Untitled Melody

April 13, 2014

Sing the following words softly to the tune of “I’m in the Mood for Love”:

I’m on the list for dinner

I feel like it makes me a sinner

One day I could be thinner

But I’m on the list for dinner

Honestly, I’m not on another bad poetry jag this week. I was just boring myself with blog after blog on depressing topics in food ethics, and something had to give. We (that is, the philosophy department) had a guest speaker in this week and we were planning to take him out to eat after his talk. I wasn’t sure whether I had replied to the e-mail inquiring who would be among the party for this event. It turns out I was on the list for dinner, at which point the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields ditty sprang into my head in an inspirational moment.

Which got me to pondering the thought behind the original lyric (which hardly needs repeating) “I’m in the mood for love simply because you’re near me.  Funny, but when you’re near me I’m in the mood for love.” It was premiered in 1935 by Frances Langford. You could have found out all of that on Wikipedia, but you needn’t overstress your fingers this week. I’ve given it to you here. (No need to comment below expressing your thanks.)

It’s Fields the lyricist who gave us the quaintly elliptical “I’m in the mood for love simply because you’re near me.” This part I understand. The thing that got me pondering last week was the “funny” business in Fields’ lyric. Is this supposed be “Ha Ha,” funny or “Strange” funny? I incline toward the “Strange” reading because frankly I don’t see anything “Ha Ha” funny about it. But then again, isn’t Fields’ basically saying what Cole Porter (with greater irony, I note) had suggested seven years earlier (They say in Boston even beans do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.)? If that’s right—and I mean, really, can there be any doubt about that?—then it poses a question for a protracted and meandering hermeneutical analysis. But here’s the quick version: In what sense is this in any way strange? It is, as Porter suggested, only natural. Birds do it. Bees do it. Even over-educated fleas do it.

And it’s McHugh I have to thank for the ditty that accompanied my dinnertime musings. The dinner was good and there wasn’t anything funny about that, either.

Strange, isn’t it?

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

Bad Seed

April 6, 2014

Let me set the festering minds of everyone who arrived at this website hoping to read up on supernatural horror flicks or prurient tales of some wayfaring maiden at rest immediately. This blog is about seeds, as in those little niblet things that grow into plants once they have been safely ensconced in soil and nurtured through their period of vulnerability. We are (if the calendar has not deceived me) in April, which depending on where you happen to reside may well be early in that aforesaid time of susceptibility to the vicissitudes of arbitrary climatic variation (or as some say, weather). Not so much here in Michigan, though some are starting little seedlings in the barn or basement.

Every so often we carry on in the Thornapple blog from one week right over into the next, and if you were with us on the last Sunday in March, you were apprised of the circumstance that farmers suffer from disreputable seed dealers, and especially so in the developing world. It can be ruinous when a subsistence farmers’ crop fails to come up. It’s definitely an ethical problem, and so it’s well worth an extra blog here in the first few weeks of official Spring (even if you can hardly tell it sometimes in the year of the polar vortex). {We are finally creeping up on average temperatures, but crimony!}

So the issue is that, of course, selling seeds as something they aren’t is ethically wrong, but that doesn’t exhaust the topic for a food ethicist. This phenomenon also skews the broader debate about food, farming and international development. Let me mention two skewerings.

Skew Number One Some seed company (maybe it’s even associated with the Great Satan Monsanto) or some international development agency introduces an improved variety in some developing country.  And word gets around that it doesn’t live up to farmers’ expectations. Heck it doesn’t even have to be a developing country—this could be Texas. This definitely can and does happen with authentic articles: Something got screwed up with the seed production. Seed developed for one ecological region (say where it’s wet in the Spring) accidently gets shipped someplace else (like where it’s dry). Farmers themselves don’t understand something important, like they better be out there weeding because this variety doesn’t compete well against other plants. A million and one things can go wrong and inevitably some of them do. So let’s be clear: I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture or develop a blanket defense of improved varieties here. But sometimes—and my point would be that this seems to be happening more and more frequently—what happens is that the novelty of the new variety becomes an opportunity for the unscrupulous seed dealers out there to screw people (Read last week’s blog for the backstory). And then what happens is the new variety gets a bad rap. And then what happens is that people who love to hate agricultural science and the Green Revolution start wagging their fingers and saying “I told you so!” Only in this case, at least, they’ve gotten it wrong and may well be further tarnishing the rep of a seed variety that could be doing poor farmers some good. There is a tie to the GMO theme here, but we’ll ignore it for now.

