Don’t get fooled by fast food ‘farm-washing’

Fast food restaurants are trying to fool you about where their food comes from. And they’re doing it in a way that undermines sustainable small farmers in Canada and around the world.

The rising popularity of local food and sustainable agriculture makes the big fast food companies nervous. Increasingly, people want to know where their food is coming from and how it was raised. Eaters want to support farms where animals are treated well, where workers are paid properly, where soil and water are taken care of. They want to eat healthier foods, not hormone-laden beef or pesticide lettuce.

Fast food companies like McDonald’s have tried to steal back the limelight. Using a technique called “greenwashing” or “farm-washing”, they’ve used advertising to paint themselves as generous supporters of agriculture.

For example, a recent McDonald’s advertising campaign depicts their foods—such as a hamburger missing its beef patty—along with words like: “The Big Mac? Not without Canadian beef farmers.”

The implication being that they buy their ingredients from Canadian farmers. They’ve also started a Q&A website where people can ask questions about where McDonald’s ingredients comes from. But their answers are misleading, to say the least.

For example, on their website, McDonald’s brags: “We get our hamburger patties from Cargill in Spruce Grove, Alberta.”

This sort of thing sounds great if you’ve never heard of Cargill. “Cargill in Spruce Grove” sounds folksy, almost downright wholesome.

Cargill is, in fact, the largest privately-held corporation in the world. It is headquartered in the US, but runs its global trading mostly out of Switzerland, which—as with many companies with operations offshore—allows it to avoid taxes.

Because they are privately held they can be secretive about their operations, and aren’t required to release information that publicly-traded corporations must. Cargill does much of their US administration in a sprawling mansion designed to look like the estate of a medieval lord—an interesting aesthetic choice for a company accused of treating farmers around the world like serfs.

Globally, Cargill has been accused of almost every human and ecological transgression a corporation can perpetrate. They’ve been blamed for deforestation in the Amazon, while in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea their palm oil plantations have reportedly forced independent farmers off their land and into indentured labour on those plantations.

And Cargill has been sued by the International Labor Rights Fund for alleged involvement in child trafficking and child forced labour on cocoa plantations in the African country of Côte d’Ivoire.

All of which goes against the folksy image McDonald’s is trying to project. Child slavery doesn’t put anyone in the mood for a “happy meal.”

While McDonald’s admits that a substantial portion of their food is not from Canada, it’s actually very clever of McDonald’s to focus their advertising on where the food is produced. Because that sidesteps a much more important question—where does the money go?

The answer is: not to farmers. McDonald’s is a large transnational company, they want to make a profit, and virtually all of the money they don’t keep goes to other large transnational corporations, like Cargill. Of every dollar spent at McDonald’s only a few cents—or fractions of a cent—will ever go to a farmer.

And virtually all of that farmer’s money will go right back out again to pay for equipment, fertilizer, and other inputs sold—of course—by the same large corporations that squeeze farmers at both ends.

The urge to support Canadian farmers is a fundamentally decent one. Which is why it is so deplorable that companies like McDonald’s try to trick Canadian eaters into giving money to corporations that actually harm farmers here and around the world.

When you buy local food, that money circulates in our communities. When you give it to a corporation, as the recent Panama Papers debacle has again shown, that money is often siphoned into offshore tax havens or spent on faux-medieval manors.

If you actually want to help Canadian farmers—which we very much appreciate—there are two things you can do. First, you can connect with farmers in your area and with bigger organizations like the National Farmers Union ( to learn about the issues that farmers think are important.

And second, support farmers by buying as directly as possible. For example, shop at the farmers market, join a CSA, visit a local farm stand, or buy from small independent grocers. That way you really do know where you food is coming from, and your money can support farmers who take good care of their land and their animals.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author on Howe Island.