Peter Singer

January 31, 2016

We’ve arrived at the fifth Sunday in January. Both of my regular readers know that I am now contractually obligated to come up with one more “food ethics icon,” and that given the parameters laid out on January 3, it has to be a full-bore, no-questions-asked philosopher. (For stray web browsers who just happened to land here, I’ll point out that like many things in The Blog, this is not strictly true, but then I’ll just move right on along without skipping a beat. Take it at face value.) My dilemma is that so far I’ve come up with four dead white guys. I would never put together a course syllabus with all white guys, much less dead ones. I really believe that racial, ethnic and gender diversity of standpoints is philosophically crucial. So how can I write a blog where all the food ethics icons are dead white guys?

Now there are some possible responses to my dilemma. Lisa Heldke, for example. I’ve mentioned Lisa in the blog several times before. At a recent lecture on another campus I was honorifically introduced as “the father of food ethics,” but the host went on to say that Lisa is probably the mother. There are in fact a number of women philosophers doing very cool work in food ethics today—Mary Rawlinson, Erinn Cunniff Gilson, Kate Millar, Lieske Voget-Kleschin. People who focus on animal issues might list Lori Gruen. The trouble with this list—and I would put Lisa right at the head of it—is putting them on another list that already has John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Aristotle and Karl Marx on it. Lifting any living person to iconic status in that company might be a bit of a stretch. I’m sure Lisa would agree.

The one exception that I would make among living philosophers (and remember, the standard is that everyone would recognize our candidate as a philosopher) is Peter Singer—another white guy, though admittedly not yet dead. Singer is by all counts in good health and alternately teaching at Princeton and the University of Melbourne. There are reasons why you might not want to put Singer up there in the same category with Locke, Mill, Aristotle and Marx, but if we look back over the last half century, there are very few philosophers (if any) who have been more widely read. I think there is a good chance that people looking back on our era may indeed think of it as philosophically barren, but there is a fair chance that Singer will be singled out as someone who influenced us significantly and for the better.

What is more, unlike some of the other living philosophers who might be candidates for getting up there on an icons list with bigshots like Aristotle—people like Daniel Dennett or Martha Nussbaum—Singer has indeed made significant contributions on food. His two earliest papers were on world hunger and on animal liberation (with significant implications for ethical vegetarianism and intensive livestock production). He has revisited these themes often and productively throughout his career. And he even wrote a book on food ethics (with Jim Mason) called The Ethics of What We Eat.

So I’ve resisted the temptation to go combing back through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to see if I couldn’t scrounge up some passage where they happened to mention food. Either would have satisfied my diversity craving: neither are white males and both have the advantage of being dead. Yet the fact is, we don’t remember these works for anything they said about food, and I’m not inclined to say that as with Locke or Aristotle we might read them more perceptively if we were to pay attention to the role that food plays, however indirectly, in their thought.

Singer it is then. That closes off the food ethics icons for 2016. Next Sunday, it’s back to the usual nonsense.

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

Karl Marx

January 24, 2016

Yikes! Although he died peacefully sitting in a London armchair in 1881, Karl Marx’s name still provokes kneejerk responses from Americans of every political persuasion. Totally aside from the fact that listing him means that I have four dead white guys for my 2015 food ethics icons, you would think I might be a little more circumspect at raising someone like this to iconic status. There are still plenty of Trump voters out there who think that taking interest in what Marx said or thought disqualifies you for any position of leadership or responsibility.

The misunderstanding of Marx runs deep. I recall an episode where a parent complained that students were reading Marx in a German literature class. Anxious to set aside the impression that they were ideologues, they assured the department head to whom the complaint was addressed that they would not object to students reading Marx in a Russian class. They just felt students should be reading material written in the original language.

Of course that was back in the day when the Russians were scary Communists, whereas today they are just scary. So for the record, Marx was born at Trier in 1818. Trier—which has often been called “Treve” in English—is now a part of Germany (though it was in Prussia during Marx’s time). Marx lived in London for his most productive years and he wrote in both German and English. To my knowledge, he was not fluent in Russian. The Communist Manifesto (which he wrote with his friend Friedrich Engels) is a marvelous bit of prose that really should be read by everyone. Now I know I’m in trouble. My brother Dave tells me that the leading candidate to lead his university in the Atlanta suburbs was disinvited after a local columnist discovered that the candidate had cited Marx in one of his academic papers. “We don’t want no Marxists running our schools!” And here I am saying that you should actually read Marx. It’s probably like one of those satanic curses you get from the subliminal effect of playing the Beatles Revolution # 9 backwards. John Lennon was probably referring to Marx when he said “Turn me on, dead man!”

