I started the day out in Page Auditorium, surrounded by first-years who were eagerly introducing themselves and comparing the size and location of their dorm rooms. Many of them had a green book with white writing splashed across the cover: their summer reading assignment.
In an attempt to follow-up on my column last Spring about the book, “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, I attended both sessions of the author’s speech to the first-year students, then sat with a FAC-led discussion group after each lecture.
The unprompted discussions surrounding the book may have reached deeper and more complex places than those I observed. Yet, the gist of this book’s impact was clearly evident and it ran the spectrum.
Some members of the Class of 2015 were uncomfortable, bored or otherwise turned off by the book. Some didn’t finish it, or claimed to have been unmoved. On the other hand, approximately 60 to 70 percent of the freshmen I spoke with said they had altered their eating habits significantly, had tried for at least some time to be vegetarians or had become full-fledged vegetarians.
It would therefore seem that Foer was extremely successful in his argument. I agree with him from an environmental perspective, Foer has the facts in his corner. Factory farming is bad, and that’s not even getting into the health or animal welfare issues associated with consuming meat.
But what bothered me most all day were the things Foer did not talk about. Foer’s seems to assert that the best way to address the problem of factory farming is to become a vegetarian. Though I understand space in the book was limited, this is simplistic. In a sense, it is the opt-out method. The book not only does nothing to address the factory farming issue culturally (a word Foer never uses), it also under informs.
One student in each question and answer session asked Foer why he stopped shy of veganism, that is, before fully personally confronting the factory farming of all animal products. Time, and that he’s not perfect, was the general gist of the response. The answer hardly seemed satisfying, although certainly, as he also pointed out, it was more approachable than an academic or logical explanation.
He also did not talk about the sourcing of the alternative option he presents, namely vegetables and the attendant issues related to their industrialized production. While arguably less impactful than animal product production, industrialized vegetable agriculture should be no less of a concern to the truly engaged and thoughtful eater.
Those who entered Foer’s discussion were presented with a local way to get further involved: a bookmark with the website: http://sites.duke.edu/food/
As the sun was nearing the treetops, I was headed toward one such center for engagement (also described on the website), the Duke Campus Farm, a sustainable, organic, demonstration farm with the motto: farm to fork, student to student. Foer’s choice to remain silent about vegetables wasn’t going to stop me from learning about them.
In the space of a three hour “workday,” I learned a lot—like how to prune basil, pick corn and what was making the tomato plants look dead but still productive (blight). I also learned about corn smut, a fungus that attacks the corn kernels making them appear engorged.
While I was harvesting your Marketplace meal of last Friday (no smut included), I also bonded with my fellow farm workers, who were a bit more practiced and knowledgeable. I eventually found my cherry tomato picking rhythm, but I would probably not cut it in a competitive work environment.
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And then there was a rustling under the leaves of the sweet potato patch. A bunny. It was impossible to see unless it moved. The others came with sticks and a strong conviction that the bunny must go, but whether to relocate it or kill it was an open question. For several minutes we puzzled through the ridiculous notions that the bunny would go lightly into the proffered bucket for relocation, or when prompted, opt for a ride in the snare tarp instead of escaping under it. Meanwhile the bunny had other plans entirely, and it elusively outmaneuvered the big sticks, buckets and tarps making a clean getaway back the way it came.
So it was that the day’s literal and philosophical puzzle boiled down to that age old question: To kill or not to kill the bunny? And, how?
Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.