Current Events

March 27, 2011

Within about twenty minutes of posting the Thornapple Blog on March 13 I started to have second thoughts. I had been attending a philosophy conference where more than one speaker had  commented on the way long dead American philosophers (William James, John Dewey, Mary Parker Follett) failed to comment on or become involved in what seem to us seminal events occurring in their lifetime. By the morning of the 13th, I had become aware that an earthquake and tsunami had very likely taken a huge toll of life in Japan. It took some time for the extent of this natural disaster to become clear, but I read in yesterday’s paper that the known death toll has now passed 10,000 and that over 17,000 are still counted as missing.

I went about my business two weeks ago dogged by the thought of this human catastrophe and by the fact that instead of noting it, I had whined about having to get up an hour earlier. I thought about posting something along the lines of what I’m writing now a week later, but by that time the headlines were awash with news of radiation clouds approaching the coast of California, as well as the mounting toll of lives in Gadhafi’s Libya. The developing stories of Fukushima Daiichi and war in the Middle East have dominated the news again this week. One has to delve deeply into the cacophony to find a mention of tsunami victims or survivors.

There is an “on the other hand…” to consider here. The Thornapple Blog is dedicated to the Thornapple CSA, conceived originally as a weekly delivery to tide members over during the barren months when there is no actual food coming off the Appleschram Orchard farm plot. It’s written with awareness that the blogosphere is a public space, that people outside of Central Michigan might find it and even follow it in a fashion. And I use it unapologetically to weigh in on agriculture and food issues for which I will never get around to doing a full-bore peer-reviewed analysis in my role as a professor of food ethics. Nonetheless, it’s not Paul Thompson’s Facebook page, where it might be totally appropriate to share a personal moment of shock or grief at things happening in the broader world. Hopefully I’m not veering perilously into Facebook territory with this week’s post.

I express this hope because the other story in this week’s news had significance in my purely personal world, though gauging by the extent and longevity of coverage it may have had resonance in the personal world of others as well. Elizabeth Taylor died following a long illness on March 23, 2011, the day after what would have been my mother’s birthday. My mother died after a long illness several years ago. She and Taylor were about the same age. My mother might have been shocked and dismayed if I had ever told her this, but I kind of associated her with Elizabeth Taylor in a strange and largely unconscious way. Kind of like on the one hand, I projected my mother’s personality onto the anything I heard or read about Taylor, and on the other hand if I had been the child of a public icon and movie star, it certainly would have been Elizabeth Taylor. The director Joseph L. Mankewicz was quoted comparing Taylor to Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. If those are the iconic choices for the 1950s, my mom was definitely Elizabeth Taylor.

I happened to pick up a copy of The New York Times on March 24, which contained three informative and well written eulogies. A lengthy one by Mel Gussow discusses Taylor’s struggle with addictive behavior, including weight problems. While this provides an ostensible food connection, I prefer to follow Taylor’s own dismissive response to the fat jokes cracked by comedienne Joan Rivers: “They didn’t get me where I live.” Instead I’ll associate Taylor’s blend of glamor and vulgarity with my mother’s cooking. Opulent Thanksgiving dinners with out-of-season vegetables like asparagus punctuated by more typical offerings of pretty tasty chili, which she taught her sons to make and then mainly had us do it, and the proverbial “balanced” meal of frozen fish sticks, canned spinach and macaroni and cheese from the famous blue box. Whether on the table or on the screen, it was a strange and heady concoction that today’s generation will never fully appreciate.

Screen and table came together in the Thompson household with the frozen TV dinner, which we really did eat from folding trays while watching Donna Reed or Barbara Billingsly set the standard for 1960s motherhood. To my knowledge, Elizabeth Taylor wisely resisted any offer to portray a TV mom, (and I’m sure my mother approved of that). I have clear memories of eating turkey, peas and mashed potatoes from the conveniently partitioned disposable packaging the dinners came in while watching Red Skelton, and Gary Moore. And then there was this bizarre juxtaposition of food and movie stars coming to us from Flatt and Scruggs:

Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shooting for some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)

Well the first thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire
Kin folk said Jed move away from there
Said California is the place you oughta be
So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly
(Hills that is, swimming pools, movie stars)

It’s a bit depressing to recall how much I relished those occasions, but I don’t think my recollections are untypical of American food culture.

We don’t know what Dewey or James thought about Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes) or why Follett was not more involved in the suffrage movement. Neither do we know what they thought about their mom’s cooking, but it seems reasonable to me that mom’s cooking figured prominently in the meaning of food for all of them. We can’t know what future generations will think of our preoccupation with popular culture, either–food ethics and movie stars–or whether moving on too quickly from events that mark the end for thousands of people and the ruin of countless other lives will seem too insensitive for words.

