November 27, 2011

It’s the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. Long-time readers of the Thornapple Blog may need to be reminded that the very first entry “snuck in” right after Thanksgiving two years ago. That was the “key blog” that announced how I would write once a week to supplement the share delivery that Thornapple CSA members were entitled to receive during the winter months. Do I need to point out for readers in warmer climes that we aren’t really harvesting all that much in Michigan here on the weekend of Thanksgiving? Do I need to explain why the Thanksgiving feast is organized around the slaughter of a large fowl that would, when the snows come, be especially vulnerable to the foxes and raccoons? Do I need to explain why this dish is accompanied by root crops—mashed potatoes, winter squash and candied yams? Or why dessert pies are made from other storable crops like pecans or pumpkins?

If you take a look at what the squirrels are doing to the pumpkins sitting on our front porch, you would question whether they are all that storable. But of course real farmers would not leave something as valuable as a pumpkin sitting out where the squirrels, racoons and remaining birds could get to it so easily. There’s quite a diversity among Thornapplists, some approximating the true folk knowledge needed to have pumpkin pie not only for Thanksgiving, but also for Christmas, and others more like the Thompsons. As Robert Young used to say, “I’m not really a doctor, but I play one on television.”

Which qualifies me to pontificate on all manner of issues associated with food and farming I suppose, at least as much as it qualified Dr. Welby to hawk health products. The original key blog announced that Aldo Leopold’s environmental philosophy would provide a framework for future entries. “It’s a nice little philosophical essay,” said Diane, “but it’s not very funny.” Harsh criticism, indeed.

So by the next week I was trying to interweave some background observations on getting the farm ready for winter with some Dadaist juxtaposition of quotations from Pliny the Elder and historical comments on St. Vitas dance and it’s possible linkage to ergot poisoning. I guess it was one of those things that you had to be there to see it. The week after that we were into “Take Out Season,” and the smile-a-little-bit but hardly-ever-slap-your-knees style of the Thornapple blog was full on. I still do those nice little philosophical essays now and then, but I try not to take myself too seriously.

A year ago I was questioning whether it was worth the effort it took to keep the Thornapple blog going. But due to the overwhelming response from my readers (well, one person did write), I’ve kept it going for another year. I’ve kept it on the food ethics/CSA way theme with just a couple of deviations, and I, at least, still think of it as working within that Aldo Leopold framework. If you’re wondering what that is, I’m providing a link right here: Original Thornapple Blog. I love it when real people post comments, but I appreciate the fact that it is an enormous pain to do that. I may or may not keep it going yet another year. Winter’s coming on again in Michigan, and folks do need something to tide them over ’til the sun shines again. Or, as Jerry Seinfeld might have said, “Yada yada.”

Which brings me to the song lyric for this anniversary entry. According to Wikipedia, the song “Ja-Da” was penned in 1918 by Missourian Bob Carleton and released on a piano roll by the Original New Orleans Jazz Band. The Original New Orleans Jazz Band featured a lead singer named Jimmy Durante, which establishes the analogy to George Michael and Wham! Michael went into the hospital suffering from pneumonia this week, and we all hope he gets better soon. But that’s not what I wanted to blog about.

Carleton’s lyrics went like this:



Ja-da, Ja-da jing jing jing.


That’s a funny little bit of melody—it’s so soothing and appealing to me.

Ja-Da! Ja-Da! Ja-da ja-da jing jing jing.

Which is all well and good, but the connection to food ethics lies in the fact that the exact same chord sequence and melody is used in a blues standard that has the following food-related verse:

What’s that smells like fish pretty baby, I sure would like to know.


That ain’t puddin’. That ain’t pie. That’s the kind a stuff that you got to buy!

So keep on truckin’ mama. Truck my blues away.

Now for some reason this is often given a lascivious connotation, but I believe that the original singers were probably referring to the fact that red-blooded (which is to say, hot-blooded) boys really were attracted to girls who had spent all day in the kitchen and really did smell like pudding or pie. They were suspicious of fancy types who wore perfume, which, very much like Mrs. Smith’s or Marie Callender’s, is just NOT part of the CSA way.

There’s just a chance that Carleton was borrowing, but it’s also possible that the blues singers were making a creative adaptation of Jimmy Durante. Assignment for the week: Is there an ethics question here?

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

Bad Hotel

November 20, 2011

Greetings from BadhotelScheveningen! That’s actually the name of the place. “I kid you not!” as Jack Paar might have said. “I’m not making this up!” as Dave Berry might have said. “I am not a crook!” as Richard Nixon might have said. You get the picture.

