March 1, 2015

Dinner conversation last night led someone to remark that aside from Italy, California has the best food in the world. I didn’t bite. Maybe there’s something to this, because although I spend relatively little time in California, I have had some very good meals there. Yet the image that comes to mind with California food for me is food consumed in the car while cruising from one place to another. Songs by the Beach Boys start humming in my head and I’m reminded of films like American Graffiti where all the action centers around Mel’s Drive-In. Trying to put some meat on those bones, I Googled the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long,” looking for a line expressing fond adolescent memories of eating cheeseburgers or chili fries, but all I got was “Member when you spilled Coke all over your blouse?”

We forget that there was no place to put a Coke in your typical 1960s piece of American chrome. Now in fairness to Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys main lyricist, I should note that the one Beach Boys song really dedicated to food encourages us to eat our vegetables. Maybe we’ll get around to that if we ever do another month of food songs in the Thornapple blog. Today I’ll just chalk that up as a tangent and get right back to the importance of a cupholder in the American lifestyle that we have all come to know and love.

Of course, I drove a ’63 Ford Fairlane without a cupholder in those days (and by “those days” I mean the late 1960s). It was, as a matter of factual record, not until the late 1970s that every McDonald’s or Burger King felt it incumbent to provide an opportunity for drive-through service. True ‘50s-style cruising for burgers would have more typically involved stopping the car and sitting in it while being served by car-hops (preferably on roller skates). Then you start up the car and go someplace else, even if it was just down the strip a few miles to a different drive-in where you would stop the car and do some more socializing, or maybe get a milkshake. We can tick off quite a few important observations in food ethics from this.

First, all the elements of an ethos were fully realized in this automobile-based food culture. There were ritualized social performances that supported group bonding and individual socialization. There was an intense aesthetic experience of being present in the moment that cemented the feeling that contrary to all the obvious signs of triviality, something important was happening here. Car-based consumption of this sort usually involved multiple layers of sociality: You rarely went out by yourself, or at any rate rarely stayed by yourself all evening. Riders would hop from car to car during those burger stops, and there was always the expectation (however infrequently realized) of romantic interludes. It was thrilling, even if it’s a little embarrassing to admit that now.

But of course we need to move right on to the fact that it was completely unsustainable. The fuel consumption was economically possible only because gas was 19¢ a gallon—something that disappeared with the lengthy lines at gas stations during the OPEC embargo a decade later. We were pretty much clueless about the environmental damage. It was also an expression of youth-culture that was destined to disappear simply because each generation has to have its own thing. I’m sure under 40 readers of the blog (if there were any) would have no idea what I’m talking about. So it was economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. That’s three for three.

The Beach Boys might have been on to something when they sang “Won’t be long ‘til summer time is through.” Southern California hung on to that ethos, however. The last chorus answers the “Won’t be long…” with “Not for us, now.” Carmakers paid homage to those days by putting cupholders into their vehicles sometime later and Americans cruised into an era where they did not even pull over to socialize while eating in their vehicles. It’s an identity, I suppose, but is it one we should celebrate?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Dark Roll

February 22, 2015

Here I am blogging from the KLM Crown lounge at Schiphol again. The robots in Cupertino think it’s still Saturday night, but here in Holland we are well on our way to Sunday morning. So it’s time to think about the Thornapple blog.

The night before last I checked in at Chino Latino in Nottingham where Yelp! informed me that I was at a “hipster” place. Back when everyone was drinking Sanka and listening to Hank Williams (see last week to uncode this obscure reference) it was hip to be hip. It was so hip that only the hipsters would talk that way. By the time we got to Hendrix it was no longer hip to be hip. The truly hip were making snarky comments about anyone who appeared to be hip. Hendrix himself was so hip that he was beyond all that and could do just about anything including being generous about wannabe hipsters. Still and all, even Hendrix would ask, “Are you experienced?”

So speaking of sushi (again, check last week) Chino Latino is taking sushi to new territories, as I suppose any truly hipster place would. I had a nice roll made with duck—not something you would probably get at the sushi stands circling the Tokyo fish market. The duck itself was cooked in a tangy sauce heavy on the chilies (hence the Latino in Chino Latino). Pretty good I must say. Next time you are in Nottingham, you might want to check it out. But I’m bringing this up in connection with hipster food. Back in the day when hipsters were digging John Coltrane (they were never into Hank all that much) a nice roll would not likely have been the topic of conversation. Or if so it would have been reefer or booty, rather than ancho glazed duck breast and jasmine rice. But that is (to keep a thread going to the point of ridiculousness) how we roll.

