Hello Dolly

April 28, 2013

I remember the worst speech I ever gave. Or at least it was the worst received speech I ever gave. I was standing up in front of a bunch of scientists who were working on cloning adult mammalian cells in about 2001. This was the line of research that gave us Dolly, the celebrated sheep. I think both of my readers are old enough to remember Dolly, although it’s always a bit humbling to remind yourself that most of the undergraduates in my classroom probably don’t.

I tried to begin my speech by drawing a distinction. One of my good friends once said that the motto of contemporary philosophy is “No distinction is so trivial that it’s not worth making.” So I know that we can go overboard with drawing distinctions, but I didn’t think the one that I was making was trivial at all.

I started with the question “What is biotechnology?” When asked this question, I usually answered something like this: “Biotechnology is a cluster of laboratory techniques that use recombinant DNA.” This captures gene splicing, which relies on rDNA’s capacity to bind with itself, as well as cloning, which involved removing the entire DNA molecule from an adult cell (in Dolly’s case it was a mammary cell), and then placing it into an embryo that had had its own DNA removed. That’s what the guys in this room were working on, and it had the potential to produce exact genetic copies of individual animals (including humans, so far as we know), as well as to produce “stem cells” that could potentially be used for both research and medical therapy.

“But,” I said, “there is another way that people use the word ‘biotechnology’, as when they say ‘My daughter works in biotechnology,’ or ‘I’ve got my life savings invested in biotechnology’”. Here they are thinking about human organizations rather than laboratory techniques, though of course these companies or universities or labs generally use those laboratory techniques. The point I was trying to make to those guys was that it was important to sort out which ethical objections to biotechnology are focused on the laboratory techniques and which are targeted to the way that organizations were conducting themselves.

It seems like we’re witnessing another round of outrage against “biotechnology”. For my money, it’s almost entirely focused on the second sense I was talking about. People are incensed by the conduct and business strategy of some large agribusiness firms, most notably Monsanto. But I’m not sure that these incensed people have a very good idea what the laboratory techniques we associate with biotechnology actually are. And if not, how can they be so sure that there aren’t some ways to use those techniques (by different organizations, perhaps, with different motivations) that would be ethically acceptable?

I’m still not sure why my 2001 audience was so angry with me, but perhaps they were all so focused on the $$$ to be made from cloning that they took me to be criticizing them for being greedy. Sometimes the lady doth protest too much. But what about today’s outrage against biotechnology? If I couldn’t make this speech to a roomful of scientists, could I make it to a roomful of foodie protestors?

Golly gee, fellas! Find her an empty knee.

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

Free Breakfast

April 21, 2013

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I’m wondering, “How ‘bout breakfast?”

It’s becoming almost impossible to avoid free breakfast when you are on the road. The B&B thing has spread beyond those charming little mom & pop joints where someone rents a bedroom and treats you to ham & eggs in the morning. Of course this was never the reality in the B&B world. I’ve become quite wary of those “strada” pans that come out of the oven pretending to be a freshly made hot breakfast.There are just enough exceptions to prove the rule that however lumpy and smelly the first B is, don’t underestimate the ability of your charming hostess to exceed that limit when it comes to the second one.

But surely both of my regular readers have already begun to anticipate that this B&B thing is just a random excursion inserted primarily to throw the trolling robots off the scent. Some of the robots have gotten clever enough to insert text from your blog into their algorithmically generated comments. I got one for last week’s blog that asked “How long did it take you to make More Poo?” As tempting as it might be to go on at some length in response to that delightful query, I think I’ll try to crawl off the tangent bandwagon and get back to those chain hotels that are trying to lure you in with the promise of free breakfast.

Now my economist colleagues would be quick to point out that such establishments have simply incorporated the average cost of operating their breakfast nook into the room rate, so in fact you pay for the free breakfast when you pay your lodging bill. But frankly, this answer is just not dark and conspiratorial enough for my taste. No, I’m more inclined to point out that those scrambled eggs that the gawking honkies are scooping onto their plates were made from what egg-insiders like me know as “breakers”. They were poured out of a milk carton back in the little closet that the hotel refers to euphemistically as its “kitchen” and warmed to a gelatinous consistency in an electric frying pan. Meanwhile, those sausage patties arrived at the hotel pre-cooked and toasted to that perfect shade of brownish grey, so that they could be warmed in the frying pan or popped into a microwave for about thirty seconds.

There was a time when you could get out of the hotel and skulk down to a little corner dive café where you would be able to eat a decent hot breakfast for about $5.95, but that time is passing us by. It’s too easy to tell the low-wage worker who mops the floor to pour some liquid eggs into a frying pan or pop some refrigerated sausage patties into a microwave. How can you compete with that when you have to break your own eggs? And on top of all that, the bean counters that regulate people who travel on per diem are telling them that they have to eat the free breakfast that comes with the room rate, or else shell out the $5.95 all from their own pocketbook.

There’s a food ethics point in here somewhere. Let’s see if the robots can find it.

