Wendell Berry

January 30, 2011

So picking up immediately where we left off last week, I will say of Pollan what I said of Shiva: It matters that we get the details right. And just as I have been irked by Shiva, there are people who seem to be obsessed with correcting Michael Pollan’s factual errors and misleading statements. In fact, there is an entire blog running since last May that has been dedicated to this task, written by a graduate student at the University of California – Berkeley where Pollan is on the faculty teaching journalism. I commend these efforts by Adam Merberg, although they sometimes go into more detail than even I want to read. I wonder how long he will keep it up?

Merberg has combed both the internet and the scholarly literature for critiques of Pollan’s works, though he’s missed my own blog commenting on Pollan’s (retracted) remark comparing the climate consequences of eating a Big Mac to driving a Hummer. While there are details with which I would quibble, I will certainly use some of Merberg’s research (with credit I assure everyone) in work that I do in the future.  Furthermore, there is a general thrust to his blog that I endorse strongly: Many  localvore/environmentalist/organic/what-ever-multiple-hyphenated critiques of the industrial food system turn out to be wrong when examined in detail. Other critiques turn out to be debatable, which for me just means that it would be useful to debate them. Yet Merberg seems to fall in with a line of thinking that I still see too often among mainstream farmers, their advocates and scholars of food and agriculture. It’s a view that starts with an uncritical acceptance of the progressive nature of science-based agricultural technologies that were developed starting in the 19th century, and continues by suggesting that anyone (like Pollan) who questions this assumption is an elitist. For many in the world of agricultural science (but in fairness probably not Merberg, who seems to be taken with the idea of eliminating all animals from the food system) the implication is that we don’t need to debate the claims of elitists: They just aren’t worthy of serious consideration.

There is a substantive argument behind this sentiment. It is that these industrial technologies have a) made the food supply much more stable; and b) have benefited the poor because they make eating a lot less expensive. Anyone who defends organic food, farmers markets or the like is an elitist, because they are promoting a diet that poor people cannot afford. I don’t know what the farmers market in Berkeley is like, but if it is like the one in Bloomington, Indiana, I can understand where that sentiment might arise. On the other hand, if it is like the Allen Street Market in Lansing, or the market I blogged about in Washington DC, it would be pretty clear that local foods are being made available at prices that are at least as affordable as the fast food meals that are Michael Pollan’s big target.

More substantively, this pro-industrial farming argument ignores huge subsidy costs, and the huge subsidies are both direct, in the form of payments to farmers, and indirect, in the form of military expenditures that have dramatically reduced the cost of developing the science and infrastructure for fossil fuels, hauling goods on interstate highways, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and now synthetic biology. It’s not surprising that when you pour billions of tax dollars into a technical infrastructure that it can “out compete” the alternatives. But that doesn’t mean that people who say, “Let’s consider the alternative,” are elitists! No one knows what organic or local foods would cost today if the farming methods to produce, process and distribute them had had a tenth of the public support given to the industrial food system over the last century.

The first person to mount this kind of critique of what we have wrought in American agriculture was Wendell Berry, and like Michael Pollan, people (include Norm Borlaug on the list) called him an elitist. I got to meet Wendell just one time at a conference in Ohio. And I have friends (who shall remain nameless) who know him better and think he is an elitist. They think that mainly because unlike Pollan, he really does have an agrarian philosophy of agriculture at work in his writing. Although you can find plenty of points on which I take issue with Berry in my professional work, he’s also an icon. If you’ve read the previous four blogs you know that the flavor of the month is that for icons we’re more tolerant of errors because of their larger impact on public discourse. Wendell Berry may be the “uber icon” for agricultural ethics, even if it’s true that I don’t really think his work provides an adequate basis for thinking about issues of hunger. So Wendell gets my final nod as we wrap up food icon month on the Thornapple Blog.

I was able to express my admiration for Wendell Berry’s work to him personally. He will be 77 in August of 2011, which is not really all that old in our day and age. Maybe we will have him around for a while. But don’t take that chance. Look him up, and get a few steps beyond Michael Pollan.

