The Blue Food

August 17, 2014

The late comedian George Carlin used to do a routine in which he feigned deep puzzlement in asking his audience “Where’s the blue food?” Of course folks in Michigan know blue food, and I’m here to tell you that even if they are “late” and even if, as some are saying, it isn’t a particularly good year, the blueberries are in. Diane and I were cruising the Oryana market last week and we found these big white boxes of organic blueberries sitting there. Ten pounds worth, to be exact. Pricey, to be sure but we decided to splurge. We had a bunch of company in and if there is ever a time when you can expect to consume ten pounds of fresh blueberries in a week, this was it.

And consume them we did. Blueberries with yogurt and granola, blueberries with ice cream and occasionally, just blueberries. No blueberry pie this year, but we did have several rounds of blueberry pancakes. We have a bit of a family dispute about exactly how many blueberries are supposed to be in a blueberry pancake. I’m of the persuasion that the entire middle of the pancake should be a pure mush of blue, while Diane is much more parsimonious. It’s the one time of the year when I prefer to cook my own pancakes.

I think it was last year when we did a blog on the nutritional attributes of blue food, so I’m going to skip that the second time around. I’m contractually obligated to do some blogs during the summertime extolling the virtues of fresh fruit and produce. Due to the aftermath of our polar vortex and the freezing of the Great Lakes, the fresh fruit and produce is coming in a bit late this year. The cold was really good for some of it, not so much for other bits. I’m told we shouldn’t expect much from our tomatoes this year. So in the spirit of the community supported agriculture, we just have to suck that up and celebrate what the season does bring us. If you follow the link above you will find that the blueberries were “in” for a blog on July 21 in 2013, so there does seem to be something to this polar vortex thing.

But maybe I should go back to Carlin, and quote him at more length:

Why is there no blue food? I can’t find blue food — I can’t find the flavor of blue! I mean, green is lime; yellow is lemon; orange is orange; red is cherry; what’s blue? There’s no blue! “Oh,” they say, “blueberries!” Uh-uh; blue on the vine, purple on the plate. There’s no blue food! Where is the blue food? We want the blue food! Probably bestows immortality! They’re keeping it from us!

There are already a number of blogs on this floating around in cyberspace, as well as links to the original 1975 performance on U-Tube. If you are deep into Carlin’s question, I would refer you to a 2011 blog from Cecil Adams, the world’s smartest human. He insists that blueberries are blue, and I agree. Adams wrote this informative post in December, but I’m writing in August. If you are in December (and especially if you are in Michigan) you might want to spend an afternoon researching the scientific basis for the relative dearth of blue foods. But if it’s August you can be outdoors enjoying a spectacular day (especially if you are in Michigan). And of course you could be eating blueberries.

We don’t grow blueberries as part of the Thornapple CSA, but our experience attests to the indisputable fact that you can get some. And I would advise that you do it.

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

Curitiba Declaration

August 10, 2014

I ran into a character named Philip Low this week at a conference organized by Carla Molento, who runs an important research group on animal welfare in Brazil. It was the kind of week that makes the otherwise humdrum life of the peripatetic academic interesting. Philip is a brilliant neuroscientist who is currently trying to make a go with a start-up called NeuroVigil, Inc. He also has sociopathic tendencies. Of course we could say that about a lot of us—sociopathic tendencies, I mean, not the “brilliant neuroscientist” part. There was, for example, a strange exchange with Adroaldo Zanella (formerly at MSU) in which the two wound up virtually shouting at each other despite the fact that they were in total agreement about the point under discussion.

You run into a lot of scientists in my line of work who have an inflated sense of their own importance, but it is rarer to encounter one who thinks that they can change the world. Philip is in that category, bless him. Aside from his own research and his inventions for non-invasive brain research, he is keen on “declarations”—statements signed by lots of people with an inflated sense of their own importance. He was instrumental in engineering one called “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness”. You might find it interesting to Google that, though don’t confuse it with the one calling on evangelicals to renew their commitment to confessional Christianity.

