Sheep Mountain

June 26, 2011

I celebrated the Aestival solstice last Tuesday with a brief stop at the turnout where the road up Sheep Mountain in the Badlands National Park turns into a track for four-wheel drive vehicles only. We were in a mini-van and with a thunderstorm already visible across the prairie to the west: it seemed like the prudent thing to do. I spent the hours following the late sunset at a Red Roof Inn in Woodbury, MN after my flight to Lansing was canceled. The deluxe king room (one of only two left when I inquired at about 10:30 from the airport) was missing the in-room coffee pot that was supposed to be the chief feature warranting its deluxeness, not to mention an extra twenty-five bucks on the room rate, but that’s another story altogether.

Outside the park I noted that South Dakota ranchers seem unimpressed with the idea of rotational grazing, the key strategy for Holistic Range Management (HRM). Cattle were sparse on the prairie, reflecting the limited stocking rates of old-school range management. For all the young dudes out there, the stocking rate is the number of cattle (or other grazing species) that the grasses and browse can support. Stocking rates differ depending on soil condition and climatic conditions like rainfall. Methods for calculating the stocking rate are the subject of dissertations in range management, as well as tightly held ranching secrets. The old-school calculates the appropriate number of animals, then lets them stay on the range continuously, browsing on whatever grasses suit their fancy. My guess is that there might have been one or two cows grazing continuously per hundred acres on the mixed grass prairie I was looking at last week.

Legend has it that HRM was based on suppositions of what American prairies would have been like in the days of the buffalo. Herds of perhaps half a million North American bison roamed the nation’s midsection, and due to their sheer numbers, all manner of grasses and plants were eaten down to the nub as the herd passed through. No opportunity for seeking out that especially tender and tasty shoot for these big boys. The buffalo ate everything and then moved on. But after they were gone, the prairie ecosystem had a long recovery period—perhaps as much as several years—during which the flora had only to contend with prairie dogs.

Rotational grazing is intended to simulate the effect of the buffalo. Large numbers of cattle are confined in fenced pastures where they are forced to eat it all down to the nub, then moved to a new pasture, leaving the old one with ample time to recover. Supposedly, this creates a better mix of grasses and discourages invasive species. 20 years ago, there was a heated controversy as to whether this worked. I remember meeting W.R. Teague who was doing research on rotational grazing at Texas A&M, and I wrote about Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean who was advocating the approach in my 1995 book The Spirit of the Soil. A new film by Irene Klavier, also a philosopher, follows three ranchers who are committed to HRM. It’s called The New Frontier: Sustainable Ranching in the American West. Irene says that one goal was to show people how at least some have become committed to the values of sustainability. She also says that Teague continues to advocate the approach.

Ranchers around the badlands are apparently having none of it. Ironically neither are the tribes who keep herds of real-live North American bison on the South Dakota range. I learned from a Lakota woman that they don’t like the idea of managing the buffalo as closely as the rotational approach requires. It contradicts the whole spirit of their cultural relation to the buffalo to herd hem from pasture to paddock on a managed basis. Buffalo should be wild and free. So the buffalo are in effect managed like an old-school cattle herd with continuous grazing and close attention to stocking rates. It’s a true philosophical quandary.

So. Hey dudes! Carry the news. But maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. A 2008 paper (on which Teague is an author) states “Continued advocacy for rotational grazing as a superior strategy of grazing on rangelands is founded on perception and anecdotal interpretations, rather than an objective assessment of the vast experimental evidence.” The authors note that “a well-managed rotational system will very likely achieve desired production goals more effectively than poorly managed continuous grazing.” But they go on to state that the reverse is also true.

So apparently the great grazing debate rages on. For now I’d say not to take your ranching advice from philosophers, even if they are on a Aestival solstice high.

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


Let’s Get Small

June 19, 2011

My friend Mike from Edinburgh writes expressing some concern about nanomaterials in food. I blogged about nanotechnology over a year ago, but Mike has a question that may be of more general interest.

Some of my colleagues are concerned about the welfare implications for lab animals used in testing for such risks, and we are also wondering whether there is any cause for concern about the welfare of farm animals if (or when) such materials are used in their feed. Can you give me a view on these issues? Are nanomaterials already in use in either food or feed, or likely to be so in the near future?

I get asked questions like this all the time. Well, maybe not while I’m riding the bus or shopping for orange juice, but I have been asked a version of this question four or five times already this year. So I’m using the blogosphere to post an answer.

In reference to your question, Mike, my short answer would be that I am unaware of any reason for concern. The long answer is quite long.

On the one hand, many water soluble substances effectively become nanomaterials when dissolved in water (or the bloodstream, as it were), though the surface tension of the fluid itself regulates their movement through body tissues somewhat. Hence it would be false to say that there are no nanomaterials used in food. That is not what anyone is worried about, but it is akin to the way that people worried that genes were appearing in food for the first time after they heard about GMOs.