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

When You Say Dylan, He Thinks You’re Talking about Dylan Thomas

March 20, 2011

Thought for the day: Not all government interference is bad. Even Glenn Beck would approve of some legislation winding its way through the Michigan Legislature. S.B. 1074 would require school districts to use a lowest-cost method for deciding how to deliver food services. H.B. 4306 further reinforces this thought by encouraging outsourcing for school kitchen employees. That is, if some external provider like U.S. Foodservice or Sodexo can feed your kids for less money than having cafeteria managers source fruits and vegetables from Michigan farmers, administrators would be required by state law to take the cheaper course.

Thank God that our legislators are looking out for our kids’ interests with this brilliant proposal! Us Fox News fearing mid-westerners are wise to scam that them West Coast intellectual pinheads like Alice Waters are trying to foist on unsuspecting school principals, telling them that kids need to eat nutritious meals in order to learn effectively, or teaching them that food comes from establishments that lack golden arches, much less someplace as dirty, filthy and generally yucky as a FARM. We know what farms are for. Farms are sort of like social repositories for lame yokels who are so unhip that they haven’t even bought their first i-Pad. We send them dumptruck loads of tax dollars to keep them from descending on Starbucks in some futile search for personal enlightenment. And that’s government money that’s well spent, as well.

Waters is on the cover of the LSJ insert USA Weekend magazine this Sunday encouraging us to grow our own food. Ha! As if apples grew on trees, rather than being made in Chinese sweatshops! Actually the picture on the front of USA Weekend magazine looks suspiciously like a head of lettuce, but we’re wise to that dodge, too. Waters is the celebrity chef who started “the edible schoolyard” project at an Oakland elementary school. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m following the Twitter feeds of as many celebrity chefs as anybody. But Waters’ agenda goes way beyond the honest and honorable pursuit of packing Chez Panisse every night. She’s pushing the bogus pinko line that there is a connection between food, learning and civic education.  We know that school is mainly about butts in seats, writing beaucoups of term papers about Jane Austin and learning how to use a slide rule.

Which brings me back to S.B. 1074 and H.B. 4306. These liberal fellow travelers who think that our kids might learn something by spending time in a school garden or by meeting the farmers who “grew” the food for their school lunch need to be stopped. S.B. 1074 is a brilliant scheme for doing this by promoting the idea that “farm to school” programs are just a form of welfare for small-scale local farmers, as well as the public employees who staff the kitchen. The subversive idea that how you eat could be substantively tied to any legitimate educational objective has been thoroughly driven from the field. The sacrilegious secularism running rampant among nutrition advocates is dead, and we can thank our ever vigilant legislators for stamping out any thought that how a school is managed could have anything to do with sustainability, or that sustainability could have anything to do with education.

Now in fairness, (damn that fairness thing), I have to caution that there are some things in this blog that may not be strictly true, so readers might want to do some of their own research before writing that angry letter. Like for example whether S.B. 1074 or H.B. 4306 actually have any chance of passing, and that I actually admire some of the things that Sodexo is doing. But that’s for another time and place. Let’s enjoy a righteous rant, a simple desultory philippic against the lettuce heads.

I been Phil Spectored, resurrected.
I been Lou Adlered, Barry Sadlered.
Well, I paid all the dues I want to pay.
And I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce,
And all my wealth won’t buy me health,
So I smoke a pint of tea a day.

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

Spring Forward

March 13, 2011

Participating in the blogosphere creates an enormous sense of personal entitlement. Any minor annoyance is fair game for complaint, and no complaint is too insignificant to warrant narrowcasting it throughout cyberspace. Irked by speed bumps? Channel that rant and make common cause with 10,237 other people who will Google “speed bump” over the next 24 hours. Feeling dissed by the frump with dandruff flaked shoulders sitting across from you on the bus? By all means, blog away! Cheesed by the way words like “blogosphere” “narrowcasting” and “cyberspace” make it into word processor dictionaries well before “sustainability” “ecotone” or “locavore”? Now there’s something worth launching a major on-line stink about!

Actually, we don’t have a major problem with speed bumps here in mid-Michigan. That role is played by a more organic phenomenon known as the pothole. Although I’m sure there are plenty of blogs about potholes, the subject also rises to a level of civic importance that extends beyond that of idiosyncratic personal aggravation. They are viewed as a genuine hazard, leading to camaraderie among those who helpfully point out where the most recent and most lethal examples are to be found. And there’s also this sense that the existence of potholes is an injustice of significant proportion, evidence of corrupt morals and lassitude amongst our government officials. So potholes actually turn out to be an important source of community identity and political solidarity for us Michiganders, much more efficacious than ideals like combating hunger or poverty, and this makes them inappropriate topics for a mere whine.

And today, I’m in the mood to whine.