What do you expect from a place that’s actually called Bad Hotel? Is this the next film in the series that brought us Bad Santa and Bad Teacher? That would be a hotel where everyone is vulgar and out for themselves. But since this is pretty much the reality at most hotels you might visit these days, it isn’t actually much of a premise for the next film starring Jason Sudeikis or some other punk I’ve never heard of. No, the pitch for “Bad Hotel” would probably go something like this: “Fawlty Towers meets The Office”. A klatch of dysfunctional losers occupy positions in the front office at the airport location of a chain hotel in some dismal Midwestern location like Omaha, Tulsa or Grand Rapids. I know, I know. Those of us here in Lansing think of Grand Rapids as the epitome of sophistication and cosmopolitan élan. But we’ve got to realize that the two-coasters who form the bulk of the film audience these days probably don’t see it that way.

At any rate, the head manager is some narcissistic fop who majored in hospitality studies at the local land-grant university (I spare myself and my employer no embarrassment at the Thornapple Blog), mainly because it was a great way to avoid interrupting video games or the occasional bout of heavy drinking to do something like actually crack a book. The special events director is actually competent and a subtly sexy and intelligent babe who read Rimbaud in the original French during college (not that our scripts will ever betray any hint of this), but she is continually stifled by the corporate structure and the unintended but devastatingly effective barriers to her advancement that are erected by the narcissistic fop manager. Then there are necessary losers we need to round the Bad Hotel scenario: vindictive petty bureaucrats, muscular, bright and generally disinterested security staff and a few well-meaning cultural stereotypes in the waitstaff or custodial service.  It’s tough to resist those can’t quite understand the language mis-cues in a vehicle like this.

So now that I’ve given away another million-dollar idea in the Thornapple Blog (see “Fat Elvis” for the earlier instance), I’ll say that the Bad Hotel here in Scheveningen is actually nothing like this. Oh sure, we’re a block from the actual seaside, with at least two multi-story apartment buildings thoroughly obscuring any chance we might have of catching a glimpse of the ocean. And it is November, after all, and by noon we find that the bone-chilling fog that rolled in off the North Sea is only just now beginning to lift a little bit. Not that the sun is out, mind you, but the impenetrable steel gray cloud cover has actually risen to the point that I can see the top of the 11 story condo building that is the second of two between me and that ocean view that people would actually pay to come here and look at. But the hotel itself is okay. Nice little dining room with a street-side window where I sat for hours sipping bitter coffee and watching snugly dressed Dutch couples out walking their dogs.

Ah the bliss of being an internationally recognized food ethicist! Expense paid out-of-season travel to bad hotels at North Sea resorts that normally have only about six weeks when you could actually wear a bathing suit, in any case. Excuse me while I gloat.

I hope that volcano doesn’t crank up again. I’m looking forward to being home for Thanksgiving. Or as McGeorge Bundy might have said, “Mistakes were made.”

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


November 13, 2011

It seems that the noted philosopher Paul Thompson has a new book out. It’s called Agro-Technology: A Philosophical Introduction. The title is just a wee bit misleading because the main focus of the book is a bit narrower. Thompson gives an extended defense of genetic engineering in developing new crops, and argues that planting genetically engineered crops is far superior to conventional agriculture.

The main thrust of the argument is that the two main achievements of plant genetic engineering—herbicide tolerant crops and pest resistant crops that produce their own version of the Bt toxin—have led to an overall reduction of chemical use and resulted in the substitution of less toxic chemicals when they are compared to the farming methods used by most farmers in the industrial world. They have also improved soil conservation due to the way that they permit no-till farming. They have done all this with no decline in yields. That is, farmers are producing as many bushels of corn and soybeans or bales of cotton per acre as they ever did.

Thompson is not averse to organic farming. It, too, results in reduced chemical use, but it doesn’t score the victories in soil conservation and he is skeptical that it can maintain adequate yields, especially in the developing world. In fact, he thinks it’s downright criminal that biotechnology is being kept out of Africa because African leaders have been made fearful of it my unscrupulous European representatives of NGOs. He also waxes eloquent over the products of genetic engineering that are just on the horizon.

