Jeffersonian Democracy

May 30, 2010

Thomas Jefferson wrote that farmers make “the best citizens”, but this claim is poorly understood. Cruising the Internet I found a page where someone had asked for an explanation. All the explanations offered were wrong. The one that got the most votes for being “helpful” stated that Jefferson meant to say that farmers are naturally honest and “pure.”

As a farmer himself, Jefferson had no end of trouble with scurrilous neighbors (also farmers). He was under no illusion that farmers as a group tend to be either honest or pure (whatever that means). What Jefferson meant was that since farmers had their wealth and livelihood invested in their land, they could be counted on to come to the defense of their country. They would be good citizens, though not necessarily morally good people.

But not everyone who gets Jefferson wrong is deeply confused. Some misunderstandings are creative. Wendell Berry, for example, refers to Jefferson to support his own view that modern life encourages a mentality of specialization that prevents people from seeing the way that things are connected. In the specialized lifestyle of the urban household, the home itself has no purpose except as a place to sleep and store one’s swag. Livelihoods are produced by work outside the home.  This situation is especially destructive for children, according to Berry, who correctly perceive that nothing of importance hinges on how well they work: whether they do well in school or are diligent in performing their chores. This leads children to see themselves as nothing but a drain on their parents’ lifestyle, or even worse as the entire purpose of the household and their parents’ work.

On the farm, chores matter, and it is obvious that chores matter. The feedback from work poorly done is more immediate, and the household and productive unit are unified in the form of the family farm. As such, every member of the farm household comes to see himself or herself as having responsibilities that, if not loyally discharged, lead to the dissolution and decline of the farm. This mentality, this seeing work and living as a unified and systemic whole, can, according to Berry, encourage virtues of industry and stewardship. Berry thus suggests that virtue comes more readily to farmers, but this is still a long way from saying that they are more honest and pure.

Another author who mis-reads Jefferson in a creative way is Jim Hightower. Hightower argues that farms were important until recent times at least because they provided a safety valve against the worst excesses of capitalism. Democracy requires that people who work for wages and follow the orders of bosses must do so of their own free will. But this is not possible in a society where the only way to subsist is to hold a job for pay. Hightower argues that farming was crucial for American democracy because policies like the Homestead Act (enabled by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase), allowed people the option of striking out on their own as farmers, resisting and rejecting a situation of dependency on the availability of paying work. Farming is thus crucial to political freedom, and the availability of the farming option is what protects American democracy from charges of injustice leveled by socialists and communists.

I read a paper discussing these themes at a meeting on democracy this week that was attended by many philosophers from former Soviet-block countries. One said that my paper was important for him because Eastern Europeans tend to see democracy as a phenomenon of cities, as something that becomes both possible and necessary only as a result of industrial relations between workers and bosses. Seeing these three ways of understanding Jeffersonian democracy (Berry’s, Hightower’s and Jefferson’s own) made him understand that in the American tradition, democratic ideals can actually be grounded in rural society, and in a people’s relation to the land.

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


First Pick-Up

May 23, 2010

I remember my first pick-up. She was a brunette of short stature who was hitch-hiking back home after a Grateful Dead concert in Denver back in 1969. I went a bit out of my way to drop her off at her parent’s house in one of the northern suburbs before continuing on to Greeley, where I was living at the time. No one was home when we got there so she invited me in and made me a peanut butter sandwich. Then she said she was going to change into something comfortable, but it turned out to be a t-shirt and shorts. When I got a look at her in the t-shirt and shorts, I had the distinct sense that this could land me some jail time if it went any further, so I excused myself and headed North.

Then there are people for whom the phrase “first pick-up” conjures up the smell of grease or that Sunday afternoon they spent installing a new water pump. For them, the first pick-up was a C10 or an F150 or maybe a dual carb Jimmy with a wooden bed. And of course a number of those weren’t strictly legal either.

I’m definitely not one of that crowd, I’m afraid. I’ll share a poem I wrote back in 1996 when I had been cut-off in my ’92 Celica one too many times on Texas Avenue in College Station:

Texan Boy in your pick-up truck

You are the fungus on my butt.

I apologize to sensitive readers and the poetry lovers for that one.

For Thornapple CSA members, last Wednesday was the first pick-up and it meant some wonderful fresh produce (and the sign that more is on the way). Diane and I missed it. We spent Wednesday evening eating Thai food on Overtoom Street in Amsterdam. But we are ready and waiting for all the great pick ups to come!

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

Smells Funny

May 16, 2010

So a couple of friends and I are pulling into a bar in Brown County, Indiana south of Indianapolis on Thursday night this week. It’s looking pretty typical and not necessarily like the best place to catch a bite to eat. It’s one of those strip-mall bars that shares space with a hardware store and Laundromat right off the main highway. The parking lot is full to the gills with pick-up trucks, and I don’t mean the little dinky kind. F-150s and extended cab Silverados nestle up some serious dualies designed for pulling livestock trailers all the way to Kansas City, if need be.