Skew Number Two Farmers are not stupid. They have learned to be wary of counterfeits out there. And in this case, this makes them understandably and even rationally reluctant to jump on the bandwagon with promising new varieties that (if they aren’t what they are represented to be) are going to be extremely disappointing when harvest season rolls around. So there is a rather slow uptake on these improved varieties in many parts of the world. If they could benefit poor farmers, the slowness of the uptake is itself an ethical problem—like adding insult to injury from the counterfeit problem. But it’s accompanied by another species of finger wagging from the anti-development, anti-technology, anti-Green Revolution types who are out there campaigning. Famers don’t want or need so-called improved varieties: Just look at their behaviror (the story goes). They aren’t buying them. And the people reciting this story (probably out of truly laudable motives but in ignorance of what’s really driving farmer behavior)  are putatively campaigning on behalf of the poor.

And that’s just tragic.

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

Genuine Article

March 30, 2014

A few years back I met a fine fellow at an international consultancy I was on who regaled the group with stories of academic ritual, on the one hand, and the trials of small farmers in India, on the other. As I recall it, the rituals had something to do with Oxford University in the UK, where memory tells me that this chap was on the law faculty. As it happens, I just spent the amount of time it took me to listen to “Kaulana Na Pua” by John Keawe and “Wherever You May Be” by Bonnie Riatt (where Bonnie sings “If I must do without, I’ll let these sparks fly out Across this wilderness from me to you”) trolling through the Oxford Law webpage looking , and I can’t find anyone who looks remotely like him. So maybe I misremember, or maybe it was something else entirely. Chalk that lost 10 minutes up to tangential rumination, because it was his latter tales that brought me to this morning’s blog topic.

It seems that he had been working on the problem of counterfeits in the Indian seed industry.  Now everybody knows about counterfeit CDs and DVDs from Asia, and a few of us may have heard about the problems raised by counterfeit auto parts or pharmaceuticals. The ethical problems with counterfeits may be a bit more subtle than one suspects, however. I mean a counterfeit is a lie, right? And what could be more straightforward from an ethics perspective? But truth-telling is philosophically interesting because there are several different ways in which it turns out to be morally wrong. If you are of the deontological persuasion, it’s just intrinsically wrong—a paradigm case of moral lassitude. But if you are a consequentialist, it’s wrong because the people who are mislead by a lie are likely to suffer harm. When we circle back to the CDs and DVDs, they mostly work fine and the people who buy them are pretty much in on the caper; it’s the people losing money from unpaid royalties who are harmed. But auto parts and pharmaceuticals? That fits the consequentialist’s concern more neatly. Those auto parts and especially those drugs may not perform as the buyer expects, and here the consequences can be fatal.

We could do another tangent on deontology and consequentialism (a topic that we typically avoid here in the Thornapple blog), but I think I’ll just pretend that these rather obscure (or central, depending on your proclivity) doctrines have already been adequately explained by the above proffered example and steam on ahead. Now, seeds. How would you counterfeit a seed? And the answer need not detain us long. Many commercial seeds bear paint or dye marks intended to identify them as such, and sometimes they come in bags identifying their source and identity. Farmers buy commercial seeds—in the developing world as elsewhere—because a) they have run out of seeds or b) because they expect them to perform better than the seeds they saved from last year’s crop. And frankly, folks, it’s mostly “b”, because if you are so poor that you had to eat your saved seed to get through the winter, you are probably not showing up at the seed dealer a few days later with enough money to buy anything. So you can fake seed by making some dubious or simply lousy crap seed you have lying around look enough like a high quality commercial variety that you can pass it off as the genuine article. The unsuspecting farmer goes back home and plants what he or she takes to be a high performing variety, well worth the premium, and then when summer rolls around it’s just a field full of weeds.

Counterfeit seed is a major problem in developing country agriculture, or so I was being told. Now perchance you are wondering whether this fellow that I can’t even recall by name was himself the genuine article. And if he wasn’t a genuine article, then maybe this week’s blog is just a premature April Fool, an article of a different sort, to be sure, but no more genuine than the “some guy who told me” I based the whole episode on. But it’s not. Do your own research: Google “counterfeit seed” and discover. Here are a few places you can start.

