James McWilliams

September 25, 2011

As both my regular readers know, I periodically do a blog to report feedback that does not show up in the “comment” box. I have gotten a few robot entries that it was very tempting to approve. Most of the time I just get stuff like the following: “Hello there, I found your web site via Google while searching for a related topic, your site came up, it looks great. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.”

This is the kind of generic comment that robots make in hopes you will approve it, boosting their own search ratings. However, some recent robots have gotten creative. My post “Places that Do Not Change” elicited responses like “It is a horny world, HOT post!” and “What is up with blaming Greenspan and Bush? He made great points but you always strike while the irons hot, thats Capitalism. Also has our lifestyles really changed that much this year?” If anyone sees the connection, please do explain it for the rest of us. Here’s another twist: “I just thought you should know that you could do a lot better with your titles. Try to find out what keywords people use to find your site and incorporate them in your titles. For instance what do you think you can chance in Joan Dye Gussow Thornapple CSA? Best regards, Jenni”. But sorry, Jenni. This looks too much like cut and paste and not enough like you are actually responding to my blog.

I also got a creative one: “I lost my manual and have no idea how to recline the seat of my stroller. Anyone know how?” I very nearly approved this stunning comment owing to its obvious connection to the vague existential musings in “Places that Do Not Change”. But I resisted the temptation.

And sometimes I hear from human beings. Within about two hours of posting my September 4, 2011 blog, I got an e-mail from James McWilliams at my MSU account. Here is what he said:

Professor Thompson,
Not that I think you really care, but, a few clarifications on your recent post:

McWilliams is a young historian [I’M 42–IS THAT YOUNG?]with what look like impeccable credentials. But he wrote a singularly stupid book [I’LL ADMIT FLAWS, BUT MY BOOK CANNOT ACCURATELY BE CALLED “SINGULARLY” STUPID] called Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly [YOU OBVIOUSLY DID NOT READ THE BOOK, AS YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW THE TITLE–YOU ARE QUOTING THE WRONG SUBTITLE–DON’T TRUST THE GOOGLE!!]. McWilliams also blogs. He combines militant vegetarianism [VEGANISM, PLEASE] with a love of Monsanto [SHOW ME, PLEASE, ONE SCRAP OF EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THIS LOVE. I DISLIKE MONSANTO VERY MUCH] and rabid [CAUTIOUS] advocacy of [FRESHWATER] fish farming.

Sir, subtleties seem to be lost on you, judging from your thumbnail sketch of me.


James E. McWilliams, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Texas State University–San Marcos

So I hauled his book off the shelf. I have indeed read it through to the end, as the underlining and brackets indicate. He’s right about the subtitle. It’s “Where Locovores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibily” And he’s actually right about it not being singularly stupid. A charitable reading suggests that he is interested in improving the quality of debate over food issues. He may think of himself as trying to be helpful to locovores and other foodies. He’s pretty pro-biotech in the book, but I can be almost as pro-biotech, and that could also be read in the spirit of improving the quality of thinking.

He does come off a bit like Dan Ackroyd in the old spoof that he and Jane Curtin used to do on Saturday Night Live in the 70s. Curtin was impersonating Shana Alexander, who would square off against conservative pundit James K. Kirkpatrick every week on a 60 Minutes feature called “Point/Counterpoint”. After some randomly whiny rant from Curtin, Ackroyd’s standard comeback was always the same: “Jane you ignorant slut!” It’s probably on You Tube, but I’m too lazy to search for a link.

So I may have been unduly put off by McWilliams combative style, and failed to give him credit for trying to do something I try to do myself: make things complicated. My apologies, Professor, and if by some extremely unlikely turn of events you find yourself reading this, congratulations on having horned in on mini-icon status in the Thronapple Blog. As for my loyal readers, I do want both of you to understand that this is not be construed as an actual endorsement of McWilliams book. But in a phrase we’ve used before, it does not (totally) suck.

And as for that “young” issue, any college professor who got their terminal degree in this century qualifies. Unless you were at least in your third decade when you first heard Ackroyd trash Curtin during the original broadcast you are, in my book, young,

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

Bernard Rollin

September 18, 2011

A couple of years ago I was enjoying some bean tacos at the East Lansing Chipotle TM down on Grand River when I looked at my iced tea and saw a picture of my old friend Bernie Rollin staring back at me. Chipotle was running a series of paper cups with short bios of people that reinforced the humane and sustainable image that the company was trying to associate itself with. I recall cups with Bill Niman and Temple Grandin, as well as Bernie. Chipotle was celebrating Rollin, a philosophy professor at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, for his role in advocating a return to norms of husbandry in livestock production. Bernie’s message has been that the ascendancy of large scale production systems and the ideal of science-based agriculture have caused animal producers to forget their traditional ethic of stewardship for the animals under their care.

