April 25, 2010

Diane and I were out at Appleschram (the farm where food for Thornapple CSA is grown) yesterday late in the evening. Diane spent a fair amount of time futzing around with the new arrival, a baby lamb. (Actually now that I think of it, is that redundant? Aren’t all lambs “babies”? … But in a larger sense, aren’t we all babies? … Oh, never mind. This kind of tangential spinning is just what happens when you let a philosophy professor get hold of a keyboard). By “futzing” I mean there was a lot of worry about every little thing. The sheep are normally on pasture, but the lamb and ewe Number 2928 were penned in the barn in order to keep the vulnerable newborn safe from predators. One worry: what the mother ewe was supposed to eat. I was sent repeatedly to pull up clumps of grass from the yard, and I must admit that Number 2928 really did seem to be enjoying the nice green treat.

Which sparks another tangent: Perhaps some of you saw John Schneider’s column in the Lansing State Journal yesterday. Schneider was reporting a critical comment from veterinarian Michael Thome regarding another feature in the paper stating that cows on small farms “get named by farmers, whereas the “factory cows” only get numbers.” Thome disagreed: they all get numbers. And my comment above on Number 2928 suggests that a similar point can be extended to sheep at Appleschram. But it is also true that Number 2928 is known as an individual and that Diane, at least, has a pretty good sense of her personality. Diane described her as “my favorite” and was delighted to think that she had had a baby. (And before we leave the Schneider tangent let me note that his blog on Thursday was expressing disappointment with the new Lansing City Market. Most of the people who replied to the blog were enthusiastic supporters, though I suspect that most of them also work for Pat Gillespie or Virg Bernaro.)

Unfortunately, we learned later from Jane Bush that the lamb in the barn with Number 2928 was not hers. Number 2928’s lamb had died in a “breach birth.” This means pretty much what it does in humans: trying to come out the wrong way. Supposedly it happens in only about 5% of cases, but given the relative inexperience with lambing at Appleschram, it was not possible to save Number 2928’s lamb. The mother of the lamb we saw had not been particularly receptive to nursing, however, so Jane had put Number 2928 and the newborn lamb in the barn together in hopes that given Number 2928’s generally more calm and receptive personality, she would allow the lamb to nurse. During our time out in the barn yesterday, it was not really happening. The lamb would try to suckle, but the ewe would push her away. Only when Diane held the ewe and tried to calm her by talking baby-talk to her would she hold still and allow the lamb to derive any satisfaction. Jane confirmed that this had been her experience, too. Jane had been going out a couple of times a day and holding Number 2928 so that the lamb would be able to get some of the colostrum so crucial to its survival. We will keep our fingers crossed and see what happens.

All of this may say more about Diane than it does about sheep farming. Her disappointment over learning the details of this story was obvious. I recall a friend who once observed the way that Diane tried to scold our dog Molly when she was just a puppy: “I would misbehave just to get someone to talk to me that way.” First the chickens and now the sheep were involving her emotionally and exacting responsibilities that she did not feel that she could shirk under any circumstances. For her part, Diane was wondering whether or not she should have just stuck to vegetables. However, I fully expect that there will continue to be animals of one sort or another in our farming future.

I’m on tap to meet with Laurie Thorp at MSU to brainstorm some “ethical attitudes” research she might do in connection with the plan to incorporate pasture-raised pigs into the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State. Right at the moment, I’m at a loss for ideas. Laurie is a bit like Diane, but probably a little further along in her ability to manage the emotional side of raising animals in a small-scale, sustainable agriculture setting. It seems to me that the emotions and responsibilities have probably always attended relationships between farmers, shepherds, ranchers and the animals under their care. I’m also sure that the people involved have developed rather different ways of dealing with them. Some develop sharp practices of emotional distance that deny farm animals any standing as living or feeling creatures, while others find a way to reconcile their feelings with the larger purposes and project of having animals be a part of the farm, in the first place. The physical and economic distance that now separates most Americans from their food probably has tipped the balance toward a kind of emotional distance for most of us. Oddly, the distance between consumer and their food may also encourage a highly artificial reconstruction of animals as “moral subjects” that undercuts the possibility of any true ethic of care—the ethic that I think motivates Diane.

Where we go from this for food ethics is anybody’s guess.

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

Lost in the Bioverse

April 18, 2010

Jimmy Buffet once said these prophetic words:

I don’t know….

I don’t know…

I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the volcano blows.

As for myself, the answer seems to be “Nowhere fast.” Smoke is pouring out of volcano in Iceland and I am stuck in Rome. My flight home was canceled and under the best scenario I will be spending three extra days in the eternal city.

