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

Christmas Food Songs?

December 21, 2014

Having spent most of the last week recovering from the Feast of St. Cholestra, I’m looking forward to some highly seasonal food. That’s seasonal, not highly seasoned, food. I eat highly seasoned food at every season of the year. This week I’m talking (well, singing, actually) about those special foods that people haul out to enjoy especially at Christmas time. You know, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, plum pudding, a soul a soul cake (please, good Mrs., a soul cake). Later we’ll have some pumpkin pie and we’ll do some caroling. That sort of thing.

Of course it’s doubtful that very many readers of the Thornapple Blog have plum pudding or soul cake. Those are decidedly British holiday foods. Plum pudding (also known fondly as “the pud”) is made from dried fruits and suet. (Oooh, yummy!) Sounds like one of those fruitcakes that famously get re-gifted year after year after year. It’s been years since we had any fruitcake around my house. Actually, I kind of miss it.

And it’s also not clear why soul cakes even get mentioned at Christmas, since the authentic tradition is to hand them out to kids who ring your doorbell instead of tiny little candy bars during the Hallowmas season. The idea that this has something to do with Christmas probably comes from the fact that Peter, Paul and Mary stuck some verses of the traditional begging song that children sang when going door to door for soul cakes into a medley with “Hey Ho Nobody Home,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Those are proper Christmas carols, but they don’t mention any food items. “Hey Ho” mentions meat and drink, but points out that the singer has none, while “Merry Gentlemen” leaves us only with “tidings of comfort and joy”. Tidings never filled the stomach.  What kind of a deal is that? I think it’s a good idea to stick some soul cakes in there in order to get ready for the proper spirit of the season, don’t you?

What about those chestnuts roasting on an open fire? I guess this is one that people of my age or older might have eaten. But a blight had all but eliminated the American chestnut tree even by the time I was born in 1951. I mainly associate chestnuts with New York City, where you can (or once could) get freshly roasted chestnuts from street venders who were cooking them over charcoal on their pushcarts. I’m not sure whether those came from an American chestnut or not. We do produce chestnuts here in Michigan. A quick web search tells me that you could have gotten them at Silver Bells in the City, so maybe this is not so passé as I think.

And then there is lutefisk. I’ve actually had some lutefisk once, but once again it’s not something that I would expect most readers of the Thornapple blog to have much direct experience with. We only know about this Norwegian delicacy (?) because Garrison Keillor makes jokes about it on Prairie Home Companion. I don’t personally know any lutefisk songs, but apparently there is one. Strange how these seasonal foods live on in popular culture more successfully than on our tables.

Pumpkin pie. Now THAT I’ve eaten.

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

Feast of St. Cholestera

December 14, 2014

It’s the time of year for food rituals. This week’s entry reprints a selection from the writing of Lisa Heldke. I was lucky enough to attend the Feast of St. Cholestera in St. Peter, MN this year. Here is a lengthy quote from Lisa’s announcement for this year’s Feast, which in true Thornapple Blog form, has absolutely nothing to say about St. Cholestra. If you are inclined, you can learn more about her HERE.

Reuters: European butter scientists’ hopes were dashed this week, when the probe they had managed to land on the surface of a pfeffernusse went dark, after just two days of transmitting data about the cookie.

To scientists, the pfeffernusse represents a unique glimpse into the ancient universe; they are among the oldest elements of that universe, for the simple reason that no one has ever eaten one, so they just keep circling the holidays from year to year, showing up to add a craggy, powdery ancient-universe touch to people’s festive cookie plates. “With this probe, we were really hoping to drill down, literally, and find out what the universe is really made of—and how it smells,” noted Einar Filmjolk, of the Culinary Cosmological Academy of Sweden.

Even though the scientists only were able to collect two days’ worth of data, those data revealed that much of what we thought we knew about the structure of the butter cookie was altogether too pat. “There’s just a whole lot more butter there than we would have thought, given the dry, almost arid appearance of the pfeffernusse,” stated Filmjolk. “No, we don’t know why. Give us time, for heaven’s sakes. We’re grieving here.” The scientist responded to reporters’ questions somewhat tartly, the strain of the previous days’ frantic work clearly having caught up on him.

Problems arose when the probe, whose batteries were to be recharged by the light of the last remaining incandescent light bulb in Europe (the location of which cannot be disclosed, due to its contraband nature) bounced, upon hitting the surface of the hard, rocklike cookie. When it landed the second time, it dislodged a shower of powdered sugar, which coated the receptacles that were to collect incandescent light, rendering them dysfunctional, not to mention sticky.

