February 28, 2010

No, this post has nothing to do with homeland security. “Terroir” is a French word for a concept that is common throughout European food culture. It refers to the peculiar taste and quality imparted to food and drink from the soils and climate in which it is produced. We can fantasize about that in the veggies we get from Thornapple CSA, but terroir is particularly important for fine wines and cheeses. Learning to fully appreciate their flavor requires that one acquire the ability to taste and smell traces imparted by the clays and minerals that are first dissolved by groundwater, then incorporated into the milk or grape.

I got first hand experience with terroir on a business trip to Toulouse about ten years ago. My group was visiting the agricultural college there, and a student club threw a wine and cheese tasting party for us. We sat there for at least three hours working our way through a dozen different settings of wine and cheese. Each setting included a wine that had been selected by he students and two or three cheeses that had be chosen by a local fromagier.

With all respect to the fantastic job done by Hills Cheese at the Lansing City Market, we don’t have anything like a fromagier here in Lansing. The fromagier does more than stock and sell cheese. Fromagiers travel all over France sampling and buying “green” cheeses that have been made in small batches on a very local basis, sometimes from a single farm. The fromagier’s art consists in ripening these cheeses in just the right conditions, conditions that sometimes include inculcation of specific molds that are a crucial part of bringing the cheese to its peak.

Our fromagier presided over our wine and cheese tasting party like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, providing commentary on the source and character of each cheese we tasted. He instructed us to be alert for distinctive notes in the flavors of the cheeses. Our French hosts had great fun with this, sarcastically challenging him to help them determine whether the grass the cows (or goats) had been eating was on the windward or leeward side of the hill. As for myself, three hours of nothing but cheese, wine and the occasional bite of bread to cleanse the palette was a bit of a challenge to my digestive system. But it was a fantastic experience, even if I’m not sure I’d want to repeat it.

Many of these cheeses are unpasteurized, which means that the Food and Drug Administration will not allow them to be sold in the United States. Another part of the fromagier’s art lies in knowing how far to go with the microorganisms that contribute to the ripening process. Too far and the wonderful terroir in those raw cheeses becomes lethal. There are a few deaths every year in France from eating unpasteurized cheese.

Which reminds me of another experience years ago in Washington DC when I heard a lobbyist for the biotechnology industry berating a French food safety official who had been explaining why they were applying the precautionary principle in refusing to approve the introduction of genetically engineered crops. The precautionary principle states:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The biotech lobbyist was challenging the French official to explain why he did not apply the precautionary principle to those unpasteurized cheeses, the pride (with their wines) of French cuisine.

The official’s answer: “Well, everybody knows that’s dangerous.”

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We might need to bear a little risk in enjoying the height of flavor and local color in an artisanal food. We just need to know that that is the case. As for the lobbyist, he remains terroirified by the very thought of raw cheese.

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

Nuevo Huevo

February 21, 2010

I’m in Tucson as I write this, where I was attending a meeting of the United Egg Producers (UEP) Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC). The UEP is the trade association for commercial egg producers. Most of their members are producing at a very large scale and most of their layers are kept in cages. This kind of egg production has been a frequent target of people who criticize factory farming. So, you might ask, what am I doing talking to these guys?

The answer is that in my view UEP is taking the lead among all commodity groups that represent large-scale farming to address critical issues. A little more than a decade ago (well before I was on the SAC) they formed this committee as a body that they could go to for advice about the welfare of their hens. The process works like this: A group representing members (the Producer’s Committee) formulates specific questions for the SAC, and the SAC, which includes veterinarians and specialists in poultry behavior and animal welfare, makes recommendations. The Producer Committee then takes action based on these recommendations. The producers adopt official UEP husbandry guidelines (which thus far closely resemble SAC recommendations), and have created a certification audit that determines whether or not a given producer is in compliance with the guidelines.

