The Trouble with Diversity

July 31, 2011

English majors out there are flocking to this week’s entry when they run a search on U. Illinois-Chicago English professor Walter Benn Michaels. He’s the guy who wrote a book about how our obsession with diversity is keeping us from addressing much more straightforward social issues. By “our” I think he means lefties, and especially liberal higher education types who seek racial and gender diversity as the solution to more fundamental problems. Problems like the way that kids who grow up in poverty are very unlikely to develop the reading or math skills that would give them a reasonable shot at succeeding in college, or that given their experience, the same kids quite reasonably take little interest exceedingly delayed gratification higher education. Or for that matter the denial of opportunity that sometimes but not always accompanies race, but rather reliably afflicts people without means. Michaels thinks that schools have gotten a little smug about how well they are doing when they the get the enrollment or faculty numbers up for “diversity”, even when they don’t actually reflect an increased participation of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Michaels’ book is about a half a decade old by now. It was called The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

But this blog is not about that. No, I’m still stuck on the topic John Zilmer got me off on in his request for some thoughts on heirlooms. Rather than retrace ground we covered last week, I’ll just point out that if you are reading this online, there is a little link you can hit up there in the upper right hand corner that says “Heirlooms.” If you put your mouse arrow on the link and the click, you will as if by magic, be taken to the very blog I am a referring to, where you can also read John’s illuminating thoughts on “The Voice”. (Apologies to the computer literate, but I can’t take anything for granted with some of my readership.)

Heirlooms was about seed saving. And it was about why seed saving was supposed to be a good thing as a way to promote diversity. And this diversity is only vaguely related to anything Walter Benn Michaels was writing about in 2007. Seed saving at the Svalbard seedbank is supposed to be good because we protect the genetic diversity that plant breeders can use to develop new plants in the future. Seed saving at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, IA is supposed to be good because it promotes underused varieties that look good and taste great. As I pointed out last week these aren’t the same thing.

But I happened to have a conversation with a colleague this week who suggested that Seed Savers is promoting diversity. He was talking about the fact that when you add these varieties to ones already being grown you are increasing the diversity of varieties being grown in a landscape. Now this is not genetic diversity. That would mean the diversity of genes in the gene pool for a species. Think eye color. There are genes for blue, brown, green and violet eye color in the human gene pool. If all the people with violet eyes were abducted by aliens, it would reduce genetic diversity with respect to eye color in humans. Svalbard is about genetic diversity in just this sense.

What my colleague was talking about is actually a third thing. It’s kind of like biodiversity, which is a major goal of conservation biologists and the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). The CBD is an international agreement (to which the United States is not a signatory, by the way) that was opened for signing at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janerio.

Biodiversity is the number of plant, animal and microbial species cohabiting an ecosystem. Places with more species are said to have greater biodiversity. Intuitively, a swamp has more biodiversity than a corn field. Although there are more animals and non-corn plants in a corn field than you might think, farmers would generally like their corn fields to be populated by nothing but corn. For this reason alone, agriculture is rightly said to be the enemy of biodiversity.

Suppose you set aside a corner of that corn field and plant some wonderful heirloom tomatoes, some squash and beans, and maybe even some watermelons. Ta da! You have now increased the number of species growing in that farm “ecosystem” by four: You are promoting biodiversity!

I’ll pause here to reiterate a previously stated view. I love it when a farmer decides to diversify the mix of crops, and I especially love it when she is planting heirloom tomatoes. But curmudgeon that I am, I don’t actually think this serves diversity in the sense endorsed at the Earth Summit. The whole idea there was to throw up our hands into the air and bewail the fact that we (and now I mean “the Earth” not just lefty college professors) are losing 247.3 species every minute. Note that this figure may not be strictly accurate, owing to the fact that I just pulled it out of my ass. But my insouciant tone aside (Diane says I have to make at least lame attempts at humor on this blog) this really is a serious issue. If you don’t believe me, look at this website.

