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The Scarecrow–Lots of Heart, but It Could Use More Brain [Video]


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Have you seen the Chipotle Grill animated video “The Scarecrow”? More than four million people have, since it was first published last week. It’s a cry against unsustainable industrial food production, and a plea for simpler ‘natural’ ways. It’s appealing, but The Scarecrow is also dangerous. It feeds a naively false black-and-white dichotomy between an idealized unspoiled past and the evils of modern technological progress. View the video, then come back for a review of its over-the-top “Don’t You Wish We Could Go Back to The Good Old Natural Days Before Evil Modern Industry and Factory Farms Ruined Everything” message. (Or if you don’t want to do the viewing right now, read on.)

The oversimplified dichotomy is unrelenting from the first sequence, which opens on classic images of an idyllic farm with a small red barn and white picket fence amid green rolling fields lined with healthy vibrant crops. The colors of the idealized simple world quickly pale, though, as the shot zooms out to reveal that the image is just a painting on the side of a looming food factory owned by Crow Industries.

Our hero, The Scarecrow, is wonderfully humanized with a plaintive sad face as he looks at the sign. Beside him is the antagonist, a black crow that is actually a robot-drone with red radioactive glowing eyes, the avatar of the evil BIG FOOD company, who pecks and squawks at The Scarecrow to get him to go to work in the food factory. (Get it? The crows who ravage the crops are in charge of the food supply in the factory farm age, not the traditional protective scarecrow like back in the benevolent old family farm days.)

Inside, the factory is ominously dark. Machines extrude streams of unrecognizable mush onto assembly lines where guillotine-like blades chop slabs that go into packages labeled “100% beef-ish”. Scarecrow workers with resigned slumped shoulders, including our hero, are carried passively along to their jobs on conveyor belts. All of this is overseen by the evil crow-drone and robot overlords and their evil red glowing eyes. It’s a dystopic scene that would make the producers of “1984”, that classic Apple computer ad, proud.

Outside again the Scarecrow sees another Crow Industries sign promising “All Natural”. But the planks of wood spelling ‘natural’ are cracked (subtle this film is not). The Scarecrow goes to repair the word ‘natural’ (repair ‘natural’…get it?) but peeks behind the sign to see a chicken inside the factory being injected by robots – with radioactive red glowing eyes – to fatten it up. Later, as our hero repairs a massive metallic cow structure, he peeks inside and sees a live cow, trapped and quivering inside a metal box, with big wide eyes that practically beg “SAVE ME!”. Glumly, the Scarecrow finishes his repair work, shutting out the ray-of-hope sun falling on the cow inside. Darkness falls across the face of the sad doomed cow. The black crow-drone squawks its approval at the sad Scarecrow, almost mocking him as just another complicit dupe working for and under the control of the evil Big Food Industry.

Underneath all this, in a sad minor key, Fiona Apple has been singing a plaintive remake of “Pure Imagination” (from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”). “If you want to see Paradise, simply look around, and view it,” the song goes. But the landscape The Scarecrow rides through on his train ride home is anything but Paradise. Ravaged bare fields are being picked at by massive robotic Crow-bots, with crow drones flying above. Amidst this desolation, a Crow Industries billboard features a picture of a happy scarecrow amidst a pile of fresh crops and the line “Feeding the World”.

The Scarecrow’s home, the farm we saw in the opening shot, is a Paradise Lost as well. The red barn is falling down. The white picket fence is broken. The rolling hills are not green and lush with crops but brown and dusty and decimated, like the battle-ravaged hills you see in war movies. But then the Scarecrow sees a bright red pepper hanging on a vine (a visual homage to Chipotle Grill, whose logo includes a red pepper.) The colors become bright and strong and fresh. The music changes to a positive major key. Our hero smiles. There is hope!

He happily plants corn – by hand, of course – and chops fresh food in his kitchen. He drives his old pick-up truck to the city and lovingly places a basket of fresh produce and steaming warm bread on a little farm stand. The evil drone robo-crow tries to peck at the fresh food, this threat to industrial civilization, but the smiling Scarecrow, now his own man, no longer under the control of the wealthy corporate One Percent Big Food Industry, shoos him away. A young boy smiles at the Scarecrow’s healthy offering, and Apple sings in a bright major key…“Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it!”

