The MIT Experience: Boot Camp
March 30, 2012 7 Comments
I spoke today at MIT’s “Food Boot Camp”–a conference I almost had to miss. This is an annual meeting of food and agriculture writers from all over the world. I’ve done this gig for years and, with one exception, it’s been a great experience. Today was no different. Seasoned journalists are deeply skeptical, highly attentive to detail, and inveterately curious. Unlike academics, they are refreshingly free to develop opinions by following their instincts rather than being cowed by the burden of credentialed expertise. Also unlike academics, they don’t wait until you’re done speaking before hammering away with questions. This threw me off the first time I spoke here, but I’ve learned to embrace the questions.
Really good questions. My talk was an argument against small-scale animal agriculture, one that builds on many of the critiques offered throughout this blog. I covered the environmental, economic, and the ethical problems inherent in the small scale systems that are so often glorified in the foodie media. What surprised me was not only the fact that the premise of my talk seemed to be commonly accepted, but that the ethical component of my presentation generated the most interest. My technique was to explore the ethical implications of slaughtering animals that we claim to invest with moral worth, eventually leading my discussion to the ultimate extreme of the sustainable trend: backyard slaughtering.
I showed the pictures and I read the texts of the DIY slaughterers. What I expected, I suppose, was the objection that these examples were hardly representative of the trend as a whole. Anticipating this argument, I made sure to present and highlight the patterns of hypocrisy evident in my samples, stressing how common it was for home slaughterers to take the rhetorical high ground while behaving in a manner directly opposed to that rhetoric.
This strategy seemed to have worked. Almost as if on cue, one journalist suggested (before I went to my slides) that DIY slaughterers were actually doing something noble by looking death in the face. They were “facing their food.” My suggestion was that, although the slaughterers talked a good game about the benefits of slaughtering animals, their actions belied their concern for the animals they killed. I drove home my point with this image, taken from a small organic farm in California raising rabbits for meat:
I hate to say that I was pleased with the power of this image. But it worked. I was also pleased that there seemed to be a general sense that these remarkable–if remarkably depressing–blogs about slaughter are legitimate ways to understand and critique the idea of locally sourced animal products. As I’m working on a book about the dangers of eating animals from small farms, I welcomed the response ( and encourage readers to send examples they might find).