However, Marx did include a wise and fascinating chapter on agriculture in his magnum opus Das Kapital. Marx was working from an economic paradigm (I know, I know—another big word. Look it up on Wikipedia) where production was thought to be a function of three factors: land, labor and capital. Land actually referred to all of the material stuff that things were made from. We would call it “resources.” You know what labor is. The leading idea of the early 19th century was that “resources” are worthless in their natural state. It’s only after labor transforms them (maybe by just digging them up) that they have value. So how come the men and women who are doing that labor are among the poorest people in society? That was (if you’ll pardon my excessive reductionism) Marx’s question.

Well, we need to look at that third factor for the answer, and Marx wrote several large volumes on it. I still think the very idea of capital is pretty vague. No one in Marx’s time would have thought that money was capital, yet financial capital seems to be the most important mojo around today. For the economists of Marx’s time, capital is the stuff that doesn’t get “used up” in the production process. If you build a house, the mud for the bricks and the trees for the wood are consumed in the production process. They become part of the house, and aren’t available for the next house you want to build. There’s the labor you expended building the house, but what else is there? Part of the answer is “the tools”. And indeed the technology you use in a production process is capital. But you have to have the tools before you can start building the house, and noticing that small fact was a key to Marx’s economic thought. All the power resides with the guy who already has the tools (or the wherewithal to buy them). He can hire labor on the day he needs it. So the big money goes to the capitalist. You can add “pig” to the end of that sentence if you are a Sanders voter.

But in his agriculture chapter, Marx noticed that soils are in basically the same shape as the worker. There’s really nothing beyond the long-term interest of the landowner to ensure that they are not exploited beyond their capacity to renew themselves, just like members of the proletariat who were driven down to wages that were not even sufficient to buy food and a warm place to sleep. And as the power shifts to the owners of technology (you can substitute “Monsanto” if you are a GMO hater) that kind of exploitation will become more and more common, he thought.

Well maybe it’s another blog that won’t make sense to a lot of readers, but still and all, I’m calling Karl Marx a food ethics icon.

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


January 17, 2016

A couple of weeks back when I decided to dedicate this year’s series of blogs on “food ethics icons” to full-bore, no-one-would-raise-an-eyebrow-about-me-calling-them-philosophers philosophers, Aristotle was one of the guys I had in mind. He certainly meets the no-eyebrows-raised criterion. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, but these days it’s Aristotle who is thought to be the pinnacle of thought in Ancient Greece. He was a Macedonian born in 384 BCE, but like Socrates and Plato, his philosophical legacy is tied closely to the city of Athens. I’m not going to do biography. I kind of like the way that Plutarch makes Aristotle out to be something of a gangster in his time, implicating him in a plot to assassinate his onetime pupil and conqueror-of-the-known-world Alexander. It’s probably not true, but hey, that hasn’t stopped us here in the Thornapple Blog before. Aristotle died on the island of Euboea (can I resist a surrealistic tangent on Ebola?) in 322 BCE.

I’m also going to break form from the last two food ethics icons by saying absolutely nothing about Aristole’s general philosophy. There’s way too much of it, for one thing. In ethics, he is cited as the paradigm expositor of virtue ethics, which is just a bizarre conceit among philosophy professors that is intended to mark out three general approaches to ethics. Consequentialists think that ethics is only about getting the best outcome from what you do, while deontologists think that ethics is only about knowing and discharging your moral duty. Virtue ethics is in truth kind of a trash-can “not either one of those” approaches, but it does pivot on the idea that ethics is predominantly about developing a strong moral character.

So you protest, dear reader, “I thought you weren’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s general philosophy, yet here you are prattling on about virtue ethics!” But I have two responses. One is to remind you (for the second time in this blog) that not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true (though of course, some of it is). More substantively, a) I haven’t really told you much of anything about Aristotle because b) in fact all the Greeks were really doing virtue ethics, especially when you compare them to the way that consequentialists and deontologists do ethics today. One key point would be go back to the last paragraph and ponder the fact that the word ‘only’ is italicized. Twice.