And on that hopeful but impossibly simplistic note, the film draws to a close…as the shot of The Scarecrow’s local, natural food farm stand pulls back to reveal the interactive game versions of the video you can get for your iPad or smart phone (with the thumbs-up “Like This” icon flashing almost subliminally through one shot). And it finishes with the logo of Chipotle Grill, the multi-billion dollar fast food corporation that professes to support more responsible food production – and there is good evidence that they are sincere about this – but which simply would not exist without the modern agricultural practices, and indeed the modern economy, that the film rails against.

OK, The Scarecrow is propaganda. It’s supposed to be over-the-top, and it makes its case brilliantly: a case, by the way, that has plenty of merit. Current industrial agriculture is not sustainable, cows and chickens and pigs live pretty miserable lives on their way to our plates, and Big Business does have too much control over our lives and is selfishly making a mess of the planet we share. We should want to change all those things. But this childish black-and-white paean to simpler earlier natural ways, and utter vilification of “big” or “industrial” or “human-made”, is cartoonishly naïve. And it’s dangerous.

It reinforces the emotionally appealing but simplistic dichotomy that old and simple and natural are good and therefore modern and complex and human-made are inherently bad. That fuels opposition to genetically modified food, which offers real promise to help feed the world in the face of both rising population and changing climate conditions. (Want to see what sparks people to rip up field trials of Golden Rice? Just watch The Scarecrow.) It contributes to resistance to all sorts of cleaner types of energy; natural gas, solar farms, wind farms, even nuclear power, each of which may pose lesser threats to our natural world but which can help moderate the huge threat of climate change. The false dichotomy of the film and its dystopian imagery of modern life feeds a rejection of technology and progress generally.

The Scarecrow is a brilliant piece of marketing. Its main goal is to get us to spend money at Chipotle Grill, by appealing to the concerns of the sort of customers Chipotle is after. Unfortunately, by appealing to and reinforcing simplistic stereotypes, it may do more harm than good in actually achieving solutions to the concerns Chipotle claims to ask us to care about.

 

David Ropeik About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of 'How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts'. Follow on Twitter @dropeik.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 12 Comments

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  1. 1. Anne Ominous 5:47 pm 09/16/2013

    So… the video is propaganda. Probably. But THIS is not?

    Granted, the video exaggerates to make a point. But that doesn’t automatically make the (unexaggerated) point necessarily invalid.

    Any flat position that GMO is harmless, and has no negative consequences, is no less exaggeration, and no less propaganda.

    Link to this
  2. 2. gmanacsa 12:12 am 09/17/2013

    A piece of this type is aimed at two audiences. One group goes is well aware of the industrial farming situation and already holds firm negative opinions which are stirred and affirmed by the film. The second group, however, may initially be only dimly aware (or wholly unfamiliar) with the issues. For these folks, a three minute animation is hardly the place to delve into the nuances of the argument. The emotional argument is an engaging introduction that at least opens up the possibility of further discussion. For this purpose, it’s brilliantly conceived and executed. I hope — for all of our sakes — that it succeeds.

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  3. 3. negablade 7:30 am 09/17/2013

    We’ve been genetically modifying organisms since before the development of farming. We’ve breed cows for milk and quantity of meat, sheep for quality and quantity of wool, seedless watermelons, fruit for size, shape and flavour, dogs and cats for temperament and diversity of shape, size, fur colour.

    Cross breeding for desirable traits is, by it’s very nature, genetic modification. We were doing it before we knew what DNA was. How is the uncontrolled process of unnatural selection better than the more surgical approach of direct engineering? I seriously want to know your (rational) opinion. How do you distinguish between the two approaches to genetic manipulation and why do you treat them as different? Is there a legitimate difference that stands up to scrutiny? What makes GMO inherently bad and cross breeding inherently good when they both can achieve the same end results?

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  4. 4. wisco kid 10:53 am 09/17/2013

    You might have a point, if there weren’t millions of “scarecrows” around the world, and thousands here in the US, already doing what the video portrays as possibility. I also wonder when you would critique the millions of dollars spent by corporate ag on ads and outreach to see if they are perhaps glossing over some facts in their efforts to convince us that they are needed to “feed the world”.

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  5. 5. laserist 11:08 am 09/17/2013

    @negablade: The main difference here is that previously we have only been able to cross-breed similar organisms. Now we are combining salmon genes with tomatoes. We cannot possibly know all of the by-products of such modifications and we are not allowed to find out either, because the companies doing the research only release results of studies that show positive results and there are no peer reviews. Long-term studies are not done and the modified produce is then introduced into commerce as quickly as possible. Testing these modifications on the consumer is an irresponsible way to do science and an irresponsible way to do business. This is why GMO products are banned in Europe and they should be banned worldwide until these companies become more transparent and allow long-term testing on their product.

