the company’s beef will now come from producers that typically use GMO-based feed, antibiotics, growth hormones, feedlots, and all the other unsavory aspects of industrial animal agriculture that Chipotle condemns as loudly as anyone else. The company, which insists the change is only temporary, will alert consumers with in-store notices.
Chipotle is a company that’s trying to buck the fast-food norm. It should be commended for doing so. But it must understand that reforming the food system means more than supporting responsible choices. It also means rejecting irresponsibly produced choices—something that a relatively small (20 percent) drop in one ingredient suggests it could do. Having once removed commodity meat from its supply chain, Chipotle should, as a matter of immutable policy, never let it back in. My guess is that patrons would happily accept this stance, as well as the inconvenience that might follow.
To do otherwise is to acknowledge industrial animal agriculture as a viable choice. And when a fast-food chain trying to change the game does that, when it legitimates industrial animal agriculture as an option in the breach, there will be no food revolution. Not even close. If Chipotle decides that, as a publicly traded company beholden to shareholders, it cannot operate without constant access to industrial agriculture, that’s fine. In fact, it’d be perfectly understandable. But then it should stop making ads that suggest otherwise.
For many years I’ve been pleading with investigative journalists with more time and patience than I have to answer a basic question about Chipotle Mexican Grill: how was the company going to fulfill its much advertised promise to source all of its beef and pork from “humane” or “sustainable” farms? I asked the question because I did some basic math and realized that Chipotle purchases 120 millions pounds of meat a year while its largest “humane” supplier is Niman, which employs about 700 farmers. Seven hundred farmers cannot produce that much meat in any given year. So what was I missing?
Last month Chipotle answered the question for me. “Every year we need 20 to 25 percent more of everything,” explained Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “And the beef supply isn’t keeping up as well.” Of course it’s not. It never was.But that didn’t prevent the company from spelling out a greenwashed vision of sustainability and, touting their concerns for animal welfare, ballyhooing themselves into the hearts of those who want to eat fast food while feeling responsible about it, and cashing in on the whole arrangement.
Despite its appeal to serving “food with integrity,” the company is now planning to admit cows treated with antibiotics back into the beef supply. That is, cows from conventional farms. “We are certainly willing to consider this change,” said Steve Ells, co-CEO of Chipotle. Allowing sick animals treated with antibiotics into the company’s beef supply “opens up their supply quite a bit,” said a former USDA agricultural economist.” Indeed it does. More to the point, it allows Chipotle to bask in the glow of a pre-established reputation for sustainability and concern for animal welfare while taking quiet steps in retreat from that mission.
What really weird is that Ells, even as these supply problems persist, continues to pick up his bullhorn and declare to an admiring audience of burrito eaters that “The more consumers understand the benefits of eating food from more sustainable sources, the more they’re going to expect it from everyone.” In other words, Ells hopes that Chipotle, in leading the way toward non industrialized meat, will spur other fast food joints to the same. This is weird because it’s impossible. Producing all the animal products purchased by all the fast food restaurants in the country on pasture would be an ecological nightmare. We lack the land and labor and, as production costs rose, it would provide added incentive to factory farms to intensify production. But none of that matters.
Because all this Chipotle gambit is about is words.
One of the goals of “The Pitchfork” is to expand the framework around ethical veganism. In a sense, this expansion of the periphery is an acknowledgement that, not only have certain issues been hashed out to excess, but the message that many of us are promoting in one form or another—don’t eat animal products—is sinking into mainstream thought. It is therefore time to back up and think about the place of veganism in the larger world of food and agriculture. I mention this point because, although what follows isn’t directly related to veganism, it does touch directly on issues that, as we gain traction, may very well be critically important to reforming the broken global food system.
With the possible exception of sugar, coffee has historically created more suffering per acre than any other global commodity. Even with the gradual end of slavery and the colonial contracts that underwrote plantation brutality, the quest to grow enough coffee to keep the world caffeinated remained an agricultural endeavor marked by economic marginalization and chronic exploitation. Today, the legacy endures.
Few grasp this reality as well as Kenneth Lander. In 2005, Lander quit his job as an attorney and land developer in Monroe, Georgia, and moved with his wife and five (now seven) kids to San Rafael de Abangares, Costa Rica. The family settled in a cozy house on a 12-acre coffee farm, a bucolic patch of land where Lander cultivated coffee as a hobby. His lucrative real estate investments sustained the dream, one he compares to the Swiss Family Robinson.
Three years later, the dream turned into a nightmare. The wheels came off the U.S. real estate market and Lander’s investments shriveled. “All my assets were gone,” he told me recently. Not long after uprooting his family and moving to Costa Rica, Lander’s coffee hobby had morphed into his livelihood.
