Key Blog Redux

Nov. 28, 2010

I’ve been planning today’s blog for almost six months. Today is the anniversary of the Thornapple Blog. One year ago, I wrote an entry that “snuck in right after Thanksgiving,” and that promised to tide Thornapple CSA members over the long winter months when there would be no weekly delivery of fresh vegetables. The blog was my contribution to an effort to upgrade the Thornapple website by providing more content, more reasons to check it out. I made a commitment to write once every Sunday between Thanksgiving and the first pick-up of fresh vegetables in the Spring.

The theme of the first entry was “key blog” which is a pun on “key log”. As that entry explains, the “key log” is a term that lumbermen used. Freshly cut logs would be floated downstream to the sawmill. Sometimes the mass of logs would become jumbled, forming an effective dam and creating a huge backlog. I’d be willing to bet that the word ‘backlog’ comes from the logs caught upstream behind a logjam. The “key log” is the one that lumberjacks had to dislodge in order to break the logjam, allowing the backlog to flow downstream to the mill.

I used this pun to write a short reflective piece, a “key blog” that was intended to explain what I was going for with the Thornapple blog. I also quoted Aldo Leopold, who used the term ‘key log’ to describe the aphorism that is the central theme of his environmental philosophy:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Or at least I think he did. Actually, I’m too lazy to haul my copy of A Sand County Almanac and check to be sure. In last year’s key blog, I referred to Leopold in exploring the environmental dimension of community as it applies in community-supported agriculture. I expected the Thornapple blog to explore a number of ideas behind the community-supported agriculture experiment. I also wanted to keep the overall tone of the blog light in keeping with the idea that Thornapple members might make a weekly visit and would not relish being preached at (the fact that it’s Sunday notwithstanding).

Privately, I thought I would try to keep it up for a year and then evaluate the whole thing. Which explains why I’ve been thinking about today’s blog for about six months. Looking back, I have pretty much kept up my commitment to blog every Sunday, with the exception of one “oops!” moment that occurred earlier this month. The rest of the Thornapple website has not, however, improved very much. Other Thornapple CSA members who discussed additional kinds of content improvement have been distracted by other priorities.

Being distracted by other priorities is pretty much the story of the Internet, I think. Once hailed as a great democratizing force in global culture and communication, it turns out that the vast majority of Internet content is generated by pros who are paid by big companies or other deep-pocketed organizations who have a deep interest in controlling what you see when you browse the web. Most real people start out with good intentions and then get caught up with other things before any content gets posted. For every up-to date blog I’ve encountered on the web I think I’ve found twenty where the author or authors (some of them friends of mine) have posted six or seven entries, then gotten bored or busy and seemingly forgotten all about it. And of course, those bloggers who were primarily just using a public space to keep up with friends and family have mostly migrated to Facebook. Blogging, it turns out, is so 2006.

The idea that people would use the comment function to initiate meaningful exchanges has not panned out (and this not just for my blog, but even for high profile exercises). For the blogger, the evidence of any real human contact is pretty thin. Hundreds of comments by robots, only a handful by real people. This is not incidental to the whole “community” theme. There have been a few people to e-mail me privately, (including the North American sales-rep for Nordic Naturals, who was quite pleasant and offered to send me a sample of fish oil). Thanks to all of you who took the trouble.

I’m not quitting the blog. There were a few topics relating to the general philosophy of community-supported agriculture that I kind of forgot about as the blog became something of a travelogue (that “log” thing again). Maybe I can get around to them over the next year. And every now and then I have this inspired moment of sarcasm. But I am relaxing my commitment to do it every week.

We’ll see how long it takes before I get distracted.

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

Migrant Labor

The Lansing State Journal has an excellent article this morning on migrant farm labor. The story reports on a recent conference in Lansing that focused on a March 2010 report from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. The report documents the living conditions of migrant laborers who come to Michigan for seasonal work in agriculture. The LSJ story brings the issue home by telling the story of individuals who move from camp to camp, sometimes staying in a single location for only a few days. Conditions in these camps are described as “third-world” in the article—very poor sanitary facilities, with as many as 35 people sharing a single toilet or shower, and no privacy. Toilets and showers lack so much as a curtain to be drawn, and people are sleeping and dressing in common quarters.

This is not the first time migrant farm labor has exerted a claim on the public’s attention. John Steinbeck’s great novel The Grapes of Wrath follows a white family that is forced into migrant farm labor in California after foreclosure and eviction from their Oklahoma farm. Steinbeck hoped that seeing the plight of white Okies would overcome the racism that rationalized treatment of farm workers. Legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow put together a television documentary called Harvest of Shame that galvanized public opinion for a time. Many of the migrants in Murrow’s film were Southern blacks. Outrage over treatment of Southern farm workers based in Homestead, Florida became a now forgotten theme of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film.