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

More Poo

April 14, 2013

I’m reading Stephen Stoll’s book Larding the Lean Earth (2003), and I’ve found something I need to share. Stoll’s book is a history of soil conservation ideas in North America. He’s mainly focused on an interval between about 1820 and the outbreak of the Civil War. It was at that time that writers on agriculture (and they were legion) first started to celebrate an ethic of soil conservation. Not to bore you with too many details (after all, if you insist on being bored with details you can always read Stoll’s book yourself), the idea was that farmers had a moral obligation to practice soil conservation rather than abandoning their farms for the virgin lands that lay to the West.

This was a moral obligation to their neighbors, mind you, and not to the Earth itself, as latter day conservationists would have it. The idea that farmers could have an obligation to the land itself had to wait for Liberty Hyde Bailey and the early decades of the 20th century. There’s a fine statue of Bailey on the MSU campus in the courtyard behind the Plant and Soil Sciences Building. But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

No, the thing that really struck me about Stoll’s book was a little section near the end where he writes about the discovery of large guano deposits in the Caribbean. Guano is excellent fertilizer and American farmers became an insatiable market for boatloads of it starting in the 1870s. Stoll writes that this caused a permanent shift in the mindset of American farmers. No longer would they think of soil fertility as something that had to be generated from within the boundary of the farm itself. Fertile soil could be bought in a bag, and the whole idea of fertility shifted away from being a cycle of nutrients from soil to plants to animal dung and back to soil. Now it became a one-way trip by boat to rail to truck to plant to grocery to mouth ending in what we’ve euphemistically called “poo” here in the Thornapple blog. Poo is a waste product, a source of pollution, and instead being part of a cycle, this kind of poo is just a deadweight cost that people in an industrial economy have to bear. Stoll thinks that this mentality of input agriculture prepared the way for synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides.

I first encountered bat guano as an adolescent reader of Ian Fleming’s book Dr. No. That’s what was nominally being mined on Dr. No’s secret island, if you recall (though it was bauxite in the movie version. Seems that literal references to poo-like substances were a no-no in the early 60s film industry). At about the same time Keenan Wynne was portraying Colonel “Bat” Guano in Dr. Strangelove. A Google search turned up the finding that “JBG” stands alternately for “James Bond Girl” and for “Jamaican Bat Guano”. Mere coincidence? I think not, Chucko. Even then the dark forces of the industrial food system were weaving their spider web. Fleming and Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick must have been embedding clues deep in American pop culture so that your Thornapple blogger could un-earth them for you a half century later.

Still and all, it makes you think. Or does it?

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



April 7, 2013

There are those days that always seem to lie ahead for us. Births and deaths, of course, but especially those days when you can put a particular date on them for a long time in advance: weddings, graduations, retirements… Their advent looms over the present as we wait and prepare for their coming. My life may be more densely furnished with minor versions of such days than many people. To the life of a teacher scheduled with class preparations and final exam days I’ve added a sequence of travel days and days when I have to deliver a certain talk or presentation. My life is constantly one of making sure my ducks are in a row. And then the day arrives. The travel ritual of suitcase, check in and taxicab shifts from rehearsal  to performance; I’m in front of the audience and the piece that I’ve gone over in my mind repeatedly will be repeated one final time, but differently—“for real”. There’s a moment in the early minutes of these days when a certain “it’s here” feeling comes over me, and I sense that the game is afoot. Now’s the time to shift from planning and preparation. Now I simply reconcile myself to the fact that the event is going to unfold, and the experience of it is simply to be undergone.

Feast days are both instances and practice times for the experience of arrival. Like a lot of folks, we normally stock the pantry with a lot of generic stuff that can be whipped up as the notion strikes us. To that are added those perishable items that will be eaten sometime soon, maybe tonight. We plan the menu around these cornerstones, but the decision to do so is always opportunistic. Something struck our fancy, or caught our eye at the marketplace. The big feast days—of which there are comparatively few in the contemporary calendar—are different. They have a structure and import that requires advance orchestration: what we will have, who will be there, how will all the various moving parts will be coordinated?

Last week I completed a trip just in time to sit down at the table for the obligatory slice of Dearborn ham that anchors Easter dinner. This is not a longstanding tradition in the Thompson household. We had never heard of Dearborn ham before we moved to Michigan almost ten years ago. But it had been settled that this would the pivot for an Easter dinner with family, and it was a damn good thing that I was able to swoop in and not mess up that particular parade. It was bad enough that I was not around to whip the mashed potatoes (which we omitted in my dishonor). Thanksgiving and Christmas complete the set of feast day dinners for us. There are some other minor traditions (chili dogs at Halloween?) that don’t seem to rise to the level of a rehearsal-performance duet, and as a result they don’t much serve as much preparation of those other, even larger arrival days that punctuate our lives.

Anticipation. As Carly Simon said, it’s making me late. Keeping me waiting. And then there was that ketchup thing, if you are really obsessed with food culture.

But then there are also those mornings where you wake up, catch your breath, and it’s (almost) here. I don’t know of other people have that moment early on a big day/feast day morning, but you should. These are the good old days.

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