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

House Made

March 23, 2014

Norman Wirzba was on campus at MSU this week. He gave a rousing foodie talk to an audience of mostly undergraduates. He was encouraging them to think about where their food comes from, and since Norm is a theology professor at Duke University, he didn’t shrink from the God-talk in making his case. I picked up on a different point. Norm started his talk by encouraging everyone to pay attention to the words that we use in connection with food. He was railing against the tendency to speak as if food were a mere commodity. It’s a nice theme for the Thornapple blog, but neither of my regular readers will be surprised to learn that it’s not where I’m heading this morning.

I would tie Norm’s concern about the words that we use to the conversation we’ve been having here in the blog about food ontology. Well, I know, I know. How can you use the word “conversation” when you are pretty much just talking to yourself? AS IF someone was even listening! That, too, is an ontological question, but it’s one that would take this week’s blog further and further from the food theme, so I’ll bag it and just keep on with that skeptical (but attentive) conversation partner who exists in my imagination.

I’d like to take food ontology in almost the opposite direction Norm went. While Norm was focused on “mere commodities”, I’ll query those foods that purport to be homemade. I’d like to start with an observation on the robot that lives inside my computer and who monitors my spelling. This robot (don’t know if it’s he or she) is obsessed with correctness. He/she slips up now and then, as he/she did when I meant to write something about “lab courses” earlier this week and wrote “lab curses” instead. One of those quasi-Freudian slips (had it something to do with sex), I think. But my robot has absolutely no trouble with “homemade”. It’s not a mistaken contraction of “home” and “made”, as if we were trying to say that something was made at home. Nope. It’s a real word.

Homemade foods are supposed to be just the opposite of commodities, which are something you bought at the store or at a fancy restaurant. Or maybe not even a particularly fancy restaurant. Just one that cranks it out, assembly-line style. Homemade foods may have little imperfections, but they are delectable. They are what Mom used to make, or if you had a working mother, what Grandma used to make. They are not particularly efficient. They take time. They come out just a little different every time, but there is a certain consistency to them that tells everyone in the know that this was made in the kitchen of some special person. I should protect myself against the flood of angry comments by noting quickly that although if we look backwards it usually was an at-home woman (we used to call them homemakers)  who did this, the adjective “homemade” could and not infrequently did apply to something made by a working woman (not necessarily a mother) or even a male. In the latter case, it was barbecued ribs, generally.

But being the acute observer of cultural trends that I am, I’ve noticed that “homemade” is in decline and “house made” is on the rise. Note that we don’t conjoin these words. My robot (who approved of lab curses) would want “housemaid”, instead. And note that they don’t really mean the same thing, anyway. “House made” is made by “the house” (as if buildings could cook), which means by the establishment at which one is either dining or otherwise procuring food. House made foods are intended for sale. I was down at the Soup Spoon on Michigan Avenue earlier in the week for a rare breakfast away from home, so I treated myself to some of their house made smoked salmon. Not bad, I might add.

House made is substituting for homemade on restaurant menus. And maybe this is just a turn toward truth in advertising. I mean if you are sitting there ordering off a menu, you would probably rather have something conjured up in the restaurant kitchen than something one of the server’s brought in from his or her grandmother’s. Food safety and all that. But rather than honest representation I suspect that it’s just a deflation in language of the same sort that’s already claimed the homemade. When proprietors go down to Sam’s Club to buy up the super-pack of generic or (hey, let’s splurge) Nature Valley™ granola bars, then go back to the restaurant and break them up into little bite-size pieces, I’m sorry. That does not qualify their granola as “house made.”

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

Fertile Musings

March 16, 2010

Ever so frequently I wake up on Sunday morning with the urge to blog on a topic that has some nominal connection to the “food ethics” theme of the Thornapple blog. Then there are Sunday mornings like this one, when I’m sitting there with my coffee and thinking that I’m supposed to post a blog today. The mind drifts toward a bit of chaff that’s stuck in my teeth from the oatmeal I’ve just eaten. I’m not saying that I couldn’t make something interesting out of that thought. Everyone loves a challenge now and then. But both of my regular readers will probably be relieved to hear that just as I was in the earliest stages of mulling that over—(Gee, a blog entitled “The Chaff”: what would that look like?)—an article in the USA Today section of The Lansing State Journal caught my attention.