Although compliance with guidelines is voluntary, approximately 80 percent of the “shell eggs” produced in the United States are covered under the UEP certification program. A “shell egg” is an egg sold in the shell. Lots of eggs sold to the food industry are sold in liquid form, and that market falls outside the purview of UEP. Husbandry guidelines have been developed for both cage and non-cage production systems. I sat through some excruciatingly boring meetings where the vets and animal scientists debated how much perching space birds need in the non-cage (or “free range”) production systems. There ain’t much that a philosopher can contribute to that conversation! However at least two accomplishments that this approach has achieved are worthy of note by a food ethicist.

First, the UEP Guidelines stipulate minimum space requirements for hens in cages. This has led to a significant reduction in the crowding that was the most critical welfare issue in egg production a decade ago, and that still remains an issue for those producers who choose not to follow UEP guidelines. The guidelines also address a number of other sensitive areas in animal care in both cage and non-cage systems that I will not try to explain here. So the approach has led to an improvement in animal welfare. Second, and of equal importance, the UEP provides an example that large scale commodity organizations might use to remediate (I don’t say permanently resolve) some of the most pressing social and environmental problems that have been brought on by the rise of industrial agriculture.

The SAC does not involve itself in making judgments about “the best” method of egg production. SAC advice is limited to specific questions posed by producers. This leaves some questions, like whether we should even have caged layer production at all, unaddressed by the SAC. I have two reactions to this situation that may seem to contradict one another. On the one hand, I recognize that this entire approach to addressing ethical issues depends on external pressure from activists and the general public. I do not think that egg producers would have moved as quickly to make reforms in the absence of this pressure. Other producer organizations of industrial farmers have more frequently been content to remain in a defensive posture, throwing stones at their critics. So the UEP deserves some credit, but I am, on this hand, inclined to tell all you critics out there, “Keep the heat on!”

On the other hand, I don’t think that we are ready to see large-scale egg production disappear, and I think that some of the criticisms are well off the mark. What would the alternative to industrial egg production look like? Thornapple members may have seen the chickens on the Appleschram farm. This is essentially a hobby activity for Diane. She is very devoted to it, and works hard at it. From one perspective, you could look at Diane’s chickens and say that they are leading the ethically ideal life. That, you could say, is what all egg production should be like. Yet Diane has lost about 20% of her chickens, presumably to predators. And today she told me that she saw a raccoon sleeping in the barn, which explains why we haven’t been getting many eggs lately. Now I know that there is a lot of room between Diane’s operation and that of a large scale caged layer production, but the contrast is sufficient to make an important ethical point.

Even if you set aside the animal welfare questions about a 20% death rate—the rate in a typical caged layer facility is more like 2% and this is achieved through husbandry, not hormones or antibiotics—operations that resemble Diane’s raise ethical questions about the price and reliability of the egg supply. Eggs are a legitimate component of a healthy diet. One can do without them, for sure, but many people in our society would have great difficulty in maintaining healthy vegan diets.  Some people that are closer to or under the poverty line are perfectly capable of raising their own chickens, and unlike Diane they have no qualms about combating interloping raccoons. Other families on limited incomes would be resorting to Cheetos, Red Bull, or whatever else they could get at the convenience store.  I don’t mean to get preachy, but there are many in our society who depend on fast food and convenience stores for a major part of their diet, and as long as that remains the case, having a reliable supply of inexpensive eggs (either in cartons, as egg salad or as the proverbial Egg McMuffin) is one of the best choices they can make.

Non-cage systems are an alternative to the caged system that are lots bigger than Diane’s henhouse. They can provide a reliable egg supply, albeit at a higher cost than a caged layer system. I don’t think we should be seeking the absolute rock bottom price for eggs. I don’t push the consumer argument that far. But when non-cage systems get to a commercial scale, other animal welfare problems begin to crop up. Birds get aggressive, for example. While “free range” can be an environment where the dominant birds are free to express their aggressive instincts, it is not at all clear that this is the best environment for less dominant birds. For the time being at least, then, it is not at all clear that non-cage is the best system from an animal welfare ethics perspective.

There’s more—too much more—to say about egg ethics, but I’ve got to leave it aside for now because I already in too deep. I’ll finish by saying I’m quite happy to help the UEP make progress toward animal welfare within the constraints of our current industrial food system. I don’t think of them as “the bad guys”, and I wish more animal producer groups would follow their example.