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

Michael Pollan

January 23, 2011

So January Oh Eleven is shaping up to be food ethics icons month, which gives me an opportunity to go back to a blog topic I had thought about last year. Back on April 12, 2010 a noted food author came to Michigan State University to give a talk in the university lecture series. Diane and I were invited to the pre-lecture dinner and were able to have a fairly intimate conversation with him—intimate, that is, if a table of 15 or 20 people can be considered intimate conversation. I had been called upon to give the introduction and field questions after his talk due to a last minute injury to my colleague Mike Hamm. Then I got on an airplane the next day, flew to Rome for a meeting at FAO and wound up getting stuck there when the volcano erupted. I was distracted and never wrote my blog about getting to meet Michael Pollan.

Although this was my first face-to-face with Pollan, I had spoken with him on the telephone a few times, including a very long conversation as he was working on a piece that was eventually published in the New York Times Magazine under the title “An Animal’s Place” back in 2002. I remember being very disappointed that I did not get so much as mention by name, much less a quotation in that article. But in my less self-absorbed moments I understand that getting in a shout out to everyone you talked to during the course of writing an article is less important than writing something the average reader actually wants to read. Other academic-types have been less generous to Pollan, dissing him for failing to cite sources in much the same vein that I carped about Vandana Shiva earlier this month.  But being scrupulous about assigning credit is not what gets you to iconic status, and frankly we need icons like Pollan and Shiva.

Pollan writes with cleverness and grace. He has done more to raise general awareness about food issues in the the American public than any other individual since Julia Child. And unlike Julia Child, Pollan takes on difficult ethical problems. He does not give simplistic answers to these problems either. His work is full of nuance and he is not beyond telling people that he does not know what to think about a particular issue. He states pretty directly that his goal is to start a national conversation about food, not to finish it. For all these reasons, I’m very comfortable endorsing Pollan’s work, especially for general interest readers who are a lot less interested in the philosophic subtleties than I am. I know a lot of college professors who have used Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a textbook in their classes on food ethics, and I think that’s just fine.

It is, in fact, only at a fairly deep philosophical level that Pollan and I part company. In my book The Agrarian Vision, I write that for all his dissatisfaction with industrial farming methods in the end, Pollan is just another industrialist. What I mean is that his way of thinking about food issues is typical of the ethical thinking that has become commonplace since the industrial revolution. My book argues that there were better ways to think about all types of environmental issue (not just agriculture) that were fairly commonplace in the past. The last great philosopher who was able to present an agrarian argument was G.W. F. Hegel, who suggested that farming societies were the basis for virtues such as citizenship, family solidarity and sustainability. (Or at least so I believe.)

This is not to say that we should go back to Hegel, or that we should take a politically conservative view. (I say this here because a recent reviewer of The Agrarian Vision interprets me that way.) But I do think that recovering the way that thinking through food systems made asking questions about humanity’s dependence on nature seem natural and obvious would be a good thing. And like Hegel, I see this dependence as stretching deeply into cultural matters. It’s not just a matter of eating healthy foods and enjoying the aesthetic benefits of fresh vegetables. The way we make our world materially ultimate affects the way that we understand ourselves as citizens and as moral beings.

You won’t find this in Pollan and maybe that’s just as well. My views are not very good conversation starters, as much as I would hope that the conversation will eventually get around to them. And I am fully aware that I might just be wrong about the need to recover an old way of thinking in order to think in a truly new kind of way. So I will stick with Pollan and recommend him to people who want to think more critically about their food and where it comes from, as well as to people who have never given this possibility a second thought.

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

Temple Grandin

January 16, 2011

Classes cranked up again at Michigan State University last week. This semester I’m teaching a graduate course organized around the “the animal” and “the human” understood as metaphysical divide. I realize that this has got to be the kind of topic that strikes people as utterly bizarre. On the one hand, it means that we will be looking at the way simply assuming a radical difference between animals and humans has influenced the growth of science and culture. This includes looking some of the reasons why people have thought that what it means to be a human is so utterly unlike what it is to be an animal as to create an ontological chasm dividing humans and animals. These reasons include the human ability to think and reason, and especially to use language.

On the other hand, it will involve trying to see what it would be like to think differently, to see human beings as one species among many. It’s this latter thought that connects up to my interest in food, agriculture and environment, for I think that seeing the human species as simply one of many forms of life on earth is a major part of what having an environmental consciousness involves. At a more practical level, it points us toward asking important questions about food animals. It tells us that in order to keep cows, pigs and chickens, we need to think of them as cows, pigs and chickens, respectively, and not simply as “animals”. As if some generic conception like that could inform us about our moral responsibilities.