It seems that Wal-Mart has latched onto a plan to reduce the overuse of fertilizer in the United States. Yes, overuse of fertilizer is a longstanding problem in agricultural ethics. When fertilizers get into lakes and streams they cause all manner of predicament and difficulty. There’s straight off toxicity to start with (bad if you are a fish) and extra nutrients can cause algae blooms. There’s also hypoxia. Now isn’t it exciting when you can encounter a word like “hypoxia” in an otherwise inane setting? I thought so, but if you really wanted to know what hypoxia was, you wouldn’t read philosophical blog posts. Even Wikipedia is going to be more informative.

This overuse of fertilizer has always been kind of a puzzlement to the agricultural economists. Farmers have to pay for that stuff, after all, and why would they apply so much that it washes downstream (where it just becomes a pollutant)? Now I’m not here to resolve the riddles that beset economists, so rest assured that I’m not even going to venture a tangential explanation. I’ll just get right back on track by saying that farmers do allow fertilizer to run off of their cropland. Maybe they are just overly concerned about underuse of fertilizer, but whatever. There is fertilizer in our lakes and streams (not to mention the Gulf of Mexico) that really doesn’t belong there, and now Wal-Mart is coming to the rescue to do something about it. Wal-Mart is going to apply it’s economic power over suppliers to require that they (the suppliers, that is) prove to them (Wal-Mart) that the corn chips and soy lecithin in their processed industrial food products were not produced by Midwestern farmers who were using too much fertilizer.

Wal-Mart’s action is itself something of a puzzlement to the agricultural economists of yore. I mean, really, does Wal-Mart genuinely care? [Which is, in the economists’ world, another way of saying, “Does Wal-Mart stand to make a buck off of this?”] Again I demur. Who knows? But I kind of doubt that Wal-Mart has a compelling pecuniary interest in what farmers are doing with respect to fertilizer use. Au contraire, Chucko, it’s yet another example of Wal-Mart’s ambition to become the Master hall monitor, overseer and moral umpire of the late-capitalist era. If I were a libertarian at heart, I would be much more concerned about this than Obamacare. But I’m not a libertarian at heart. (Nobody’s perfect.) So I’ll just chalk this up as an instance of “supply-chain ethics”.

Of course, the original blog on supply chain ethics was one of the all-time snoozers in the Thornapple blog. Nobody, and by nobody I mean neither one of my regular readers cared much about that one. Even the robots who persistently send comments relating to women’s shoes and bridal wear or Russian shopping malls were put to sleep by it. Perhaps I should just put this tirade to rest before I even get close to busting my weekly word-limit. But if perchance you do have a libertarian bone somewhere in your body that’s being aggravated by this disturbing news about Wal-Mart stepping up to do the work that not even the US Environmental Protection Agency (that’s Eee Pee Aye for the congenitally acronymic among us) has not the gumption (or funding) to attempt, well in that case it’s not my responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff on a chilly March Sunday. You will just have to go all the way back to August 8, 2010 and read it again. Slowly, but with feeling.

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

Artisans All

March 9, 2014

About a decade ago I wrote a little essay on what people mean when they talk about “natural food”. Now to launch right off on the obligatory tangent right from the get go, I would need to clarify: There’s really no telling what some people have in mind when they are talking about “natural food”. The whole reason I was writing on this in the first place was in response to other people who were going on about how it’s so vague that it can’t really mean anything at all. So I was just focused (like a laser beam, I might add) on being able to specify one particular set of meanings that was relevant to the question of whether high tech agriculture destroys the natural quality of foods.

So in response to all these goings on, I was going on about how in some relevant contexts, what people were really talking about was artisanal food. That is (e.g. and for example) foods that are grown, processed and prepared with keen attention to the unique features of the natural textures. Like a master carver works with the grain of the wood—going against the grain being the quintessential paradigm of the unnatural, I said—a master farmer or chef is attentive to those peculiar features of the soils, the plants and the animals that he or she is working with at the moment. Their attentiveness permits a higher level of craft and precision, and allows them to make good use of features that any automated or highly standardized approach to farming or food preparation would necessarily overlook. Hence artisanal=natural=(usually) higher quality. It was one of the few times I managed to impress my darling wife.

Cause pretty soon thereafter she noticed that the word ‘artisan’ was starting to crop up around high quality breads and cheeses. “You are not such a dope, after all,” said she. This is not [I hasten to add] a direct quote, but you get the picture.