While the truly beat hipsters were  obtaining nutrition from cigarettes, sour coffee and booze they were focused on other more potent and less legally sanctioned comestibles. In our era hipsters are seeking a kind of experience where the food is more than a backdrop. Appearances to the contrary, food still may not be the main thing. I’m of the mind that it is the experience a contemporary hipster is after, no less than it was for the beat generation. But we can’t deny that some novel foodie twists (along with the appropriate lighting and décor) go a long way toward constituting the hipster experience in the present day.

And what do we want to make of this from a food ethics perspective?

We could, of course, be snide, alluding back (as I’ve done already) to the “true hipsters” as a way of undercutting the claims of the present. But I demur. Although I’m deeply into historical context setting (way too deep, my students say) the present day hipsters may be derived from the beats in some sense, but they are too keenly absorbed in the irony of their hipsterdom to be derivative. Let’s give them that much credit.

We could also note that there was a dark side to old-school hip that you are just not going to capture with an ancho chili duck roll, no matter how appropriate the lighting is. I think there is something philosophical to pursue here—a source of depth and looming tragedy that only pessimism can produce. William James explored it in his essay “The Sick Soul,” from Varieties of Religious Experience. But however much a moralist might be enthralled by dark thoughts, it’s the lot of ethics to discourage one from going there. The fast living and drug addictions of the beats brought too many of them to a premature end, while those that survived testify to the superficiality of the “depth” that absorption in demons of that ilk produced.

The age of sushi may have a certain flatness to it, but maybe that’s not a bad thing, after all.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

From Sanka to Sushi

February 15, 2015

“From Hank to Hendrix, I’ve always been with you,” Neil Young once sang. This would have been some time ago, and by “some time” I mean about the same amount of time from today as the “Hank to Hendrix” interval Neil was singing about back then. I wonder, can we use food to mark time in the same way?

I was watching some movie or TV show set in the late 50s or early 60s recently (and by “recently” I mean the last week) where Sanka was on offer. It wasn’t a crucial plot point but one of those little period details that screenwriters use to create a sense of time and place. I’m not sure of the resonance for this particular little detail. I can imagine asking a roomful of my undergraduates, “How many of you have ever heard of Sanka?” and getting only two or three hands in the air. But I can remember a time when household guests or even restaurant patrons would have been offered Sanka instead of decaf. I suppose it was a marvel of the advertising age that some ad campaign had been so successful in fixing this particular brand name equation into people’s heads that it became part of the common vernacular for a time. I’m sure there are a few households where it’s still the term of art for decaffeinated coffee here in 2015.

If we take the “Hank to Hendrix” time span it would put us back into the mid 90s. That would have been about the time that I had my first sushi, though I’m sure that I was a relative latecomer to this particular food experience in comparison to many others. I moved from College Station, TX, where there was no sushi in the mid 90s, to West Lafayette, IN. The house across the street from me in West Lafayette was owned by Subaru and occupied by a succession of Japanese executives detailed to Northwest Indiana to serve as liaison to the home office for the assembly plant over on the East Side. The legend was that the company had also underwritten the operation of a very high quality Japanese restaurant in West Lafayette so that their executives would not refuse this posting altogether. Whether true or not, there were not one but two very good Japanese restaurants in town when I moved there in 1997. I don’t really recall when I first ate sushi, but it couldn’t have been long after that move.

We have more sushi places than I could possibly count here in the Lansing-East Lansing-Okemos metroplex. I’m sure there are more than several in College Station by now. So how was it that Americans gave up drinking Sanka and started eating sushi? What does that mean?

One thing it points to is the thrust for novelty in our diets. From what I read in the history books, a diverse diet was a privilege of the rich until well into the 20th century. The taste for novelty was, I think, rather slow in developing, and it was almost certainly hurried along by the food industry’s need for profits. We were trained to look for brand names during the early decades of the 20th century, and once habituated the competitive spirit led food processers to search for any possible edge they might get over their competition. Anything different would have been a natural thing to try, but not too different (a subject we’ve blogged about at least once before).