The results, to say the least, were devastating for the European team, which had hoped to collect decades of data from the pfeffernusse, which is arguably older than the Twinkie. “The information we could have gained about the origins of matter, time, space and, well, pretty much everything, just by studying the interior of a pfeffernuss, well, gosh, let’s just say that we’re pretty broken up about the whole thing,” said Harald Quark, of the Max Planck Institute of Dairy Science in Schleswig-Holstein.

Amidst all the disappointment, there is some small relief among the scientists who worked on the cookie probe. At least the landing did not destroy the integrity of the cookie, which was still intact after being hit by a probe twice. During previous landing attempts, “that’s the way the cookie crumbled,” reported Quark.

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

Woo

December 7, 2014

This week I learned that science has figured out how to quantify woo. I was sitting around listening to a group of friends talking about some goofy HR instrument for classifying a person’s relative strengths and weaknesses in group interactions. They were saying that only one member of their team had “woo” as a strength. Now here comes a tangent. I was, of course, listening to this conversation, so my first challenge was simply to figure out what these people were saying. I mean one thought was that they were just dropping their L’s, in which case they were just talking about a co-worker who wore a lot of sweaters. (e.g. “She had wool.”) But that thought didn’t parse with the context, which also included other personality measures like “sensitivity” and “analytic ability”. So “wool” was out. But maybe this was an oblique reference to the Steely Dan classic “Dr. Wu”. Are you with me?

For those not with me, the song goes like this:

You walked in 
 And my life began again 
 Just when I'd spent the last piaster 
 I could borrow 
 All night long 
 We would sing that stupid song 
 And every word we sang 
 I knew was true

This might have also let me in for a nice food thing, because there actually is a Dr. Wu who writes on the wondrous benefits of juicing. Juicing itself would make for a nice tangent on a tangent, but denying yourself the opportunity to follow absolutely every tangent is pretty crucial to the Thornapple Blog. So tick that one off for this week.

The Steely Dan lyrics might be pointing to an idea that’s been picked up by a pretty popular Michigan band called Spontaneous Woo. I’ve never heard them (I’m old remember). This line of thinking would have at least gotten me to the right spelling, and maybe even into the ballpark, but spontaneous woo is musician’s jargon for a certain kind of audience reaction that causes the vibe to take off into the aesthetic stratosphere. For my generation, it was usually kicked off when someone in the back of the room would yell “Whippin’ Post” during a momentary lull. I note that it did not matter what band was playing that night, the implication being that any band would be complemented by a request to play a tune written, recorded and played by the Allman Brothers—a band which at their peak was noted for their ability to generate spontaneous woo.

Here we could launch into Gregg Allman’s vegetarian diet, but to stay on the woo trail like a bloodhound I’d better note that sometimes woo is another word for bogosity (itself a term for the quality of being bogus). Here, ‘woo’ is a diminutive of woo-woo, or perhaps just wooo. This is not what the HR crowd has learned to quantify. There’s also a group of physicians and foodies who have created something called a WooFood (or maybe it’s (Woo)Food) blog and certification system that’s pointing you to healthier eating, especially at restaurants. It’s interesting enough for me to provide a link to it, but it’s still not the “woo factor” that I was looking for.

The Internet tells me that there is also a band called Woo Factor, but we finally hit bingo when we get around to the recent book by Rachel Lee Strasberg. I haven’t read it, but the subtitle states pretty clearly what the HR types were after “Have Them Magnetically Attracted to Giving You What You Want”. That’s the quality that you’ve just got to have in a productive group of employees, it seems, and it’s a great advance of science to be able to quantify it.

As for me, I can attest that I was able to get a total stranger named Dorothy to give me what I wanted on a recent trip to a chain restaurant that is almost certainly NOT certified by (Woo) Food. What I wanted was a BigBoy, but I can’t say for sure whether she was magnetically attracted to give it to me or just sent over to take my order by the shift manager.

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

Still Yet Another Key Blog

November 30, 2014

It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Sometime today I have to sit down and write another “key blog”. I have to provide links to previous key blogs last year, the year before and also the year before that. Above all, I have to encourage readers to follow a link all the way back to 2009, when the Thornapple Blog debuted on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I still think of that first blog as laying out the groundwork for what I’ve been trying to do for the last five years. I have to say something about the punning reference to Aldo Leopold’s discussion of the key log in his book A Sand County Almanac. It’s the one that’s keeping things jammed up, and for Leopold it was the tendency to think of land merely as a form of property. Maybe the key log in food ethics is to let food become too thoroughly governed by property rights and the norms of market exchange.