For the last forty years, migrants are increasingly drawn from Spanish speaking populations. Cesar Chavez led workers in California in an attempt to unionize and promoted a national boycott. His work was documented in a film called The Wrath of Grapes. Although many of these Latino migrant farm workers are citizens and permanent residents, others work in the U.S. and either return seasonally to homes south of the border or send earnings back to families that remain. Migrant issues thus now tend to get wrapped up in the larger issue of immigration.

Oddly, the LSJ article is not very clear on why these migrant workers are in here in Michigan in the first place. I suppose this is supposed to be the sort of thing that everybody already knows, but in my experience with college students who think food is manufactured in much the same way as automobiles or I-pods, they don’t. So pardon me while I explain.

Food comes from farms. To be utterly blunt, farmers grow plants in the field, and there are many tasks such as sowing seeds, planting vines or trees, weeding, pruning and finally harvesting that have to be done at exactly the right time or all the other effort is wasted. The plants die in cold or wet weather, or the fruits and grain rot. In the old days, all of these jobs were done by human hands. While many farming tasks have become thoroughly mechanized over the last half-century, there are still quite a few that require hand labor. Harvesting fruit crops from orchards is among the jobs that have not been mechanized. Fruits are easily damaged, and they are in irregular places on the tree. They also ripen and are ready to be harvested over a period of weeks. You have to know which fruits to pick, and which to leave on the tree a little longer.

But if you have a couple of hundred apple, cherry or peach trees, or a thousand vines in your vineyard, all of that fruit still has to be harvested within a fairly narrow time window. The rest of the year, a horticulturalist can manage the tasks with a handful of people, but you need to flood the orchard with hands to get the crop in during that window. For six or eight weeks, there is work for a lot of people. Migrant laborers move from farm to farm, starting in the South and heading north as crops ripen and get ready for picking. But although the work is hard and not without skill, it has never been what one might call lucrative. Some of the hardest ethical issues in agriculture have to do with the way that farm owners try to keep laborers from exploiting the fact that when they are needed they are really needed in order to gain concessions.

As philosophy, the question becomes, “How do we understand these ethical issues?” The LSJ article uses a framing that has become commonplace in the years since Murrow’s film: This is a problem of farmworker rights. My book The Agrarian Vision examines this framing and notes that Steinbeck recognized something that those of us who take the rights view overlook. It is often the case that the “rights view” fails to articulate the ethical issues in the terms that the migrant workers themselves see them. Rights talk frames an ethical obligation in terms of those things—basic needs, respect—to which all people are entitled just because they are human beings. Instead of a missing entitlement, farm workers may see their own situation as one in which the need to address unique ties to specific individuals—family and fellow travelers—is ethically paramount. In a similar vein, Jane Addams wrote about the disconnect that occurs when a universal ethic of rights was used to re-interpret the ethical injustices experienced by poor immigrant families in Chicago around the turn of the last century.  It is less a matter of what one deserves by right than a matter of coping day by day and sharing with friends, family and compatriots to the very limit of one’s ability to do so.

In a strange way, the practice of interpreting migrant issues in terms of human rights denies people the language in which they themselves would talk about their own situation. As well intended as rights-talk usually is, it can create further barriers that only isolate the victims of injustice even more fully.

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

Red Meat

Nov. 14, 2010

So this week I found myself caught in up an extremely complicated food ethics argument with a bunch of people who are obviously a lot smarter than I am. One of them is Walter Willett. Willett works in the School of Public Health at Harvard University. He is well known for his work on what a healthy diet would look like, and on how far the American diet deviates from this ideal. One of his most persistent themes is that Americans eat way too much red meat. This is not to say that he is uncompromising about this. Over a dinner of some pretty fantastic bouillabaisse Willett told someone around the table who had confessed a deep love for beefsteak “Eat it once a week.”

Willett showed a chart of the ten items that make up the American diet, ranked by calories. I’m recalling this from memory, so don’t take it as gospel, but the list looked something like this:

  1. Sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks
  2. Hamburgers and similar forms of ground or processed red meat
  3. Fried snack foods (chips, nachos)
  4. Sweetened “sports” drinks
  5. Fried potatoes
  6. Sweetened baked goods including donuts, cookies and snack cakes
  7. I’ve forgotten what goes here
  8. Beer
  9. Candy bars
  10. And some other kind of junk food I can’t recall here

Willett’s comment was that the healthiest thing on this list is beer. (And by the way, Willett did his undergraduate work at MSU.)