At any rate, Philip gets a bee in his bonnet about having the illustrious figures at this conference (this would include yours truly, recall) to produce yet another declaration. So long story short, he, Carla and Daniel Braga Lourenço (another illustrious attendee) stay up until about about 1:00am on Thursday morning drafting a statement that says, in effect, “Animals are not objects and we should not treat them that way.” The actual text of the declaration was in Portuguese so I was not entirely sure of what it said, but a) I trust Carla and b) I could make out enough of it to be satisfied with it. So I signed it, along with a bunch of other speakers. Now just to be clear, despite what I’m about to say, I have no regrets about that. At least not until someone tells me that the Portuguese bits I couldn’t understand said something like “There were absolutely no sexual innuendos in the lyrics of Louie, Louie” or something else that I couldn’t possibly abide.

So we get down to the end of the conference after a very long day on Thursday and the declaration is read aloud, which gets a standing ovation. After which I beat it back to the bus with John Webster where we proceed to have a fascinating conversation about episodic memory (I told you it’s normally hum drum). Carla shows up on the bus looking for Philip and showing some agitation. Neither John nor I pick up on this too much, so we both congratulate her on a fine conference and continue our conversation. But then at dinner we get the details from Françoise Wemelsfelder. It seems that while the conference officials were congratulating one another, Philip has disappeared with the signed copy of the declaration.

He was eventually tracked down and he agreed to allow a Xerox copy. However, when Carla asked for the original (thinking quite reasonably by my lights that it should stay with the conference’s official sponsors), Philip says, “No. It’s mine.” And he walks off.

Françoise reports that Carla is deeply offended and shocked by this, and asks what can we do about it?  Françoise has confronted Philip in the elevator at our hotel and he has blown her off, too. It makes us wonder a bit about what Philip intends to do with this signed piece of paper, though again John and I agree that it seems unlikely that he could parlay it into something untoward. I guess John wasn’t too worried about that Louie, Louie thing, either. So I say that it’s the kind of thing that someone should write a blog about, just to let Carla know that we support her and also to get something into a somewhat public record, just in case.

So excuse my departure from the usual mid-summer foolishness, but that’s just what I’m doing.

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

Summer Cyborg Mailbag

August 3, 2014

Maybe it’s time for another Thornapple blog complaining about the robots in our midst.

As my many legions of irregular readers may have surmised, I have become somewhat reconciled to many robotic presences during the years that I’ve been writing the blog. Anyone who runs a website with an opportunity for “Comments” goes through a phase where they lose all faith in human nature. If you’re doing something kind of serious, all these nutcases show up to rant, expressing only the most extreme opinions and exhibiting the worst excesses of intolerance and crudity. Despite appearances sometimes, these are actually human beings. It’s not a problem that I have with the Thornapple blog, mainly because I’ve managed to remain incredibly obscure. And by “obscure” I’m referring both to the level of “hits” I get and also to the quality of my content.

The other problem with the “Comments” section is that occasionally you will turn on the computer and open up WordPress to discover that you have attracted 127 comments, all from “people” with different names, and all saying some variation of pretty much the same thing. Something like “ñïñ çà èíôó!!” The naïve blogger assumes that your site has gone viral in some foreign locale where an especially discriminating audience has appreciated your natural brilliance and responded with an unusual amount of enthusiasm in some language that you (unfortunately) do not understand.

Actually, ” ñïñ çà èíôó!!” is an expression in Urhobo dialect that (roughly translated) means “Your hot dogs are getting overly charred.” So it turns out that it does have something to do with food ethics in much the same way as our Bullwinkle blog of last month. But with 47 posts warning me about hot dogs on the grill I’m more inclined to think that another robot invasion has occurred. The consolation is that I do hear from human beings now and then. Sometimes they use the comment box, but they are more likely to wait until they see me. Then they will point out that that recording of “Handy Man” I referred to some months back was by Del Shannon. We could say more about Del Shannon, but that would be a tangent and we never indulge in tangents here in the Thornapple blog.

