Good Times, Bad Times

July 29, 2012

One day last week I met a farmer friend by chance and made the mistake of asking her “How’s it going?” Now in the tradition of the Thornapple blog, readers will have come to expect that I will now set out on an obscure tangent. For example, I might note that while we here in the United States tend to ask, “How are you doing?” or “How’s it going?”, other native speakers of the English language (to wit, the Australians) might ask “How are you going?” Much of the “humor” that is generated by such tangents is derived solely from their tendency to exhibit an extremely complex grammar (to wit, the sentences are long). The result: a sort of self-mocking tone that some readers may find amusing. If you don’t find this kind of verbal gymnastic at least mildly amusing, I can’t imagine why you would post statements like ”fantastic issues altogether, you simply received brand new a new reader. What may you suggest in regards to your publish that …” in my comment box. Except that I have come to understand that people post such comments to blogs in an exceedingly random and robotic fashion, presumably intended only to boost the “hits” rating of one’s own website. So, in fact, I can imagine why someone would post such a comment. All of which, in sum, satisfies this week’s requirement for tangential web-spinning. I hope everyone is sufficiently amused so that I can get back to what ensued upon my inquiry to a farmer friend, “How’s it going?”

The trouble with asking a farmer friend “How’s it going?” is that she is very likely to tell you how, in fact, it is going. And this summer, the grammar of “it” vs. “you” is not so significant, at least when your conversational partner is a farmer. Because “it” is not going at all well for many farmers, which is to say that “they” are neither going nor doing as they might have hoped. Here I perhaps state the obvious for those readers who are not oblivious to the fact that the Obama administration has designated an ever lengthening line of agricultural counties as disaster areas. In short, it’s been hot and dry. This coming after a spring that got warm too early, followed by the inevitable late frost, which destroyed a fairly large percentage of the Michigan fruit crop. The summer dry spell has come at a time most inopportune for pollination of the corn crop. This means reduced yields, and this in turn means that anyone who feeds corn to animals is already starting to have trouble locating enough to feed, and when they do find it, it’s dear. And of course it’s not just corn, because if your pasture is as brown as the grass on the Michigan State University campus you are, here at a time when your sheep should be grazing placidly, scrambling to find something for them to eat. And when you do find a bale of hay, it’s dear.

There are always ironies, however. After having pretty much given up on enjoying anything but underdeveloped and generally tasteless corn on the cob this summer, I had some on Thursday night that was much better than passable. It came from Ohio, not that far from here. I was being treated by some friends from Toledo and was too polite to ask them what they had to pay for it. Our conversation indicated to me that “it” is not going so badly in their parts, but since these friends were not farmers they may have misunderstood my question (to wit, “How’s it going”) as a mere formality. And there’s no particular reason for thinking that they really had the inside poop on how “it” was going in Ohio, in any case. But here’s the fairly obvious point for this week: When “it” is not going well for some farmers, there are probably other farmers, and perhaps not so far away, for whom “it” is going phenomenally well. Not that farmers of any persuasion are inclined to gloat over their good fortune when “it” goes badly for their neighbors.

It was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who first pondered the meaning of “a good time” (or as Jean-Jacques might have said “Les Bon Temps”). I wonder what he would say about the summer of 2012?

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

Birthday Cake

July 22, 2012

Excepting weeks when the vicissitudes of travel intervene I sit down and write the Thornapple blog on Sunday mornings. This gives me an opportunity to notice things that are about to happen or that did happen over the last week. Given the food and farming ethics orientation I try to take, it means that lots of blogs note the season of the year in one way or another, or they celebrate food-relevant events. I start writing by filling in the date. This gives me an opportunity to decide whether I will take note of any special food-related significance that a given date might have. July 22 won’t fall on Sunday again until 2018. Since I don’t expect to be writing the Thornapple blog for another six years, I’m jumping on it today.

And unless you (quick of wit) have picked up the connection between the title of this week’s blog and the first paragraph, you may be asking yourself, “What’s so special about July 22?” To which I, quoting the bard John Lennon, would reply: You say it’s your birthday? Well it’s my birthday, too, yeah.

The food-related thing in connection with birthdays is pretty personal, in my experience. If you are lucky enough to live among folks you who know you and care about you, someone is going to ask you what you want to eat on your birthday. Some folks eat the same thing year after year, others seize the day on a whim. For some people it’s an opportunity to splurge, to try a restaurant that’s normally a little beyond your price range on to indulge in some tasty stuff that’s not normally part of your daily diet. They say it’s your birthday? We’re gonna’ have a good time!

