The Green Economy

January 31, 2010

The National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) holds an annual conference in Washington DC that is intended to generate key recommendations for government, educators and the private sector. I participated in this year’s conference, which was held Jan. 20—22. The theme was “The New Green Economy”. Morning sessions with big name speakers and panelists are followed by afternoon breakouts with more focused discussions that are intended to generate the recommendations for the report that the NCSE generates based on the conference deliberations.

I heard Bill Spriggs, an Assistant Secretary of Labor, get grilled by someone in the audience because their pet project had not been funded. Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency heard it, too. She decided not to take questions. Plenary panels included Robert Costanza, the well known ecological economist, U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D. New Jersey), Lisa Kantor, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, and my friend David Orr, former Provost of Oberlin College in Ohio. The journalist and former Clinton staffer David Gergen moderated one of the panels, and he kept bringing the conversation back to the election of Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy’s senate seat. The general consensus is that this was very bad news for he environment, because Brown had campaigned on his opposition to Obama’s plan for reducing greenhouse gases.

The most interesting panelists dealt with economic issues. Richard Freeman, a Harvard labor economist, talked about how a shift to renewable fuels would be extremely beneficial to job growth. He also said the U.S. cannot expect a full job recovery until 1016. Kyung-Ah Park from the investment bank Goldman & Sachs said that China and India were getting the jump on the United States in the new Green Economy. Both countries have invested heavily in technologies like wind power generation, electric cars and liquid fuels from biomass. She said that the U.S. would very likely be buying these technologies from Asia if investment did not pick up quickly.

Overall, I would say that three themes dominated the discussions of the new Green Economy. First, there was talk about alternative energy systems that would be compatible with the existing infrastructure: liquid fuels that substitute for gasoline and wind, hydro, solar and geo-thermal that substitute for generating electricity with coal. Second, there was climate change. The assumption was that Brown’s election had driven a stake through the heart of schemes for limiting carbon emissions, and there was much pessimism all around. The energy and climate themes are tightly connected because without some policy mechanism for limiting the use of coal and petroleum fuels, alternative fuels do not look like a good investment over the short run.

The third theme was the rise of life-cycle analysis, especially in the private sector. Speakers from Dupont and GE noted that this tool for estimating the total environmental impact of products, from mining of resources through manufacturing to use by consumers and finally disposal, was helping them make batter choices about which products to develop. The hope is that government policies would support the use of this planning tool both by large private firms and by public institutions such as universities or government procurement agencies.

Small scale and local efforts such as Thornapple CSA did not get any significant discussion from the speakers on the podium. The two exceptions were David Orr, who talked briefly about efforts at Oberlin to source from local suppliers, and Tim Jackson, a British professor, who mentioned the emphasis on food systems in Europe. My sense is that the leadership in the Federal Government today is searching for ways to pursue a Green Economy without encouraging much in the way of local action. The tone of the conference certainly did not lead me to think about change in the way that large corporations dominate our current economy. On the one hand, I can’t say that I blame them. We certainly need to curtail the impact of large corporations!

Yet it would also be nice to see some space carved out for smaller scale community based efforts somewhere.

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


Chili or Jelly?

January 24, 2010

Today is the big day for Diane’s fundraising chili supper to pay the taxes for Thornapple CSA. As you may have guessed, my job is clear. It’s put me in mind of an old Sir Douglas Quintet album I used to put on the turntable whenever it was time to cook chili. There was a stanza in one song that went like this:

Doug: When your house catches on fire, and there ain’t no wuh-un around…

Farfisa Organ: Whee – weet! We duh wedu wee…

Doug: Oh when your house catches on fye-ur, an’ there ain’ no one around…

Farfisa Organ: Wee duda wee duda wee duda wee duda …

Doug: Throw your chili out the window, an’ let the dadburn shack burn down.

Farfisa Organ: Coma-cow-cow yicky, coma-cow-cow, yicky-yicky-yea.

Now I’m told that the organ Augie Meyers played in the Sir Douglas Quintet was actually a Vox Continental, but who cares? Sadly and of more consequence, Doug Sahm left us in 1999 at the age of 58. And I unfortunately left that album over at Tony Smith’s house in Nissequogue back in 1979 after a particularly memorable chili party. So it’s been a long time since I cooked anything to this particular song, but hey! That’s what the neural connections that support long term memories are for.

