February 27, 2011
As threatened last week, I’ve been out there riding airplanes again. It’s a little after 6:00 AM in Europe and I’m sitting in the KLM Crown Lounge in Amsterdam where I was presenting a paper called “The Fundamental Problem in Food Ethics.”
Simply put, when food prices go up—and right now they are up, up, up—it’s a good thing for farmers, but it’s a bad thing for people who have to buy food. Here in the Netherlands, (or for that matter back home in the U.S.A.) our ethical impulses are that this is, on balance, a bad thing because we assume that higher food prices hurt the poor disproportionately. And in the developed world, they do.
But globally, about half the world’s poor live in rural areas, and their quality of life is pretty closely tied to whether things are good for the farmer, even if they don’t farm themselves. And most of the farmers in the developing world are women, who have extra sources of vulnerability. So as I see it, this is actually a very hard problem. And it’s not one I have an answer for. See my blog on Norman Borlaug for someone who thought he did have an answer.
But this morning I’m asking myself, is it really worthwhile to burn all those greenhouse gases gallivanting off to Europe when I don’t have any answers? And I don’t have a good answer for that question, either. I do tend to be willing to be moving. In part I see it as my job. I was deeply honored when John McDermott, one of my heroes and mentors, recently told me “You are the face of the university, and you should be proud of what you are doing for it.”
I also learn a lot at these events, but there’s also just this idea that it is thrilling and challenging to get out there in front of people, working without a net. As Radney Foster says in his song “Texas in 1880”:
I can hear the wind whisper my name Tellin’ me it’s time to head out again My horses are trailered and the lights are shutdown I’m long overdue for headin’ outta town Gotta fever that they call the rodeo Just enough winners and make the next show Sometimes you make eight sometimes you hit dirt Go on pin another number to the back of my shirt And I’ll ride that pony fast Like a cowboy from the past Be young and wild and free Like Texas in 1880
On “Song Facts” Foster says that he doesn’t actually think of this as a rodeo song: “…it’s just about people who are willing to sacrifice everything for a dream. And I think dreams are worth sacrificing heart and soul, and poverty and all kinds of other things that we put up with or sacrifice in order to obtain them.” Well, I still don’t know about sacrificing everything here. I’m not sure this rationalizes my getting on an Airbus overnight to Amsterdam to talk about food ethics, and I’m also afraid that this makes today’s blog another one of those with flat out wacky juxtapositions. But enjoy your sandwich, anyway. Pin another number on the back of your shirt and don’t let the bastards get you down.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University