Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Transparency, Ethics, and Eating Oxen at Green Mountain College

Our food has to come from somewhere.
We commodify food to avoid the realities of where it comes from, then complain that we don't know the source of our meals. This is one of the oddest paradoxes of modern day food culture.

I have a friend who refuses to eat produce that’s non-organic or produced using enormously unfair labor. High up on this list are Florida tomatoes and bananas. When I started more seriously delving into food politics, it came with increasing knowledge of what I can and cannot eat. Unfortunately for gustatory pleasures and the time I spend at the grocery store, food produced unsustainably far outweighs the good.

Despite the many advantages of city living—including access to greenmarkets and Co-Ops with a wide selection of locally grown food—my apartment doesn’t easily allow for the cultivation of life beyond mice and the few plants that will fit in the windows. I’ve often wished for the ability to grow vegetables in my backyard, raise bees, and maybe even some urban chickens too. Cage-free and free-range labels become obsolete if you’ve collected the eggs from your own hens.

This brings me to Poultney, VT where, nestled within the ranks of Green Mountain College, lives a small sustainable farm called Cerridwen. Run partially by students, the farm exists to “[provide] students with the skills and understanding they need to practice the craft of farming while also ensuring that they have the tools to comprehend the ecological, economic, and policy arenas in which any given farm exists.” In short, GMC runs a sustainable foods program that’s equal parts talk and action. The scope of the farm is impressive. Students who work on Cerridwen Farm grow thirty types of organic fruits and vegetables, learn to harvest hay without using tractors or diesel, raise and butcher livestock, produce honey, cider, and dairy. To help allow for a closed-circuit farm, students even use oxen to plow the fields.

Bill and Lou, Cerridwen Farm's working team of oxen 

Bill and Lou, working draft animals and school mascots, are to be retired at the end of the month, killed, and served in Green Mountain College's cafeteria. If this sounds harsh for a pair that has been with the college for eleven years, you're not alone. According to NPR, "[a] petition to save Bill and Lou on Facebook has attracted more than 30,000 signatures from all over the world." Vine, a Vermont animal sanctuary, offered to take the oxen to live out the remainder of their lives there for free; an offer declined by the college.

The reason? Sustainability.

Not only would the oxen “continue to consume resources at a significant rate” but, if consumed themselves, would provide over one ton of meat which would otherwise “likely come from a factory farm setting which carries a significant amount of ecological impact.” Setting potential animal rights arguments aside, I want to applaud this program for its integrity even when going against the potentially better PR move of sending Bill and Lou to a sanctuary.

The real question it raises is why, for some, Bill and Lou should be granted a “reprieve” while allowing other animals to take their place in the dining hall. Philip Ackerman-Leist, head of GMC’s Farm and Food project noted that 70 % of students ate meat, “but 12 years ago, when the college began developing its sustainable farm program, vegetarian students specifically asked that livestock be included to confront the realities of eating meat.” It seems like those realities have finally hit some parents and students head on.

It is irresponsible and ethically backward to shy away from killing animals who may resemble our pets if we also allow for the slaughter and consumption of those same animals from a system of industrial agriculture, where they are far from the public eye.

Regretfully, I don't foresee total transparency within the food system within my lifetime. Yet, for all the talk of sourcing and labeling, I have to wonder how many people really want to “meet their meat” before sitting down to dinner. That oh-so-funny “Is it Local?” sketch from Portlandia showed a couple so concerned with the source of their chicken that they’d leave mid-meal to visit the farm. What it's easy to forget is that, having returned from Aleiki Farms, they didn’t want to eat "Colin" after all. Uncomfortable as it may be, as omnivores we should either be eating ethically and sustainably or not at all.

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