Now I wouldn’t necessarily think that being small naturally inclines someone to have a strong ethic of stewardship for their animals. There are plenty of small-scale farmers who largely leave their animals to fend for themselves, and this is not generally conducive to good welfare. This kind of small-scale husbandry economizes the farmer’s time. Animals getting less than optimal care generally return less to the farmer than those whose feed, water and health are closely managed. But animals eating organic diets and getting little veterinary care can still meet criteria for organic certification, so they can still command a price premium. Livestock can be pastured on fallowed land on diversified farms. To the extent that they really do take care of themselves, such livestock provide an income stream requiring relatively little of the farmer’s time.

I don’t think Bernie would disagree with me here. He buttresses his scale message with the argument that society is simply expecting more from farmers with respect to animal welfare than we used to, and this “new social ethic” (as he puts it) applies to small as well as large. But Bernie and I do have a disagreement about the price of eggs.

I argue that an increase in the price of animal protein matters ethically, and I think that eggs and milk are especially significant in this regard. Bernie has pooh-poohed my argument in national forums. He just can’t see that paying more for eggs matters much from an ethical standpoint. According to Bernie, people who insist on paying a buck or so a dozen when the hens producing four dollar eggs have better welfare are just favoring a trivial personal interest in pinching pennies at the expense of better welfare for the birds.

Now Bernie and I are college professors, and though this won’t make you rich, it does put you in a position where you can easily pay $4 a dozen for your eggs. I envision Bernie hopping off his Harley at the local Ft. Collins Safeway surrounded by people who can pay more for their eggs. As for me, I live in the Westside neighborhood, where the average household income is around $35,000—and this is the upscale neighborhood in northwest Lansing. Since the L&Ls closed last year, we don’t have a full scale grocery operating for miles around. Again, not really a problem for me, since I can stop at Goodrich on my way home from work.

But I see neighbors on the street who are not pinching those daily dietary pennies so they can pour the savings into a vintage Harley they ride for fun on the weekends. Some of them are shopping at QD (our local version of the 7-11) to save gas money, and others do so to save bus fare. The difference between a 10¢ egg and one that’s almost half a buck matters to them. And when I look around the shelves of your average 7-11, I don’t see anything that represents a healthy alternative to eggs. Even our better-than-average QDs (which have made an effort to stock fresh fruits and vegetables) don’t have many options for protein. There’s the milk, of course, but after that you’re looking at processed sandwich meat, frozen dinners or beans and rice.

“Beans and rice!” my nutrition-junky foodie friends exclaim.

Well, yeah. I love beans and rice. I eat them at Chipotle and I cook them up with some seasonings and it takes a bit of time to do that. The working parent feeding three kids may be able to do that, too, but a three-egg omelet is quicker and the egg salad sandwich goes down nice, too. And unlike the tempeh and bulgur my nutrition-junky foodie friends would throw in for variety, eggs are something that all my low-income neighbors and I both know how to prepare.

I apologize if this theme seems repetitive to regular readers of the Thornapple blog. My disagreement with Bernie may also have been mooted by the agreement that the United Egg Producers reached with the Humane Society of the United States this summer. But getting your picture on an iced tea cup? That makes you a mini-icon in my book.

Paul B. Thompson teaches philosophy and sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Joan Dye Gussow

September 11, 2011

This week it could be “Peach Patch” in deference to another luscious fruit that came too late in Michigan this year, then disappeared much too quickly. But if you click back to last week’s blog, you’ll see we’re doing mini-icons this month, and you’ll also learn why there’s no anniversary theme to this week’s entry.

Here’s a person who is a genuine hero to me. I first became aware of Joan’s work through her book The Feeding Web, published way back in 1978. Joan was  campaigning then for a more holistic view of food issues, by which she meant that it was important to think about the way that food was being produced, processed and distributed, and get away from the idea that you can answer the question “What makes food good?” just by looking at a list of its chemical constituents. Joan was already a well-known voice in nutrition at that time, having conducted pathbreaking studies on early childhood diets and subsequent lifetime health. Since her retirement from Columbia University she has produced several books on gardening and eating well. She maintains a website that you can find here.

I met Joan pretty early in my professional career, sometime between 1984 and 1990. She’s a nurturing person who helped a number of us who were trying to craft out-of-the-mainstream careers survive in that soul-consuming monster we know as the American university system. Heck, we did more than survive. Joan was the icebreaker steaming resolutely ahead of us, challenging assumptions that desperately needed challenging in the 1980s and opening up a path for research and scholarship that could take a more balanced look at what people were growing, trading and eating. To use the language I was using in last week’s blog on food bloggers, Joan is reflective rather than reflexive. I credit Joan as one of a very few who made it possible for the Kellogg Foundation to think about setting up endowed chairs dedicated to diverse scholarship on food and agriculture some thirty years later.

The specific message I remember was to focus on eating whole foods. What Joan meant by that is to minimize the processed and prepared foods one is eating, which is pretty much equivalent to the rule of shopping around the edges of the supermarket, rather than down the frozen, packaged and canned aisles in the middle. It’s a simple rule that fits well with the CSA philosophy, too.