So I do in fact think that food ethics really demands a ‘virtue ethics’ approach, but that wouldn’t be why I picked Aristotle as a food ethics icon. In point of fact, I’m not so sure that he was a good choice, after all. There’s not a hell of a lot about food or farming in Aristotle (not that I would represent myself as having read every word of Aristotle, mind you). You could go off on a few passages where he talks about the appropriateness of eating animals. But I won’t.

What made me think of Aristotle as a food ethics icon are a few passages in the Politics where he says that the family household is the model for a good society. Some of my feminist and gay friends tee off on this, but that’s not reading Aristotle in the appropriate historical context. He’s not defending the model of a family household that we learned from watching Leave It to Beaver back in the 1950s. He’s actually thinking about the kind of farming household that Xenophon discusses at length in his Oeconomicus. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, we’ve already done Xenophon, so here’s a link. You can tell that Aristotle has the farm household in mind because he talks about the hoi mesoi which we would probably translate as “the middle class”. This ties in nicely with themes Aristotle stresses in his virtue ethics, where he writes that a virtue is usually a “mean” or middle-point between two vices of excess. “Courage,” for example, is the mid-point between cowardice and foolhardiness. But I said I wasn’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s larger philosophical views, so I’d better just drop this right now.

It’s easy to read that “middle class” thing to mean people just like you, me and Bob, but neither you, me nor Bob very likely represents the hoi mesoi unless Bob happens to be a farmer who is also a member of the National Guard. The farm households had a special relationship to the heart of the polis, which is, in turn, the heart or core of political solidarity. Unlike the hoi polloi they were not plutocrats, but had to work for their living, and the work they did depended on the sustainability of society and its ability to protect their fields from invading hoards. Invading hoards like Cyrus and the Persians, who were not a Peloponnesian punk band, but actual and for instance in fact invading hoards.

Well, I’m being a bit sarcastic and stretching the truth a little and I might as well admit it. But it’s also just a fact that lots of philosophy professors who know a lot more about Aristotle than I do seem to miss this singular fact about the way that he describes the basis of political association. So to push this line just a little bit harder, I’m calling Aristotle a food ethics icon.

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

John Stuart Mill

January 10, 2016

My second “food ethics icon” for 2016 is John Stuart Mill. Mill is a pretty interesting figure in his own right and certainly one of the most important individuals of the 19th century. Mill inhabited a rarified intellectual and political environment from his London birth in 1806 to his death from a severe skin infection at Avignon in 1873. He associated with everybody who was anybody in English society and was an influential government advisor, especially in connection with the administration of Britain’s most important colony, India. When I started studying philosophy in the 1970s, Mill was known primarily for two short works: Utilitarianism and On Liberty. Today he is also known as an early advocate of feminism, largely for another short work The Subjection of Women. Mill probably considered all of these to be works of popularization. The first was serialized in Fraser’s Magazine—a publication that near as I can tell would have been something like The Atlantic. Mill thought of the work as a concise exposition of some views advocated by his father, James Mill and other close Mill family friends including Jeremy and Samuel Bentham and Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. It continues to be cited as perhaps the most authoritative (and certainly the most readable) of all works on utilitarian philosophy.

On Liberty was probably more important. It was in fact a collaboration with Mill’s wife, Harriett Taylor Mill (1807-1858). On Liberty is a historically important articulation of liberalism in ethics and political philosophy. In this context, ‘liberalism’ doesn’t mean big government. It’s the idea that individuals should be pretty much free to conduct their private lives according to their own lights. The only justification for interference in one person’s freedom occurs when the exercise of that freedom imposes or threatens harm to someone else. It was a doctrine that cut against the idea of state-sanctioned religions and was in fact intended to limit both the power of government and the influence of busybodies. The Subjection of Women is entirely consistent with this theme, arguing that women have a right to be free architects of their own lives as much as men. I’ve argued that this core liberal idea is so ingrained in the way that we think about inter-personal relationships that it has to be the starting point for any contemporary discussion of food ethics.