We go inside and there are not one but two pool tables dominating the main space in the room. The patrons fit the trucks out in the parking lot, except that several of them are sporting their own pool cues—not that unusual, I guess. One of my companions who suggested the place is having second thoughts by now, but we decide to go ahead and give it a try.

When the waitperson shows up with menus, it turns out we are local-food central for Brown County Indiana. All the meats come from “Fischer’s” (no, this is not Fishers, IN, just outside Indy, but I’ll admit that I really have no idea where this stuff was coming from). Nevertheless the meats are proudly advertised as fresh from the farm, the hamburger patties are hand made and the pork tenderloins are hand-cut and batter dipped on the premises. Even the fries are home-made. They are also proud to be stocking some microbrews, though only one is local. Bell’s turns out to be a popular choice.

Either appearances can be deceiving or local food is penetrating even farther into the American consciousness than I had expected.

Something else that turns out to be deceiving was discussed at the American Dairy Science Association Discover conference on “Sustainability Issues in the Dairy Industry” that I was attending in Brown County. Back in 2006, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States had released a report on livestock production’s contribution to global greenhouse gasses. The executive summary of the report stated that livestock may contribute as much as 18% of greenhouse gas. This figure had spawned speculations on the relative climate change impact of transportation and diet, including a recent comment by Michael Pollan to the effect that a vegan in a Hummer contributes less to climate change than does someone with a burger in a Prius.

Frank Mitloehner from the University of California at Davis (who I spoke with at the meeting) smelled a rat. It turns out that the authors of the report had taken great pains to calculate both direct and indirect contributions to greenhouse gas from livestock production. That means they included all the impact from cutting down rainforest to make new pastures, and from fuel burned to produce the grain fed to cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals. However they did not include indirect contributions from other sectors such as transportation, (like the energy needed to make a car or the impact from oil and gas exploration, production and delivery). In short, the 18% figure is based on an apples and oranges comparison, and the authors of the report have admitted that this is the case. We have no idea about the total contribution from livestock production because we have no good estimate of the indirect contribution to total emissions from the transportation sector. Pollan, too, has admitted that his original comment was wrong.

Mitloehner was not saying that livestock production gets a pass. Where land is being cleared for pasture or feedlots as in the tropics, the combined effect of losing the carbon sink and adding the methane from ruminant digestive tracts is a serious problem. But Mitloehner believes that the situation is importantly different in places where someone might actually be choosing between buying a Hummer or a Prius, however. U.S. herds can be (and increasingly are) fed a mix of grains that minimizes the production of methane in their manure.  The carbon dioxide emitted by respiration is a wash, because it just cycles carbon between plant matter and the digestive tract of animals (including us). The bottom line: Americans can’t compensate for their fossil fuel guzzling transportation system by skipping a few burgers, and they would be dissembling to try and pass vegetarianism off as a proper response to climate change.

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


May 9, 2010

On the road yet again last week, attending the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) meeting in Chicago. If you are not in this world (and I’m not) this is a very strange affair. 15,000 people come to the meeting. The cab driver who picks me up at Chicago Midway Airport asks me if I’m here for BIO (no one ever asks me this kind of question when the answer is “Yes”). The meeting itself is not like anything else I do. The “program” (i.e. the sessions where people give presentations or talks) is kind of an afterthought. The main thing is networking. Lots of the meeting is set up so that people who work in one part of the industry (say, making supplies for a certain kind of scientific procedure or test that might be used in manufacturing a biotechnology product) hook up with people from another part of the industry (say, people who have a genetically engineered drug they are trying to scale up for clinical trials). The “Bio Exposition” is amazing. Thousands of square feet of convention space set up with these elaborate trade-show pavilions that you set up then take down for the next meeting. People hang around these little pavilions touting their particular angle. Most of them have little tables or comfy chairs where contacts can be made. Some represent regional initiatives to encourage industry, others are scientific companies. Even law firms are there. All of them are giving away various kinds of logo-bearing gifts.

My personal quest in the Exposition is to pick enough notepads to last Diane at least through to November. Since she goes through between five and fifteen little notes to herself and others every day, this is no mean feat, but actually the Bio Exposition makes it pretty easy. I wander through the displays on the lookout for whatever it is that they happen to be giving away. Lots of gewgaws having no apparent purpose, which I ignore. Everybody has a pen, which I also ignore. Some useful things like letter openers or pedometers, but how many of these do you need? Some are giving away bags that you can fill up with this swag. I’m resisting that, too. But I’m grabbing notepads, which are not as much in evidence as one might think. In the end I come out with plenty, most of which have meaningless scientific logos. There are two really good ones, though, and Diane’s friends should be on the lookout for getting notes from her that have these logos. One of them reads “World’s Largest Supplier of Transgenic Rats”. That’s clearly something to be proud of. Another says “Go Mad”. It’s from Madrid, Spain.