Other readers send me e-mail. Like Terry Link, who responded to my blog on the closing of Goodrich. He was concerned that I might be plumping the Meijer chain of grocery stores a bit too much. He writes: “there are any number of concerns I have with supporting Meier.”

They are privately held so we have less available information with which to judge them. Some of the concerns I would include (in no particular order of importance):

1)     Great wealth accumulation by the Meier family

2)      Illegal efforts to affect local development decisions (see Traverse City area case a few years back)

3)      Family and executive donations exclusively to Republican candidates

4)      Mislabeling produce as organic and or local/Michigan based

5)      Fighting the unit pricing regulation – I’ve caught them a few times running higher prices on items than shelf lists

6)      Not sure of their minimum wage/benefits for employees to know whether or not if they are better or worse than Walmart or approach a living wage.

Indeed, Terry, there are a few food ethics concerns in that list.

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


Zucchini for Peace

July 27, 2014

I’m just back from the International Development Ethics Association meeting where I blew everyone away with my presentation on food security. Well, maybe I’m overstating it a bit, but people did seem to appreciate what I had to say. And come to think of it, what I had to say was not really all that original, having been said in 1960 by T.W. Schulz. I’m sure all of you will recall having read his scintillating screed “Value of U.S. farm surpluses to underdeveloped countries,” in the Journal of Farm Economics. Schulz was writing about the “Food for Peace” program. He was noticing that if you take a boatload of food from the United States and ship it off to some country where people are suffering from hunger there are two things that are very likely to happen, one of them good and one of them bad.

The good thing is that when this food is off-loaded in some port city where people are suffering from inadequate diets, they are going to be better off. Whether the food is literally given away or whether it is sold at some concessional price (as is, in fact, often the case) hungry people in urban areas are going to benefit. Now, this is not going to be surprising to anyone, because that is, after all, what the whole point of food aid is, isn’t it?

But here’s the bad thing. In most cases of hunger, there are supplies of locally produced food available. Sometimes there is a true shortage, but other times it’s just a case of sheer poverty among the hungry that prevents their access to food. And then when this boatload of grain shows up, all of a sudden there is a glut of food available in this locale. If the whole operation is being managed well, some hungry people get fed, but the fact that there is now a glut of food in that local market means that the situation is something like zucchini day at the local farmer’s market. You know what I mean. We sit there all winter long, hoping for some great summer zucchini, and then it seems like everyone’s garden comes in all at the exact same instant. You go to work and there are mountains of zucchini sitting there in the main office with a little hand-lettered sign saying “Help yourself- – - Please!!

And what I’m saying is that all of a sudden you can’t give that zucchini away. You can make zucchini bread and fill your freezer with it till the cows come home but you sure aren’t going to sell any of that zucchini for anything like what it cost you to buy the seeds, water it and possibly pay for the mulch or fertilizer you spread around that garden plot. Well, this analogy transfers pretty nicely to the town in Africa or Asia where a boatload of food from the U.S. has just been off-loaded. If you were sitting there in the market place hoping to sell a few beans or some millet that you grew on your small plot outside of town, you are pretty much in the same situation as the poor schnook who thinks that everybody down at the office is going to slap him on the back and invite him to their daughter’s wedding because he showed up in the middle of the summer with a basket full of overgrown zucchini. In short, you are going to be sorely disappointed.

Of course since we’re doing a food ethics blog here I’m obligated to point at that the stakes are somewhat higher in this African or Southeast Asian locale. The woman sitting there with her basket of beans or millet is every bit as poor as those hungry people that the rich nation charitably intended to help out of their generousity and sheer goodness of heart. She may not be literally hungry at that moment because she does have a basket of beans or millet sitting right in front of her. But staying fed throughout the year depends on getting a decent price for those beans and now this boatload of food aid being off-loaded down at the town docks has pretty much put pigweed into that mulligan stew (as Mark Knopfler might have said it). That’s the bad thing.

In short, it’s more complicated than you think. It’s not an argument against charity for people who are in need of a helping hand, but it is an argument for being thoughtful about how you do that. The folks at the IDEA conference (who spend a lot of time thinking about how to help poor people) experienced one of those forehead slapping “HOW COULD I HAVE BEEN SO STUPID!” moments, and that’s why they liked my paper.