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

Food Miles

February 14, 2010

I’m sitting at home with my foot in the air. It’s doctor’s orders while I’m on the mend from minor surgery. In order to cheer me up, by daughter Dory air shipped me a box of Delicious Tamales from San Antonio. She picked out three varieties: the regular pork tamales that made them famous, their “sweet tamales” and their Southwestern vegetarian variety. They are all mighty good. I would recommend them as a major extravagance for those who can’t just drive down to Culebra Road or one of the other five locations in San Antonio. They do ship frozen tamales nationally, and shipping is the same price for one dozen or ten.

Dory was returning a favor that I had done her a few months back when I was passing through Toledo. I stopped at Tony Packo’s and had five jars of Pickles and Peppers shipped to her. Neither of these things makes sense. Granted, I don’t think I can find anything quite like a Delicious Tamale here in Lansing, and Tony Packo’s Pickles and Peppers are pretty unique. But the whole “food miles” thing weighs in heavily against doing stuff like this on any kind of regular basis.

For anyone interested, there is a very good article on food miles at Wikipedia.com. The idea was to estimate the environmental impact of consuming different foods by calculating how many miles a food travels before it winds up on your plate. “Limiting one’s food miles” was a major part of the rationale behind local food: trying to source as much of one’s diet from farms or gardens within a hundred miles of one’s dinner table. It’s admittedly a rough estimate, and the Wikipedia article does a good job of explaining why.  Succinctly, transportation accounts for only about 4% of the greenhouse gasses associated with food production and consumption, so other points of emphasis may be more appropriate.

The food miles debate has led to a number of complicated studies (many reviewed in Wikipedia) intended to better understand environmental impacts from food production. All of them involve drastic oversimplifications that limit their usefulness for any conscientious eater. For example, an influential study by Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews concluded that shifting to a vegetarian diet would have more positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions than limiting one’s food miles. I don’t doubt that this is correct if we to were to compare the average effect that localism and vegetarianism would have if all food consumers were to choose one or the other of these options. But neither is a very realistic scenario, and I think that Weber and Mathews’ conclusion would be bad advice to offer someone pondering how they should limit the environmental impact of what they eat. Their averaging approach does not take into account the knock-on affects of becoming a conscientious eater.

I want to be clear that I am not against vegetarianism, but one problem with it is that for many becoming vegetarian is a “quick fix” dietary response that does not lead them to be more thoughtful about their total package of food choices. It means 7-layer burritos at Taco Bell, and vegetarian pizzas from Dominos. One still shops at Meijer for veggie burgers, which are still adorned with out-of-season tomatoes from Mexico and iceberg lettuce flown in from Chile or the Netherlands on 747s, then served with frozen fries. In contrast, no one who tries to “eat local” is going to be happy with that chub of ground beef in the supermarket or the bacon & eggs at the local Denny’s. Sourcing local meat, milk and eggs will more often than not lead one inevitably to smaller scale producers who are practicing sustainable agriculture. In conjunction with the thoughtful eating practices that (I hypothesize) more reliably accompany the “going local,” vegetarianism is great, or at least okay. It still ignores the way that animals and animal wastes are essential components of the most successful organic production methods, but I’m quite willing to cut all the vegetarian locavores a bit of slack on that point. Instead of emphasizing the local, being vegetarian is still better than eating the way most Americans eat, but I question the thought that one does more for the environment when one chooses that over localism.

Weber and Mathews also ignore the role of animals in most alternatives to industrial agriculture. The focus of their analysis was on climate impact, and that is another example of the necessary simplifications that technical studies of the food system require. Climate is only one dimension of the environmental impact that comes from food production. Farming has dramatic effects on biodiversity, water quality and the inherent productive potential of soil ecosystems. It is an open question as to how traditional farms or alternative farms (like Appleschram, where Thornapple is based) would score on the life cycle methodology used by Weber and Mathews, but their 2008 article would lead you to believe that the animal production on these farms is an environmental “No-No”.

So I apologize for complicating things yet again. To reiterate: don’t feel too guilty if you decide to have some Delicious Tamales air shipped from San Antonio once in your life. But don’t make a habit of it, and don’t think that limiting your order to those wonderful Southwestern Vegetarian tamales makes it okay, either.