As it happens, I agree with Thompson about most of this, though I have a bit of a “show me” attitude about the wonder products that are just around the bend. They’ve been coming any day now since sometime in the mid-1990s. Maybe. We’ll see. I also think that Thompson is a bit unfair to contemporary organic production, which is not really just any kind of production that eschews synthetic chemicals. It’s flatly irresponsible to say that poor African producers are using organic methods, yet I think he does come pretty darn close to saying just that.

Yet although I mostly agree with him, I would never have written a book like this, mainly because I think that the dichotomy between biotechnology and organics has been and continues to be one of the most unproductive ways of talking about what matters in agriculture today. It’s why I’ve worked up all the stuff about an agrarian vision that you read about in the Thronapple blog, and why I don’t find very many occasions to write about biotechnology here.

And then there’s also my sense that too many blogs like this one would just bore everyone to tears.

So I’ll just close by noting that the author of Agro-Technology is on the faculty of the University of Toronto, and that he served for a number of years on the Monsanto Company’s “Bioethics Advisory Board”. Neither is true of me.

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


Petitio Principii

November 6, 2011

This week I’ll astound and amaze both of my regular readers (not to mention the random net surfer) with my amazing (not to say also astounding) powers of ethical analysis. About twice a year I get the random e-mail from some total stranger who describes some apparently outrageous circumstance having something to do with food or agriculture, and ending up with the question “Is that ethical?”

I’m usually unsure how to take this, because these random e-mails from strangers almost never describe the circumstance in question in anything that approximates genuine puzzlement. So why are they contacting me out of the blue? Is my role as a Big 10 university food ethicist simply to validate the common sense judgment of random websurfers?

Well, maybe that’s not such a bad role, afterall. But here’s my “Is that ethical” query for the week. I recently heard an ag economist talking about last summer’s outbreak of e-coli contamination in Oregon strawberries. Now, some of you might be asking “Is that ethical?” but according to my source the public health authorities determined that the e-coli came from deer. And we cannot actually hold the deer morally responsible for contaminating strawberries,  so the answer to that question would be “It’s neither ethical nor un-ethical for a deer to contaminate strawberries with e-coli because deer are not moral agents.”  But that’s not what I wanted to astound and amaze you with.

No, the ag economist went on to talk about how shocked people were when they found out that contaminated strawberries from this farm were being sold at a number of roadside farmstands and one or two farmers’ market stalls. People seemed to think the person wearing loose pants with bib and braces that they were handing their grubby moolah over to had personally supervised the entire life cycle of the berry in question. When they found out that some of these overall garbed yeomen cultivators schilling strawberries in farmstands had gotten them by trading with other overall garbed hucksters, er I mean tillers of the soil, they were outraged. Is that ethical?

There are a few circumstances where it clearly is not. Some farmer’s markets operate under pretty strict rules stipulating that only actual farmers can sell there, and that they must be selling things that they have personally grown on their own farms.  If they are breaking market rules they are doing something unethical. However, some markets stipulate the first bit but not the second, which allows farmers to throw some cabbage or rutabagas from their neighbor’s farm in the back of the pick-up and sell that at the market, too. And those farmstands by the roadside do not operate with any rules at all, other than public health standards and laws that prevent them from out right lying to customers. Astounding as it may seem they could be reselling some of Bobby Driscoll’s amazing California strawberries they bought that morning at Wal-Mart. I met Bobby at an Ag. Food & Human Values meeting back in 1988 or ’89, though as far as I know he has nothing to do with Driscoll’s berries today. He was wearing blue jeans rather than overalls, but that’s another story entirely. My point was that these faux roadside berry drummers wouldn’t be vulnerable to complaint so long as they don’t tell you something different.

People might be shocked, shocked to find out that this kind of horsetrading is going on under their very noses at the local farmers’ market or the roadside farm stand, but it’s actually quite consistent with the whole spirit of local foods. However, things start to turn gray as the distance or the number of trades mounts. How ‘bout them apples that came from Uncle Chuck’s way up in Newaygo County, not to mention Uncle Chang’s from Jiansu province. Or the ones that came off Cousin Ronnie’s truck via her neighbor Lucinda who got them from an old school friend who come to think of it doesn’t actually have a farm, so it’s really no tellin’ where they came from.  Is that ethical?

Well, maybe it is. It’s certainly legal, but it does put a little pressure on the old farmer to eater food chain we’ve grown so fond of here in CSA territory. So maybe it’s not. Guess you’ll just have to use your own judgment, and if you’re worried about this kind of thing, don’t feel ashamed to ask about it next time you buy a bag of fruit from someone wearing overalls. Astounding and amazing, ain’t it?

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