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