Ah but signs of the artisanal apocalypse are now on the horizon. Yep, you got it. Depressingly like ‘sustainable’ or ‘resilient’, the artisanal seems to be headed for a rapid denouement owing to its sheer ubiquity. Now I again hasten to add, any comments I might have made last week or so about snooty in-flight magazines and their touting of artisan restaurants with their special artisan grown pancake mixes, I’m all in favor of that stuff. Go Westwind Milling go! Bring me some more of their pancakes any morning now, and let’s top them off with some of that wonderful Michigan-made artisan maple syrup. No joking here, I swear it. But perhaps, just perhaps it might be possible to carry this artisan thing too far?

And indeed I had an e-mail this week from Jenny Buckley, recently of local mid-Michigan fame but now resituated in Madison, Wisconsin. Jenny, who defended a dissertation on artisan food producers and how well they do in food safety inspections, was e-mailing to bring something to the attention of everyone one on her advisory committee, which would include yours truly. To wit: she was advising us that in the relatively more-advanced-in-terms-of-hipness community of Madison, she could now go to an artisan dentist. And I promise that, as Dave Barry says, I’m not making this up.

Frankly, I think I’ll pass on that one.

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

Elite Food

March 2, 2014

I got on an airplane last week for the first time in several months. For the first year of the blog I would routinely reflect upon my peripatetic ways, almost always from a different locale every week. 2010 was particularly dense with travel for me, and included an unplanned and enforced 3-day vacation in Rome when an Icelandic volcano decided to disrupt European transportation infrastructures. After about six months of this I realized that the blog was starting to be a bit more autobiographical than I liked—as if I thought that anyone beyond my family cared to read a thousand words each week on where I happened to be journeying. (Well, in truth, my family probably cares even less than the rest of you. But that’s a rabbithole that we won’t pursue today.)

So with the obligatory tangential ruminations out of the way, I was on an airplane for the first time in several months last week. And not so much the being on the airplane as the NOT having been on one for a longer than normal interval caused me to notice more vividly than usual how much the travel culture is oriented to food. Exhibit one is, of course, the in-flight magazine. Itself a curious artifact for people of my age group who can remember general interest magazines like Life and Look (I suppose People is the closest contemporary comparable), the in-flight magazine has to provide a few distractions and an opportunity for advertising, but the readership is just a random sample of the traveling public. Not much direction for the editors to guess what a given individual strapped in and awaiting take-off might find interesting and engaging. They are targeted to the traveling public, however, so there’s a bit of a tip-off for the “exotic destination” theme, usually tempered by a balancing dose of the “you might actually get to go there someday” theme. For the road warriors on the plane (I being a junior member of that group) this latter group includes a few places they’ve already been.

And guess what? It’s largely about going someplace and eating something. But I must say (and here’s what led me to blog in this particular direction in the first place) I’ve never been especially keen on the food destination theme, and I seem to be getting less keen on it as I get older. And lest I fall back into my bad old ways of 2010, I hasten to add that although it’s clear that this comment does indeed reflect on me and my tastes, I don’t think today’s blog is about me as opposed to the nominal food, farming and environment thrust that the Thornapple blog is represented to pursue. No. Being on that airplane helps me understand why some critics of the “local food movement” think that it represents an “elitist” turn. It’s about finding that cute little bistro, recently created by a celebrity chef, of course. It’s the one that is offering handmade bucatini fashioned from locally grown wheat and cage-free eggs, topped with sustainably harvested scallops and mussels in a sauce from heirloom tomatoes and local zucchini. Or maybe there is some pasture-raised veal with a picture of the celebrity chef embracing the farmer, who is either an only slightly disheveled man in his mid-thirties with a single strand of hay in his professionally coifed haircut, or even better, an only slightly disheveled woman in her early forties who looks like that only a dash of lipstick and a change of clothes would be needed to prepare her for a night at the opera. The in-flight magazine may or may not include the photo, but it lurks in the subtext, nonetheless.

And even the in-flight food (such as it is) aims to make a pale impression of the élan being more richly embroidered in the magazine. So, oh yeah. Now I remember. That elitist thing. That’s what lots of people think this “food ethics” trip is all about. Funny how only a month or two out of that world can make you forget that. But maybe not so funny that it’s the world many people seem to be inhabiting even when they are not on airplanes.