Aside from the perennial obligatory celebratory pastry, we haven’t actually talked much about what we’ll eat this year in the Thompson household. In my particular case, the perennial obligatory pastry has evolved into a yellow cake with penuche frosting. It’s something my Nana used to make, and I asked her to bake one for my birthday during a couple of summers as a teenager when I was staying with my grandparents during July. Diane picked up on it one year when July 22 happened to fall during a visit to Missouri and Nana remembered the tradition. Prior to this penuche frosting was not really on Diane’s radar. It’s going to be in any standard cookbook, though, so it it’s not on your radar, dear reader, learn to live a little. I’m glad it’s your birthday. Happy Birthday to you.

It’s sentimental and trite, but small food celebrations like penuche are the heart and soul of food ethics. They are the source and sustenance of a conviviality that makes life worth living through good times and bad. Lennon himself stopped celebrating birthdays in 1980 owing to events that are too well known for me to recount here. This week the world was shocked by yet another seemingly inexplicable incident, though as yet we (or at least I) know very little about what may have been going on the mind of that particular disturbed individual. So as a food ethicist, the only thing I can say is, if you know someone who’s having a birthday, make him or her a cake.

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

It’s Mine

July 15, 2012

They say that farmers are natural defenders of strong property rights. Who is this “they” who say, you might ask, especially if you are at all inclined to lean leftward, and how dare “they” assert that there is anything “natural” about private property? Well, your Thornapple blogger is here to offer a partial answer to your questions on this fine July morning, though I’m staying away from the ontological mysteries like “Who are the they that say in ‘They say’” and “What is the it that gives in ‘What gives’?” If you woke wanting to know why there is something rather than nothing, go read Heidegger.

As usual, I’m just into stating the obvious. Like, if you’ve got a crop in the ground, you don’t want a bunch of punks riding BMX motocross through it. So you run out and say, “Hey, you punks! Scram! This is private property.” And if necessary you take measures starting with the “Posted” sign that always seemed rather obscure to me: Posted, yes, but as what? These measures escalate to reliance on the local sheriff or the proverbial shotgun. And if you are raised in farming country, the progression from “Hey, you punks!” to shotgun and sheriff could well seem quite a natural one.

Of course if you aren’t raised in farming country, it may never occur to you that the “Posted” sign means “No trespassing.” And if you lean at least as far leftward as Woody Guthrie it may instead occur to you that on the other side of that sign, it don’t say nothin’. And then you may think, “That side was made for you ‘n me.”

Now just as an aside I have to make an observation for which I have absolutely no supporting evidence. That being, I doubt seriously that our Woody would have been running BMX motocross through anyone’s soybeans, him having a natural respect for the labor that some poor farmer very much like himself would have sunk into planting that soybean crop. So while Woody might have camped out on the edge of the field or even helped himself to a watermelon that the farmer quite obviously could spare, he, his impeccable left-leaning street cred notwithstanding, would have respected the farmer’s natural property rights, these being the security of his crop and the right to dispose of it’s full commercial value as he saw fit.

Now both regular readers of the Thronapple blog may have noticed something about the last paragraph, and you may be itching to make a side point of your own: Notice how the farmer “naturally” took on the male persuasion in your extended observation, Thompson. Wasn’t it just last week that you were cautioning us against such a presumption? Wasn’t it you who was moralizing about how lots of farmers around the globe are women?

And to this I would sheepishly have to admit. Which brings me to a lefty feminist book from a decade back that I happened to be reading last week. It was Martha Nussbaum’s Women and Development. It’s a fine book, and Nussbaum does a truly admirable job of showing us how poor women get an even shorter end of the stick than poor men in the developing world. And then she goes on to create some powerful philosophical observations about how we can correct this injustice. I’m all for this I should definitely add, but then there’s this little place where Nussbaum confesses puzzlement as to why the poor women she was working with in rural India seem to place so much importance on the security of their property rights. It just didn’t square up with her generally left-leaning feminist way of seeing things.

And that’s what I’m here to sort out: They’re farmers, Martha!

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

Farmer (n.)

July 8, 2012

Let’s do a little word association test. I’ll mention a word, and you indicate what image you associate with it. So, for example, if I say “Mickey”, you may conjure a picture of a big-eyed black and white Disney cartoon character with abnormally regular circles for ears. Alternatively (but less likely) the word might bring to mind somebody handing over a mixed drink laced with chloral hydrate, as in “slipping a mickey”. In my mind’s eye, the drink has little currents and bubbles wafting above it, some looking suspiciously like a skull and bones. The Disney and Finn mickeys suggest rather different things, and the one that comes to mind may says something about a person’s socialization, cultural background, or recent exposure. In any case, it reveals a certain habit of association, which is (Duh!) what word association tests are all about.

So are you ready? Here we go with my word association test:  FARMER

Ah! Ah! No cheating here. No rushing ahead to the next paragraph without actually taking the time form that image association, Bucko! Before reading on, be sure you are set with a firm mental picture.

