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The Carletonian

Between criticism and acceptance

<ead an article about McDonalds’ struggle to meet the demands of their customers for antibiotic-free meat. A congregation of the Benedictine Sisters in Boerne, Texas are calling for this change for the sake of public health. The article warns that unnecessary antibiotic use breeds “superbugs” that can withstand modern medicine, and that 23,000 people die in the U.S. each year from drug-resistant bacteria. While that argument is sufficiently compelling to convince me that McDonalds’ suppliers should lay off the drugs, the article left me wondering why neither the nuns nor the newspaper mentioned any ecological or animal rights arguments in support of their cause. Pollution from factory farms becomes all the more ecologically damaging when the waste is loaded with pharmaceuticals, and the overuse of antibiotics to limit the spread of disease enables farmers to keep livestock in tight and unsanitary conditions.

A quick Google search led me to understand that the Benedictine Sisters have a history of land stewardship and conservation, so it is hard for me to believe that these ecological and ethical issues did not play a role in their drive to push McDonalds in this new direction. The nuns earned a national platform where they could have advocated for important and relevant environmental and animal rights causes, but instead they limited their voice to a public health concern.

The narrowness of the antibiotic-free campaign points to an area of tension in the sustainable food movement. The ability of activists to effect policy change can compete with their ability to promote the important values that inspire them. Had the nuns broadened their argument to include ecology and ethics, they may have lost their platform entirely. McDonalds is less likely to act in favor of a politically divisive issue (environmentalism) and an issue that makes people uncomfortable and defensive (animal rights), than in favor of a cause as widely desired as public health. Thus, the antibiotic-free campaign may be able to make a difference for all three causes only by pretending not to care about the more controversial drivers of their demands.

However, a movement that relies on neglecting important values to create change is unsustainable. Focusing exclusively on public health comes at a cost: validation of the exclusion of environmental and animal rights issues from society’s conversations and values. The cultural shift that the food movement needs is not going to come by skirting around uncomfortable topics.

I first became interested in food issues because my high school English teacher freely shared her controversial beliefs with the class. She was unpopular with most, but for a handful of students including me, her message was life changing. Rather than taking the route of the Benedictine Sisters, silencing aspects of what I believe to be their true motivations for the sake of appealing to their audience, my teacher fought relentlessly for what she believed in. She lost some respect because of it, but she succeeded in changing my values and my thinking rather than just a small change in the kind of chicken I ate. She promoted a cultural change by being willing to be ridiculed and lose some of her audience.

In Food Truth, Carleton’s food justice club, we tend to take the route of the nuns and sell out a bit for the sake of maintaining our platform, productivity, and likability. For example, we are in the process of running a campaign against Tyson chicken in the dining hall. Bon Appetit has graciously listened to our concerns and shifted some of their purchasing away from Tyson, but can only do so much without a change in demand from students. Food Truth has been working to increase awareness of Tyson’s practices and its presence in the dining hall so that the demand will change and bring along some of the systematic changes that Bon Appetit has the power to influence. When I talk to people about Tyson, I first mention workers’ rights issues (abusing immigrant workers then threatening them with deportation, a history of racist hiring practices, low wages, etc.), then move to environmental issues (the second biggest water polluter in the U.S.), and on occasion throw in some animal rights concerns (debeaking, live boiling, etc.). I then urge people to substitute the Tyson they consume with meat from the dining hall’s more sustainable sources like Main Street Project and Ferndale Market.

I happen to believe, however, that most animal agriculture is disastrous and that most people should hardly be eating meat at all. As ethical as the alternative sources are in comparison to Tyson, animals are still unnecessarily suffering and being killed, and their manure and gas are still emitting greenhouse gases and polluting natural resources. The vegetarians and vegans that predominantly make up Food Truth similarly encourage a switch from one meat to another even though their eating practices reflect their distaste for meat entirely. However, I feel like we will develop and retain more of a change by setting aside some of our values. Thankfully, environmental issues are rarely divisive at Carleton, and we can promote sustainability without alienating much of the student body, but the issue of balancing action towards tangible change with spreading our message still remains.

Ultimately, I want to recognize that the agreeable style of protesting that characterizes Food Truth and the Benedictine nuns and the aggressively honest style of my crazy English teacher are both important. Because ideas cannot be simultaneously subverted and promoted, there can’t be a “right” way to protest when dealing with contentious issues like food. When the need to appeal to an audience clashes with the need to spread new values, activists must choose a way to protest that feels comfortable to them and then contribute within those bounds. We must also support activists who employ approaches that differ from our own because we need their ingenuity or passion or organization or bravery to add to whatever limited involvement we bring to the table. The confluence of opposing styles, prioritizing social acceptability and tirelessly criticizing the status quo, is a necessary aspect of forging a more sustainable and just world.

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