Now if we could just figure out a way to deal with this conundrum!

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

Shop Rite

July 20, 2014

Last week we memorialized the loss of a local Lansing area institution, Goodrich’s Shop-Rite. Apologies to those readers who felt that I did not take the closure of a commercial establishment seriously enough. Maybe I can work myself up to something more commensurate with the deep emotional attachment that people felt for Goodrich’s by considering its broader religious significance. It was called “Shop Rite”, after all. The robot who lives inside my desktop is telling me that “sacrament” is a synonym for “rite”, so perhaps there is something to explore here.

An anthropologist would tell you that all religions employ stylized and repetitive acts that take place at a set time and place. These rituals immerse the faithful in an experience that symbolizes the core tenets of the religious tradition. Participation in a ritual is generally an emotionally charged experience. As a simple Google search taught me, “The exalted feelings people experience during rituals provide positive reinforcement for continuing them.  When rituals make people “feel good”, they reinforce the belief that their religion is the “correct” one.”

Which brings us to the shop rite. What key religious tradition is this symbolizing? My cynical bone is telling me that it’s capitalism. The shop rite makes people feel good about being consumers; it reinforces their belief that capital accumulation is “Biblically correct,” and more in line with the metaphysical order of the universe than, say, socialism or Obamacare.

But this wouldn’t square with all my lefty friends who are bemoaning the loss of Goodrich’s. They’re especially peeved because our local food economy is being taken over by corporate entities like Whole Foods and Fresh Thyme. So it’s doubtful that the shop rite is a celebration of capitalism. So let’s see what Wikipedia says about the shop rite. There we learn that Shop Rite is a cooperative, but unlike ELFCO (regrets to my international readers, but I just don’t have the willpower to explain what ELFCO is today) ShopRite (notice the spacing) looks to all the world just like a supermarket company with a long list of locations in the Northeast. The ShopRite webpage explains that store owners (not shoppers) are members of the co-op, and that it allows them competitively priced access to the full range of produce, dairy, meat and canned, frozen or other processed foods that one expects to find at a local grocery store.

This would make ShopRite something like Piggly Wiggly, which is one of the oldest consortia of independent grocers. All the Piggly Wiggly stores use the same logo, and they save money by running chain-wide specials that allow them to print up circulars for a hundred locations instead of just one. Stuff like that, including the power of store brands. Here in Lansing we have Spartan stores, which is not quite the same thing, but similar. Goodrich’s Shop Rite was not actually a part of ShopRite, but they were a Spartan Store (or at least I think so). There may have been some long-past connection between Goodrich’s and ShopRite, but I have no idea. Maybe there was a schism over some minor point in theology.

So the rite that Goodrich’s shoppers were participating in was related to supporting a locally owned business, one that was especially responsive to some of the unique features of its location. Like for instance the fact that hundreds of foreign students and visiting faculty were living in walking distance. In contrast, the big chains mostly “adapt” to local environments just by dropping things that they would sell to more affluent white people from their shelves. It explains why the Meijer stores on the East Side are both better stocked and less dingy than the one on West Saginaw, for instance. Of course Meijer is at least a Michigan company, so maybe we should be shifting our allegiance in that direction now that Goodrich’s is gone.

This religion stuff is all pretty confusing for a poor philosopher.

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

Goodbye Mr. Chips

July 13, 2014

My apologies to the legions of readers in my national and international audience, but the Thornapple blog is going local this week. We’re waving goodbye to a longstanding food institution in East Lansing: Goodrich’s Shop-Rite. Although Goodrich’s won’t be closing their doors until later this week, there were only three cans of chili left when I was in there last Wednesday. And you know what all us local foodie alternative-agriculture pro-hyphen food-aesthetes always say, “When the canned chili’s gone, what’s the point?”