Joan saw this as contributing to a healthy diet, for sure, but she also saw it as a way to get people more connected to their food, and through that connection, becoming more aware of their relationship to and reliance on a broader natural world. She thought that this could be integrated with questions of fairness and justice to other people, as her early work had focused on the needs of particularly vulnerable children.

Joan has a new book entitled Growing Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables. According to the blurb, it’s about how she moved on after the death of her husband Alan in 1997. I met Alan once, but I didn’t really know him. He was a well-known artist, author and environmentalist, and I have enjoyed one of his books: A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land. I’m loathe to recommend a book I haven’t read, and in frankness I may not get around to Joan’s new one for some time. But for those Thornapple members who are willing to take a flyer, Everybody Reads does do special orders.

There’s a quote from Michael Pollan on Joan’s webpage: “Once in a while, I think I’ve had an original thought, then I look and read around and realize Joan said it first.” That could probably go for me as well. All of which should suggest that Joan does not belong in my sub-iconic month of heroes and villains. By all the lights listed above, Joan counts as a full-fledged food icon.

Well, maybe so, but she doesn’t seem to need the limelight, and that’s just one more reason I admire her. My sense is that if you’re deep into social nutrition, you’ve probably been influenced by Joan Dye Gussow, but otherwise you may not have heard of her. I also think she was better known thirty years ago than she is in the 4G world of electronic media.

I hope I’m wrong about that.

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


Mark Bittman

September 4, 2011

Newspapers, magazines and television are ramping up for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It’s shaping up to be a major community-building moment for Americans. I take this seriously, but I haven’t been able to come up with any plausible angle that ties in with the Thornapple Blog. I may have shot my patriotic wad with the “Memorial Day” blog I wrote at the beginning of the summer. At any rate, I’m heading off in a different direction this September.

By popular demand—well one person asked for it—I’m revisiting a blog theme that ran last January, when I posted short essays on five “food icons”: Norman Borlaug, Vandana Shiva, Temple Grandin, Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry. This month we’re going to stay at sub-iconic status. I’m going to post four blogs on contemporary figures that you may or may not have heard of. I’ll get back to the true icons sometime in the future, so don’t take my failure to recognize people like Marion Nestle or Frances Moore Lappé as a slight.

I’m starting with someone that I have never met, and that I only became aware of relatively recently. Mark Bittman has been the principal food writer for the New York Times newspaper for some time now. He also does food bits on the Today show. This means he is famous. He’s probably known to more people than the five icons I wrote about in January. But although my criteria are admittedly obscure, just being famous doesn’t make you an icon in my book.

More recently Bittman has contributed to the Times opinion page. He takes an avidly pro-environmentalist stance in his opinion columns. The most recent effort criticizes a new pipeline project that would connect oilfields in Alberta to refineries in Texas. More typically, he writes on food and farming issues, and in these columns he is a dedicated critic of industrial agriculture, including genetic engineering. He is “for” things that he takes to be the opposite of industrial agriculture: small farms, organic food, local production.

Bittman has a book Food Matters that intersperses a lucid but rather condensed statement of his food ethic with a number of recipes. That’s also the approach he follows on his website, which (I must confess) I had not actually looked at before today. Since I tend to support many of the causes that Bittman is supporting, part of me feels like I should be following his blog, and reading his columns more carefully than I do. I will say that I find myself agreeing with him more often than not (which is still to say, not always). I’m also happy to make any Thornapple readers who are even more clueless than I am aware of him.

But there’s another part of me that is kind of repulsed by what I take to be a pretty uncritical and reflexive (now there’s a word) thread in his writing. I think perhaps it exemplifies what James Madison was worried about when he wrote about the need to curtail the partisan tendencies of democracy. He was thinking about the way that once parties coalesce around a given set of issues or interests, they tend to be behave as if winning is the only thing that matters. Partisans lose sight of the principles and values, and yes even their own interests, that led them to coalesce into parties in the first place. They’ll do anything to best their adversaries. It’s a kind of thinking that leads to “In order to save the farm, we had to destroy it” kinds of activism.

Bittman is surrounded by others who battle from the opposite partisan position. Trent Loos appears on the radio and writes a sometimes inane blog  defending nitrates in your food and other aspects of conventional agriculture. But I should add that I kind of like what Loos has to say about the way many people split between apathy and sheer ignorance when it comes to agriculture. Then there are some who carve out a unique niche and defend that in a similarly reflexive manner. James McWilliams is a young historian with what look like impeccable credentials. But he wrote a singularly stupid book called Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. McWilliams also blogs. He combines militant vegetarianism with a love of Monsanto and rabid advocacy of fish farming. It should be interesting, but it’s not. Bittman, Loos and McWilliams are ignoring the philosophical questions that drive me: the links between food and community, between farming and sustainability, and between a culture of the table and the formation of moral character. More pointedly, they seem to be writing for people who already agree with them.

I just hate to think that by blogging for Thornapple I’m in some weird competition with them. Thank the Lord for obscurity. That and the fact that these are sponsored blogs may be my only defense.

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