As the parade of new foods lengthens, we gain the ability to mark time by our food fads. We see both exploring new foods and then their mass consumption as a form of fashion. Changes in fashion would not be fashionable if there wasn’t something trivial about the whole shtick. But I’m down with the people who think that we should take fashion somewhat more seriously when it comes to thinking about culture and the day to day practices from which our lives are actually made.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


February 8, 2015

It’s approaching thirty years ago that I made my one and only trip to India. Negotiating what you should and should not imbibe was an almost daily affair in those days. We drank beer because the water was a hazard for the unadapted Western gut. The bottled water at the fine hotels was reputed to be safe, but late in the trip I caught a steward refilling said bottles from the same outdoor tap that was being used to water the shrubbery. My friend Russ Freed (I don’t see enough of Russ, even though we are colleagues at MSU) was a veteran of dietary distress in India, and he spent the entire month eating nothing but plain rice. I, on the other hand, was curious and generally rewarded for partaking of the local cuisine.

But there were dilemmas. I recall one field visit where our guide (from the regional university) made a loud proclamation for all to hear urging me to try some dish that was being offered by our local host. But then he whispered “I don’t advise it,” as he brought the bowl close to my lips. On another field day, we visited a farm household where tea was rather proudly being made using gas collected from an anaerobic digester. Our guides told us it would be quite safe. As I recall it tasted rather foul to me, but nonetheless, I drank up.

I was negotiating some food ethics questions the entire month. On a previous trip I had made the mistake of eating a salad that had been loaded onto our Alitalia flight in Nairobi, and I had paid the price with a pretty severe bought of what would have been called Montezuma’s revenge had I contracted it closer to home. We Americans may not normally think of staying healthy in this sense as an ethical problem. But asserting the right to control what goes into your body can put you in the position of refusing hospitality, and that is an ethical act.

There are dilemmas both for the guest and for the host. When acting as the host, I’ve opted for polling my guests in advance on their dietary preferences, and then I plan a menu that accommodates them as far as I am able. But I don’t think I would go so far as to say that every host is morally obligated to take this path. My local hosts in India were being gracious to share some of their daily food & drink. It would not only have been presumptuous of any guest—and especially a relatively well-to-do Western traveler—to expect anything else, it would have defeated the purpose of making a study trip, in the first place. But this doesn’t mean that the guest is obligated to eat anything that’s put in front of them, either. While there was certainly the opportunity for taking offense when the proffered dish is declined, my experience suggests that awareness of idiosyncratic dietary needs is widely appreciated. There are gestures one can make to signal appreciation for the offering, and those gestures generally suffice for the purposes of acknowledging the generosity and hospitality of one’s host.

As gatherings become more intimate, things get complicated. Throughout my India trip I was an exotic stranger. It was well understood that while we would engage in some conversation and exchange of customs, I would not be coming back to this household again anytime soon. The proverbial dinner party among friends or business associates is built on very different assumptions. In this case, refusal of a food offering can more easily be interpreted as an affront. One needs to at least push the food around a bit, and very probably to take at least a few bites in order to satisfy the norms of propriety.

But even as I write this I’m thinking how dramatically that seems to be changing since the time of my youth. The process of polling potential guests for what they will or will not eat would have been viewed as gauche by my mother, let along my grandmother. The expectation that we can actually eat together (as opposed to simultaneously) has declined significantly with the proliferation of hyphenated dietary regimes. I am a “social conservative” in seeing something regrettable about that, even as I fully respect my guests’ right to construct a dietary ethics according to their own lights.

Another blog, it seems, where I am not so sure.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Not So Sure

February 1, 2015

When I was a sophomore in college there was a good-looking fellow among my circle of friends who must have had some deep insecurity buried in his persona. He was constantly embellishing accounts of his various comings and goings with feats of amazing ability and encounters with celebrities that we all knew were very unlikely to be frequenting our Northern Colorado environs. He acquired a nickname based on what people often found themselves saying after he had regaled us with one of these concoctions: “Sure, John.”

There was another fellow named John, sweet of disposition but unkempt even by the shaggy standards of 1970. He always seemed dazed and confused, to quote a popular song of the era. Though generally reliable, he would almost always begin his reply to a question by saying, “Well, I’m not so sure myself…” So you can see where this is going. A casual mention of ‘John’ would always be met by the question, “Do mean Sure John or Not So Sure John?” It was a moment of sophomoric hilarity that I still recall with some fondness even in my dotage.