If you’ve spent any time in East Lansing, you’ll probably be inclined to visit the Goodrich’s website, so I’ll provide a handy link right here. But aside from the weekly ad telling you that groceries are now 50% with beer wine and meats discounted at 10%, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that this store was closing from the website. You’ll probably still be able to Google Goodrich’s a hundred years from now, but I’m telling you truthfully, there ain’t no canned chili left. But with great solumnity I report that my Facebook page has been bombed by “friends” paying tribute to their last visit down on Trowbridge Road, and only a few of them have been insensitive enough to say anything about the lack of chili.

So I’ll take just a paragraph or two to fill the thousands who read this blog to keep tabs on what’s what in mid-Michigan in on some details. The owners of Trowbridge Plaza have decided to do a major remodel and overhaul. Maybe we’ll say more about that in some future Thornapple blog, but for now I’m tempted to go off on a tangent about how anybody could name an establishment “Trowbridge Plaza.” To “trow” is to think or believe, as when people say “A bloody man I trow thou be, for many a heart thou hast made sour.” I say things like that all the time, don’t you? So a trow bridge must be an aid to thinking, a heuristic or mnemonic device. So far so okay, but what does that make a trowbridge plaza? A place where a bunch of old geezers sit around the fountain drinking beer, gleefully trowing and trading acronyms or philosophically obscure aphorisms? Of course, I digress.

Now there have been lots of rumors about why this upgrade meant death for Goodrich’s, but the straight poop is that you really can’t expect to stay closed for six months in the world of independent grocery stores and expect to stay in business. Goodrich’s has many friends, however, and only partly because it has been the go-to place for auto-less MSU students living in the adult housing facilities in Spartan Village and Cherry Lane. I’ve stopped at Goodrich’s about once a week on my way home from work. Especially on Tuesday. It was always vicious on Tuesday because that was Senior Discount day. But I would be in there throwing elbows with the best of the over-60s. Ahh, yes. I wlll miss the blood, the sweat and the physical contact of Senior Discount Day more than anything else.

But seriously now, there are hundreds and probably thousands of folks here in the mid-Michigan area who are now wondering where they are going to find that special item only Goodrich’s carried. The Boar’s Head deli meats score high on the Goodrich’s Yelp page, but if you take a gander there check out Eric P.’s review. There is a man who speaks the truth. For some other people I know, it will be the European chocolate and LU biscuits. Or the wine selection, especially the Grüner Veltliner and the Goats Do Roam that someone would unfailing bring everytime we had a party at Thompson house. I know other places to get bread from the Stone Circle Bakehouse and C.F. Burger dairy products, so I suppose I will survive.

But it won’t be easy. I have no idea where else I can buy Fritos for my canned chili.

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


Hokey Smoke, Bullwinkle!

July 6, 2014

Both of my regular readers probably know that our word “wiener” is derived from the German word for a sausage that comes from Vienna, and that a frankfurter is straightforwardly a sausage from Frankfort. We did this once before in the blog, if you missed it. But what about a few more food-related fun facts?

  • Back in the 1850s a particularly ineffectual cook named Mo ran a local café and boarding house in Northern Michigan. Mo had trouble getting his hotcakes out of the pan in a timely manner. The loggers who were his primary clientele were recently arrived from back East, and they had curious way of pronouncing the distinctive trait of Mo’s blackened fare. They complained that the food at Mo’s was always “boyned”. They started referring to Mo’s joint as “boyne city.” And that’s how the town that grew up around it is still known today.
  • The Owston’s palm civet, native to Laos, has learned to feed on coffee beans from plantations that coexist with wildlife preserves in the Cuc Phuong area. Their highly adapted sense of smell has made them picky eaters who choose only beans at the very peak of flavor and aroma. Connoisseurs of fine coffee will pay a fortune for kopi luwak or kopi musang, both made by collecting civet droppings and washing out the remaining beans. Producers in Sumatra have started keeping the civets in battery cages and force-feeding them beans.
  • William Faulker’s script for the 1958 film “Long Hot Summer” originally started out as light comedy about a summertime weenie roast around a bonfire in Southern Mississippi. The action tends more heavily toward slapstick as the characters engage in bouts of raucous drinking and carousing until finally the fire gets out of control, burning down the main character’s barn. Bluesman James Cotton wrote a song named “Hot Dog” for the film, which went, “Just got into town today to find my girl who’s gone away.” Ultimately the bonfire and Cotton’s music were scrapped and the barn-burning became part of the back story for Paul Newman’s romance with co-star Joanne Woodward.
  • And speaking of picnic-related song lyrics, though now a vegetarian, Yusaf Islam once wrote a song about a picnic he went on with Bill and Hilary Clinton when they were all students at Yale University in the 1960s. The original lyrics referred to his own contribution to the picnic. He brought “tea for Hillary’s man” and “steak for their son”. Islam apparently thought that the youngster accompanying them was Bill and Hillary’s child, but it was actually the child of Yale anthropologist Othneil C. Marsh, who Hillary was babysitting. According to later reports, Bill enjoyed the tea, but did not inhale.