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


February 23, 2014

It looks like February 2014 was ontology month. That’s “on” as when Sylvia Tyson sings ‘When I woke up this morning, you were on my mind.’ It’s ‘tol’ as when Little Richard sings ‘Long Tall Sally she’s built for speed.’ It’s ‘o’ as when he sings “Oh, my soul” and gee as when Cliff Richard sings ‘Gee whiz it’s you.’ On-tall-oh-gee. Contrary to the Feb. 2 blog only four (count ‘em, 4) syllables. Of course from there you go to “ontological” which does truly have five syllables. A massive ideogram suited for the most erudite of bibliophiles indeed. As I ‘splained back then, it refers to “being”. Whenever you get yourself into a snit with someone over whether something is real or not, you are embroiled in an ontological dispute.

Not all definitional disagreements are ontological in nature, but when you resort to the official USDA definition for a farm in order to clarify whether or your bud who’s growing a little weed in the back of his closet is a real farmer, that’s ontology. It’s also ontology when you are sweating out the details of whether or not one person is or is not food insecure. If all you’re worried about is how to use a word, it may not be ontology, but when you are worried about what is one thing or another, and similarly, what ain’t, well, then you are sailing to the ontological ocean. And then there was last week, when we were worried about whether resilience is an alternative to sustainability, or whether it is implied and encompassed by sustainability. I take that to be an ontological question, too. And as the Venetians used to say, ‘The Ocean gets deeper the further you go into it.”

We (and by us I actually mean just about everyone) are much more sophisticated about ontology than even in comparatively recent times. I think we have J.K. Rowling to thank for that, (though possibly it was Keano Reeves and the Wachowski Brothers). For now I’m going with Rowling who gave us the immortal quotation, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” A very wise observation, and one that I bear in mind constantly when I stray into the contested areas of food ethics. I had a professor in college who promulgated a philosophical doctrine he called ‘ontological parity’. In brief, the idea was that reality does not come in degrees. Everything that is is real, and you are only going to waste your breath by trying to scale beings by degrees. Or, to put it more concretely, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

All the same it’s still meaningful to think of things prevailing in distinct orders. Some things happen in your head; others in the back yard. Food, I’ve found, is generally better when it comes from the back yard, or some other soil-containing yard-like locale. I know that they say “Hunger is the best sauce,”—a thought suggestive of the idea that it might all be in your mind. But I’m sticking with the yard or in a couple of months now, Appleschram Farm courtesy of Thornapple CSA. No seeds in the ground yet, but the order has been placed and I’m dreaming about it even as I look ahead to another week of single digits here in mid-Michigan. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

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




Word Play

February 16, 2014

I’m sure that everyone is wondering what I’ve been reading these days. [Well actually I’m being facetious. I don’t for a minute think that anyone woke up on a February morning thinking to themselves, “Gosh! It’s bothering me that I haven’t the foggiest notion what Paul Thompson has been reading of late.” But it’s a way to get things rolling and in fact I’m not really going to blog about all the stuff I’ve actually been reading, in any case. Now pretend that we didn’t even go down this wormhole and that you’re sitting there in front of your screen saying to yourself, “Yeah! What have you been reading, Paul?” and I’ll just continue on with the blog as if this never happened.]

Well I’ve been reading a book by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy called Resilience. Before I start knocking it (and that, after all, is the main reason that I would bring up anything I’d been reading in the Thornapple Blog) let me say that this is a very good book. Zolli and Healy use the idea of resilience as a pretence for stringing together stories about work being done by scientists and innovators in a number of diverse fields. I read a lot of books like this. I think of James Gleick as the master of this genre. His 1987 book Chaos is the archetype. On the one hand, it’s science journalism at its best. Short vignettes on individual scientists, heavy on character study and biographical detail, provide a narrative frame for conveying the scientific concepts that are central to their work. On the other hand, Gleick’s strategy of border crossing allows him to build bridges across scientific domains that seldom intersect. This allows him to achieve a synthetic vision of thresholds and cultural momentum that transcends the work of the individual scientists he surveys. Zolli and Healy are doing a pretty good job of that, too.

These books are pretty easy to read compared to the other stuff I’m reading but not blogging about. I read them because I imagine junior executives who have been upgraded to first class on coast-to-coast trips reading them, and I want to check the temperature of the water they are swimming in. Not that I would be familiar with more than a fraction of the scientific work being covered: I learn something, too. So I’m enjoying and learning from Resilience, which has pretty much been strung together by following up on the way that the word ‘resilience’ is being deployed in a number of very different scientific contexts. My context has been the work of ecologist Buzz Holling, who has been studying the way that ecosystems do (and do not) recover from catastrophic challenges and persistent insults. (And by the way, for Lansing locals, I’ll plug the upcoming visit of Carl Folke from the Stockholm Resilience Institute. Dr. Folke will be speaking on Feb. 25.) But Zolli and Healy include work on people who are resilient in the sense that they seem to function well in the face of personal catastrophes. It is a provocative synthesis.