When did you make that argument, the attentive blog reader asks? “Well,” the solicitous blog writer answers, “maybe I haven’t actually made it in my blog. But it does show up in my book on food ethics, From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone.” But is that enough to make Mill a food ethics icon, the inquisitive blog reader inquires? “Perhaps not,” the chastened blog writer replies. So here are a couple of other points to consider.

Mill spent much of his professional life as an official of the British East India Company. He gave much thought and extended writing to the question of whether Hindoo (that’s his word) farmers were competent administrators of their own lands. Contrary to what you might think the author of On Liberty might say, he concluded that they were not and relied on a utilitarian argument to establish the right of the British Crown to make key land use decisions.

There’s another thing, too. Mill was an active participant in the debate over the Corn Laws, which placed heavy tariffs on imported grain. The Corn Laws were enormously beneficial to English farmers, and Thomas Malthus was probably the leading advocate for the view that they were needed to insure a fair price for farmers. The farmers themselves were needed for more complex reasons. Mill was among those economists who argued that free trade in grain would bring the price of food down and that this would be beneficial to the poor. Needless to say, Mill and his friends won this argument.

I write this without feeling like I’ve done enough reading on either subject to say much more than these bland generalities. I recommend them as important topics in food ethics that need the attention of future scholars. Still, doesn’t Mill’s role in these two crucial questions qualify him as an underappreciated food ethics icon?

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

John Locke


January 3, 2016

Newcomers to the Thornapple Blog may not know that January has been “food ethics icons month” ever since 2011. We started out with some very well-known names and by 2013 we were doing rock-star farmers. Last year the theme was population growth. This year I’ve decided to focus on some bona fide philosopher types, people that everyone would recognize as such. I’m not sure we’ve ever done one that meets these criteria, though I personally do think of Xenophon, Emerson and Malthus as philosophers. I would also include Amartya Sen, even if he is mainly thought of as an economist. Vandana Shiva has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but I have never seen her identify herself as a philosopher.

I’m starting out with John Locke. No, I’m not talking about the guy from Lost. Thankfully, you have to get at least to the second page of a Google search before you start hitting this fictional character from the series that ran for what seemed like an eternity back in the last decade. I never paid any attention to it, but the writers’ penchant for naming characters after philosophers provided many opportunities for sophomoric humor. Of course, we never indulge in sophomoric humor here in the blog, so I’ll just reiterate that I am, in fact, talking about the John Locke, who lived from 1632 to 1704.

Locke would not strike many contemporary readers as an obvious choice for a food ethics icon. He’s known on the one hand as the founder of British Empiricism, a theory of knowledge which held that at birth the mind is a blank slate latter to be filled with impressions and ideas. Knowledge accrues first through the temporal and spatial association of impressions, giving rise to ideas formed by generalization. This is a pretty skimpy (and probably) misleading account of Locke’s epistemology, but hey, you didn’t open up the blog to read about epistemology anyway. On the other hand, Locke is known as offering what is probably the most influential version of the social contract. This is the idea that our social ethic is based on our mutual need to manage the risks of life in a commonwealth. Sure, we might all get along most of the time, but there are a few bad apples out there, and things can turn nasty even when well-meaning people get into a dispute. So we set up a mutually agreed upon system of rights and duties, and we create governments to inforce that system and mange disputes.

This is also a pretty skimpy account of Locke’s social contract theory, because one of his chief aims in writing social philosophy was to provide a philosophical basis for challenging the authority of absolute monarchs. You’d hardly pick that up from my summary, and you’re still wondering what all this could have to do with food ethics. I’m not going to be able to ‘splain it all without busting my word limit, so just take a couple of items on faith. First, the disputes that Locke was thinking about mostly had to do with property rights, and in the 17th century when we’re talking property, we’re mainly talking agriculture. Locke’s pronouncements on property need to be interpreted in light of views being advocated by the diggers and levelers.

No, the diggers are not a reality-based TV show about guys with power shovels, and sadly you do have to get pretty deep into a Google search before you will turn up the political movement led by Gerrard Winstanley. They advocated for a “commons” on which anyone (by which of course, they meant, any Englishman) could farm. They were against “enclosure”, which was literally a practice of building fences and walls around fields. There was a rousing egalitarianism behind the diggers’ point of view, and it makes me think that I should probably be celebrating Winstanley as the food ethics icon, rather than Locke. The levelers were also egalitarians who were pushing against the power of the aristocrats, but that’s a tangent that we’d best not explore for now.