Along the way I pick up occasional consumables: a bag of popcorn from Kansas pavilion, a latte from Abbott Laboratories, and some Georgia peanuts. That last item also comes with a revelation for me. The night before, I had attended the opening reception for the meeting, which was a pretty lavish spread laid out at the Field Museum. Lots of hor d’ourves with a vaguely middle-eastern feel (grilled fish on pita, spicy corn relish, baklava, falafel). They are served in décor that looks like the interior of a harem tent (or so I imagine, not ever having actually been in a harem tent): translucent curtains, plush hassocks and plenty of rattan. Sydney Greenstreet could be sitting there. We are greeted by a couple in costumed in garish silks and wearing brightly colored head scarves. They have a vaguely pirate look, and all around are banners that say “Hosted by GeorgiaBio ”. Given the costumes and the themes, we are thinking, former Soviet Republic of Georgia. One of my colleagues remarks, “I thought we were bailing them out. How can they afford something like this?” There is however, an identical logo at the Exposition display where I am picking up my Georgia peanuts the next day. As you may recall, Diane’s family pays taxes in Georgia. I wonder how well our money is spent by these gestures intended to lure the biotech industry to the state, especially when attendees think they are being wooed to Eastern Europe. Maybe they were pirates, after all.

I am there in Chicago, of course, to give a brief talk on ethics. It’s confined to the “program,” which is tucked safely away on the top floor of the McCormick Center (though I must say, my talk was amazingly well-attended, especially given that it happened between 8 and 9 am on the first official day of the meeting). Strolling around the Exhibition later in the day, I’m mostly ignored as I grab free notepads and the occasional USB drive. But every now and then someone from one of the state pavilions (yes, there was a Michigan pavilion) engages me in conversation, hopeful that I am a scientist or even better an entrepreneur who might like to take my biotech start-up business to their area. You should see the absolutely stunned look on their faces when I tell them that I am an ethicist who works on food and farming. They have absolutely no comeback for this. It’s out of their universe entirely. Perhaps I would have done better to identify myself as a pirate.


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

Gazebo Capers

May 2, 2010

I was on the road yet again this week, attending the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 10th annual networking meeting for people working on a variety of food system issues at the Gila River Indian Community outside Phoenix. The focus of the meeting has shifted over the years. For one thing, WKKF grantmaking has moved toward a greater emphasis on diet and health, generally, and this has resulted in a de-emphasis on rural communities and small-scale farming. This participants in this year’s conference seem centered around addressing childhood obesity, especially among racial minorities and marginalized groups.

There is a prominent place for local food systems in this picture. Putting people who live in urban cores, and who have had limited access to healthy foods often means getting them into closer contact with farmers through the mechanism of CSAs, co-ops and farmers’ markets. Given the new emphasis on people placed at the margin, the groups who convened on the Gila River also included a significant number who were focused on farmworker rights and quality of life. There is also a nod to the long-term sustainability of the food system, with attention to energy use and the commercial infrastructure that is being built. But it is also true that many of black, latino and Native American groups represented were focused on securing their own food security through urban agriculture and community gardens. The group from Detroit provides a model of how to go about this.

The overall tone of the meeting was inspiring and celebratory, at times verging on the self-congratulatory. Yet the conversation over coffee told a more nuanced and less naïve story. I will recount just one example.

The founder of a farm-oriented civil society group based in Iowa recounted to me how her group had attempted to “partner” with an urban group trying to establish a community garden in an urban core. The idea was great: the farm-oriented group would support an attempt to build community and improve food society in the city by providing cash and food production experience in building the urban garden project. The first several years of the project were bogged down in restrictive red tape, jumping through hoops set up to regulate squatting on abandoned land in the urban core. Finally, they were clear to move forward with the garden, which the farm group supported with tools, plants and even a gazebo.

Unfortunately, the people who had been the initial contacts on the urban side had all moved on by this time. The individual heading the city neighborhood group by the time that the garden actually got started had considerably less enthusiasm for the idea. Claiming that the gazebo was being used by prostitutes to service their clients, she sold off the assets donated by the farm group (gazebo and all) to a third party. When the farm group attempted to recoup its donations, the response was “Sue me!”

I think it’s important to tell these stories of failure as part and parcel of food ethics even if they don’t involve salacious references to gazebos.  I think they provide a base of realism that shows why successful food system reform should be viewed as deeply worthy of our respect. I don’t think that they provide reasons to denigrate or curtail the efforts or intentions of reformers. On a slightly different note, I was impressed by the young woman from the Gila River Indian Community who stood up and the meeting and protested the use of term “food desert”. Among food system activists, a food desert is an urban area where, often due to redlining, access to a full range of healthy foods simply does not exist.

This young Native American told us how offended she was by this term. “I live in the desert. I get my food there, and my people have been getting food from the desert for over a thousand years.”

We can all learn to respect deserts, I think, by recognizing that there are many potential routes to food security.

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