The most intractable risk debates in nanotechnology involve engineered nanoparticles: carbon nanotubes and other durable structures whose novelty and irregularity challenge classic toxicological methods. No engineered nanoparticles are being intentionally used in food or feed in so far as I know. They are being used in things like tires, so we can’t guarantee that they don’t get into food, and I do think that there is some basis for being concerned about this, but I’m assuming that this, too, is not really germane to the question you asked. I’m assuming your question is about the intentional introduction of nanoparticles into food.

That brings me to a middle group. These include 1) nano or near-nano sized particles of natural non-soluble substances like silver, zinc oxide etc.; 2) nozzles that produce fine mists of nano-sized droplets of liquids that will more rapidly penetrate the surface of a leaf, skin or hide; and 3) nano-thin layers of fats, oils, sugars, and clays that can be used either as barriers (like on a food package) or as capsules. All of these are being used in the food industry, and could potentially be used in feed, though I have not heard of this.

Unlike engineered nanoparticles, tests on these nanomaterials are amenable to classic toxicological methods. This means, on the one hand, that they DO NOT represent a major challenge to regulatory methods and procedures. On the other hand, this fact does not in itself imply that they are safe. They are as likely (but no more likely) to be safe as any other chemical or substance that is used as a food additive, as an aid in processing or as an ingredient. So with this important group, it is entirely possible that there is room for concern, but it would be misleading to say that the basis for concern lies in the fact that they are nanomaterials. The concern would be tied to the possibility of classic dose-related toxic responses, and to the question of whether current regulatory capabilities are adequate to the task with which they are charged.

Now we are almost done, except that since chemical reactions occur on the surface of particles, the mass of the particle is a much less reliable indicator of reactivity (including toxicity) than surface area. However, it is much easier to determine mass than surface area–you just weigh it. So many toxicological standards in common use are calibrated to mass, rather than surface area. This is probably fine if you are a talking about stuff you measure out in spoonfuls, but when particles get very small (and certainly well before they get to the nano scale) surface to mass ratios start to vary enormously, and mass no longer serves as an adequate proxy for surface area.

SO it would be quite irresponsible to use a mass-based toxicity standard to estimate a dose-response relationship for particles at even the micro scale, much less the nanoscale. Generally, food chemists and regulators know this. But would the food or feed industry ever think about doing something that people in the know generally believe to be “quite irresponsible”? I leave that question to you. Form your own opinion.

Again, I’m not sure that it’s the nano-thing that we should be worried about here, so I’m going to stick with my short answer even if my now long, arcane and somewhat qualified answer to your question of whether there is anything to be concerned about may seem less than comforting.

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

Wieners on Parade

June 12, 2011

I was sitting in the Missoula airport this morning at about 4:45 AM waiting for my flight home from the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society meeting when I saw this headline flash across the video screen: “Famous wiener caught in a hot dog war.” My first thought was to assume that this was some sort of bad joke about Congressman Anthony Weiner, but of course ‘wiener’ ain’t  ‘weiner’, and the word  should have been capitalized if it were a proper name. Even bad puns deserve proper grammar.

My MSU colleagues who had been attending AFHVS with me immediately assumed that the ‘famous wiener’ had to be Oscar Meyer. It was the only famous wiener they could think of. And indeed, when I got home and did a web search to figure out what this was all about, one of the first things I turned up was a reference to the Congressman’s “fully exposed Oscar Meyer.” Great minds work alike, apparently.

AFHVS meets every year about this time. It’s a confab mostly for academic types who study food and farming from a social and political angle. I helped form this organization about 25 years ago along with Richard Haynes, Kate Clancy, Larry Busch, Fred Buttel and a few other friends, some of whom still come to the meeting. Kate was there. Richard and Larry were unable to travel this year, and we lost Fred a few years back. These people are true heroes of the food wars.

In the early days, it was a great place for people who came at the topic from a different perspective to hang out and learn from one another. Kate is a nutritionist. Larry and Fred represent rural sociology. Richard and I are philosophers. We learned a lot from one another and I continue to refer to work from all of them in my day job as a food ethicist. Nowadays the meeting has gotten a lot more disciplinary. By that I mean the sociologists talk mostly to other sociologists, historians to other historians and geographers to other geographers.

In those days, we needed each other because we were basically clueless. We were all trying to figure out what to think about things happening in food and farming. It was helpful to consult possible ethical framings to see if they could give us a critical angle on the growth of industrial farming, but those of us in ethics relied on people like Fred, Kate and Larry to get a handle on what was going down in the real world. Now that there is a social movement to reform food and agriculture, people don’t really need to think very hard about what direction to take. New faces are pouring in but sometimes it feels like “Find a bunch of guys that dress alike and follow them around” at AFHVS these days. What a bunch of wieners!