Now I’m not so sure what this little memento of my late teens and early twenties has to do with food, but it does have something to do with ethics. It recalls the figure of Socrates, patron of all Western philosophy, who is frequently portrayed in Plato’s dialogs as professing almost total ignorance about all the important questions of philosophy. And for the Greeks in general, all the really important questions of philosophy were questions about how to live as one should. They were questions of ethics.

I’d like to think that all of my readers have some direct and personal familiarity with Plato and his teacher Socrates, but as a teacher of undergraduates I understand the vanishingly small probability that this is the case. I could put this into a more accessible frame of reference by pointing out the connection between Socrates and the television character Lt. Columbo, played by the actor Peter Faulk. Unfortunately, this probably won’t help the college sophomores of today, because Columbo was itself a product of the 1970s, and it is quite improbable that very many of them have ever seen it. And so I press on without further elaboration and explanation, leaving it up to those inquiring minds who want to know to use their Internet connection for finding more background on these curious figures, if that is their inclination.

Lt. Columbo was quite like Not So Sure John in his demeanor and approach, but his protestations of confusion and ignorance were covering up a keen mind that was always on the trail of the perpetrator (who was usually the person being interviewed in this characteristically Socratic style). What Lt. Columbo shared with Socrates was the elenctic method: exploring the implications of someone’s statements through questions that lead them inexorably to a contradiction. In Lt. Columbo’s case, it was a way of dislodging the perpetrator’s alibi or subterfuge. For Socrates, it was a way of showing that his interlocutors (who claimed know what was right) were actually just as confused as he professed to be.

Although today we are generally agreed that Socrates professed a keen mind, there is some dispute as to whether his protestations of ignorance were genuine. Perhaps like Lt. Columbo he was onto the truth right from the start. At least for today I’m taking the opposite view. One of the reasons that Socrates “caught on” as the hero for many Greek and Roman philosophers who never met him was the way that he modeled ethics as a dedicated and persistent search for the right thing to do, rather than as the possession of a standard or criterion that could be called upon to produce “the right answer” in every instance. This is not to say that Socrates knew nothing. He certainly knew how to probe for the truth, but as present day analytic philosophers note, there is a big difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that”. That skill along with Socrates unrelenting willingness to apply it was what made him the closest approximation of a true sage for several centuries in the ancient world.

Now that the holidays are past and we are done with food ethics icons for 2015, it’s time for me to settle down and start thinking about some straight ahead blogs on food ethics. But what should I say? I’m not so sure myself.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Garrett Hardin

January 25, 2015

We’ll finish up “food ethics icons” month with the evil genius of the food/population debates. Everyone I know who ever met Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) spoke well of him. He was by all accounts a generous and open-minded man who welcomed philosophical inquiry and intellectual engagement. So don’t get me wrong when I call him “the evil genius”. He gets that moniker because of several articles he wrote on the population dilemmas that had been brought to public attention by The Population Bomb. The Ehrlichs mainly wanted to get across the idea that we (humans that is) simply could not continue to expand our use of natural resources endlessly. They were not too specific about what we were supposed to do instead.

Hardin put the matter much more pointedly: The earth is a lifeboat, and very soon we are going to get to a point where it is time to throw somebody off. And he didn’t stop there. Applying a pattern of reasoning that philosophy professors call “utilitarianism”, he argued that we (humanity, again) should follow the course that leads us to “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The problem as Hardin diagnosed it was that the poor (and here he pointed especially to places like Bangladesh) were just having too many babies. Rich people had already gone through that demographic transition we (this time it’s just you, me and the other Thornapple blog reader) were talking about just a few weeks back in connection with Rev. Malthus. Having gotten rich, we (again, just us) are in a position where we can cause ourselves considerable consternation by having lots of kids that we have to feed, educate and buy i-pads for. So we’ve learned to have smaller families.