And here’s the most shocking thing: Some of this is true!

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

Among the World-Feeders

June 29, 2014

I spent a couple of days last week amongst folks who are diligently at work developing new crops. They are after new varieties that do well in the dry conditions farmers may experience during climate change, and they’re working on varieties that resist disease, too. And then there are the longstanding enemies: weeds and insect pests. Striga is a major target, especially in Africa. Also known as witchweed, striga lies in wait in the soil. Where other weeds compete with your crop for sun and soil nutrients, striga attaches itself to the roots, hijacking your crop’s own system for capturing energy from the earth. I learned that some scientists are having some success with herbicide tolerant crops. You spray some glyphosate on your field and it kills the striga, but not your crop. But I’m not here to plump for herbicide tolerant crops this week. Some of these things might work for farmers, and I say go for it. Yet even on our own family farm in South Georgia where our lessee has been growing Roundup-Ready® cotton, we’ve already seen the emergence of pigweed that’s naturally tolerant of glyphosate.

Hence and forthwith “Go for it,’” say I, but cautiously. So much for the obligatory tangent this week, and a road we went down for a few blogs back in 2012. What I really sat down to think about this morning was an ethics issue. It’s the way that these guys (the ones who are working on all these new crops) think. They are pushing to get these new technologies out, and they definitely stand to make a buck off of them if they are taken up by farmers. But they say that they are motivated by a desired to help poor farmers. And frankly, I believe them. They are born world-feeders, and they are on a mission.

Why am I troubled by the world-feeding missionaries? They are, after all, armed with impressive statistics on global crop yields and their statistics are made even more impressive when you throw in the predictions of climate-models. They all show that humankind is in for some deep stuff if we can’t make some leaps in total food production, never mind putting off the losses in total food production that goes along with rising sea levels, frequent droughts and tsunamis. We can’t seriously doubt that poor people in developing countries will bear the brunt of these events when they eventually transpire. And note that it’s when not if.

Could my troubles stem from worries about what it takes to finally bring these world-feeding technologies on line? I mean, take this herbicide strategy for controlling striga as a case in point. Making that work means having the seeds, which maybe we’ll give away in a newfound spirit of largess. But it also means having the herbicide, which somebody has to make. If somebody is going to make it, they’ll need to get paid, so having the herbicide requires sombody’s largess year after year. Either that or farmers that are rich enough to buy it themselves. We see plenty of sufficiently rich farmers here in the United States, but not so much in the African countries where striga is a serious pest. So making that particular technology work requires a form of largess that itself may not be sustainable given what we know about human nature, or it requires making the farmers rich enough so that they are no longer among the most vulnerable who need our help.

And why would I be troubled about that? Isn’t that “the American way”? Could it be that even here in America there are three to five people who stay poor (even if they do not remain as farmers) for every farmer who gets rich enough to buy his or her own herbicide. Some of them migrate to cities, where some of them find jobs, to be sure, so where’s the harm in that? Could it be that for everyone who finds a job there is one who doesn’t, and another who dies penniless leaving six children to fend for themselves in the slums of Harare or Kalundu View? Could it be that world-feeding humanitarianism seems to wind up being followed by an Operation Murambatsvina? Could it be that realizing these statistical goals of food production seems to require the removal, humiliation and oppression of so many people who just happen to be in the way?