I’m here for a meeting at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations on “agricultural biodiversity.” This idea goes way back in ag circles, but the meeting here in Rome is putting a rather different twist on it. Aggies have always (or at least for some time) appreciated the need to maintain diverse genetic stocks of the world’s main commodity crops. The big lesson came in the 1970s, when the genetic diversity in corn became so narrow that 70% of the U.S. corn crop was wiped out when a virus struck a particular allele (that’s science talk for a genetic variation of a specific kind) that was widely shared.

It was then recognized that a) it was important to keep a more diverse pool of alleles in the main food crops so that they would not be so vulnerable to a specific disease, and b) it was important to preserve the genes that existed in nature so that plant breeders would have something to work with in case of another catastrophe.

But the new thinking has recognized that farming systems with a more diverse array of plants in them are capable of harboring a more diverse population of native species. This means that agriculture can be made much more compatible with conservation of natural biodiversity. In fact, ecologists have learned that a “matrix” of crops, trees and uncultivated areas is quite effective at preserving endangered species, and a matrix landscape is more able to meet the needs of poor people on the ground in developing countries (where many of the world’s endangered species live) than the old idea of limited nature preserves. With a matrix approach, the entire agricultural landscape can harbor needed wild species.

And with more natural biodiversity comes a more diverse population of soil microorganisms, which in turn means enhanced soil fertility. That’s actually good for the farmers. Then there is the health benefit that comes from eating a more diverse diet, which is what one does when one depends on a variety of plants (including trees) instead of the single commodity crop. In short, the kind of farming that we support through CSAs actually holds great promise for alleviating the tension between agriculture and conservation of wildlife.  Agriculture and environment can be friends.

As for me, I’m waiting for an opening in the volcanic clouds of ash that my plane can fly through. That’s right. Any ash hole will do.

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

Food vs. Fuel

April 11, 2010

Wheaties has a new product called “Wheaties Fuel”. I haven’t tried it, and won’t comment on the product itself. What’s attracted me is the marketing. Regular boxes of Wheaties started touting the word ‘fuel’ and promising something new at least six or eight months ago, though it’s probable that the folks at General Mills were thinking about this long before that. Generally oblivious boob that I am, I’ve only recently noticed that there is a new variety trying to cash-in on the Wheaties “brand” on my grocery shelves. What’s interesting to me is the thought that calling something “fuel” would be regarded as a good way to sell something that many of us in the CSA world would probably rather think of as “food”.

For me, the word “fuel” conjures up images of gasoline pumps. I think of fuel as smelly and polluting, even when I think more broadly than gas and oil. Firewood, coal, smoldering piles of peat, pressurized tanks of natural gas, that odor you get when you pump your Coleman stove: that’s what I associate with fuel. I am not, however, mainstream in this regard, and the marketing guys at General Mills know it. Work by social psychologists Paul Rozin and Claude Fischler has shown that there are different cultural styles that are tied to the way that people from different parts of the world think of food. They showed people from a number of regions a series of images and asked them to point to the one that they most closely associate with food. People from France, for example, picked the image of a tree. People from the United States picked the gasoline pump much more frequently than they picked anything else.

Given that Americans think that their farms are producing fuel, it may not be too surprising that American farmers were very quick to jump on the bandwagon for converting their crops into a form that could actually be burned in an internal combustion engine. This led a flurry of investment in facilities that would turn corn (and also corn silage—the rest of the corn plant) into ethanol between 2005 and 2007. A number of plants were planned for Michigan. The Bush administration created a complex package of subsidies to encourage this development under the banner of “fighting terrorism through energy independence.” Unfortunately for the farmers (but fortunately for us), before most of these plants could be built the fuel industry figured out that that it was actually pretty crazy to burn fuel (in tractors and in synthetic fertilizers) to grow the stuff, then burn more fuel hauling the crops (which contain a lot of water) to factories to produce less fuel than they had actually consumed in the production process. The wacky subsidies held this recognition at bay for too long, but for the moment at least, common sense seems to have prevailed. Some of these farmers who invested in fuel plants have lost a ton of money.