Those poor folks, not so much. They keep on having kids, and that (wrote not just Hardin but also the Ehrlichs) is where the trouble lies. We (humanity circa 1971 now) were witnessing serious famines in Bengal (e.g. Bangladesh) at the time, as Sen would write about later. George Harrison was singing about “rice that keeps going astray on its way to East Bombay,” and holding concerts to raise money for the famine victims. Hardin was having none of that sentimental nonsense. He was writing articles saying that we should let them starve. If we feed them today, he reasoned, they’ll just grow up poor and have too many children. Only there will be even more of them then. We should let a smaller number starve today rather than creating the conditions that will allow a larger number to starve tomorrow.

I think that Hardin may have actually believed this, though it is possible that he took this position to shock people into something approximating an appropriate action. He was right to take on naïve offerings of charity like the Concert for Bangladesh. The whole point was that we just can’t keep riding down this road. As we wrote some months back, if you are trying to get to Canada and driving 90 miles an hour toward Mexico, slowing to 60 is not really going to solve the problem. Hardin saw the hunger crises as a “tragedy of the commons”—a case where doing what was individually rational (he didn’t think the poor were being irrational) is collectively disastrous. Note that this is exactly how many of us understand the climate dilemma today. And like many who write on climate today, Hardin believed that “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” is the only solution. So he wasn’t so much advocating the death of starving people as he was urging government regulation to control population growth. The Chinese eventually tried that, by the way.

But I do have to say that the moral position Hardin actually advocated is both indefensible and unsustainable. It may seem mealy-mouthed, but the better course is the one that Malthus and the Ehrlich’s advocated, even if they did so in less than clarion tones. We can’t have this kind of poverty anymore: It creates moral dilemmas for which there are no acceptable responses. At the same time, we should remember that it’s not just a matter of “distribution”. Sen taught that we can redistribute in ways that are almost as catastrophic for the poor as Hardin’s willingness to “let ‘em starve.”

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Paul and Anne Ehrlich

January 18, 2015

The theme for ‘food ethics icons’ month is the world hunger/population growth tangle. Our thinking has been bracketed by two opposing nostrums: On the one hand, agriculture is in a race with population growth, on the other hand, the problem is not agriculture but the distribution of food we already have. Both of these are wrong. In my usual quixotic fashion, I started with the end of the story. Amartya Sen is the food ethics icon who has done more than anyone else to steer us between these nostrums to a better path. Last week we went back a couple of hundred years to discover the source of our idea that population growth inevitably outpaces our ability to produce enough food for people to eat. Malthus is the Urspring, but I tried to convince you that Malthus never predicted that global population would grow beyond our ability to feed ourselves.

We pick up the story for this week by asking, so who did say that? My MSU colleague Helen Veit has written a pretty nice history book in which she argues that Americans’ belief that they had a moral obligation to “feed the world” had its roots way back in a now defunct agency called the U.S. Food Administration. It was created by the Woodrow Wilson administration with the express purpose of ensuring that our European allies’ neglect of their own crops—they were busy fighting World War I at the time—would not lead them to starve. This belief may have primed us for the work of this week’s food icons a half century later, but you will have to follow up on Helen’s story on your own time.

I’m going to start out in my crotchety old man mode: Back when I was a young sprout, you would go to the Safeway store on Hamden Avenue and instead of candy bars there would be racks of paperback books at the cashier’s stand. Maybe that was because in the days before barcodes it took so long for the cashier to ring up a giant basket of groceries that people waiting in line would naturally be looking for something to read. Having gotten 10-12 pages into some potboiler, they would throw it in the basket when their turn to check out finally arrived. At any rate, one of the books that I recall seeing on that rack was called The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich. People were apparently throwing it into their grocery carts in large numbers because it sold more than two million copies.

It’s probably not really accurate to say that the Ehrlich’s came up with the idea that population was growing so fast that eventually we would be facing global food shortages. The message of The Population Bomb was not really shocking news to people who knew a little bit about population trends. But the book made some fairly stark statements about what the 1970s would be like: catastrophic famine accompanied by violence and competition for food-producing resources. The Population Bomb was actually co-written by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, but this was 1968 and we had apparently not fully appreciated the fact that women can think. That’s worth a blog in its own right, but I’ll just note in passing that one of the early icons in gender studies was Esther Boserup, who had already published her own study of the agriculture/population relationship in 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth argued that people will always find a way to feed themselves. If I keep writing The Thornapple Blog into my nineties, Esther Boserup will eventually get listed as a food ethics icon in her own right, but this year we are looking for the reasons why this “great race” became fixated in people’s minds in the first place.

