Better Bacon

April 24, 2011

After two weeks of hints and innuendo, it’s time to get serious. Who really does have the better bacon? Is it Laurie with her pigs rooting through the detritus of an organic farm plot, or the Iowa farmer with pigs standing virtually motionless in a row of metal pens too small for them to even turn around? This is what people expect someone with the title “professor of food ethics” to have something to say about.

In the modern day university (where I live) ethics is about bringing reasons to bear on the hard choices and tough problems people face. There are lots of different reasons that could be brought to bear on pig production. Raising pigs is a livelihood. For the Iowa farmer, it is very near his sole livelihood. Laurie’s system presumes pig raising is one component in diversified organic farming ecology. Which one is better may depend on the way that either approach supports a desired quality of life for the producer or for a rural community. It may depend on the effect that either approach has on air and water quality, or on the total resource commitment that supplying a society of bacon-eaters creates. The complexity of reasoning here explains why I rarely try to do any deeply serious ethics business in the Thornapple blog. You just can’t get all the cards on the table without boring people to tears.

The hints and innuendo from my last two blogs point to a different set of ethical considerations at the same time that the blogs themselves focus on unrelated points. What is it like for the pigs? Here it may be best to begin by noting that all these pigs are destined to become bacon before a year is out. Debates over better bacon operate within the assumption that we are going to be raising pigs and killing them. The question of what’s best for the pig then ceases to be a question about whether these pigs, our society and the broader environment might be better off if they had never been born at all. This is also a worthwhile ethics question; it’s just not the better bacon question. That question depends on what it feels like to be a pig out on a pasture rooting vegetables with other pigs versus what it feels like to be a pig standing immobile on concrete in a darkened barn with a feed ration delivered to your doorstep on a regular basis.

For a lot of humans, this simple description of the two systems makes it obvious. Never mind the fact that few of us humans would really like to root and dig all day, we can we easily imagine that such a life is hog heaven. And we sure as heck know that we wouldn’t want to stand on concrete in a darkened barn. This tendency to see things from the human perspective is why Iowa farmers are so secretive, by the way, wanting to quash would-be videographers. But while I would not say that this human-centered view of the comparison is useless, it operates without having taken the key ethical question very seriously: What is it like to be a pig in these two settings?

It’s possible that in pig world, knowing where your next meal is coming from dominates everything. A pig who has good reason to think that dinner will show up on the doorstep may be happier than one who is worried that the next pig will have better luck rooting for leftover turnips. This would be especially the case if one of those fellow pigs in the pen is a known bully. Life becomes a constant battle, or else it becomes a life of constant fear and domination. Of course Laurie would insist that it’s possible to relieve some of this uncertainty with good husbandry: showing up with extra food and cordoning off the bullies, for example. And she would be right.

Which leads me to this ethical thought. While the welfare ceiling is higher for Laurie’s pigs, the floor is higher in Iowa. The worst off pig in a pasture system run by someone who is either negligent or lacking in husbandry skills is going to be worse off than the worst off pig in Iowa. Pigs are quite smart, which means that they are capable of adapting to a range of different life environments. That said, it’s less clear that like humans, they actually thrive on learning new things.  Iowa pigs may be relatively unchallenged, but content. The pigs on MSU’s organic farm may be expressing a fuller range of pigness, but that’s partly because they are the focus of so much attention from the humans.

What happens when we scale up these systems to produce bacon for 200 million? That’s where the discussion of better bacon should begin.

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

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In Iowa

April 17, 2011

There’s an announcement coming over the PA at gate C-2 in Des Moines, advising that some unfortunate soul (name withheld) has left an item back at the gift shop on the far side of TSA inspection. In New York or Detroit this kind of announcement is so unusual that the mind immediately suspects terrorist activity or a DEA bust. But in Des Moines, you assume that someone just left a credit card at the counter after buying some magazines and candy for the plane ride. The airport folks are just being helpful.

These assumptions of Gemütlichkeit get further support when a whole crowd forms of people who need a little extra time and assistance in boarding. Elsewhere, you need triplets in arms or a wheelchair to qualify for this, but in Iowa families with 10-year olds and oldsters with no more gray and no less mobility than me feel entitled to press forward in response to the pre-boarding announcement. And why not? They probably don’t travel more than once or twice a year and the anxiety created by those TSA guys (actually pretty non-threatening in Des Moines) is enough to make you feel like you need a little extra consideration.

When I was a ten year old, I would occasionally get tired of playing one of the two LPs I had in my own name and put on one of my Dad’s records. I was very likely to hear these lyrics:

Oh, there’s nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you
Which we may not do at all.
There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
We’ve never been without.
That we recall.
We can be cold
As our falling thermometers in December
If you ask about our weather in July.
And we’re so by God stubborn
We could stand touchin’ noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.
But what the heck, you’re welcome,
Join us at the picnic.
You can eat your fill
Of all the food you bring yourself.
You really ought to give Iowa a try.