An appropriate ethic for animal husbandry requires us to make every effort to understand what it is like to be a cow, pig or chicken living under the kind of conditions in which we keep them. Simply thinking of them as “animals” won’t do. The needs and experience of a cow are quite different from a pig, and both are quite different from what it’s like to be a chicken. Each species experiences the world differently; each has different drives, different things that irritate or vex them, and different things that rock their respective boats. And life experiences can create differences among individual cows, pigs and chickens, too, just like in humans.

The person who has been most influential in helping livestock producers accept the ethical responsibility to be aware of what it is like to be a cow, pig or chicken is Temple Grandin. Temple is an animal scientist who is also a high-functioning autistic adult. She has argued that because of her autism, she “thinks in pictures,” rather than words, and that this has made it easier for her to get into the heads of agricultural species. In the work that made her famous as an animal welfare expert, she put herself into the experiential situation of cattle: getting “dipped” to remove ticks and other parasites, being herded onto trucks, and into corrals and chutes on the way to slaughter. She was able to literally see what was making cows anxious. She re-designed this equipment so that the experience of moving through it was not disturbing. The cattle moving through Temple’s livestock handling systems show very little signs of anxiety or stress, and handlers have been able to virtually eliminate the need to use electric cattle prods in order to force the cows to do something they were quite fearful of doing.

Temple has become better known to the larger world because of her advocacy work on autism. Back in 1993 Oliver Sacks wrote an article about Temple in the New Yorker. Her reputation as both an animal advocate and a spokesperson for people and families coping with autism has grown steadily ever since. Temple was a speaker at Calvin College’s January speaker series last week, and if I read the website correctly, you can get access to her talk here. I met Temple back at Stan Curtis’s lab at the University of Illinois back in the 1980s. She had been one of Stan’s students, and had recently completed her doctorate under his supervision. I began to see her two or three times a year, but the last time I had any significant interaction with her was back in 2002 when she and I were both attending the British Society for Animal Science banquet, where she was getting an award for outstanding career accomplishment in animal welfare.

I’ve always thought that Temple’s autism helped her succeed in advocating better welfare for farm animals for a different reason. Temple is obviously very bright, but when you spend time around her, it’s also obvious that she is pretty insensitive to subtle cues that tell us how other people are reacting to us. Yet people respect her accomplishments and have learned to cut her a wide swath of slack about things like when it’s appropriate to interrupt someone and ask a question, or how you’re supposed to dress or comport yourself at a particular event. In the same vein, she can stand up in front of livestock producers and tell them straight out that what they are doing to their animals is morally indefensible. And instead of getting pissed off at her, the producers look at what they are doing and think to themselves, “Yeah, maybe she’s right!”

That’s what makes Temple Grandin an icon in food ethics.

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

Vandana Shiva

January 9, 2011

Terry Link replied to my blog last week offline, suggesting an alternative view of Borlaug and the Green Revolution contributed by Vandana Shiva. It’s a piece that I am very familiar with, and interested readers can find it here. I knew Borlaug well enough that we would always greet each other when meeting in the years between my departure from Texas A&M and his death in September of 2009. I do not know Shiva, although I have read a great deal of her work and have heard her speak once. Like Borlaug, Shiva is an iconic figure whose symbolic function in debates over agriculture and development transcends her actual works. Where Borlaug stands for development by technical means, Shiva stands for empowerment of marginalized groups, especially women.

Women do the majority of the farming in Asia and Africa. It is not uncommon for men in a village or household to help with occasional tasks such as plowing, but it is women who tend the crops, make the decisions and often do much of the harvesting. Early development projects (including the Green Revolution) were often gender biased. Interactions between the extension agents charged with disseminating the new seeds focused on men. Men were powerful, could dominate women with violence and stood to benefit both economically and in status from these interactions. So this development practice of focusing on men only reinforced patterns of gender inequality. Shiva’s iconic status as an intellectually formidable Hindu woman plays a vital cultural role in countering all these sad trends.