The Ehrlich’s wrote a very readable retrospective piece on The Population Bomb for the fortieth anniversary of its publication. The article is available for free on line, and it speaks for itself. They concede that they underestimated the impact of the Green Revolution, but they aren’t giving any ground to Boserup’s contention that people always find a way. The Ehrlichs believe that better sanitation, healthcare and infrastructure have unleashed the natural forces of population growth, and that sooner or later, it’s going to bite us in the butt in just the way that they predicted back when people had time to read at grocery check-out lines. That makes them food ethics icons in my book. It’s just too bad that you probably won’t see my book at the Safeway store.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University



Thomas Malthus

January 11, 2015

If Amartya Sen deserves to be called a food ethics icon for dismantling the idea that the total amount of food produced provides a good index for understanding the ethics of hunger, we should probably look the source of that idea for our next entry for “food ethics icons month”. Is there anyone out there who would not go back to Thomas Malthus for that idea? Haven’t all of us heard about “Malthusian” predictions and scenarios, after all?

As a teacher of undergraduates I am well aware of the fact that there are many of us who have never heard of Malthus, so please recognize the rhetorical nature of these last two questions. Thomas Robert Malthus lived from 1766 to 1834. He could be described as an economist, a philosopher, an applied mathematician and a political theorist. He started out by becoming ordained in the Church of England, which led to sobriquets acknowledging his religious affiliations throughout his lifetime and down to the present day. For most of his life he was actually a college professor. When I was a fairly young professor of philosophy and agricultural economics at Texas A&M University in the 1980s, I spent a good chunk of time not only reading up on Malthus, but actually reading him. Malthus wrote on the economic interpretation of rent, but I did not read any of that stuff. What I did read were several versions of his work on population. This was thirty years ago, so take what follows with a grain of salt.

Malthus was not the only person thinking about population when he proposed an early formula for what we now call “population ecology” in 1798. He wrote that while food production increases arithmeticaly, population grows geometrically. Therefore population eventually outstrips the food supply. If you do know Malthus, that’s probably what you know, but please pause and notice that this is a very obscure and abstract little formula. “Geometrical increase” was nicely explained in the Pete Seeger song “We’ll All Be a Doubling”:

Two times two is four!
Two times four is eight!
Two times eight is sixteen
And the hour is getting late!

We’ll all be a-doubling, a-doubling, a-doubling
We’ll all be a-doubling in thirty-two years.

You get the idea.

Malthus had combined a study of the facts with some fancy mathematical modeling to come up with this, but what he thought was important was that this is “the natural rate of increase” in population, not the actual rate of increase. In fact, something constrains the natural rate of increase, and the so-called arithmetical growth in food production was proposed as one basis of constraint. Unlike the careful science behind population, Malthus based his claims about agriculture on a thought experiment. Suppose that in the first generation we do “double” food production (I’m taking some liberties here because Malthus did not think even this possible). Surely next time around the best we can do is increase it by the same amount, but now that will only be a 50% increase over what he had. Next time around a similarly sized growth in total food production will only be a 25% increase, and so on. So we have a theoretical model which shows that the natural rates of growth of population and agriculture lead to the theoretical conclusion that population eventually outstrips food supply.

Present day population ecologists still take this model pretty seriously, though like Aldo Leopold, they are more likely to talk about deer than humans. If the population of deer are not “checked”, then they will eventually exhaust their food supply, leading to a catastrophic population crash. How is population growth checked? Well, if we are talking about deer, we look for wolves, and if none are to be found we rely on hunters. When we shift to the human population, these solutions have not been ethically popular. And this brings me to what I remember Malthus as actually saying, generally with increasing clarity as his work on population progressed over a period of nearly forty years. He wasn’t saying that agriculture was in a race with population. He was setting up a research problem: What does provide the checks on human population growth? His answer? It’s general poverty in the case of the poor. People die from sickness and overwork. And in the case of the rich? Here Malthus had to be circumspect. Rich families recognized good incentives to keep their families smaller than the “natural increase” would suggest. As someone who sent two kids through college, I understand these incentives. How did the rich act on those incentives? Malthus’ one word answer was “vice”, by which he meant frequenting prostitutes.