Now there may be a few truly bizarre types out there who may associate this word with a person such as the Harvard physician Paul Farmer or the Antiques Roadshow appraiser Ken Farmer (I’m excluding the possibility that anyone who reads the Thornapple Blog might also associate the name “Ken Farmer” with Australian rules football). Given that this is a food and farming blog, I’m going straight to the idea that what you are envisioning in my word association test is someone who farms, someone who engages in the occupation “farmer”. In fact, I’m kind of guessing that most of you had some kind of mental image before you based solely on the title of this week’s blog, and I’m guessing that it was a either a stereotyped individual, or some real farmer that you happen to know.

For lots of the Americans I interact with, the picture conforms either to the character that Hugh Brannum played for many years on Captain Kangaroo or to a more modern type who would be wearing ordinary jeans and a work shirt instead of overalls, and who would be sporting a sweat-stained gimmie cap from the feed store instead of a broad brimmed straw. So whether it’s Mr. Green Jeans or some anonymous guy with “John Deere” emblazoned above his forehead, it’s the gender that’s of interest to me here.

Because as members of the Thornapple CSA should certainly know, the male gender is hardly typical of the reality for a lot of what’s happening in alternative agriculture in the 21st century. Here I can post a few links back to places where the blog has, in a casual and off-handed way, indicated that women are calling the shots and doing a lion’s share of the work. In this, they would also be typical of much if not most of the farming that goes on around the world. Women are dominantly the farmers in Africa, and very typically doing both most of the labor and most of the management in Asia and Latin America. When farms become large and highly mechanized, men tend to take over. And men play a disproportionate role in controlling property rights in many parts of the world, though there is certainly more equality on that score in North America. I could go on (I shouldgo on) about the ethics of all this, but in the interests of not boring you on a glorious Sunday afternoon, I’ll just say that the both tendencies ( to assume that farmers are male and for men to run the show when farms get big) are tied to many ethical problems. Shape up, America!

In fact, it’s a little amazing that the women let me write this blog, but maybe my loyalty in posting week after week after week after week has earned me a little bit of slack. And to be honest, I’ve kind of stayed away from pointing out the gender thing, because I wasn’t sure that I could pull it off in a manner that would not smack of gross sexism and would at least be mildly amusing.

Did I pull it off?

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

Something Fishy

July 1, 2012

There are these days in late June and early July when you really just don’t have any ideas. Sure, there are the “old reliables”: tomatoes, weeds… You know what I’m talkin’ about. And there are always more things to say about eggs. But does anybody really care when the sun is out and the temperature is even a few degrees cooler than it was earlier in the week? In fact, if all has gone according to plan, I’m riding the train from Amsterdam to Brussels as this blog is being posted. Yes, indeed. I’ve found a way to make the robots into my friends, and that’s one last reason that I’m learning how to separate from my computer for a matter of days at a time.

So again, if all has gone according to plan, I’m on my way to Brussels for a meeting where some of my European colleagues will report out on the research they have been doing on European attitudes to animal biotechnology—that would be the use of genetic engineering to create new breeds of animal with special traits that are useful to human beings. The European Union spent a boxcar load of money to find out some things that I could have told them for not much more than the price of my ticket from Lansing to Brussels.

First, people do think that the use of these genetic modification tools on animals raises ethical problems. Some people are worried about how the animals feel afterwards, while others just think it’s wrong. Second, people overcome these qualms when the purpose of the genetic engineering is to improve human health. Lots of mice have been genetically engineered over the last twenty five years so that they can be used to study important diseases, for example. My European colleagues asked people about a rabbit that’s been genetically engineered to produce an important drug in its blood.

Third, people are especially troubled when the animal is intended to be consumed as food. Here the big ticket item for some time has been salmon that have been genetically engineered so that they grow much faster than normal. Nobody wants these genetically engineered fish. I wrote a piece that’s on the web that has a more extended discussion of the issues for those of you who are interested. The odd thing here is that over the twenty years that we have been debating genetically engineered fish, fish breeders (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a fish breeder) have come up with fast growing salmon that are NOT genetically engineered. Even though all the environmental risks apply to both genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered fast growing fish, people don’t seem to be particularly exercised about the non-genetically engineered salmon.

And finally, people are just kind of annoyed about animals that are genetically engineered for art projects or simply for amusement. There’s the the GloFish®, for example. That’s a zebra-fish that fluoresces very impressively under a blacklight. You may have some in your aquarium at home. There are also animals that are represented as serious art. People kind of don’t like this, but they are not so cheesed as they are when the fish are changed to improve the efficiency of food production.

Of course, the fact that I could have told them this doesn’t count for much in the world of European public policy. It’s important to get some validation, and that validation only comes with expensive social science. Maybe I got myself in the wrong line of work way back there in graduate school. But at least my European friends are kind enough to invite me over to Belgium and share the party experience with all the European regulators who can now be told that indeed, the expensive surveys and focus groups support what Thompson has been telling us all along. Moules et frites, anyone?

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