However, what I wanted to bring up here is that this verse is quite reminiscent of a song by Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949) the blues singer better known as Lead Belly. His best known songs were “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special”. He is also credited with “When I Was Cowboy”, a traditional blues number that begins with a verse “When I was a cowboy out on the western plains…” Each subsequent verse involves adventuring of some sort, often an encounter with an outlaw legend—Jesse James, Billy the Kid—and concludes with bullets flying. Each verse, that is, except the last one, which goes like this:

If your house catches afire, an’ there ain’t no water around…

When your house catches afire, an’ there ain’t no water around…

Throw your jelly out the window, and let the dog gone shack burn down.

Of course it could be a coincidence, but I can’t ignore the possibility that Sir Doug was borrowing. Yet you see the dilemma that this leaves me in. Is it jelly or is it chili? Now, while it should be easy to understand why one would throw one’s chili out the window in the case of an emergency, it may be less obvious why Leadbelly would offer the same advice concerning jelly. One commentator on a helpful blues website explains that the word “jelly” was Negro slang for one’s body, a point that might square with the fire story, but does not square at all with other blues standards, like “Jelly, jelly, jelly; that jelly stays on my mind!” (This lyric is variously attributed to Duane Allman (1973), Lonnie Johnson (1964) and Billie Eckstine (1944). Looks like Sir Doug was not the only one who carried some debt.)

I think this lascivious line clarifies Leadbelly’s priorities well enough, and since this is a family blog that’s also enough said. But what kind of shape does it leave us in? Our quandary has only become deeper. Is it jelly or is it chili? The mind swarms. One line of inquiry takes us to the classic Steve Goodman lyric “If me and B.B. King was both drownin’, which one would you choose?” a musical question answered in the next verse: “Baby, you know I love you, but I ain’t heard you play no blues.” Certainly chili must rise nearly as high as blues in the Great Chain of Being.

As a professor of food ethics, you would think that I would be better prepared for such questions. Jelly or chili? It sounds like the much parodied ethics question, “If you could save a Rembrandt painting or an old woman, which one would you choose?” And like the proverbial philosophy professor, I’m still at a loss. I’m not even much inclined to fall back on the idea that I’ve done my job just by posing the dilemma.

Hopefully we will not have to choose tonight.

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

Nano Food

January 17, 2010

This week I spent two days in Columbia, South Carolina where I was attending a meeting of the USC NanoCenter External Advisory Board. If you surf the web looking for connections between nanotechnology and food, you will turn up some documents that describe new products and other pages that describe nanotechnology as “the new threat to food” or “biotech on steroids”. Should you be worried?

The short answer to that question is “Probably not.” A longer answer would bust the word limit I’ve set for myself on the Thornapple blog, especially if we move beyond food and consider cosmetics, too. But let me make just a few observations that web surfers would be unlikely to turn up in the top twenty to thirty hits they might get from typing ‘nanotechnology’ and ‘food’ into Google.

First, recognize that the word ‘nanotechnology’ covers an extraordinarily broad range of tools and techniques. Most of them have nothing directly to do with food.  Succinctly, any tool or technique that exploits properties of matter that emerge at the nanoscale (between 100 billionths of a meter and 2 billionths of a meter) can be called nanotechnology. The biggest buzz surrounds ‘engineered nanoparticles’ which are made from manipulating the chemical bonds that hook atoms and molecules together. ‘Carbon nanotubes’, for example, have extraordinary strength, and conduct electricity with great efficiency.

Some carbon nanotubes have been shown to have toxic effects in fish. The studies on the toxicity and environmental fate of engineered nanoparticles are in their infancy, yet there are indeed manufacturers that are developing and selling products that use them. If you are inclined toward environmental activism against toxics, this might indeed be something you should be worried about.

However, no one is proposing to deliberately put carbon nanotubes in food. What is being proposed is that nanoscale particles of natural substances be used both in foods and in food packaging, as well as in other consumer products. Nano-sized particles of Vitamin E, for example, will have much greater uptake by the body. Nano-thin layers of clay can be incorporated into food packaging to improve biodegradability. Nano-thin capsules can surround vitamins or flavors, releasing them when you chew (and preventing them from degrading before you chew).  Other nanotechnologies may be used in food or farming, but will not actually be in or near food. Nano-filters will be more effective at removing pollutants from water supplies.

Questions can be raised about any of these food nanotechnologies, and they should be raised. But these questions are of a different order than the questions that should be raised about non-food nanotechnology that is entering the environment. The former questions are (unlike the later) questions that food scientists and regulators know how to answer. There is still room for activism, because the anti-regulatory mentality in our political culture can get out of hand. But the nature of the uncertainties and risks is totally different.