    Selective breeding for certain traits simply takes an existing organism and gradually causes it to more prominently express the desired traits already present in the organism. This takes many years during which time we eat the intermediary generations of this organism and thus know it is safe. In the end corn from 1000 years ago is still corn. Nothing foreign added and nothing taken away, just some genes more heavily expressed while others inhibited.

    I think that scientifically-minded people tend to over-simplify a lot. It is why a deterministic universe is so appealing to us. Modifying an organism is not like improving on an older version of a mobile phone by adding a couple of extra features. We know how the phone works because we built it from the ground up. So far we have not been able to synthesize even the simplest of life forms, never mind an entire plant with the ability to reproduce! Our current GM techniques are anything but surgical and are mostly a crap shoot. Once the desired effect is finally achieved after thousands of attempts we are faced with not knowing the side-effects of the modification because we never even knew how the original organism worked in the first place. Are these companies going to bother finding out? Would it make them any additional profit? The answer to both of those is “NO” until such time that distrust builds up to the point that nobody wants their “Mystery food” and they are forced to prove to the world that their product is safe.

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  6. 6. dallas2la 2:30 pm 09/17/2013

    didn’t the Golden Rice idea fail? We’re not feeding the world..we’re poisoining the world. http://www.upworthy.com/a-14-year-old-explains-food-labeling-in-language-even-condescending-tv-hosts-should-get-3?c=ufb1

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  7. 7. negablade 2:32 pm 09/17/2013

    @laserist
    “The main difference here is that previously we have only been able to cross-breed similar organisms. Now we are combining salmon genes with tomatoes.”

    Genetic material isn’t locked into a single species with no path to cross species migration. Viruses jump species boundaries, potentially introducing foreign DNA into the new host species. Some of the so called junk DNA is believed to be left over from viral infection. Indeed, viruses are often used to insert new DNA into a host cell.

    “We cannot possibly know all of the by-products of such modifications…”

    Nor can we know all the byproducts of natural mutation, cross-breading and viral infection. The overuse of antibiotics has lead to MRSA and other super-bugs. Genetic manipulation wasn’t required, yet the outcome was distinctly negative.

    “Testing these modifications on the consumer is an irresponsible way to do science and an irresponsible way to do business.”

    I would agree. Suitable testing of all consumer foods is sensible. But what makes you think this doesn’t happen with GM research?

    “This takes many years during which time we eat the intermediary generations of this organism and thus know it is safe.”

    But isn’t eating the intermediary generations the same as testing the outcome on the consumer? Say a dog breeder produces a litter of puppies, one of which is more aggressive. The aggressive one bites the owner. How is this different? Why is this ok while GM is ‘irresponsible’?

    “This is why GMO products are banned in Europe and they should be banned worldwide until these companies become more transparent and allow long-term testing on their product.”

    A rather naive statement. The GMO ban in Europe has nothing to do with GMO or the business practices of companies conducting research in that area. There are plenty of examples of governments making decisions to appease the majority or a well resourced lobbyist. And the majority isn’t always right or rational, and the lobbyist is biased by definition.

    “I think that scientifically-minded people tend to over-simplify a lot…”

    At this point I think the debate is over. Resorting to personal insults, even thinly veiled ones, kills the enjoyment of the discussion for me.

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  8. 8. Anne Ominous 2:33 pm 09/17/2013

    To reinforce “laserist”‘s point:
    We have already seen Monsanto EXPERIMENTAL corn (not approved for consumption… in fact old experimental varieties that were NOT approved) spread wild to neighboring farms, in a manner that is difficult if not impossible to contain.
    If anybody thinks that is a good thing, they need their heads examined.

    Link to this
  9. 9. laserist 7:15 pm 09/17/2013

    @negablade:

    “Genetic material isn’t locked into a single species with no path to cross species migration. Viruses jump species boundaries, potentially introducing foreign DNA into the new host species. Some of the so called junk DNA is believed to be left over from viral infection. Indeed, viruses are often used to insert new DNA into a host cell.”

    I think the natural virus scenario is a pretty moot point here at best. We’re talking about rare occurrences that happened over the entire evolutionary history of an organism, not something that happened a year ago. The point is that we’ve had thousands of years to eat these organisms and confirm that they are safe. You can’t compare that to directed, mass viral inoculations of a crop being fast-tracked to the grocery store.