At any rate, Locke defended enclosure in his Second Treatise of Government, despite admitting that God gave the earth to mankind in common. I’m calling him a food ethics icon because the argument he used is still used to argue for all manner policies, practices and technologies today. Here’s the quote:

[T]he provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common.

We use a similar argument to defend chemical fertilizer and pesticides, African land grabs and GMOs to this day: If you can produce more food by doing something, that’s a justification for doing it. I’m not saying that Locke was the very first to come up with this, nor am I saying that I necessarily agree with it. But he’s the first I know of, and for that I’m calling him a food ethics icon.

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


Truly Exceptional

December 27, 2015

I got a survey this week asking about my experience getting my car serviced at Williams Volkswagen here in Lansing. I’m very happy with the service department at Williams, by the way. I’ve bought three cars from them in the decade I’ve lived in Michigan. But the survey sent by Volkswagen of America kind of bugs me. It requires you to answer on a scale where “satisfied” is a middling response, and even “excellent” can be topped by the response “truly exceptional”. I’m of the mind that “truly exceptional” things are rare by nature. After all, how could the service I get by “truly exceptional” if excellent, prompt and thoughtful service is what I have come to expect?

But I have learned that Volkswagen of America penalizes dealers who are less than “truly exceptional,” and so I dutifully check that box at every opportunity in the survey. It’s the inflationary expectations that really drive me to distraction. After my China trip, I picked up a book by Yang Jisheng about the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1962. I was writing a little bit about this last week. Millions of Chinese died from hunger and many of those that survived were forced to eat leather, tree bark and even human flesh in order to so. For the first three years of the famine, those who tried to call the dire situation to the attention of the authorities were ostracized, removed from their jobs and often physically beaten. Victims of this violence added to the overall death toll.

You may be wondering what this has to do with my Volkswagen, but the connection here is inflationary expectations. Famines are seldom caused by only one thing, and there were drought conditions in 1959 that reduced the size of the harvest by eight to twelve percent. That would be enough to cause problems, but not starvation, and certainly not on the scale that actually occurred. The root cause of the famine as reported by Yang (and other scholars agree) was different. The official government policy at the time was to calculate how much food would be needed for the local population, and to requisition the balance to be kept in government controlled storage facilities. This was actually supposed to be a famine-preventing policy, one of those ant and the grasshopper things where the wise and thrifty government was putting things aside for a rainy day. So we have the drought plus this socialist vision of food security, but that still doesn’t add up to famine.

The tipping point came because government officials felt themselves under pressure to demonstrate the ongoing success of China’s experiment with socialism by reporting a year-to-year increase in total production from every industry, including agriculture. They felt that they had to show that productivity was “truly exceptional” every time they made a report, and this meant that this year’s harvest had to be at least fifteen to twenty percent bigger than last year’s. And indeed, according to Yang, those that didn’t play this game were punished and replaced by someone who would. In fact, yields were relatively steady except in the drought year, and even then would have been enough to feed the local population (including their pigs, chickens and goats).

But if the government thinks that the harvest is truly exceptional, then decision making by the central authorities will demand that the “surplus production” (e.g. the overage beyond what is needed for immediate consumption) be appropriated and set aside for that rainy day. By 1959, this inflationary spiral of expectations had grown to the point that when the government officials came down to requisition the putative surplus, they in fact seized every kernel of edible food that had been produced that year in many of China’s most agriculturally productive provinces. With literally nothing to eat, peasant farmers in the rural areas were thrown into the dire straits that eventually led them to scourge the countryside for anything that would quash their raging hunger.
There’s one more ripple. Officials who couldn’t scrape up the expected amount of overage from these “truly exceptional” harvests accused people of holding out, of being “capitalist roaders,” and of having right-leaning tendencies. And that, of course, led to more beatings and another inflationary cycle of rhetoric and unrefutable expectations. The famine was, in truth, a case where careless use of language produced a human tragedy of epic proportions.