I stress this point because some of the more hair-raising stuff on web makes this distinction very difficult to draw. Some of the studies on toxicity from nanotubes are cited, then without skipping a beat, the authors go right to a discussion of techniques for encapsulating flavors in nanothin fat globules. But encapsulation is not new in the food world. Think “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” So for those of you inclined to familiarize yourselves with the gory details, I say “Surf away.” But if this blog is the only thing you ever plan to read on nano food, save your concern for the risks that clearly matter, and recognize that not everything that gets called nanotechnology qualifies.

It’s unlikely that any nanotechnology will be used in getting next year’s share of fruits and vegetables to Thornapple members, but someday, who knows? I can’t imagine us trending toward encapsulated flavor or vitamin supplements, but there are other things waiting in the wings. Readers that have been out to the farm know that we grow in hoop-houses—greenhouses that are made from metal hoops covered with plastic. That plastic eventually goes into the environment, and I can imagine nanotechnologies that improve its ability to let in light as well as its degradability after we are done with it.  Debates on the compatibility of nanotechnology and the organic standard are just beginning, and my view is that we should evaluate proposals on a case-by-case basis, rather that adopting a blanket approach that could rule out some environmental winners.

But that’s my word limit, so shut me up and go cook some chili!

Paul B. Thompson was the Lead Investigator for a National Science Foundation Grant to explore social and ethical implications of nanotechnology in agriculture and food.

Food Ethics

January 10, 2010

My day job cranks up tomorrow. Classes begin at MSU. I’m a professor of food ethics, and people quite reasonably wonder what that is. As for the ethics part, I usually introduce myself at farm gatherings by explaining that people become philosophy professors because they really wanted to be a good old-fashioned fire and brimstone preacher when they were growing up. They aspired to the ministry because they wanted to sermonize, to be able to tell everybody else what they ought to be doing. But they just couldn’t accept the burden of being a moral example themselves, so they became philosophers instead.

As for the food part, food ethics has become kind of hip in recent years. It was pretty much unknown when my friend Ben Mepham published a book with that title in 1996. Before his retirement, Ben was a professor of nutrition at the University of Nottingham. He did quite a bit of work on controversies over the use of infant formula in developing countries, and also published on risks of recombinant bovine somatotropin, better known as bovine growth hormone. But that‘s a story for another time. I met Ben in 1992 when he invited me across the pond to speak at one of the first ever academic conferences on ethics and agriculture. His 1996 book was informative but not scintillating. It had essays on topics like nutrition, food safety, pesticides and genetic engineering, but most of those essays were written by scientists and they did not get beyond pretty technical issues.

Ben went on to play a fundamental role in founding the Food Ethics Council in the United Kingdom. That group, I think, deserves a fair amount of the credit for attaching meaning to the phrase ‘food ethics.’ They conducted studies on the accuracy of food labels, especially as they relate to the promotion of good causes such as fair trade, animal welfare or better health. The phrase has expanded to include concern about the environmental impact of food production and distribution as well as questions about the connection between diet and obesity. Less clearly ethical themes like ‘slow food’ have also been added. Nowadays the phrase food ethics really does come dripping off the lips of many people who want to tell us how we ought to eat (though in fairness, most of them are quite willing to stand as moral examples themselves—the expression ‘smug alert’ from South Park comes to mind).

So while lots of activists are pretty sure they know what food ethics is, those of us who are professors of it are actually rather confused. For example, we would tend to include questions about hunger, food security and their links to poverty. But we are painfully aware that there are real trade-offs and tensions between production and distribution systems that are beneficial to the poor and those that are preferred by middle class shoppers at the weekly farmer’s market. And speaking for myself, I can’t resolve those tensions in any simple or totally satisfactory way. It’s actually in the tensions and the attempts at resolution that the ethics part comes in for me, rather than in committing to the idea of doing good through my dietary choices.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one at it. The University of Florida philosopher Richard Haynes and I got the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society started over twenty years ago.  A European group followed in 1999. Princeton did a major conference a few years back, (I wasn’t invited). And other philosophers are blogging about it, too. Indeed, even the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations has recognized the importance of food ethics. When people ask me why I took my job at Michigan State in 2003 despite being perfectly happy teaching at Purdue, I tell them that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped MSU create an endowed chair in agriculture and food ethics, and I couldn’t stand the thought of  any of my friends having it.

Now I hasten to add that I am all for the new food movements like local, slow and organic. I know what a food-mile is. And I am blogging for a community supported agriculture group, after all! I’m just saying that food ethics tend to be more complicated than many of the activists who use that term seem to think that it is. So I hope readers can put up with us philosophers picking a few nits about food ethics. More will come.