Another really-smart person at this meeting was Patrick Brown. Brown is a molecular biologist from Stanford who has done award winning work on cancer. In this context, he was arguing that for both health and environmental reasons, we should be working as hard as possible to eliminate all forms of animal production for food use. He says we should consider extreme measures such as taxes on animal protein and regulatory bans to accomplish this. In conversation, he kept saying that “pleasure seeking” is the only reason to eat animal protein, and that pleasure seeking or preserving the lifestyle of cowboys is not a good enough reason to override the compelling health and environmental reasons to ban food animal production.

I have no gripe with Willett, but I got into a tiff with Brown. Here’s my take: I imagine neighborhoods very much like mine in Lansing, where the only places to get food within several miles are liquor stores and the quickie marts (we call them “party stores” here in Michigan), on the one hand, and the fast food joints selling Willett’s hamburgers (plus fried chicken) on the other. This is not a problem for the Thompson family, I note. We have a car and Diane is making a run to the East Lansing Food Coop (ELFCO) (about 7 miles from my house) as I write this. But lots of people within a few blocks of me are not so well-off. Our neighborhood and several others that border it make up what is somewhat offensively called a “food desert.”

So I’m imagining what happens in my neighborhood if we just tax or ban animal protein. What I see is not only the disappearance of the hamburgers and fried chicken, but also the eggs and milk in the quickie stores. I don’t see things like bulgur, falafel and soy milk coming in to replace them either. And I don’t think working mothers in my neighborhood either know how to use such things, or have the time and inclination to learn. So I see people already too likely to snack on chips and soft drinks deprived of the relatively better choices that that they currently have. I see people shifting even more radically to a diet dominated by the list I made above. So I’m saying that if we do nothing but eliminate animal protein, I could not possibly support this proposal.

Brown is dismissive of my protest, telling me that it is totally orthogonal to the real issue.

I’ll resist the obvious joke here, because I actually do know what the word “orthogonal” means. Brown is saying that he supports making better food available to poor people, but he thinks this is totally irrelevant to the question of whether we should eliminate production and consumption of animal products on environmental and public health grounds.

I’m with Robert Frost. I think the road you don’t take makes all the difference.

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


Nov. 7, 2010

I started this blog on Thanksgiving weekend almost a year ago, and I made a secret promise to myself that I would do two things. One is that I would do this faithfully and regularly every Sunday. The second was that I would keep it up for a year and evaluate things around Thanksgiving of 2010.

Sharp-eyed regular readers of the blog will have noticed that there was no blog last Sunday. (I know, I know! I’m talking about what mathematicians call “the empty set” when I talk about sharp-eyed regular readers, but cut me some slack for the sake of literary contrivance.) I’ve managed to blog from hotel rooms in Rome, Italy, Cadiz, Spain, the Air France lounge at Charles DeGalle and even from the first class cabin of a flight from Salt Lake City to Detroit, but last week I failed to pull it off.

It was not from lack of opportunity. My room at the Marriott Chateau Champlain in Montreal had an excellent wireless connection, and I had at least as much time to blog before the session on my new book at the International Association of Environmental Philosophy as I had in Cadiz or Paris. I think I was just overwhelmed by the thought of sea lice.

The evening before I had heard a lecture by Kelly Oliver on her new book, Animal Lessons. I’ve read the book and I recommend it highly for people interested in animals from a somewhat abstract angle, and her 40-minute synopsis was actually quite good. She ended up the talk where she ends up the book, calling for us to engage responsively with animals, which is to say disengaging from some of us humans’ more tortuous and violent practices and letting the other animals be.

Well and good except for the sea lice. I must be a bit coy here about why, but I spent a chunk of the weekend reading about how sea lice attack the mucus membrane around the mouth and eyes of ocean-going salmon. The parasites eat the membrane away, sometimes extending deeply into the other soft tissues of the hapless fish. The description I read went on for several paragraphs of detached scientific prose that provided grisly details of the damage suffered by salmon, ranging from blindness to gaping holes in their flesh. I spare readers here the grizzle but it definitely made me root for the salmon, though Oliver’s talk made me wonder if I was shorting the homely louse. Sea lice are animals, too.

Humans want to engage the sea lice on behalf of the salmon, though I would be the first to stress that this is not because the humans want to let the salmon “be.” Rather they want to catch and eat them. But Atlantic salmon are under all manner of assault, not just fishermen. To wit: the sea lice.

If I’m being a bit obtuse here, I’m afraid it will just have to ride. This is, after all, the non-blog that comes too, too late, throwing off the rhythm and not living up to the silent promises I’ve made to myself. No answers, no analysis. Just stunned silence.

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