Chemical Ethics

October 28, 2012

We had a workshop of “socially relevant philosophy of science” at Michigan State about 10 days ago. Not to bother my extensive readership with the academic trivia, I’ll cut to the chase. What this means is that people who work on the logic and methods of science need to get engaged with questions that matter to real people. And here’s a couple of “for instances” that tie in directly with food ethics:

  • Focus on “cutting through the bullshit” when it comes to evaluating the evidence of harm in the case of exposure to dangerous chemicals (like some of the most toxic pesticides used in fruit and vegetable production)
  • Align with social movements promoting justice and fairness (like social movements in support of farm workers who are exposed to dangerous levels of those pesticides)

These bullet points come together nicely (or so it seems) with respect to a cluster of birth defects seen among pregnant women who were in the fields picking tomatoes for the Ag-Mart company Immokalee, FL in 2005. The back-story here is not all that complicated, but even a short summary would bust the word limit of Thornapple blog. So I’ll punch out a couple of links, and note that commercial tomato production in Florida utilizes many pesticides and fungicides that have been shown to cause birth defects in studies on lab animals. I’ll also mention Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland, which I finally hauled off the shelf and got around to reading on the advice of my friend Barry DeCoster, who teaches philosophy of science at MSU.

One way that philosophy of science can be “socially relevant” is to dive into the way that we infer risk to humans from these studies that have been done on animals. My colleague Dan Steele (also at MSU) does this kind of work. Another piece is making the link between risk and responsibility—something that I’ve done quite a bit of in my day job. You can also work on legal responsibility, and Carl Cranor, a philosopher of science at the University of California has spent his career doing that work. But here’s the twist. (If you are a regular reader of the Thornapple blog, you knew there was going to be a twist.)  While all of the above counts well on the “cutting through the bullshit” bullet, there’s the potential for some tension when it comes to aligning with social movements, and that’s what is on my mind a week after our workshop on socially relevant philosophy of science.

Ensuring due process and protecting people from hazards (economists call them “market externalities”) are bedrock components of the conservative economic philosophies that have a grip on many people these days. Neoliberal ideology is influential because it actually paints pretty sophisticated picture of the balance between freedom and governmental power—but the whole thing falls apart if people don’t have to follow the rules that make markets function. And I’m talking basic rules, here, like not being allowed to threaten people, much less to make them pliable through actual violence. Mario Puzo famously called this form of market logic “making him an offer he can’t refuse.”  And limiting the resort to violence includes not being able to force or fool people into being exposed to dangerous chemicals without their knowledge and consent.

A confirmed conservative might quibble about whether farm workers know and accept the risks of agricultural labor, but this is an empirical question. And in the case of Florida tomato pickers, the empirical evidence is pretty overwhelming. What was (and likely still is) happening in Florida is flatly inconsistent with the moral and political conditions that conservatives endorse as pre-requisites to efficient operation of free markets. There is thus a very firm basis to move from “socially relevant philosophy of science” (as conceived under the first bullet) to political action based on the most conservative principles being advocated in America today. In fact, the most direct route from the above mentioned philosophical work on risk to legal or political action is often to insist that we simply live up to those conservative principles.

But it seems that the relevant social movements advocating on behalf of farm workers are pretty vocally committed to a left-leaning view. They’re labor activists, at a minimum but they’re often tied into much stronger forms of activism with respect to health care, housing, immigration and a more interventionist effort to speak truth to power. So being philosophically true to the social movement may require rhetoric that strays far from the risk and responsibility framework. Of course, when you do that you undercut any credibility you might have had as an analyst of logic and method with the folks on the right, which in turn undercuts your ability to do the victims of pesticide poisoning much good in a political or legal sense. You’re just another opponent of capitalism, in their eyes.

There is a savvy and often ironic middle ground—or maybe it’s a nether ground. Standing on that ground, you may be a pariah from the standpoint of people opposed to the ills of capitalism, but fortunately it does not require you to actually eat any of those cardboard tomatoes.

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

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Human Bondage

October 21, 2012

Not a good thing, or so we tend to think. We are shocked to read about an association between farm workers and human trafficking or about the ways in which the people who tend our fruit and vegetable crops are held in what amounts to forced labor.

Bonds and bonding, on the other hand, that seems all good. I had three kids (19-22 look like kids to me) in my class this week that are enrolled in Michigan State’s agro-technology program. They were there to tell the other kids what it’s like to be a farmer. Not that they needed to be in East Lansing to learn how to farm. All of them come from multi-generation farms from across the southern tier of our fair state. All of them had been farming whatever it is that they’re farming this year (livestock in one case, corn and soybeans for the other two) for three generations, but in fact their family roots in farming went back as far as any of them could tell. They were bonded to their family and its family tradition, and that’s what tied them to farming. They are only here on campus to learn about new technology that may be coming down the pike.