Who said that food ethics lacks a racy side?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State Univesity


Amartya Sen

January 4, 2015

Amartya Kumar Sen was born in 1933 in a province of what is now Bangladesh. He won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics for a pretty diverse portfolio of work, most of which doesn’t concern us here. Let it just suffice that Sen was a major figure in shaking economists out of a dogmatic slumber—even if quite a few of them still need to wake up and smell the coffee. Sen would probably show up on anyone’s list of the 100 most influential living people, though somehow Time Magazine failed to include him in theirs. That says more about Time than Sen, who has (with considerable help from others, it should be noted) transformed the way that people understand development.

I should note that by “development”, I do not mean the activity that we are most likely to read about in our local newspapers. There development is done primarily by people who buy and sell real estate and who undertake a variety of projects to enhance the value of their investments. The kind of development Sen has transformed is sometimes called “international development” or more accurately “global development.” It’s akin to progress, but focused on the processes of industrialization, governance and socio-cultural change that lead to society-wide improvements in human well-being. This notion of development got its biggest boost after World War II when Dwight D. Eisenhower put some umph behind the idea that the Marshall Plan—which had helped Europeans make a rapid recovery from the devastation of World War II—could be applied on a global basis. We (meaning not just the United States but already-developed countries) could help countries emerging from colonial exploitation make rapid progress.

This didn’t pan out so much, though there have been big (and I mean BIG) changes since the 1950s. Sen’s work in the 1980s and 1990s began as a critique of then prevalent ideas about how one would measure those changes. Most of the measures being used focused on increases in national income. You’ve heard pundits talk about GDP? Yep, that’s it: a measure of growth in economic activity, whether this activity contributes to human well-being (tasty food, better video games) or simply reflects the way that society is failing to promote human well-being (employment of prison guards, rates of heart surgery). Along with Herman Daly, Sen noted that growth in any of these things translates into growth of income. Sen sarcastically wrote that we seem to equate progress with opulence.

But it was some of Sen’s earlier work that makes him worth noting as a food ethics icon. His work on famine was one of the things noted in his Nobel Prize. He found that famine is not always caused by a lack of food. Sometimes structural features of an economy can put food that is plentiful out of reach for people in poverty. Sen’s work is behind a nostrum I hear a lot: Global hunger is not a problem of food production, it’s a problem of distribution. I don’t actually like this nostrum too much, because it oversimplifies the actual significance of what Sen discovered about famine. Ironically, famine can strike farmers, too. Pestilence and drought have historically caused quite a few famines, and here it does look like the problem is not enough production. Sen’s point was that it is not global production that is at stake in these cases (and it was global production that was being plumped by everyone from Norman Borlaug to the Farm Bureau). The hunger that affected food producers in his book Poverty and Famine could have been averted by bringing food from other farmers not that far distant from the local famine site.

Sen’s point does strike a blow against my friends in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at MSU who are constantly harping on the need to increase agricultural productivity. It’s not a fatal blow, mind you. As I’ve written before, we do need a constant effort to explore new avenues for improving all for forms of agriculture. But that, too, can become a rather simplistic picture. Sen pretty conclusively showed that simply contributing to total global food production does almost nothing to address the underlying causes of hunger. Better farming matters because a lot of poor people in the world are farmers, and they could be less poor with better farming methods. Simply having more food lying around doesn’t really solve anything.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

The Worst Blog of the Year

December 28, 2014

So this week haul out that old Andy Williams Christmas record and hum the following to the tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”


It’s the least creative blog of the year
With the stereo blaring
And everyone telling you “Christmas is here!”
It’s the least creative blog of the year
It’s the sap-sappiest Sunday to write.
With those football games starting and gay couples partying
Deep into the night,
It’s the sap- sappiest Sunday to write

Christmas letters are boasting.
It’s a good week for coasting,
And forgetting all that you know
People sit by their yule logs
So just link to some past blogs
And hope next week your juice is in flow
It’s the least creative blog of the year

One time I was crowing
Bout meals I’d been knowing
Who could possibly care?
It was the least creative blog of that year

Last year I was freezing
Cause my furnace was wheezing
From the ice storm that started to blow
The week before Christmas
(Which we know rhymes with “isthmus”)
So I wrote about all of the cold

It was the least creative blog of the year

One year I just gave in
To laxity and then
I just said “Who cares?”

It’s the least creative blog
It’s the least creative blog
It’s the least creative blog of the year.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University