A major part of the learning process involved widespread publicity of the “food-fuel” conflict. World food prices went through the roof in 2007, just about the same time that corn ethanol was getting a big push from industrial farm groups and Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. The New York Times, among others, put two and two together and concluded that the biofuels push was unethical because it was causing people to starve. This has not only been the undoing of corn ethanol, it has also put the kibosh on so-called “second generation” biofuels: grasses such as sawgrass, sugarcane and miscanthus that can be process into fuel much more efficiently than corn. Then there are “third generation” biofuels, which might be produced in Michigan from fast growing trees or wood byproducts. My university is spending a ton of money on these projects, but the “food-fuel conflict” has led foodies of all stripes to diss biofuels. This has, in turn, led biofuels scientists to argue that they should be exempt from criticism because, afterall, the crops that will produce second and third generation biofuels are not food crops. They claim that using these crops for fuel will not compete with food and will not cause food prices to rise; hence, (they claim) the anti-fuel foodie arguments are wrong.

I am here to claim (with depressing consistency) that things are not so simple and that everybody is wrong. Here is why the foodies are wrong: World food prices actually do need to go up if poor farmers in developing countries are to have half a chance. Getting some of the subsidized industrial crops off world markets will benefit farmers elsewhere, who right now cannot compete. What is more, there are some applications of the biofuel idea that can grown in the developing world, providing even more help. In short, the farmers who wanted to build ethanol refineries were right to think that the biofuels thing is good for farmers. And if it comes on line in an orderly way, it can be a good thing for poor farmers elsewhere (and unlike here in the States, about half of the poorest people in the world still depend directly on farming and farm income). It can, however, come on line in a disorderly way, and that can push poor farmers off the land and into urban areas, so things here are not, I repeat, simple.

Here is why the biofuels scientists are wrong: In fact, all these non-food biofuels will still contribute to upward pressure on food prices. The issue is a land-use question: food or fuel. It makes no difference what you are making the fuel from. There thus is a tension between things that are good for farmers and things that are good for the urban poor, whose lives can be thrown into chaos by a rise in cost of food. This is the fundamental tension in agricultural ethics, and it needs to be faced rather than swept under the rug. Perhaps if we get to the point that farmers are universally among the better off people in society (as would be true of many industrial farmers in the United States) it will make sense to feed people by keeping prices low, but as people like Raj Patel have argued convincingly, there are both environmental and nutritional costs to pay with this strategy. For the time being, what helps the urban poor in the developing world hurts poor farmers, and they exist in roughly equal numbers.

Things, in short, are likely to be “complicated” for some time to come, and simple minded “solutions” are very likely to do more harm than good. Sorry to be such a grump.

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

Some Rules

April 4, 2010

After last week’s thoughts on Michael Pollan’s new book, it occurred to me that I do follow some Food Rules. Here is the main one:

Never eat anything bigger than your head.

This one comes to us from the work of visual philosopher B. Kliban. Kliban died in 1990, but he has a number of fans lurking about the internet. Rather than provide links, I suggest just typing his name into Google and then seeing what comes up. As food advice goes, this is pretty fundamental, but not necessarily something you will find either on the webpages maintained by corporate food giants such as Kellogg’s or McDonalds. Nor does it tend to get brought up by Alice Waters, Carlo Petrini or any other celebrity chef. Kliban followers certainly know it, but for the rest of you, remember that you heard it here first. But this is not the only food rule that I have accumulated over a lifetime of working on and thinking about food:

Always order the special.

This rule was passed on to me by D. Bruce Dickson, a professor of anthropology and religious studies at Texas A&M University. Dickson is not well known in food circles, so I suspect that most readers are latching on to this important piece of advice for the first time here, as well. Dickson always insisted that this was the only nomothetic regularity he had been able to verify during a lifetime of work on ritual and practice in various obscure cultures. I’m sure that the various robots who follow my blog and post comments will agree that this is a profound thought, capable of providing deep insight not only into dietary practice but also into the basis of food’s mysterious power to endow an otherwise arbitrary assemblage of human beings with the unifying rhythms of a natural community.

It’s better to look good than to feel good, my friend.

Not exactly a rule, of course, this maxim will, I’m sure be familiar to a much larger portion of the readership. It was the catch-phrase of Fernando Lamas, star of the 1980’s talk show Fernando’s Hideaway. “Saludos!” While I’m not sure what happened to Fernando or what he ate on a regular basis, I do recall that he looked marvelous.

What more can I say about food rules sitting here on Sunday afternoon trying to digest parts of three Italian pastries from Roma (down on North Cedar St. in Lansing)? I’m not saying that this is how anyone should eat every day, however much the pastry chef down there would like me to. And I won’t even try to reconcile this with Fernando’s motto. But there is that one last rule coined by Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson and popularized by the inimitable Guy Lombardo, which I think sums up the whole theme of this blog:

Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.

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