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Open-Ended Turkey, Green Mountain College's 'Oxengate', and the Search for Food Sovereignty

Butterball, heritage, free-range, Tofurkey, cold turkey. Thanksgiving turkey just isn’t what it used to be.

Butterball, heritage, free-range, Tofurkey, cold turkey. Thanksgiving turkey just isn’t what it used to be—it’s a complex beast comprised of nearly as many cultural values as nutritional values. Not only does it not look or taste the same as it did on that first Thanksgiving, but it is now the centerpiece of holiday ethics discussions as much as it is the central dish on many American tables. That bodes well for reinvigorating our local food systems—as long as the discussions are not replaced by polemics and polarization.

If you’ve been reading the national media lately, you might have heard of Bill and Lou, a team of oxen that became the focus of a malicious animal rights campaign to save them from landing in our the Green Mountain College dining hall as hamburger. As animal rights activists laid siege upon our campus with assorted social media smear campaigns, a strategic cyber attack, and even video and photo surveillance, any hopes of civil and rational dialogue were immediately trumped by abusive harassment and vitriolic threats, not only to our college community but also to meat processors throughout our region.

Local food systems have been besieged over and over again throughout the past century, generally by large-scale business interests focused more on profit and efficiency than local economies and consumer health. We are finally beginning to wrest control of our food systems and rebuild our foodsheds. Part of that hard work involves confronting aspects of our food systems that many would rather ignore: food insecurity, food waste, impoverished farmworkers, and the realities of livestock agriculture.

In order to create just, sustainable, and humane food systems at the local level, respect for contrasting dietary choices is a prerequisite for coming to the table. Our re-envisioned foodsheds can easily accommodate vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores in ways that can develop diversified entrepreneurial opportunities that support all of these dietary choices. Slaughterhouses, charcuterie shops, orchards, vegetable CSAs, microbreweries, and soy manufacturers are all part of the mix. Healthy and resilient local food systems arise through diversity, not the dietary imperialism advocated by this small group of activists.

At Green Mountain College, we’re living examples of how a diverse community of eaters can embrace dialogue and mutual respect. Approximately 70 percent of our students choose to eat meat (often with great discretion as to its source) and 30 percent are vegetarians and vegans.

Yet for more than a decade, we have had numerous open discussions about the ethics and ecological considerations of different dietary perspectives, including a public forum to determine the fate of Bill and Lou—this frankness and shared purpose are among the greatest benefits of having an on-campus farm. If there's a common theme to our community discussions, it is that the most appropriate animal products for our college dining hall come from our own college farm, where students care for the animals and have a voice in determining their fate. Processing the animals in local facilities focused on humane handling helps to rebuild our regional livestock infrastructure while also allowing our students to see firsthand how these facilities can and should function.

Our community has taken the time to investigate and discuss the assumptions and realities of different dietary choices, and we have also tried to model clear thinking and mutual respect in our inevitable and enriching disagreements. Such discourse is at the heart of any community-based food system, a democratically oriented effort to chart a community’s best course in a complex food world. “Food sovereignty” is hard to come by in our industrialized global food system, so outside efforts to thwart a community’s careful decision-making processes seem misdirected, if not altogether unethical.

As our college community endured a month-long international cyber-onslaught regarding our decision about two eleven year-old oxen, approximately 3.9 million cattle were slaughtered in the U.S. in the same period, most of them with much shorter and less pleasant lives than Bill and Lou. The irony in it all is that these oxen were originally slated to go to a local, small-scale slaughterhouse that is certified as “Animal Welfare Approved,” and all of Vermont’s slaughterhouses have now received trained in humane handling and slaughter. One would think that animal rights activists would target large multinational corporations with slaughter facilities that process thousands of animals per day, not a small educational farm located in rural Vermont.

Any animal rights battle cry for the abolition of livestock agriculture flies in the face of social, cultural, and ecological realities. In contrast, animal welfare proponents are civilly and collaboratively working toward the transformation of livestock agriculture, ultimately resulting in better lives for animals and healthier diets for humans.

If our college community has learned anything in what we now wryly refer to as “Oxengate,” it is this: While we may not agree on whether to partake in eating Tom Turkey or on the last few seconds of his demise, we do agree on the critical importance of how he spent the entirety of his life. And we are more convinced than ever that a Thanksgiving dinner conversation that begins with an absolute is not a conversation.

Philip Ackerman-Leist, is the author Up Tunket Road and the forthcoming Rebuilding the Foodshed (Chelsea Green, 2013). He is a professor at Green Mountain College, where he established the college’s farm and sustainable agriculture curriculum and is director of the Green Mountain College Farm & Food Project.

GOOD is urging the community to resist the urge to volunteer around the holidays—the time of year when food banks and soup kitchens have more helping hands than they need. Join in volunteering smarter and commit to serving on a day when the need is far greater.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user Daniel Johnson.

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