Everybody needs food, after all. It hardly matters whether or not you have the means to pay for it. If you broke with the Ferguson ban and joined the throngs on Black Friday this year, perhaps you can still appreciate the thought that someone who doesn’t have the money for a new electronic gadget should probably figure out how to get along without it. The same thing doesn’t apply in the case of food, at least not in the most basic case. Sure we could get along without that ridiculously expensive Irish butter we’ve taken to buying, but food itself. You’ve got to have it.

So that moves right along to the thought that we (and here I mean “society”) should not allow the norms of market exchange to determine whether or not people get food. There used to be a pretty broad agreement in America on that point, though these days I’m less and less confident of that. There was plenty of disagreement about how we insure that people’s food needs get met. Some people insisted that those who have undertake a personal moral obligation to meet the needs of those who have not. Another point of view held that this way of proceeding puts the have-nots in a morally unacceptable position of dependence on the whims of the wealthy. Meeting food needs is a matter of justice, and no one should be put in the position of needing to beg.

The original key blog had an orientation to environmental responsibility. Leopold’s thought had it that you can’t just let the use land be determined by whatever it is that allows someone to make a buck. Like using your farm to grow corn for biofuels when people are going hungry, for example. Not that I’m deeply opposed to biofuels, mind you, but I am opposed to the view that whether or not this is the most profitable use a farmer can make of his land settles the matter. Writing in the late 1940’s Leopold was less focused on biofuels than he was on biodiversity. He wanted farmers to create habitats for flora and fauna well beyond their cash crops. Thinking only in terms of land as property tends to get in the way of that.

I agree, and that’s why I’m still writing a food ethics blog five years later.

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

Plastic Houses

November 23, 2014

There’s an old saying to the effect that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Good advice for bloggers, I think. If you are “out there” and visible, you should think twice about digging in to someone for something that you could be dug into yourself. There’s also a variation on the adage that has something to do with grass houses and ends with the admonition “…shouldn’t stow thrones.” Figuring out what that has to do with a food ethics blog would be a fine tangent for this week, don’t you think?

But as has become my custom of late, I resist the temptation to make sense of that to get right along with the main theme for the week, which has nothing to do with bloggers who expose their own vulnerabilities (not that I would ever do that) or glass houses, for that matter (though here we are getting nearer to the point). The point such as it is being not glass but plastic houses.

Thanks to my friend John Biernbaum plastic houses are all the rage among sustainable agriculture types here in Michigan. Of course no self-respecting hippie farmer would refer to them as plastic houses. They’re high tunnels or low tunnels (depending on whether they are high or low) or maybe it’s the hippie farmer who’s high or low. They’re also hoop houses. This would not need explanation if you have actually seen one of these babies. A bunch of my students and I went up to the UP earlier this summer to help John build a particularly big one, and I was caught on film (well maybe it was pixels) with a sledgehammer in my hand putting up the support for one of those hoops. I wish I could put that photo in my annual report.

So even though us calloused hands, sledge-hammer swinging, hard-working, dirt on the face sustainable farmer types wouldn’t literally live in one of these plastic houses, the whole routine about not throwing stones would still be highly relevant. Holes are a bad thing. They kind of screw up the whole convection heating phenomenon that allows Michigan farmers to grow spinach or broccoli well into this time of the year. Maybe not this year, because it has been so damn cold, but you know what I mean.

But stones thrown, thrones stowed or what have you, a hoop house is going to occasionally need some first-order maintenance. Which basically means another plastic sheet big enough to cover the whole damn thing. Not cheap, mind you, but also something that requires a whole raft of people just to maneuver around and actually get on top of the skeleton so that it can be fastened down to keep the little budlings toasty when it’s freezing outside. And that whole raft of people thing brings me to my true and honest reason for posting a Thornapple blog (aside from the fact that it’s Sunday). Which is that it’s time for the hoophouse out at Appleschram farm where we grow veggies for the Thornapple CSA to get a new sheet of plastic.

The big event is scheduled on Wednesday from 3 to 4 in the afternoon, assuming the wind is not blowing too hard. Cold will not deter us, but wind well might. If you’ve longed to be part of barn-raising on the day before Thanksgiving, this may be as close as you’re going to get this year. Call Diane (you know the number) if you have any questions, and bring your own sledgehammer if you are in it for the photo op.

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