At the risk of even more insouciance, I’ll go on to say that actually the Earth Summit was hoping for a little more than a vigorous bewailing session. That’s what the CBD was set up to do, and I’ll also encourage the environmentally conscious Thorapple Blog reader to spend a few minutes or hours poking around on the CBD website. But however much I wish they (farmers, that is) would mix it up a bit, I still have to insist the CBD’s conservation goal was much more focused on trying to protect uncultivated ecosystems from encroachment by farming and ranching than it was encouraging farmers to put out a few heirloom tomatoes.

I don’t want to get Diane Ott Wheatley on my case, for sure. I support the whole endeavor at Seed Savers Exchange. I really do. What is more, there’s enough ambiguity in the way CBD goes about their business to see a rationale for preserving traditional varieties, too. That would certainly go for the corn varieties grown by small farmers in Mexico, the center of diversity for maize. But does it provide a convincing environmental ethics rationale for heirloom tomatoes? There my skeptical impulses rise. Still, I wish we were getting a few more heirlooms in the Thompson household here in late July. That’s really a compelling reason to plant them!

Apparently Michaels and I agree that diversity is a troubling and potentially confusing social goal, however worthy when specified correctly. I hope this does not make me a racist.

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


July 24, 2011

The first heirlooms are in. Faithful readers of the Thornapple Blog know that I’m referring to tomatoes. I’ve already made two meals of tomatoes and cottage cheese, and I’ll be heading out to Kroger’s this afternoon in pursuit of that special (read: cheap) variety that’s completely unavailable at our usual shopping spots for dairy products (e.g. Goodrich’s and ELFCO). If this seems hopelessly obscure, click here and get caught up on the back story that’s essential for understanding just how central heirloom tomatoes are to the Thornapple Blog.

Another tack on this comes from John Zilmer, who made the following comment a couple of weeks back in reference to a recent issue of National Geographic:

The article’s focus is on the supposed ability of heirloom varieties and breeds to resist various pressures (heat, drought, pests, etc) that are increasing with climate change. Ergo, we ought to save heirloom foods so that we will be able to continue to feed (the ever increasing numbers of) future people.

The feature article John is referring to leads off with a picture of Cary Fowler at the Svaldbard Seed Bank in the icy north of Norway. There are seedbanks all over the world. The point, as John’s comment suggests, is to preserve the genetic diversity in plants—both wild and domesticated—that are not widely grown by contemporary farmers. Svalbard is the mother of all seedbanks, intended to provide a backup for regional and national banks that are vulnerable to flood and fire, not to mention armed conflict. Cary and I were both speakers at the Gustavus Adolphus Nobel Conference in October of 2010. The college goes all out for this event and puts up a fantastic website where you can hear his talk and see the cool pictures of Svalbard.

The lead ethics question is “Why?” One answer is that the seeds are intrinsically valuable, though most environmental philosophers would hold that natural plant varieties (e.g. those that are the product of evolution) are much, much more valuable than those developed by farmers or plant breeders. The more common answer, and the one behind the National Geographic article, is that there is no telling which genes will turn out to have useful characteristics. Some will confer resistance to diseases that are not now but one day might be a problem, while others may allow plants to thrive under heat stress, drought, dampness or a change in light conditions. All of these things are potentially associated with climate change. So even though there is very little profit-based incentive for maintaining these seedbanks, conservationists and plant scientists think that it is very important to do so.

The next ethics question is “Who is served by these seedbanks?” It cropped up at the Nobel Conference. Some assert that Svalbard is “stealing” from the farmers who developed these varieties, and that biotechnology companies are the ultimate beneficiaries. Fowler described the policies in place that keep “ownership” of the seeds with the national or regional seedbanks that send them to Norway. But even if that answers the challenge to Svalbard, the question is still valid as applied to the national and regional seedbanks themselves. There is really very little sense that we would just pull these seeds out of cold storage and start growing them again in their current state. The genetic diversity that seedbanks preserve is thought of as a resource for plant breeders who would use it to develop new varieties that are better suited to environmental conditions we at present only imagine in the vaguest of terms.