The scene I was witnessing at C-2 was the upside of Iowa contrariness, but there is a dark mood in Iowa these days that reflects a less welcome and innocent side of “Iowa stubborn.” I use the word dark here advisedly because I am privy to some events transpiring in Iowa farm politics that are both unsavory and that I cannot discuss in a public forum. And my short visit there last week picked up two other totally unrelated domains of farm politics where people said that they could not say everything they knew. Whether for fear of reprisal or scotching the broth, it is not a good thing when people feel unable to speak what they know in simple conversation over beer.

These secrets swirl among some themes a bit more public. I’m told the Pork Board was stunned when visitors to the Des Moines zoo reacted to an exhibit of sows confined in gestation crates with shock and horror. (Now, I get that there’s an issue here, because it’s arguable that these pigs are better off than pigs in pens where they are subject to bullying and battering from more aggressive individuals. But the question of who really does have the better bacon is going to have to wait.) Now the legislature is considering action that would make photography or videotaping of animal production facilities without the owner’s consent a felony. It would also criminalize possession of such photos or videotapes. At least a few influential Iowa farmers are on the side of darkness it seems.

In my obsessive quest to tell both sides of a story, I am compelled to note that animal activists have secretly sought employment on livestock farms, then goaded other employees into Abu Graib-like photo ops. The results have been disseminated over the Internet as if they represent the norm for intensive livestock production. And as I’ve just said above, even accurate portrayals are difficult for the novice to read.

It’s a sad dark place our farm politics have gotten to. Anyone need a little extra time in boarding?

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

Pig Tales

April 10, 2011

Laurie Thorp was at the Thompson household last Sunday explaining “Why my bacon is better than your bacon,” or more to the point, some of the things that are going on at MSU’s student organic farm. The event was part of the “Diane Presents…” forum that she has been organizing as an adjunct to the Thornapple CSA. As I’m sure both loyal readers of this blog know, the CSA idea goes beyond just having tasty and healthful foods to munch on in the summer months. Part of the philosophy is making a commitment to a farm that puts you in solidarity with the farmer, and part of that is learning more about what’s what in the food system.

I know, I know. Last week I denied that this blog has anything at all to do with what’s what, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” And so I persevere.

The “CSA way” involves participating in discussions about the food system, and in that vein, Diane tries to organize such discussions now and then. Often these happen around food or work days out at Appleschram Orchard where our veggies are grown, but she also has this idea of staging events where leading lights from the MSU food world will sit around and chew the fat with Thornapple members and, indeed, anybody willing to show up. This series was launched last fall with an appearance from an internationally known food ethicist, raconteur, savant extraordinaire and all around bon vivant (that would, of course, have been me). My stunning and amazing performance was followed up by last Sunday’s evening with Laurie, who runs the Residential Initiative  in the Study of the Environment (RISE) at MSU and is also one of driving forces behind MSU’s Student Organic Farm.

I’m working up to some pontification on student farm programs, having visited farms at the University of Georgia and at Green Mountain College in Poultney, VT since the first of the year. But you’ll have to hold your breath on that, because I’m still stewing about whether and what I might have to say about it. For now, I’ll hold tight to Laurie’s visit to the Thornapple Food Salon. Except that this blog is the first time anyone’s mentioned something like a Thornapple Food Salon, and I’ve been sternly instructed that my role as designated Thornapple blogger gives me absolutely no authority to say anything official or to represent any of my half baked ideas as having issued from the Thornapple core group. So I take it back. There is no Thornapple Food Salon, but members are always invited to a “Diane Presents…” I have no idea when the next one will be. Once every six months seems to be the norm.

Laurie was talking about the Student Organic Farm’s pig project. This is, as any sustainable agriculture effort should be, an experiment in multi-functionality. It is on the one hand an attempt to see how pasture raised pigs might be incorporated into the production system of a small organic farm. I’d like to wax eloquent about how difficult it is to make research like that conform to the norms of replication and statistical significance that have come to dominate agricultural science. In the old days of Land Grant universities, this kind of “demonstration project” was commonplace, but in the days of “the big play”, it happens pretty infrequently. I’d like to wax eloquent about this, but I’m sure neither of my regular readers knows or cares about big plays in the Land Grant system, so I’ll just shut up.

On the other hand, and this is important to Laurie, the pig project is research in educational methods and curriculum. Here’s how I understand the thesis. In the modern gigantihaulicalextravaganzistic university, students are quite detached and isolated. Contact with nature (and this would include pigs) has a restorative function that enlivens the imagination and makes the full gamut of one’s educational experience come alive. As a philosophy professor, I’m inclined to mention that this is actually not so much of a new idea, having been expounded by the noted French philosopher and educational theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his seminal book Emile: or On Education (which you can read on line). But since I’m sure that neither of my regular readers knows or cares about French Romanticism or its role in the gigantihaulicalextravaganzistic university, I’ll shut up about that, too.