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

Let Them Know It’s Christmas

December 20, 2015

Following up from last week, I want to report a few more observations from my China trip. Last week I gave a short description of the sad conditions existing in my friend Xu’s home village. As I noted, by global standards, these farming families are not doing badly. An annual income of $5000 would be well above the global standard of poverty (roughly $1000 per year), not to mention the World Bank definition for extreme poverty ($500). A half century ago China experienced a famine of historic proportions. Xu recalls this time from his childhood when his mother was reduced to begging for food with shame and horror. Other reports of the three year famine period indicate the consumption of corpses and even the murder and cannibalism of strangers and children. The estimated death toll ranges from 20 to 45 million people. The Chinese government has not cooperated with scholars who have attempted to understand the root causes of their Great Famine, insisting that it was a simple natural disaster. That debate aside, it is important to note that those days seem long past in present day China. The aura of sadness and resignation in Xu’s village notwithstanding, people not only have enough to eat, they can afford some technological conveniences—like scooters and farm equipment.

Indeed, I’m sure on reflection that some of the dejection I was picking up was being projected by Xu, who was telling stories about happier times in his own childhood. He talked of how there had once been a stream that flowed through the village, and how his family had survived over the winter months by fishing. The stream is long gone, and when I asked why he wasn’t sure. Something to do with restricted water flow from a reservoir not far away. Similarly, he pointed to a shallow pond overgrown with brush and told of how it had once been an attractive swimming hole for village children. As we walked along the dirt trail that ran between the walled household compounds, he passed what looked like an overgrown vacant lot saying that this was the village center. In his youth it would have been filled with children, but as I wrote last week, there are no children in the village today. All the families with children have abandoned their farms, seeking a better life in cities.

It seems that people in China are fairly mobile these days, though I also pieced together a story about how they are supposed to seek authorization for such moves. Failing to do that, they lose access to some of the benefits that are supposed to be guaranteed by the socialist state. Now here I have to caution blog readers that I’m no China specialist, so take all this with large doses of salt. I infer that either the inducements of the city or the despondency of rural life (likely a combination of both) are enough to override any incentive to maintain the official status that entitles many Chinese to benefits. But the result is that one hears talk of homelessness and vulnerability within this socialist state that is very much like that of dispossessed people in neoliberal societies like our own. If the Great Famine is past, that does not mean that everyone is food secure.

I also talked to a couple of “farmers” who are, in fact, very much like our absentee landlords. They have contracted with farm families to secure the right to use their assigned plots (remember, the Chinese government owns all the land, but families retain alienable rights to farm it). It was one of those good/bad years in China. Growing conditions were good, but with a glut of commodities, the market for farm produce is weak. One of these investor/farmers I met talked about the high cost of farm labor, the low return on crops and concluded that she had lost her capital and would not be doing this kind of farming in the future. Another one told me that there were still opportunities to sell crops to the government at above market prices, providing a kind of farm support very reminiscent of what we do here in the United States. The fact that these two reports are somewhat contradictory just testifies to the difficulty of piecing together any concrete story about what is happening in China today. Or maybe it’s just my own limitations as an observer an analyst.

To quote Bob Geldof and Midge Ure,

Oh at Christmas time, it’s hard, but when you’re having fun There’s a world outside your window And it’s a world of dread and fear Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.

Feed the world? Maybe not as straightforward as one might think.

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

Got My Mo-Zhou Working

December13, 2015

I’m writing this week from seat 11J on a long-haul flight homeward bound from China. I spent a week in the vicinity of Nanjing giving some talks at universities and visiting my friend, Xu Huaike. Xu spent a year as a visiting scholar at Michigan State University, and he wanted to show me his home village. The word ‘village’ can mean something different in the Chinese context. It might be a town of 200,000 people, but in this instance I think anyone would agree that I was going to a village. We drove about an hour out of Ming Guang, which is too small to have an airport, but might have 400,000 people, passing through the small city where Xu had taught high school students. He wanted to show me the farmer’s market: chickens and geese being slaughtered, plucked and dressed; old men sitting with a few cabbages and a handful of cilantro to sell for their daily living; live fish swimming in dishpans.