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

The Agrarian Vision

February 7, 2010

Arguably, American agriculture is caught between two competing ideals or “visions”. One derives from the rough consensus on the industrial economy that emerged over the 20th century: Productive sectors of the economy should use the most efficient technical means to produce their respective commodity goods, but should internalize external costs and treat workers fairly. Throughout other sectors of the economy, this consensus has led to debates over the tension between jobs and growth, on the one hand, and environmental quality, on the other. When applied to agriculture, however, this particular tension has been muted. On the one hand, no one thinks that industrialization in agriculture creates more jobs. On the other hand, farmers are thought to be owner operators who take the normal risks of business operators. So according to this vision, farmers are businessmen who should be efficient, but they should not be polluters. If they go broke, it’s their tough luck. We might call this the industrial vision of agriculture: agriculture is just another sector of the industrial economy, and should play by the same rules as energy, manufacturing, materials and transportation. Much of what drives The Green Economy issues out of this vision, and it is driving us to safer, healthier food and fair wages at the same time it drives us to GMOs and biofuels.

The alternative vision harks back to agriculture’s past. The idea that agriculture has a symbolic, cultural and moral function can be thought of as the agrarian vision. It holds that agriculture is unique among trades in its capacity to co-produce a wide variety of social goods while also supplying food and fiber needs. Thomas Jefferson, for example, is remembered for claiming that “farmers make the best citizens” though the meaning of his statement is seldom examined. He was not praising farmers’ virtue idly. His words have to be understood in the context of colonies fighting for a tenuous independence from England. Quite realistically, Jefferson understood that traders and manufacturers could move their portable assets somewhere else if things started looking bad for the new nation. He saw it happening in his lifetime, as many abandoned the American cause and beat a path to Canada or Caribbean colonies. Farmers, however, could not move their assets. They were stuck with the new nation, and were forced to figure out how to make it work. This is why they made “the best citizens”.

Jefferson’s agrarian philosophy became evident when he became the 3rd President of the United States. Alexander Hamilton had been arguing that the U.S. needed a manufacturing base in New Jersey. Jefferson spent the money on the Louisiana Purchase instead. Then he sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Purchase and determine the suitability of lands for farming. Jefferson was investing in agriculture rather than factories. Both meant “jobs” (the refrain we always here from politicians nowadays), but farming was a public investment that would yield more than jobs and farm commodities: it would yield good citizens, as well.

Jefferson clearly needs to be updated, and I think that CSAs like Thornapple are a way to do it. I’m not sure about Jeffersonian citizenship, but I still think that farming can tie us to environmental virtues such as stewardship and sustainability. The practice of eating in season, knowing your farmer and getting out to the farm once in a while counters the vice that Aldo Leopold noted: Thinking that food comes from the grocery store. All of us need a practical and material demonstration of our dependence on the land. We need to be reminded of how tenuous, experimental and adaptive good farming has to be. Those who want to “reconnect Americans with their food” are right, because doing so will revitalize metaphors that still have cogency in American culture, and that can become a source of inspiration and meaning for sustainability.

With luck and a bit more work, there can be some real community building, too. That probably takes more than just paying your money and picking up your food share. Community is another virtue that can be supported through the right kind of agriculture. In rural towns of times past, it came naturally, as combination between relative isolation and the need for solidarity created interdependencies that forced people together. There was a dark side to this old style community, too, and it was not many generations ago that lots of people fled the farm looking for a more tolerant and open form of community in the cities. Frankly, I think that the community part of Community Supported Agriculture is still very much a work in progress, not only for us in Thornapple but in most CSAs. It will take some effort to get to know one another, to do some things together and to build a space in which we can explore our commonalities while respecting and celebrating our differences. Personally, I like the idea of community, but I’m not at all sure what it will take of me to achieve it, nor am I confident planned activities of “community building” will really work. Community may require a kind of spontaneity, a kind of luck that dooms intentional efforts to build community to failure. Alternatively, it may need the kind of necessity that grew out of rural isolation in the past.

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