Uneasy choices, simple principles
The recent controversy over the fate of Lou and Bill, an aged team of working oxen at Poultney’s Green Mountain College, illustrates the profound and dispiriting disconnect between contemporary American society and the source of our food.
After announcing that Lou and Bill would be slaughtered for beef and served in the school’s cafeteria, Green Mountain College became the subject of rampant harassment, including a cyber attack, online bullying, and threats of physical violence. After weeks of bullying, the college relented. Lou, who suffered from chronic injury, was euthanized in cloak of night and under tight security; Bill will be kept on at the college’s farm. Now the GMC students are left questioning how to attain GMC’s stated goal to become the first college or university in the United States with a major food service provider to eliminate all animal products that are not humanely raised and slaughtered, if they are not secure in making these decisions for themselves.
No matter what one thinks of the college’s choices regarding Lou and Bill, this episode is emblematic of our culture’s tragic desire to remain unaccountable to the ramifications of how we feed ourselves. Let us be clear: Truly sustainable agriculture and food production is dependent on animals, not only for the nourishment of their meat and milk, but also for the fertility of their manure, essential to the production of the fruits, vegetables, and cereal crops upon which all of us depend. Indeed, to erase animals from the cycle of agriculture is to ensure dependence on fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Sustainable? Not exactly.
We have suffered through multiple generations of agricultural and food production opacity. The time has come for full accountability and utter transparency regarding the most crucial, intimate exchange we all engage in: Food. The time has come to acknowledge that our very survival is dependent on the taking of life and to hold ourselves fully accountable to this truth, difficult as it may sometimes be. Green Mountain College set a strong example for all of us by having an open community forum for students to come to a shared decision about the fate of Bill and Lou. This shared decision-making is the essence of food sovereignty — the freedom for communities to choose how they will access their food according to their shared values and needs.
To be sure, there is no excuse for the deplorable conditions at large scale meat production facilities. In fact, there is no excuse for anything short of reverence for the animals that serve us. Lou and Bill and every other creature that provides our nourishment — either directly or indirectly — should be treated with the utmost respect. And when the time comes to end their lives, as it inevitably will, they deserve our deepest gratitude and the most humane slaughter we can provide.
Rural Vermont has long stood for a community-based food system that honors all its participants, including farmers, consumers, animals, and the environment. Rural Vermont also stands with Green Mountain College and the thousands of other Vermont farmers who acknowledge the sometimes difficult realities of creating and maintaining healthy food systems and who provide for their animals in a manner that honors their critical role in our nourishment.
Andrea Stannard is the director of the Rural Vermont Board of Directors and Staff, based in Montpelier.