If it wasn’t for that, I assure you that I would be a totally un-troubled world-feeder myself. It’s not like I have a better plan. Feeding the world is what ethics would certainly require. … But for some troubling collateral damages.

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


Food Enmity

June 22, 2014

As threatened a few weeks back I’m on a jag about food sovereignty. I decided that the best way to approach this topic would be to read up on the way that food showed up in the lives of history’s great sovereigns. I pulled my copy of Selected Lives by Plutarch down from the shelf and started reading. So far I’ve worked my way through Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius, Themistocles, Camillus, Pericles, Fabius Maximus, Alcibiades, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus and Alexander. Some—Alcibiades, for one—were generals who never exercised the power of a sovereign. The Romans on this list date from the age of Republic, so their sovereignty was temporary. The Greeks, too, often elected their sovereigns. So except for Alexander these would be sovereigns more in the sense of Obama and Bush than Caesar. Plutarch does do Julius Caesar, but I haven’t gotten that far in my reading. He also throws in some lives like Demosthenes and Cicero who were known for oratory, but since I wouldn’t expect to learn much about food sovereignty from anyone who was kind of like a philosopher, I’m just going to ignore them.

One thing you learn from reading Plutarch is that very few of these sovereigns died what we here in the 21st century would call a natural death. And no, they didn’t die from consuming too many chips and sausages, drinking 32 ounce Big Gulps or eating the Big Whooper everyday at some drive-through they encountered while leading legions of phalanxes and cavalry all around the Mediterranean. Sovereignty seems to have been accompanied by enmity. Since I’ve yet to read anything about food enmity coming out of the contemporary food movement, I’m going to report this with my hand rubbing my chin, mumbling an audible “Hmmm!” Then I’m going to chalk it up to a diversion for now, but if you start hearing people chatting about food enmity, remember that you read it first in the Thornapple Blog.

Most of these sovereigns (and some orators, too) met their end by the sword, but there are allegations that Alexander, who was the Big Kahuna among sovereigns, was poisoned. We could indulge ourselves in another diversion here, exploring the root of the word “kahuna” which comes from the Hawaiian verb “to cook”, but my point (which less linguistically erudite readers probably inferred already) was simply that among ancient kings and generals Alexander was great. They called him “Alexander the Great”, don’t you know? So let’s just get right on back to the food connection here.

Plutarch was a bit fastidious in his reporting and does not fully credit the story that Alexander was poisoned, putatively at the behest of the philosopher Aristotle. You’ve got to watch those philosophers, you know. But even if we can’t take this story at face value, we have plenty of hysterical evidence that other sovereigns were betrayed at table. The Roman emperors Vitellius, Domitian, Hadrian, Commodus, Caracalla and Alexander Severus are on the list, but the biggie would be Augustus, who was putatively wasted by his wife Livia with a bag of poisoned fig newtons. There’s no report as to whether or not he ate them with milk. Claudius was also done in eating poisonous mushrooms by his wife Agrippina. Agrippina was a real piece of work, by the way. She poisoned Claudius to ensure that her son Nero would assume the throne but held the threat of further poisoning over Nero’shead. Nero himself allegedly used the services of the official poisoner Locusta to off his half brother Britannicus. Britannicus wasn’t a sovereign though so this is just a side note in the present context.

And so my fastidious research shows that when you hear someone advocating food sovereignty, it means that they are in favor of using food as a means of homicide. I’ll go on record as saying that food ethics frowns on food as a means of homicide. But maybe those Big Whooper meals are part of the food sovereignty story, after all.

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


Right On, Man

June 15, 2014

Since Father’s Day happens to fall on a Sunday this year, I’m dedicating this edition of the Thornapple Blog to my own personal father. Don’t laugh. Lots of people have their own personal fathers, so why should it seem strange to be talking to them on Father’s Day? By chance my own personal father (who lives in Missouri) has asked me to write about “right to farm laws.” In short, I’m offering good advice this morning and as the fool-poet of the 1960s Allan Sherman once sang, “Good advice costs nothing and it’s worth the price.” But here’s a warning to my other regular reader: this may get a little boring.