Which brings us to Diane Ott Whealy, the founder of Seed Savers Exchange, an NGO that maintains a seedbank in Decorah, Iowa. Although National Geographic leads with a photo of Fowler, the article begins by discussing Whealy. The point of Seed Savers is to preserve and promote heirlooms so that people can grow them out again, just like the tomatoes waiting alluringly downstairs on my kitchen counter. I’m all for this, as my enthusiasm for these tomatoes should have already made abundantly clear. I’ve gone on and on about them several times. We thus see a third answer to the “why” question posed above: some of these old varieties are pretty and taste great, even if they don’t have the cosmetic or processing characteristics desired by the corporate actors who control the industrial food chain.

Yet because these varieties were themselves developed by plant breeders and farmers decades ago, there is no reason to think that they will be better adapted to the kind of environmental change envisioned as a result of greenhouse gas emissions than our current commercial varieties. Some genes in these varieties might prove useful, but the genes would still have to be moved into a better adapted plant. If plant breeders respond to the profit motives dictated by supply chain food ethics, preserving good tasting varieties will happen only if consumers purchasing at major food outlets demand it.

Now we move into a terrain where politics and metaphysics get intertwined. I know for a fact that some true believers in the alternative food movement think that these heirloom varieties will do fine in an era of climate change, as if by magic or divine intervention. I agree that they might do fine, but I think it will be dumb luck if they do.

Although I recommend the National Geographic articles heartily, I do think that they jumble up the genetic diversity rationales. Making things complicated: That’s what us professors of food ethics are here for.

I’ll leave it to John to provide the Sinatra lyric that ties all this together.

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

Which Came First?

July 17, 2011

Noted international chicken fancier that I am, readers are undoubtedly surprised that I took off last week to do blog maintenance when I could have been musing on the earthshaking events of the eggworld. In case you missed it the United Egg Producers, the main membership organization for commercial egg producers, and the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization, called off their feud last week. On Wednesday, July 7, UEP and HSUS announced that they would jointly support Federal legislation that would mandate the “colony” system for housing all egg laying hens in the United States.

Where should I start with this one? The “colony” system is also called the “enriched cage”. It’s a big cage with places for nesting, perching, scratching and dust bathing—all things that chickens like to do. Unlike the cages that the egg industry has been using for the last thirty or forty years, these cages allow chickens more freedom of movement and also an opportunity to express many of their natural behaviors. It is, however, still a cage.

As I explained when I wrote a blog in February 2010, that is not entirely a bad thing. It’s important to limit group size in layers. But at that time animal protectionists, including HSUS, were having none of cages. Within 24 hours of posting that blog, someone named “Tim” posted a lengthy comment decrying UEP as a discredited industry trade group with a sordid history of consumer fraud and animal cruelty. Now last week I was complaining about robots, but Tim was not only quite the opposite, this is only time that any one has clearly found this blog and posted a critical comment in a year and a half of blogging! Well, there was the time that the rep from Nordic Naturals found my blog on the organic trade show, but that took her a couple of weeks.

Excuse me if I suspect that a cadre of chicken lovers out there were monitoring the Internet for posts supportive of UEP, ready to stomp out any hint that cages, however big and comfy, might be an improvement worth supporting. And excuse me again if I speculate that as the 800 pound gorilla of animal protection, HSUS might have been nudging these chicken lovers along, one way or another—like ordering in coffee & donuts for the late night shift, or something.