Oh, sure, I’ve become one of those “early to bed, early to rise” types in my advancing years, rarely making it to Letterman or Saturday Night Live and almost never able to catch any rest once full dawn has shattered the restful aura of my bedroom. Somehow the other half of Franklin’s nostrum (healthy, wealthy, wise) continues to elude me. It’s my farm roots I must say (yuk, yuk) that have made me so sensitive to sunup. Up with the chickens, they used to say about rural folk. Call me “Farm Boy Paul”. Make hay while the sun shines. Wouldn’t want to waste any of that precious daylight with all those farm chores awaiting. And that chicken thing was pointing to a simple fact: The chickens are up at the crack of dawn. Anyone who lives in a “backyard chickens” district where they have not outlawed roosters is probably aware of this.

But perhaps you notice a slight disequilibrium, a minor but telling shift in grammar that reveals a certain disingenuousness in my claim to the ways of farm life. The chickens, it seems, attend the very crack of dawn—that magnificent moment when the first hint of light breaks across the horizon. There are probably more than a few folks out there who have not noticed that there is a significant interval between that moment and that of the sun actually making its way above the horizon, a second moment also eerily like that of flipping the light switch when we have full dawn. I sometimes wonder if my children are among those blissfully ignorant of this phenomenon, but I’m sure that if they have not gotten up to track the transit from first rays to full sun, they have certainly stayed up to see it.

Unlike a real farmer, I am a sun-fully-up-above-the-horizon kind of guy. I’m sure to hit the floor with a few minutes of full dawn, heading to my shower and thinking about that morning coffee all the way. But no, I’m not up with the chickens. And that’s what bugs me about this weekend, because being too far west in the Eastern Time Zone, the shift from EST to EDT puts full dawn all the way back to around quarter to eight. I’m used to the idea that I have to drag myself out of bed before dawn from December through most of February, but just when we get to that point when I could start to let my body cycle with the sun, the damn government has decided to push the clock up an hour. This setback means that it will now be another four to six weeks before I can get up with sun, (or pretend that I am getting up with the farmers).

And that’s a real speed bump.

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

The Great Menace

March 6, 2011

Sitting in a confab on syn bio yesterday, I’m listening to my colleagues worry. “The big issue,” one of them says, “is unknown and unintended consequences. That’s the main thing I’m worried about.” I say well of course we do want to pay serious attention to unknown hazards, but frankly it’s not the “the main thing” I’m worried about. I’ve heard this story many times before. Way way back in 1986 when I was first starting to work on the ethical issues around genetically engineered crops, I focused a lot of my effort on risk, unknowns and uncertainties. The big problem, we thought then, was “What if one of these genes escapes?”

We had other examples of technological arrogance, after all. There were the “too cheap to meter” nukes that weren’t, and then Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. They are still counting the fatalities from that one. And before that we had had Silent Spring which taught us that through the modern technological miracle of bio-accumulation pesticide exposure gets more intense as you move up the food chain. And if you’ve been down South you know about kudzu and Killer Bees, so I get it when people start to sweat bullets about gene escape.

But as for me, I worry a lot more about the things that we actually intend to do.

There is this plant, for example, that has pretty much destroyed most of the natural biodiversity all over the American Midwest. I mean it grows everywhere! And it’s not enough that it has displaced most of the Big Bluestem, wool grass and Pink Lady’s Slipper that used to grace our plains, it’s also wrecked habitat for lynx, warblers, skink and the greater prairie chicken. In many places it grows, water tables have become polluted. Health statistics reveal a weak correlation between the geographic locations of this plant and cancer in the local human population.  But I needn’t stop there. The spread of this plant is plausibly tied to the rapid spread of intensive livestock production, not just here in North America, but globally. And recent work in public health suggests that it may be contributing to global epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

So surely this menace is the result of some genetic monstrosity run amok, some interloping invader species from Cucamonga, Afghanistan or the like that has taken over our once pristine prairies. But here’s the shocking truth: This plant cannot even reproduce without human assistance!

So how does it do it? Well, Native American tribes had a number of ritual ceremonies they would deploy to insure that their farmers did not forget to plant the corn. The Hopi and the Tzotzil call themselves “the people of the corn” but I can assure you that these tribes had nothing on us! We’ve enacted massive Federal subsidies to remind our farmers that they must plant the corn. And just in case that’s not enough, there are tax incentives in states like Iowa which are tailored exclusively for corn growers. We wouldn’t want our farmers to slip up and plant cabbage or rutabaga, now. And we’ve invested a ton in agricultural research to make sure that our corn has the best genetics, and that farmers have all the tools they need to help it reproduce.

But maybe that’s not enough! Fearing the worst, Congress had the foresight to support even more corn production by providing additional subsidies for corn ethanol production, and even mandated that by 2022 36 billion gallons of our fuels come from ethanol. Thank God for that! I’d hate to think that I could one day look out on the American countryside and see anything but corn!

Yeah, I know it’s hackneyed, but the moral of the story: Before you sweat the unknowns, be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

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