We kept on driving for another 10 or 15 kilometers on a very narrow but well maintained paved road until we came to the place that Xu was born and spent his childhood. It was a farming village with perhaps 30 small compounds tightly packed together. The Chinese farm household consists of two or three squat rectangular buildings arranged around a hard (possibly concrete) rectangular pad that is used to thresh and dry grains. Corn is what I saw on a pretty chilly December morning. The compound might be walled and gated, with tin roofs over the brick buildings. One of these buildings serves as the house, with two or three rooms, including a small kitchen, while others are for storage of grain and tools, or barns for chickens, pigs or goats. We pulled into a drive and parked the car, then walked about a quarter of a mile down a dirt path to two of the compounds where we met some of the family still working at farming.

The men and women alike were grizzled and weathered to the point that it was difficult to guess their age, though I suppose they ranged from mid-forties to late fifties. There is electricity that runs to the compound but no plumbing in these houses. I’m not sure how that little bit of human necessity is handled. I saw no evidence of electrical appliances. The power is for the farming work.

After a few pleasantries, the dogs were shooed away and narrow benches were brought out so we could all sit in the compound for a smoke and a chat. There’s not all that much compelling work on a farm during the second week of December, so everyone was more than willing to spend a few moments with the pale, blue-eyed stranger that had appeared in their midst. Some of the talk was typical farm stuff: how the bumper crop in rice and corn this year had led to a collapse in prices. When we got around to talking about the outlook, none of them expected to be there in ten years. None of their children are there now. Everyone expects to lease their land to a contractor eventually and move into the city.

Now this land thing is a complicated story I don’t fully understand. All the land in China is owned by the socialist government. However, farmers do have the right to farm on designated plots. Although they can’t buy and sell land, they can either lease their right to farm to a contractor, or they can sell it permanently. I’ve read that a few farmers have exchanged their farming lease for a similar lease on an urban apartment, and perhaps that’s what Xu’s family is hoping to do as well.

These plots are exceedingly small by U.S. standards—no bigger than the patch on which we grow vegetables for Thornapple CSA and some much smaller. What is more the plots are separated from one another by berms and the level of the fields are not at the same height. Rice fields, in particular, may be two or three feet lower than others. You could not run even a medium-sized farm tractor over these fields without a major landscaping effort. Patchwork is an understatement. Nevertheless, I did see a small tractor, and also a small (by U.S. standards) harvester.

This is obviously a hard life that is mostly dominated by work with few amenities. Xu says, “I think their lives are miserable,” though by world standards they are not poor, earning about $5000 annually from tending their plots. You can live on that, but not well. A cup of coffee in Ming Guang will cost you about what it does in the U.S.A, so there’s not money for extra clothes or home improvements. At the same time, I’ve seen poor farmers in India and Africa who would not have even the bits of equipment that the farm families in this village have.

The story is missing lots of important details, though I do have a few that I might be sharing in future blogs. What’s most unclear is who will be doing the farm work when everyone leases out their right to farm and heads to the city. Xu’s village once had over 300 families, but on the day I visited they were down to 19. Most of the farm compounds were abandoned. I’m sure I will be mulling over this trip for some time to come.

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



Some Fishy News

December 6, 2015

Here is a post for those Thornapple Blog readers who rely on me to keep them informed of all the doings in the murky world of food regulatory policy. Of course I have to caution any other innocent soul who happens to have stumbled onto the Blog that the readers who rely on me to keep them informed of all the doings in the murky world of food regulatory policy have very low expectations. They don’t really have a great desire to be informed about such matters at all, else they would have long since found a more reliable source. There are hundreds of bloggers frequenting the Internet who (as we have colorfully noted on a previous occasion) write a blog post every time they go to the bathroom, and there are probably be a dozen who write every time someone in a regulatory agency goes to the bathroom, and (although I can’t direct you to this particular website) that suggests there has to be one or two who specialize in the bathroom visits of regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

There is probably somebody with a secret webcam installed in the office bathroom of Larisa Rudenko, who is the FDA official who was charged with responding to questions about the FDA’s announcement that finally, after what seems like centuries but is in fact only decades of delay, they have approved the genetically engineered fast-growing Aqua Bounty™ salmon. I count Larisa as a friend, even if I only see her in a professional context and even then not for a year or so now. She didn’t see fit to call me up and give me advance notice about this, but I’m not complaining. I’m not the one who has a listening device squirreled away in the women’s bathroom at FDA headquarters hoping to scoop the blogosphere on the approval of GM salmon, after all.

