The MIT Experience: Boot Camp

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).


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

7 Responses to The MIT Experience: Boot Camp

  1. Paula Franklin says:

    Hi James — I look forward to hearing you articulate beautifully, as you always do, why small local animal farms are not the answer environmentally, and still not right ethically.

    Now, re: your statement “I hate to say that I was pleased with the power of this image. But it worked …” Could you elaborate more on how it “worked”? Thanks.

  2. jcberger13 says:

    I’m so glad to hear you’re writing a book on this- I can’t wait to read it! I’ll list a few examples I have below. I hope you will write about what goes on in slaughterhouses that kill “humanely raised” animals. That’s still a big mystery to me. Are they as bad as the rest? Do they comply with the HSA? As for backyard slaughter, that’s not so much of a mystery to me… it’s blatantly horrific!

    This past summer I interned on an organic dairy that was part of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a sustainable ag research farm in Goldsboro, NC. This institution is run by the two big land grant universities (NC State, NC A&T) and the NC Dept, of Ag. It advertises itself as one of the most progressive/cutting edge sustainable ag research farms in the US. In many ways it is, and CEFS is doing some wonderful things.

    However, I was at times appalled by how its pasture-raised, grass-fed dairy herd was treated (I spent much of my time working on the dairy). Any time the animals were handled by humans they were yelled at, slapped, and shoved. When they didn’t want to move their tails were twisted, forcing them forward. As part of our research on udder damage by flies we had to examine each teat of dozens of animals in the study every week. They would be corralled into a confined area and then forced to move through a narrow shoot into a head locking device. The doors of the headlock would slam with a huge bang, which was terrifying for me and the animals. Sometimes the person slamming the head lock would miss, and the animal’s head would get stuck in the lock; he or she would be squirming and slipping and clearly in distress and panicking. Once they were released they ran from the head lock, clearly happy to have escaped such a terrifying situation. I was really upset by this and asked my fellow researchers whether they thought it was okay. They replied that it was standard in the dairy industry (even on “sustainable” farms).

    Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m finding a lot of other examples of unsustainable practices on so-called “sustainable” farms. I once took a tour of a local farm with grass-fed beef cattle. There was a large stream flowing through the pasture (leading into a major river) and the cattle were congregating around the stream’s bare edge. One of the people on the tour asked about erosion and pollution of the river due to the cattle’s presence; the farmer had no real response and even became offended that someone would question her “sustainable” practices. On the same farm free-range pigs destroy large plots of forest with their unrestricted rooting.

    There is one example that I’d like to share that does contradict your remarks (in other posts/articles) about veal calves on “sustainable” dairies (of course it is only one example). Instead of selling its male calves to be made into veal, Chapel Hill Creamery sends them to a nearby small farm to live several (?) more (very pleasant) years on pasture before they are slaughtered for beef. Of course, that itself is problematic but it is at least one example (I don’t know of any more farms that are doing this) of how small dairies are avoiding the veal problem… but not the real problem (excuse my bad pun!)

  3. Paula Franklin says:

    Off-topic, but still related to all things “Eating Plants” — if anyone is so inclined, Letters-To-The-Editor, or comments to existing letters are needed re: an article about the proposed building of a “humane” slaughterhouse in Liberty, NY. Info is as follows:

    Vegan Long Island

    Melville, NY
    1,205 vegans and friends

    …Where vegans feel at home, and the not-yet-vegan/looking-to-get-there are warmly welcomed.Join us for good times & good food. What is vegan food, anyway? It’s regular food…

    Next Meetup

    Direct Action Everywhere: Presentation on Social Movements

    Friday, Aug 22, 2014, 7:00 PM
    2 Attending

    Check out this Meetup Group →

    I have written as much as I can to the brick wall there.

  4. Veronique says:

    I so agree with you. It is sad to see kids being endoctrinated to disconnect from their inner compassion

  5. This last image really made an impact on me. My family lost our family cat over the weekend, likely to a brain tumor and also to old age. Since hearing the news, I have broken down and cried several times, thinking of how I will never hold him, hear the clicking of his claws, see the swish of his tail again. Looking at this image of children smiling and holding freshly slaughtered (or soon-to-be slaughtered?) animals sickens me, knowing that the death of my companion animal has caused so much pain. Relating my cat to these rabbits, I would never find it morally right to kill any animal for an unnecessary human pleasure and I think “facing your meat” is fostering violence and immorality.

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