I hasten to add that I don’t have evidence for this. It could just as easily been PETA or perhaps Tim is even more of a noted chicken fancier than I am, so much so that he spends every spare moment trolling the Internet for the latest blog post on what’s shaking in eggworld. And he does this for nothing other than the sheer satisfaction that he is “outing” discredited industry trade groups (or at least those with a sordid history of consumer fraud and animal cruelty). Who knows? Maybe Tim spends hours in front of the J.W. West “Hen-Cam”, where you can monitor layers in an enhanced cage—Ooops! I mean “colony housing system”. I picture him there, stubby golf pencil in hand, scouring the screen for evidence of consumer fraud and animal cruelty.  If so, Tim, be advised that there are numerous chicken cams for you to monitor. In fact, it’s probably a high water mark of Western civilization that you can now watch chickens on several continents simultaneously. Which brings to mind my comments on watching six different televisions all at the same time. But that’s another story altogether.

There is a serious ethics point to debate here, but I’m just not in a serious mood. If you want dour, well the rather serious National Pork Producers Council based in Iowa issued a statement denouncing the UEP/HSUS agreement. Take a look at that. And its clear that there are egg producers and animal protectionists alike that are outraged by this agreement. All the real background poop on this issue was in the original Thornapple blog, however, so go read it there! For now I’m going to gloat (gloating fool that I am) and I don’t even care to explain why.

Any comments, Tim?

Paul B. Thompson serves on the United Egg Producers Scientific Advisory Board, as well as the faculty at Michigan State University

Blog Maintenance

July 10, 2011

Woke up this morning, I was feeling quite weird, had flies in my beard, my toothpaste was smeared. Couldn’t think of a thing to say in this week’s blog. Must be time to do a little maintenance work.

This has happened before. It was about this time last summer that I devoted a blog to offline comments from my regular readers. One of them (you know who you are) doesn’t seem to know how to work the comments section. In response to my blog on strawberry festivals he points out “Plant City  does not mean strawberry  plants.  The Plant family, founders like Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater and.. and… well… Plant City. Also home of Buddy Freddy’s restaurant, which I don’t think is as good as it was.”  This reader also liked “Lunch” which prompted a recommendation for a place called The Lizard’s Thicket in Columbia SC, as well as this comment:

As you may know, “pot likker” was, when I was a pediatrician in Columbus, GA, the staple in the diet of many infants and toddlers in our clinic population of fine but poor people, most of which happened to be Black.

And then there is Phillip Ackerman-Leist (not a regular reader) who took a look at Sheep Mountain and e-mailed back rather laconically that he would have something to say about rotational grazing in about ten years. Well, of course, that’s exactly the right answer, as I would expect from Phillip. If you don’t know him, check out his book Up Tunket Road which is rapidly moving up the sales status at It discusses his experience homesteading in Vermont, and working on farms in North Carolina and Austria and at Green Mountain College. It’s a personal journey of sustainability and I recommend it highly.

Keen eyed readers (I know, I know: the null set) will have noticed that Sheep Mountain disappeared for a while. That’s because a regular blog maintenance duty is to go through and read all the comments posted and then either “approve” or “trash” them. As the internet savvy know well, most of these come from robots. That’s either programs that scour the internet for opportunities to post random bits of text in comment boxes or robot-like human beings who do the same thing. Robots are the bane of blog writers, so much so that one of the hooks robots use get you to either approve their post or at least click on the link is to promise some neat, easy way of controlling them.

My general policy is to approve anything that I think comes from a real person, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. However, every now and then I’m tempted to approve robot posts. Like when they are just so wacky, especially in virtue of the disconnection between the text they post and the topic of the blog. There’ s the robot who posts “Mmm, pizza” (or some other food). I got sucked in by that one. Some robot posted a link to Viagra under “Let’s Get Small“, but I resisted that particular effort at seduction. And I was really tempted to “approve” a lot of obviously robot posts in response to Wieners on Parade. Like the “Thanks for your work on this important topic” posts, which just seemed right in tune with the overall theme of curious juxtapositions that guides this blog. For some reason I got more than the usual number of robots expressing interest in this particular entry. Must be those strangers that come every night. I guess they Google “wiener” on any given day.