In some theoretical sense, they could do something else, of course. They could go to law school or work at Home Depot. They want to stay on those farms, and they seemingly want their children (when they have some) to be bonded in much the same way that they are. This makes for a pretty big difference between these kids and the fieldworkers harvesting vegetables in Florida or Texas. You didn’t need a philosopher to tell you that, of course. You were perfectly capable of being shocked by learning about present-day slavery in our agricultural fields while at the same time retaining warm feelings about nth generation farm kids from southern Michigan whose upbringing, family ties and love of farming prevent them from even considering the possibility, much less the desirability, of doing something else.

As both my regular readers know, I’m not generally about denying the obvious point here in the Thornapple blog, so don’t take it wrong when I find myself puzzled by something that couldn’t be more obvious to the average person.

Farming has often been connected with one form of unfree labor or another. There are things in that have to be done and they have to be done at one particular time, or else there won’t be any point in doing them at all. Even more, the point of other things done in the past will be for nothing after all if more things aren’t done at those specific times. You just can’t rely on people simply feeling like this is a great day to go do some farm work. This kind of necessity has made men desperate. They tie other men and their families down with all manner of violence, both bonding and bondage, and they also find ways to conceal the fact that they are doing this from themselves. I’m thinking of something I read by Victor Davis Hanson once about his admiration for the bosses who organize migrant labor crews to show up on farms in California.

Maybe there’s another way to farm, and maybe the women have figured out what it is. On the other hand, maybe Victor’s right, and maybe some (it can’t be all) of these crew bosses are both making a way of farming in the Imperial Valley possible at the same time that they are making a way of life somewhere else possible, too. It also seems that bondage shows up at those junctures when human beings have traversed long distances to find themselves in places where bonding hasn’t had a chance to happen. On those occasions there’s a kind of tying that seems imperative if not justified to the men who have to get something done right at a particular moment in time.

I’m not saying that there’s not a better way, but I’m not sure the better way is simply a matter of leaning back in the easy chair and insisting that everyone has a right to be a lawyer or work at Home Depot, either. Maybe we shouldn’t be quite so surprised to find out there’s some unfreedom hidden behind the food we take for granted. Maybe. I’m not saying one way or another here in the Thornapple blog.

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

An Old Wives Tale

October 14, 2012

Gird yourselves, blog readers. What follows is a big headbuster in agricultural ethics.

It seems that there is this old wives tale among animal producers: The animals’ interests are fully consonant with those of the farmer. (Well it’s true that very few farmers would use a phrase like “fully consonant,” but hang with me a moment). What this boils down to is the belief that if I’m making money, my animals must be doing just fine. Hold on to your hats, dear readers, because I’m going to ‘splain (in excruciating detail) why this just isn’t the case.

Biological productivity is a measure of how efficiently an organism converts biological inputs (nutrients [such as feed], sunshine and water) into energy that the organism uses to grow and sustain its life. There’s some ethics buried deep in the definition of biological productivity because farmers may place more emphasis on “grow” than “sustain”, but it’s not unreasonable to think that biological productivity is a decent proxy for how well the animal is faring. Animals that are sick and/or stressed have reduced biological productivity.

Economic productivity is a measure of how efficiently a firm (and here we mean a farm) converts money that the farmer spends on the production process into money that the farmer earns from the sale of farm commodities, (and in the case of animal agriculture, that means meat, milk, eggs or fiber goods such as wool or hides). If we cast our thoughts back a century or so, biological productivity tracks pretty closely with economic productivity. That’s because of all the things a livestock producer would spend money on (like land, fences and fuel) the return on money he or she spent on their animals (in buying and maintaining them) dominated the efficiency of the whole operation. Although good or bad land could certainly make a difference in profitability, the effect was pretty much fixed once the initial purchase was made. And the money being spent on fences and fuel was pretty trivial. So the bottom line is this: Around 1900 or so, the old wives tail wasn’t an old wives tail at all. It was pretty much the truth.

But as we move forward through the twentieth century, a larger and larger share of the farmers’ expenses started going toward buildings. By the 1970s, most poultry and swine were being raised indoors. These buildings were expensive in their own right, and they were chock full of equipment—feeders, fans, waterlines and in some cases manure removal devices—that was both expensive in its own right and expensive to power and maintain. At this point, economic productivity starts to be determined by the relationship between what the farmer spends on equipment and fuel or electricity and the return on meat, milk, eggs and fiber goods—still coming from the animals we note.  At this point, we start to see some daylight between economic productivity and biological productivity.