BUT (and now you know the gripe is coming) they pissed me off right from the get-go by suggesting that ‘resilience’ is the new new thing, that sustainability is “getting long in the tooth” and that we need to just get over it. Both of my regular readers may recall that it was just about a year ago that I teed off on this thought, arguing that resilience has always been a part of sustainability thinking. Here’s my beef: Zolli and Healy are neglecting the way that “essentially contested concepts”—ideas that cross borders and therefore spark contestation and debate—are crucial to the resilience of our ways of talking, our ways of connecting, and our ways of thinking. And as my friend Bryan Norton has told us, ordinary (as opposed to specialized technical) language is our environment.

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


A Crock

February 9, 2014

We’re sitting underneath a ton of snow and cold weather here in Michigan this February. It’s a good idea to fill up the calendar with annual events to tick off during the long wait for Spring. Punxsutawny Phil, the wonderfully-fantastic excrescent bowl, the North Michigan Small Farm Conference that we talked about last week, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, the UM-MSU home and away basketball series (we may forget about that one this year)… And for three years in a row now, Everybody Eats. I’ve blogged about Everybody Eats for the two previous Februaries, so we wouldn’t want to break the streak in 2014, would we?

This confab of locals assembles to gab about food issues as they pertain to the Cap City and its environs. And every once in moment, some philosophical question comes up. Like, for instance, how would we define ‘food insecure’? The discussion in one of the sessions I attended drifted toward the idea that we should understand the idea on a spectrum: At one end, you are food insecure when you or someone in your household has to miss a meal because you can’t pay for it. Note that this is the “extremely insecure” end for people in the United States. Things can get much more extreme, as when a household member misses enough meals to have growth and development affected, or when they succumb to one of the diseases of hunger. But this is Everybody Eats in Lansing, MI, so let’s not let the global hunger point distract us from the topics that were (quite legitimately) the main thrust of conversation down at the United Missionary Baptist Church yesterday.

But what’s the other end of the spectrum? Folks in the room struggled a bit with this question. Randy Bell from MSU Extension had thrown up a figure showing that 20% of the Lansing population is food insecure. The national figure is 1 in 6. If people are calculating statistics like that, there must be something that defines the cut-off point where you are no longer “food insecure”, right?

And there is. To speak with utter unvarnished truth, the criterion is not based on what happens to people or the conditions in which they live. It’s based on what they report to people who do surveys. While I fully endorse surveys and I appreciate the need to do them, I also think that we put ourselves into peril by an inability to distinguish between reality and what people say about it. That’s an ontological point, by the way (see last week’s blog). So to clarify, you are defined as having “low food insecurity” if you tell the sociologist who calls you up on the phone that you have experienced reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, but you don’t get pushed into the “high food security” category until you tell them that you’re eating patterns have actually been disrupted (e.g. you’re missing meals—maybe eating less so your kids don’t have to).

My point would be that in fact many more than 1 in 6 of us have experienced “reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet” on numerous occasions during the last year. Heck, speaking for my own self alone, I experience reduced quality, variety and desirability of diet once or twice every week, mainly because there’s no Claire’s Cornercopia or Flying Star Café in the neighborhood for me to frequent for lunch. I would probably be ashamed to complain about that to an official survey researcher, but before you bawl me out for being an elitist, I’m telling you that I’m serious. If you are compromising your diet in order to save money or time, you are experiencing some degree of food security, no matter what you are inclined to tell the sociologist who calls you up on the phone to compile an objective and unbiased measurement of food security in the You Ess of Ay.

So Diane’s open space group at Everybody Eats was surfacing ideas about how to combat this problem. Her idea: everyone needs a crock pot. Then they could eat some of those good Michigan grown beans instead of making a dash to Wendy’s. Some big rich venture capitalist needs to create a fund for donating crock pots to all the people who don’t have them, she says. I’m not sure it solves my problem. I need a big rich venture capitalist to open up a Flying Star Café in East Lansing. But you get the picture.

You may think it’s a crock, but I’m sticking with it.

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