Well at any rate I got a little bit too excited by all these wiener comments and accidently deleted my Sheep Mountain blog. It’s back today, with only a few minor improvements.

Over my window, they'd written my name
Said, so long, we'll see you again

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

Strawberry Patch

July 3, 2011

Every now and then I catch myself in an attitude that shows how after eight years, I still haven’t really adjusted to living in Michigan. One of those thoughts occurred to me this week when I was enjoying another bowl of fresh organic Michigan strawberries. Diane says we are paying about five bucks a quart for these babies, and this is cheap by local market standards. I don’t care what we are paying. As ‘Cousin Joe’ Pleasant says,

When you get your big money, buy everything you can get. When you get your big money, buy everything you can get.Cause’ you know you can’t take it with you. You never saw an armored car at a funeral parlor yet.

And I think that basically means strawberries in season. Eat them twice every day because the season really only last two good weeks. I won’t blame you if try to squeeze another week out it, however.

I remember going to the strawberry festival in Plant City, Florida with Diane’s parents, though I don’t remember when. It must have been March, though, because we had to have been on Spring Break from somewhere. I remember it being very good, but I don’t actually think it’s very likely that those were organic berries. And then there were the years trying to grow strawberries in my back yard in Texas. I was a rather poor gardener, at least by the standards I set for myself. I think being trained to garden in Missouri by my grandmother and then trying to do in Texas was a major part of the problem. They do grow strawberries in Texas, though I must confess that I never made it to the big strawberry festival in Poteet. That’s in April.

According to the web, there’s a strawberry festival in Oxnard, CA in May. But Indiana! That’s when I really rekindled my love affair with in-season strawberries. It was in Crawfordsville. In fact it was really the main reason to go to Crawfordsville, the Old Jail and its rotary mechanism notwithstanding. You wander the streets looking at the antique cars or whatever else they decided to haul in this year. And then of course you eat strawberry shortcake on the green. Well that’s how I remember it. My research today suggests that “the green” may have been the grounds of the historic Henry S. Lane home. But on strawberry festival weekend, you’re mostly just focused on eating. The strawberry festival in Crafordsville, Indiana is smack in the middle of June.

So here it is July 4th weekend and we are right at the peak of strawberry season. Somehow, it don’t seem right, but who’s complaining. I’m enjoying strawberries on ice cream, strawberries on Frosted Flakes, strawberries on Frosted Mini Wheats (I am the Kellogg professor), strawberries with yogurt and granola (a little extra sugar never hurt with strawberries). We may not get around to shortcake this year.

There’s one more thing about strawberries. They are monstrosities. Although wild strawberries have been known in Europe forever, and were enjoyed by Native Americans, the fruits are tiny, tiny. They look nothing like what we eat at strawberry festivals. The modern garden strawberry was created in a French monastery when some cultivars from different parts of the world got mixed together inadvertently. Or that’s the story I like. Tracing plant origins is dicey. Every country (sometimes every county) has a favorite son who allegedly made the breakthrough. Here’s two plant scientists, Hokanson and Mass:

In short, the cultivated strawberry is the result of chance hybridizations between two octoploid new world strawberry species, the beach strawberry Fragaria chiloensis, and the scarlet or Virginia strawberry F. Virginiana. The large-fruited F. chiloensis clones imported into Europe from Chile by French spy, Catain Amédée Frézier in 1716, were male sterile and did not fruit until inter-planted with plants of F. virginiana, which served as pollinators. Seedlings resulting from the chance hybridizations began appearing in European botanical gardens and commercial fields in the 1750s, producing plants with fruit characteristics and plant habits unlike those of the commonly grown Scarlet and Chilean types of the period. Additionally, the hybrids were hermaphroditic, as are most commercial strawberry cultivars today.

Hakanson and Mass in Plant Breeding Reviews V. 21 (2001), pp. 138-139

It’s no wonder I had such trouble back in Texas given these disturbing facts about plant sex. Be afraid! Be very afraid.

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