But as foolish (and unethical) as this way of approaching development was, it did not endure. Well before Shiva herself became active in writing on women and development, there was a widespread appreciation of the role of women in development activities. There was also a widespread appreciation of the failures of the Green Revolution. In 1974 Keith Griffin published a book called The Political Economy of Agrarian Change which detailed many foibles of the Borlaug era Green Revolution, including strategies that led to concentration of land ownership and further marginalization of poor women farmers. In 1977 a Marxist economist named Michael Perelmann published Farming for Profit in a Hungry World, which linked these inequalities to environmental issues and called for an approach more focused on smallholder production for subsistence. In 1979 Western Michigan University’s Kenneth Dahlberg published Beyond the Green Revolution: The Ecology and Politics of Global Development, a book that emphasized the environmental critique of Borlaug’s approach.

One of the things that has always irked me about Shiva is that she writes as she were the first person to discover problems with the Green Revolution in the late 1980s. In fact, everything in the 1991 article Terry sent me was known in development studies a decade earlier, and people working in agricultural science (including Borlaug) were already thinking about how to do better. This is not to say that the situation was entirely reformed. There are still idiots out there promoting stupid plans in agricultural development projects. But as important as Shiva has been for bringing the critique of the Green Revolution to general readers, it is not as if she was saying much that was really new.

Now I recognize that giving credit where credit is due may be an obsession among college professors, but not really that important in the larger world where helping poor people is what really counts. On that score, I give Shiva a lot of credit. She has been involved with grass roots development projects with poor Indian women, and no one has done a better job of bringing the justice issues to a wider audience. No one is better than Shiva in a 30 second sound bite or even in an eight minute evening news special highlighting the imperatives and perils of addressing hunger.  That’s why she is an icon, and I support all the things for which she is an icon.

There are some other problems with Shiva’s analysis that general readers should know about, however.  Shiva’s work on women farmers often promotes a nostalgic portrayal of how things were before the Green Revolution. Bina Agrawal’s work is better. Bina (who is also an intellectually formidable Hindu woman) has corrected Shiva’s analysis for being naïve about the role and status of women prior to the advent of new agricultural technologies. Indian women were denied legal standing in dispute resolution, and they were not allowed to own property. The issue of women’s inequality and marginalization in India simply cannot be laid at Borlaug’s feet alone, nor is it the case the Green Revolution “messed up” an agricultural system that had no ethical problems. If I were going to recommend someone for making a powerful feminist critique of agricultural development, the credit would go to Agrawal, rather than Shiva.

And Shiva’s campaign against genetic engineering has involved a lot of claims that range from being deceptive to being dead wrong. On the deceptive end, she recounts stories of crop failures from planting genetically engineered (GE) crops in India that have led to death and destruction. She does not mention that the only GE crop in India is cotton, or that the farmers growing it (however poor) are thoroughly enmeshed in markets and quite cognizant of the economic risks they are taking in buying these seeds. They are not growing this crop for their own food. She also does not mention that there is a major problem with seed counterfitting in India, and that the crop failures may well derive from farmers having been duped by the seed salesman, rather than owing to anything related to genetic engineering. She does not mention that the GE cotton they are growing is a variety that eliminates the need for chemical pesticides, or that studies have shown dramatic improvements in farmworker health in regions where this GE crop is grown. She does not mention that pesticide companies concerned with lost revenues are at the forefront of campaigns against GE crops in India.

On the dead wrong end, Shiva has written that GE crops contain the so-called “terminator gene.” This genetic construct indeed exists. Plants containing it set seed just fine, so they produce the rice corn or cotton that the farmer is trying to grow for sale. However, farmers who try to save seeds for next year will be very disappointed, because yields will be very, very low. Or perhaps I should say that they would be very disappointed, because although the construct has been tested in laboratory conditions and patents for it have been awarded, it has never been incorporated into any commercial seed variety being grown by farmers anywhere in the world. Shiva also writes as if every trait associated with any GE crop is somehow found in all of them, so a reader would think that all GE crops not only are terminators, but they also make their own pesticide and are made to tolerate applications of chemical weedkiller. That’s false. All this may just be sloppy writing, but I sometimes wonder if she even knows what she is talking about.

I report all this not to promote GE crops, though I do think that we should be more open to this approach than many alternative ag types generally are. My point is that while I support the perspective and point of view that Shiva represents in the iconosphere, I also think that we should try to get the details right.