    “Nor can we know all the byproducts of natural mutation, cross-breading and viral infection. The overuse of antibiotics has lead to MRSA and other super-bugs. Genetic manipulation wasn’t required, yet the outcome was distinctly negative.”

    True, we can’t know these byproducts either but the scale at which these changes happen is pretty small. Small changes are not likely to make a safe plant horribly poisonous in one generation. The genetic makeup of an organism is very stable compared to the radical changes it experiences when being deliberately modified.

    “I would agree. Suitable testing of all consumer foods is sensible. But what makes you think this doesn’t happen with GM research?”

    This doesn’t happen because the FDA doesn’t have the funding to do long-term testing. They accept Monsanto’s safety data as being complete and accurate. Cigarette companies used to release all kinds of research showing that cigarettes aid in digestion and are safe to use. You cannot simply take a company’s word for it when the company has a vested interest of concealing information. No conspiracy here, just the natural, logical functioning of a corporation whose sole responsibility is to their investors. Furthermore due to intellectual property restrictions nobody is allowed to test/experiment on Monsanto’s GM crops.

    “But isn’t eating the intermediary generations the same as testing the outcome on the consumer? Say a dog breeder produces a litter of puppies, one of which is more aggressive. The aggressive one bites the owner. How is this different? Why is this ok while GM is ‘irresponsible’?”

    I covered this in the above paragraphs, one dealing with the scale of changes and the other with fast-tracking new organisms to market.

    “A rather naive statement. The GMO ban in Europe has nothing to do with GMO or the business practices of companies conducting research in that area. There are plenty of examples of governments making decisions to appease the majority or a well resourced lobbyist. And the majority isn’t always right or rational, and the lobbyist is biased by definition.”

    The business practices of Monsanto are precisely what has caused a distrust and rejection of their product on a mass scale leading to European bans. If they were more transparent, allowed peer reviews, funded an open-kimono style long-term safety study and were an overall better global citizen then maybe the “irrational majority” that you condescendingly refer to would not be so quick to reject GMOs. I’d say if the majority rejects GMO foods and they are banned as a result then the government is quite effective. If you want to talk about lobbyists with lots of money I can’t imagine a more powerful one than Monsanto. I doubt that the small-scale organic farmer in the European countryside is a very powerful lobbyist.

    “At this point I think the debate is over. Resorting to personal insults, even thinly veiled ones, kills the enjoyment of the discussion for me.”

    Whoa, take it easy there, don’t get your kale in a bunch! :-) How is saying that scientifically-minded people tend to over-simplify a personal insult? As indicated by the sentence immediately following, I too like my universe arranged into a neat little package without any unknowns. Unfortunately we can’t have that and until we know more about the effects of GMO food consumption I’m going to try to keep the experiment out of my digestive tract and out of my food supply chain by voting with my grocery dollar.

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  10. 10. McNamara 9:35 am 09/18/2013

    Scarecrow’s reality exposes that behind the facade of America’s agriculture, poultry and beef industry’s healthy image, is a world of filth and greed where all “sane notions” of producing food are thrown over, for quicker, easier, money producing options.

    Presently 80% of all antibiotics used in the United States are used on livestock farms, directly because of filthy conditions where animals live their lives knee deep in their own feces. Pigs are fed GMO feed, where study after study has shown these animals developed intestinal inflammation that soon reverses itself when the pigs are placed back on a non GMO feed.

    E coli and MRSR (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus,) were unheard of years ago, and now because cows are fed corn based diets, e coli is rampant, and a recent MRSR study by the CDC showed that people who had the highest exposure to animal manure (calculated on the basis of how close they lived to farms, how large the farms were and how much manure was used) were 38% more likely to get MRSA all because of the overuse of antibiotics.

    Factory Farming provides greater profits for industry at the cost of animal health and as the recent MRSR CDC studies conclude, to human health as well.

    Humane food production is not only kind; it’s safer and healthier, and produces less drug resistance; a message Scarecrow creatively delivers.

    http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/

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  11. 11. Noone 4:30 pm 09/18/2013

    The hilarious part is where the scarecrow goes home and imagines he can feed the world after growing a single chili-pepper in his yard.

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  12. 12. laserist 1:11 pm 09/20/2013

    @ Noone:

    I think you may have missed the point.

    World food production is currently sufficient to supply each person with a 3000 calorie / day diet (50% more than is needed). Factory farming and unsustainable food production are unnecessary to feed the world. The problem is not in the production capacity but in distribution. You can’t just apply technological fixes to complex social, political, and economical problems.

    Link to this

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