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

City Market

January 3, 2010

So if I have my facts straight, Christmas Eve was the last day of business for the old Lansing City Market, and the property passed into the hands of local developer Pat Gillespie on January 1st. These events were the source of some sadness in the Thompson household. Diane was deeply involved in the Friends of the Market group between 2006 and 2008, and became embroiled in the politics surrounding the City Council actions to sell the old market and construct a new one on some adjacent property. Now I stress that what I’m recounting here is my view, and not hers. She did tell me that her feelings have as much or more to do with the way these events played out as it does with the outcome.

My sense is that all the key decisions here were made well before Diane got involved with the issues. Indeed, they were functionally made during the earliest days of the 2005 campaign that put Lansing Mayor Virg Bernaro in office, though he did not disclose redevelopment of the market as a part of his plan for the city. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that delivering this city-owned piece of waterfront property into private hands was the quid pro quo for financial and other support that Bernaro got from real estate interests in the Lansing area. Nothing was going to stop that once Bernaro was elected, and Diane was told as much by a few of her friends who were among the old market’s most faithful customers. And in fact, Diane was not totally opposed to a new market. What she was opposed to was the bum’s rush that actually transpired.

This is a long story that was not told very well by the local media. The Lansing City Pulse did the best job, but even their coverage is not easy to access now. When I went to the paper’s website, the search function on their archive would not return any results for years prior to 2009. Indeed, the seeming boycott of the story by the Lansing State Journal and the local television stations was a major part of what made these events take on a conspiratorial feel. It was as if people in the know were sure that if the ugly details became public, the whole thing would come off the rails. So it became extremely important that anyone asking questions about the property transfer would be seen as an obstructionist, a crank or as someone clinging nostalgically to the past during a time when the city desperately needed to move forward. All avenues to thinking, planning and involving a broader community in the development of a new market were foreclosed.

The first plan did not include a new market at all, save for a spot where seasonal vendors could hawk wares under a tent in the summertime. This turned out to be very unpopular and gave the Friends of the Market an unexpected opening to the political process. The deal brokers sensed vulnerability quickly and rapidly revised the plan to include the construction of a new market, the structure that now stands on a small plot on the banks of the Grand River. The money for this would be provided by the sale of the old market property to Gillespie’s group. No one seemed to notice that this completely vitiated the original rationale for the deal, which had been to finance a totally different set of downtown redevelopment initiatives. Very quickly—too quickly—the Mayor and his cohort adopted rhetoric supporting the idea of a market as key to downtown redevelopment. And that’s the story that’s still being told in the local media.

It’s a story that the Friends of the Market might have been able to get behind as well, but no one gave them a chance. Others in the Lansing food community were enrolled in Bernaro’s program through deals that pitted one neighborhood against another. To be sure, the Friends had a mix of concerns that never jelled completely. The main one was food access, understood in both physical and economic terms. One could have done all one’s food shopping at the old market on a year round basis, and a few people did. Its demise turns a fairly large part of central Lansing into a food desert. But less abstractly, most of the access complaints that were aired centered on parking. A second set of concerns revolved around the vendor mix. This one was tricky, because some parts of the old market were more committed to food than others. Some saw it as an incubator for small scale local business, for example. And a third set of concerns took up local identity and sense of place values. It would be important for a new market to maintain some sense of continuity to the old one, and for the history tied to the old site to be maintained as much as possible. These were the issues most easily twisted into stories about obstructionist nostalgia by the media operatives who engineered the bum’s rush.

There were also some pretty straightforward aesthetic and environmental issues, too. The point here was not that the old market was perfect on these points, for it clearly had flaws. The point was that any serious effort at planning or community building was swept under the rug by the need to complete the property transaction under an undisclosed deadline. And what was that deadline? Was it Gillespie’s business plan or the ticking fuse on Bernaro’s political capital? No one knows because no one in the local media bothered to ask. In fact, none of the questions being asked in 2007 and 2008 have been answered even in 2010, as the new market is about to open. It is still very much an open question as to what we will get.

Let’s hope things turn well, if not for the best. At the very least, actions by Diane and others in the Friends of the Market introduced talk about the Pike Place Market in Seattle or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia into the vocabulary of the Lansing development community. We should hold on to that as a victory of sorts, but we should not allow the local food community to be manipulated by politics of this ilk so readily in the future.

Paul B. Thompson is married to Thornapple Core Group Coordinator Diane Thompson