The learning curve for growing commercial coffee turned out to be treacherous. It was, for starters, personally demoralizing—not to mention economically devastating—for Lander to work himself ragged growing a high-quality and heavily demanded product only to collect about 10 cents on the dollar. As matters then stood, he explained, “being a small coffee farmer was no way to make a living.” He reached this conclusion despite having sold his beans through a Fair Trade coffee co-op. Lander quickly acknowledges that the Fair Trade program “set the tone for socially sustainable coffee.” Still, he decided that there had to be a better way to put farmers first. Fair Trade was fair. But, evidently, not fair enough.
Lander’s solution—a company called Thrive Farmers—is a for-profit experiment that suggests a radically more hopeful future for small-scale growers of specialty coffee. The idea behind Thrive germinated when Lander met a fifth-generation Costa Rican coffee farmer named Alejandro Garcia. With his own farm on the brink of collapse in the early 2000s, Garcia had moved to Pennsylvania to work in a buffet-style restaurant. He saved $40,000, stored it in a shoebox, and returned to Costa Rica determined to rescue his farm. It was then that he had a chance meeting with Lander, who was witnessing the demise of his own operation. The two men shared their frustration, combined their expertise, and brought in Atlanta entrepreneur (and friend of Lander’s) Michael Jones, who had recently revolutionized the distribution of medical implants. Together, the men forged a business model that would return 50 percent of coffee sales to the growers (75 percent if the beans are sold green) while giving them control over the supply chain. They began with 400 coffee farmers in 2011. Today they have over 800. “We’re about to explode,” said Lander, seemingly unaware that he already has.
The company’s signature innovation centers on what Lander calls “value chain modification.” Whereas the Fair Trade model is more like an insurance policy—farmers sell raw beans through a co-op and are promised a floor price per pound in return—the Thrive model takes the farmer’s beans on consignment and provides growers a platform to track the commodity as it moves upstream. In this arrangement (unlike with Fair Trade), farmers are invested in the substantial value that’s added after harvesting, because, as the commodity travels to the end user, they retain ownership.
Rather than release raw beans into a moving commodity market, where other interests will add value and reap the rewards, Thrive hangs onto the beans for the growers while overseeing the roasting, packaging, exporting, marketing, distribution, and sale of the consigned product through a vertically integrated and relatively short supply chain. At the point of sale, if roasted coffee is sold for, say, $7.50/lb. the grower will get $3.75. “That’s huge,” says Lander. By any standard, he’s right.
There’s another, less obvious, factor that distinguishes Thrive from the Fair Trade approach. Because Fair Trade promises farmers a floor price, the appeal of price support spikes when the commodity price of coffee drops, thus luring more and more growers into Fair Trade co-ops as the conventional market sinks. As a result, the supply of Fair Trade coffee, which is marked by an inflated price (because of the imposed floor), rises and, because it won’t sell, has to be dumped back into the commodity market. This big bean dump drives down the price of conventional coffee even further, thereby harming poor farmers who are growing for the conventional market. Thrive escapes this downward cycle altogether because its supply chain bypasses the shifting commodity market, prices are negotiated directly with consumers, and farmers are left with higher returns rather than those provided by a market getting worse as a result (in part) of the Fair Trade floor.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the Thrive venture is that it brings the ethics of localism to the heady world of global commerce. In this respect it joins a select but growing trend of streamlining long-distance trade with the intention of enjoining access to specialty goods with equitable and personal relationships. Whether it’s the vegetable trade connecting Chinatown with Honduras or the cocoa trade connecting London and Ghana, producers and consumers, through companies such as Thrive, are realizing that it’s possible to localize the global, and to do so while sipping a cup of virtuous brew that honors those who worked the hardest to make it possible.
A vegan walks into a Starbucks and orders a pumpkin spiced soy latte. Later he discovers that the spice mix contained condensed milk. Understandably, he gets angry, starts a change.org petition for Starbucks to use a vegan spice mix, and makes national news.
Although he had no way of knowing it, he also landed me—the token vegan runner in my running group— on the hot seat this morning with a bunch of highly intelligent runners who wanted me to explain why, in a world of considerable toil and trouble, this spice thing mattered. “Very rich white person troubles, no?” said one friend.
I had to admit she had a point. I mean, getting peeved about condensed milk power in a spice mix at Starbucks is sort of like walking into slaughterhouse and getting angry that they’re not using humane mouse traps. It’s arbitrary.
While I really want to defend the vegan’s right to both transparency and hope in the good faith of companies to do what’s right by animals when the option exists, I can’t help but conclude that this little protest would have been far more effective had the vegan just made a personal choice never to frequent Starbucks again. The petition, and national attention that followed, looked trivial and, in light of the Starbuck’s context, it was.
The petition, however, does remind us that vegans are on the verge of numerical significance. Still, an incident like this might have been handled more effectively if we used our growing numbers to highlight how large food companies routinely sneak unknown ingredients into the food and drinks we purchase. We might have made this more than a vegan issue, but also a public health issue, thereby pulling in more non-vegans to think about our food supply in more critical terms, rather than looking petulant over pumpkin spice.