Maybe I’m just grumpy because the young people are ignoring the senior citizens, but it looks like they are ignoring us because they’ve got their noses buried too deeply in the peer reviewed journals of their own discipline. And that’s not good. Just like food needs lots of spice and variety, food studies need lots of cross over from multiple perspectives. Still, I like to support the meeting. It’s been quite a while since I missed one. Last year I was able to drive down to the meeting in Bloomington, IN with one of my own Ph.D. students.

Coming out of Lansing last year we got turned around by the road construction and some heavy rain and wound up driving all the way to Route 23 before we figured it out. So I decided just to take a right and pretend like it had always been my intention to expose my student to some authentic American food culture: Tony Packo’s in Toledo. My vegetarian daughter loves Tony Packo’s Pickles and Peppers, while I like the Sweet Hots. I send her a care package every time I’m through Toledo, and I usually stick one of those giant gallon jars in my trunk. Like most people, my student Bill was more impressed with the hot dogs, served smothered with chili. Lansing to Bloomington by way of Toledo?  For a true wiener wonk, you don’t need to ask.

So a year later I get home from AFHVS and guess what? The famous wiener is not Oscar Meyer’s. It’s Tony Packo’s. Apparently two branches of the family are battling over the fate of the franchise. I hope they sort it out. Without Packo’s pickles, I’d feel fully exposed.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture, Food and Human Values at Michigan State University

She’s Hot

June 5, 2011

Hot and wet. Diane was not looking forward to another year of hanging out at the Allen Street Market on Wednesday afternoons, waiting for Thornapple CSA members to come by and pick up their shares. We’ve already had a week of August temperatures here in June this year. And it has been pretty windy, to boot. Holding down that awning (necessary to keep the hot sun off) was apparently quite a challenge. I heard the stories, but I didn’t witness the carnage. So it was time to think about a location for pick-up that would be a little more comfortable.

The Allen Street Market in west Lansing is a once a week farmer’s market held on Wednesday afternoons in a very spare parking lot adjacent to the Allen Neighborhood Center on Kalamazoo St. It’s the result of hard work by a number of neighborhood and local food community activists aiming to make fresh fruits and vegetables more readily available to people in this part of town. I know people who think of west Lansing as a “poor” neighborhood in all the senses that implies. I don’t think of it that way, but the residents are a mix of longtime and mostly working-class homeowners, MSU graduate students and the usual run of short-term semi-transient renters that often go along with grad students. I know a couple of MSU faculty who live there, too. There are also a couple of apartment complexes where significant numbers of refugees and recent immigrants live. Look at it however you like, having the market there once a week is a commendable project from a food ethics perspective. It blends opportunity for farmers with food access for people who don’t drive a Lexus or ride airplanes a couple of times a month.

Or at least the opportunity for famers is an important part of the theory. It’s not clear to me that this has been a big winner for small-scale farmers. For one thing, they typically sell more in Okemos, where people do drive a Lexus. Between you and me, one of the sore points for Thornapple has been a farmer/vender at Allen Street who was constantly complaining that our socialist ideas were hurting his business. It’s an excuse, I guess. And the Okemos market is more comfortable for everyone. After eight years, the facility at Allen Street is still little more than a sun-baked and weedy patch of old asphalt. Beggars can’t be choosers, apparently. This means that even while Allen Street has been holding its own, it does not flourish with dozens of venders. The “poor” lose out to the people who drive a Lexus. As one of my economist friends reminds me, “They usually do.”

So Thornapple is bailing out, too. Soon members will be picking up their shares in my garage, where Diane will not be quite as hot, and somewhat drier. This will help her save energy for some of her other projects. Say hey, for a brief on Diane’s other projects, check out the website of the Northwest Initiative. They’ve put up a sensational little video on their school garden project. I know that Diane will be a star on u-tube before we know it, even if she is less hot in our garage than on the asphalt.

Well, she’ll still be hot, if you know what I mean, and the video proves it. But she’ll be more comfortable. And she’ll still be wet, for the time being, though less wet on pick-up days than when she’s out in the fields (or hoophouse, as the case may be) at Appleschram Orchard. It’s been another wet spring in Michigan, and farmers have had a devil of a time getting their crops in the ground. Looking back a year I posted a blog entitled “Wet Spring”. It may be the worst blog I’ve written. I call attention to it just so you can A) note that there may be a pattern of wet springs emerging here in central Michigan. At least I’m not sitting by the fire this year, but June is not over and the Michigan temperatures are very changeable. And B) I’m hoping to make this week’s effort look good by comparison. The larger point of that blog and this one is another reinforcing lesson in the CSA way. Food ethics is not a domain of moral purity. Compromise is the name of the game, and balancing, adjustment and revision of strategy are always fair game. In the food ethics world we call this pragmatism, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Really.

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