One thing to notice is that “right to farm” covers a lot of turf. Mainly we are talking about a bunch of laws and ordinances that have been enacted throughout these United States of America since the mid-1980s. They don’t all say exactly the same thing. Some of these laws have been more carefully crafted than others, but getting into the details of that would involve actual research on my part. Being a modern academic person I do not do actual research unless and until someone gives me a grant that allows me to make one of my students do the heavy lifting. What’s more, I’m not aware that any of the Great Philosophers from Socrates, Plato and Xenophon right on through to Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche ever wrote about the right to farm. Hegel may have gotten close but we would still be stretching things just a bit to extract a right to farm discussion from Grundlienen der Philosophie des Recht. So I’m just going to make everything that follows in today’s blog up from scratch.

Right to farm laws started proliferating when farmers (by which we implicitly mean big farmers) got torqued by zoning restrictions and county ordinances passed by newly arrived suburbanites who had themselves been torqued when these big farmers decided to lay down a fresh layer of pig manure on the north forty one day when the wind was just right. These newly arrived suburbanites had come out to the country in order to enjoy the bucolic joys of wild nature (especially the picturesque red barns and silos) and the agrarian lifestyle. They never thought that this had anything to do with the smell of freshly applied pig manure, and they were quite reasonably concerned that the odiferous quality of their farming neighbors’ strange proclivities might cause a drop in their property values. Sooner or later the newly arrived suburbanites outnumbered the farmers and when that happens, you can be sure that some kind of zoning or county ordinance is in the offing.

But say hey, said the big farmers. Not only were we here before you, we were the ones who made this place into the bucolic paradise that attracted you out of the city in the first place. Now as a certified academic philosopher I’m contractually obligated to point out that this is not typically the kind of argument that will be recognized to establish a moral right. So the farmers augmented their umbrage with references to Jefferson, the agrarian heritage of the countryside and the moral superiority of the farming people. This allowed them to get some of these laws passed in state legislatures, where they take legal precedence over zoning restrictions and county ordinances. In effect, right to farm laws trump local consensus on land use, giving the prerogative to the landowner.

Time passes. Big farmers get less popular and people start to shop local. You won’t get rich doing it, but you can now certainly make a living by growing high value fruit and vegetable crops on less than an acre. What’s more, with the economy going the way it is there are plenty of urban areas in the United States where plots of 2 acres or more can be had simply by putting up the unpaid taxes. We start to get an urban farming movement. And it turns out that some of these right-to-farm laws turn out to be very useful to the latter day hippies, feminists and organic food fundamentalists who are eking out a living by growing herbs for local chefs and selling carrots, sweet potatoes and cucumbers at the weekly farmers’ market. They are particularly helpful for people who want to keep goats or chickens.

“Whoa, Nellie,” said the big farmers, many of whom were deeply skeptical not only of the idea that a proper farm could occupy less than 500 acres but also of the preposterous suggestion that women could be considered farmers. Now as we’ve said before in this space, the official USDA definition of a farm could apply to a couple of cigar boxes under a Gro-Light (and we ain’t talkin’ babies, Jack). So the next thing you know we are in a bit of a tizzy, with some of the big, self-righteous farmers taking it upon themselves to prevent these upstart hooligans from claiming Jefferson’s legacy, not to mention undercutting their commodity markets. They started coming out against right to farm, or at least such a broad interpretation of it, and then they started to argue that we need a more “reasonable” understanding of what is protected by this right, and what is not.

So in present tense, the right to farm debate is coming down to a contest between people who support “local food” and people who think that this is not real farming at all, mainly because these upstart wanna-be “farmers” don’t survey their domain from behind the windshield of 14-foot tall air-conditioned four-wheel-drive Big Buds. But on the other side of this issue, if you decide to side with the little guys don’t be too surprised if you wake up one morning to the sweet smell of freshly applied pig manure.

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