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

Norman Borlaug

January 2, 2011

I spent a chunk of time over the last week reading Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman (2009). It is in many respects informative and well-written. Thurow and Kilman are Wall Street Journal reporters who have strung together and expanded on a series of WSJ articles they have published over the last decade. Most are focused on Africa, and all of them focus on the story of a single individual. Chombe Seyoum is a comparatively well-off Ethiopian farmer who modernized his farm in the 1990s, achieving yields comparable to those in the U.S. During the 2003 famine, he was forced to turn off his irrigation pumps and allow a crop to die in the fields while the poorer farmers, such as Tesfaye Ketema, struggle to keep their children alive. Not all succeed. As the book concludes in 2008, Ketema’s son Hagirso is still alive, but his bout with severe hunger has stunted his growth and he is still unable to work in the fields.

The tale of Chombe and Tesfaye illustrates a profound dilemma in agricultural development.  Although farmers such as Seyoum can produce as well as anyone, they have difficulty succeeding economically because American farmers receive subsidies that allow their crops to be sold below production cost on international markets. When famines strike the U.S. government provides food aid from American farms rather than purchasing from local farmers. Ironically it is in these food insecure times when farmers like Chombe Seyoum lose it all. Their crops languish in warehouses while the starving are fed from American stockpiles. Unable to make it in farming, Seyoum is Ethiopia’s John Deere dealer by the book’s conclusion.  It is not that African farmers can’t compete as farmers, but they truly cannot compete against the advantages derived from the largesse of the American taxpayer.

Thurow and Kilman lionize the American agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1972 for his contributions to Green Revolution farming methods. Borlaug’s scientific achievement was to be one of the first breeders to figure out how to grow two crops a year by shuttling between geographically disparate regions, cutting crop development time in half. His Peace Prize may have owed as much to his tireless campaign on behalf of his new seeds in both Mexico and in Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Thurow and Kilman mainly use Borlaug as a foil for the stupidity of the World Bank and other development agencies who, in the throes of the Regan-era mania for markets, deemphasized agricultural development for a good quarter century. We see Borlaug seemingly working alone in the late 1990s, trying to prove that the Green Revolution can do for Africa what he saw it do for Mexico and Asia.

Borlaug and I were on the faculty together at Texas A&M University from 1984 (when he came) until 1997 (when I left). He was a very kind and impressive individual. We both participated in several workshops for graduate students, and I always stuck around to hear what he had to say. He stressed that the science part is actually the smallest part of a successful Green Revolution style agricultural development. The new seeds have to be followed up with a constant and painstaking effort to be sure that farmers know how to use them. Thurow and Kilman recount such follow-up by Borlaug in late 90s Africa, and their account is true to the man I knew. He also talked of the need to support the seeds of the Green Revolution with appropriate policies, and that would appear to be where many of the problems of the last quarter century lie. Thurow and Kilman have chapters on African dictators who have undone good scientific works, but it is U.S. policies like those I mention above that are the most infuriating. It was the Democrats who in 2007 refused to cut subsidies for large farmers, and to this day the U.S. insists that the aid they offer to the World Food Program arrive in the form of crops grown by U.S. farmers.

Borlaug was also irascible and impatient. Thurow and Kilman make this out to be a virtue. He was fighting against hunger, after all. But Borlaug himself came to recognize that the Green Revolution technologies that worked in Asia were inappropriate in Africa, where people are too poor to take the risk to start the businesses needed to support them. It was not, as Thurow and Kilman suggest, just a matter of throwing more money at the kind of agricultural development Borlaug knew how to do.  We do need a renewal of our commitment to agricultural science, and this book does a good job of making that exceedingly boring topic come alive for even moderately interested readers. But we also need a broader approach to ensure that the smallholders Borlaug wanted to help are truly the beneficiaries.

MSU’s Professor Sieg Snapp was interviewed on NPR last December 1st. Sieg was discussing the need to move away from so much emphasis on commodity crops in agricultural development.  Her way balances soil health with higher yields, and the smallholder gets a healthy food crop that U.S. farmers are not trying to sell in world markets. I think I’ll take Sieg’s approach over Borlaug’s nowadays, I think.

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