And to prove this, I’ll point out that it has, in actual fact, been nearly a month since FDA made this announcement. Now don’t complain. I warned you two paragraphs ago that the Thornapple Blog is not the place you should be going if you want up-to-the-minute updates on the murky world of food regulatory policy. Has the Internet been aflame in the wake of this announcement? Not really. I did a Google search on “GM fish” and the top ranks were all several years old. I also took a look at the Center for Food Safety’s webpage. They are—as one would expect given that they have been one of the most severe critics of genetic engineering in the food system—up to date on this issue. When I checked they had a flash banner pointing out that Costco has announced they would not sell Aqua Bounty™ salmon. Now this may or may not be true. I’m just reporting this in the same spirit that Hunter S. Thompson once reported a rumor that Ed Muskie was using ibogaine. Thompson later clarified, saying that he had never said Muskie was a druggie, only that there was a rumor that he was…which was true, he wrote, “because I started it.”

But I digress. We’ve gone over the ins and outs of these fish on a couple of occasions, and so I don’t actually feel any compulsion to say anything intelligent about the ethics or wisdom of FDA’s decision. I will repeat that this decision has been expected by many of us for a long time. It was hard to imagine given the evidence before them and their regulatory mandate, that they could do much of anything else. But of course having blogged about these piscis before, I felt this obligation to keep my loyal but only mildly curious readers informed—even if it was somewhat late.

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

And Still Another Key Blog

November 29, 2015

We set aside the Sunday after Thanksgiving every year for the key blog. It’s a tone-setting effort that reiterates the environmental theme that is intended to be the overarching orientation to all the other blogs, serious and irreverent, that get written every other Sunday of the year. There is a backstory to the key blog that I’ve spelled out on previous post-Thanksgiving Sundays, but if you are a latecomer and want to pick up that thread, I think I’ll just link you to last year’s entry, from whence you will be able to trace the narrative back to its origins in 2009.

I always make a respectful reference to Aldo Leopold, the conservation biologist who is sometimes also regarded as the founding voice in environmental ethics. Leopold decried the tendency to cook up dollar values for those aspects of nature that we love on the pretense that we are just not being economical. Leopold was thinking specifically of songbirds when he made this observation. He was poking a little fun at the economists who were trying to convince people that losing songbirds was the same as wasting money. Better, Leopold thought, to just recognize that we love them. Of course not everyone does love them, so sometimes these economic arguments do some work in a policy context. But this is not an economics blog, whatever you might have thought, and Leopold’s insight is a pretty important step toward thinking philosophically about food, farming and the broader significance of what we eat.

In fact, I’ve distrusted a certain kind of food ethics for a very similar reason. It recommends eating as an act that produces a more environmentally sound world: Buy local because reducing the distance your food travels will have a positive impact on climate change, and eat vegetarian because reducing the emission of methane from livestock production has a similar effect. One can worry about whether these things are really true, but that’s not my issue. What I distrust is the machine metaphor that I see working in this kind of argument: Do A to bring about B. Why? Because B is a mechanistic result caused by A. Long ago (in The Spirit of the Soil ) I put forward the argument that this kind of thinking is just an invitation for more technology: Let’s figure out some way we can still do A, but not bring about B. And I have to say that the clever innovators in the agricultural science world have been remarkably effective about doing just that.

Now just to make things even more complicated, I’m not against technological solutions. At least I’m not against them when they actually work, which is, to be fair, less often than claimed. My complaint is that in thinking that we address ethical issues by short-circuiting the causal connection between our action A and the undesirable consequence B, we are actually short-circuiting the process of ethical reflection itself. Focusing on technological solutions is actually a way to not think about what we are doing in a reflective and careful manner.

I’ve found that it’s pretty hard to engage in reflective thinking when you are limiting yourself to 1000 words or less, and trying not to be so boring that no one would want to look at your effort on a bright but chilly November morning, to boot. At least it’s hard for me. So I wouldn’t necessarily take an overweening pride in what we’ve accomplished over the last six years here at the Thornapple Blog. The blog was originally conceived as something that would remind members of their weekly delivery, even when the Michigan winter has shut down meaningful production of organically grown veggies. So maybe we will go for seven years, if the Thornapple CSA can keep itself together for another season.

And currently it is looking like it will.

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