In fact, I think I’ll just shut up, period. It’s supposed to be 80° here in Michigan this Sunday, and I’ve spent too much of the day in front of a computer already. Sorry you missed “Diane Presents an Evening with Laurie Thorp,” if you did. I guess you’ll just have to wait for the movie.

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

Thin Ice

April 3, 2011

Now I’ve repeated this over and over and over again, my friend. This blog IS NOT in any sense of the word an official outlet for the core group of the Thornapple CSA. It’s not the Thornapple CSA newsletter. It’s not supposed be a forum in which any business, official or otherwise, of the Thornapple CSA gets conducted. It’s kind of a joke, really. The Thornapple Blog is a substitute for real food, you know. That pale imitation that fills the barren root-cellar days between the last pumpkin and the first pick-up. That measly morsel meant to stand-in for piquancy with mere mechanisms: alliteration, puns, irony, sarcasm…  You know what I mean. It’s a gambol, hop and hurdle into bad taste where good taste would normally prevail (and need I say that I mean that literally).

But still there is paralyzing fear that pervades my prose: What if I get taken seriously!

This thought came up over coffee this week in conversation with a professor from another school. Her graduate mentor, William Cronon, is in the news because of some comments he made in a blog about the American Legislative Exchange Council. Here is The Wall Street Journal account of what happened next:

In response, the Republican official requested emails sent from Cronon’s state-university account that referred to “Republicans,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and certain labor unions and their leaders. Cronon and his supporters see a rank effort at intimidation and embarrassment. Slate’s Jack Shafer, meanwhile, points out that the Republicans seem to be looking for evidence that Cronon has used university resources to “support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote…”—an action that’s forbidden by state law.

Now we learn from The New York Times that the Mackinac Center is seeking similar e-mails from Michigan professors. There are some fine lines at stake here. On the one hand, laws intended to prevent state employees from using their jobs or public resources to tweak the political process seem unassailable. But there are going to be some gray areas, like when said employee is in a position to provide information that could be decisive. Sometimes it’s easy to say “Just the facts, ma’m,” but other times the facts themselves are going to be deeply value laden. Making a fair comparison between two farming systems would be a case in point, because the comparison will follow one set of standards if you are working from the assumption that farming is just another sector in the industrial economy, and a very different set of standards if one takes an agrarian view. This is a philosophical quandary on which I have waxed loquaciously in my book The Agrarian Vision.

Fortunately for me, the contest between industrial and agrarian philosophies of agriculture is not one that Republicans and Democrats are particularly interested in, so I don’t expect to get dragged into the kind of snafu that has been plaguing Cronon on that one. Some of the things I write about in the Thornapple blog are more attention-grabbing for the political class however. Which takes me to the other hand. Although I’m not using State of Michigan resources to write this blog, I do sign it as a professor at Michigan State University. I explained the main reason I do so last week. As a professor of food ethics, I research and write many articles and give public talks. That’s what the State of Michigan pays me to do. I also use the blog to put out ideas in a more accessible and open forum. We professors are frequently told that this is part of the job, too, and one we don’t take seriously enough. So I’m not shy about the fact that there is usually a point about food ethics lying deeply behind  the excess verbiage in my usual blog, nor am I so modest as to pretend that I’m an amateur on that subject. Not only would it be entirely appropriate for me to use MSU resources to write this blog, it’s exactly the thing that the college administration is encouraging professors to do more frequently! And the actions reported above will almost certainly put a damper on that.

Professors are not the only people paid to put out information, and any bit of information can be inconvenient for someone at some point of time. I had originally thought of an internally focused blog this week, focused more on Thornapple Beeswax, but that got censored by the boss. I wanted to celebrate a certain amateur spirit that I admire in CSAs, but Diane was sure that someone would take it the wrong way. So it seems I need to stress not only that this blog is not the official voice of Thornapple CSA, I need to stress that no professor’s view represents Michigan State University.

As for those of you out there who are thinking about a FOIA subpoena for my e-mails, have at it. You’ll be looking at a lot of one word replies. I’m notoriously non-communicative in e-mails. And there is absolutely no question that complying with such a request costs time and money. As such, it becomes a way for people who have lots of money to hire lawyers to intimidate and hamper people that are saying inconvenient things. So I don’t agree with Shafer (see above) when he writes that there is no such thing as a bad FOIA request. Maybe some recent blogs offer a better message to all those people whose delicate feelings are bruised when someone skates out on thin ice: HEY! LIGHTEN UP!

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