And the herd sizes grow, too. Which means that it’s not so much the biological productivity of each individual animal as the average biological productivity of the entire herd. And as herd size increases, it can be expensive to divert resources from the total operation in order to insure that the less intrinsically fit individual animals are faring as well as possible. You can tolerate a certain death loss if fixing that problem would require allocating labor and capital to something that is more crucial to the bottom line (like managing fuel costs, for instance). Suddenly it’s simply no longer the case that total farm profitability is a reliable proxy for animal welfare.

Of course, none of this gets us to the ethical bottom line. If you think that animals don’t matter at all from an ethics perspective, you would probably think that the dollar-sign bottom line is more important than animal welfare. And there’s a more subtle point too: If food is cheaper as a result of these economic efficiencies, maybe poor people benefit in ways that offset the harm to animals. But I’m at my word limit, and in classic Thornapple Blog fashion, I’m going to duck those questions to reiterate the point I did want to make: Profitability as a proxy for good animal welfare? That’s just an old wives tale.

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

Food Sovereignty

October 7, 2012

Food sovereignty is one of the key buzzwords in food ethics, and I’m trying to work it into my vocabulary a little more systematically. The phrase comes out of Via Campesina—an international movement in support of small-scale peasant farmers. Via Campesina has their root in Latin America, where the struggle between large hacienda-style agricultural production systems and smallholding farmers is an old one. I’m not entirely sure how the idea of globalizing this movement took hold, though I know some of its leading academic theorists personally. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that it has taken hold. I ask you dear blog reader, is this an idea that was familiar before you opened the Thornapple page just now?

Food sovereignty is a political ideal: people should have secure access to food that is nutritious, culturally appropriate and sustainably produced. Now I’ve been down with the “secure access” bit ever since I started doing food ethics back as young whippersnapper in the early 1980s. It’s the idea behind the “right to food” in the International Declaration of Human Rights. Unpacking secure access is not as straightforward as you might think, but I’ve hit that theme in the Thornapple blog before. But one might say that Americans have “secure access” in the sense that we have government entitlement programs (like the bridge card) that give people with little or no income the wherewithal to purchase food. Though if they don’t have someplace to cook it, they may wind up eating Cheetos for every meal. But even in that event, we have a pretty good network of soup kitchens where the indigent can get a hot meal. People do go hungry in the U.S., but one could say that it’s not because they have a total lack of access.

One can quibble over the exact sense in which one could say this, but I’m going straight for the next part: Maybe our problem resides in the “nutritious, culturally appropriate and sustainably produced” part. The whole point of food sovereignty was to “go beyond” food security, in any case. But I’m going to ignore the “sustainably produced” for the time being, because as we’ve discussed many times in the blog, it’s not all that likely much of the food any of us are eating in the U.S. is sustainably produced. And here I include the Thornapple CSA. We’re having a devil of time sustaining our farmer, you know. But noble and important topic as this is, we’re word limited in the Thornapple blog and this is just not the time to head down that rabbit hole for 3,748th time.

So we’re moving ahead to nutritious and culturally appropriate. And of course the “nutritious” piece will also be depressingly familiar to both of my regular readers. Sure, you have access to a steady diet of greasy French-fries and high-fructose sweetened energy drinks in most U.S. cities, and they are affordable, to boot! Why not just put on the leather flight jacket and declare this food ethics thing “Mission Accomplished”? So let’s push on to the last little piece, that “culturally appropriate” thing. This is an interesting way to highlight the fact that if you are a refugee from the strife in Africa or Afghanistan, you can certainly get some calories from the local Subway or from a can of Chef Boyardee once you’ve arrived at any American city, but it’s not going to be all that familiar to you. It’s not going to give you a sense of belonging or comfort, and arguably, that’s something that food can and should do. And maybe it’s even worse when the global food system comes in and rips up a local community’s ability to maintain their food traditions.

All of which suggests that food sovereignty would be problematic if it were interpreted to mean that I should have access to a Big Mac when I’m traveling in some distant corner of the world. After all, that’s what would be culturally appropriate (remember, we’ve dropped nutritious and sustainably produced) for me. So food sovereignty is going to turn out to be a little bit complicated—not a universal political ideal that is applicable to all people at all times and places. Of course, it turns out that I generally do have secure access to a Big Mac at almost every place I’ve found myself traveling over the last few years (Burlington, VT would be the exception). Beans and rice would be tougher to find, and that’s what “resistance to the global food system” is mainly about.

I think.

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