Hungry Lansing

November 24, 2013

The Lansing State Journal has a major section devoted to hunger today. A pair of articles come from Joe Wald, executive director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank and Rev. Nicolette Siragusa, pastor at First Congregational Church in Grand Ledge. Wald is encouraging people to make a cash contribution to the food bank, while Rev. Siragusa is writing about the SNAP program. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s part of the Farm Bill, and Congress is split over how deep the cuts in SNAP need to be. Inside the paper the Editorial Board contributes a piece with the headline “Hunger is a problem we can solve.”

Actually, I think the juxtaposition of these stories illustrates why hunger is not so easy to solve. SNAP is the latest version of programs that date back to the New Deal. During the Great Depression, unemployment rose to over 30% of non-farm labor on a national basis, and there were urban pockets where it was worse. Of course, farmers were a much larger percentage of the United States population in the 1930s—more than 20%. But farmers were not doing all that well either. American farmers were experiencing a collapse in food prices that was partially the result of reduced spending, and partially caused by the fact that European production lost during World War I was finally making a recovery. While the out of work urban population was standing in line for a food handout, farmers were plowing their crops under rather than selling them for less than what they cost to produce. “Breadlines knee deep in wheat,” was the phrase.

The Roosevelt Administration’s response was a an exceedingly complex cluster of programs that provided needy farmers with some assurance that they would be able to sell their crops for enough to cover their costs, and funding for a series of programs to provide needy people with the wherewithal to buy their food at the local market, rather than suffering the indignity of standing in line for a handout. People still do stand in line for handouts, mind you, but there’s really no doubt that the food stamp idea—the progenitor of SNAP—makes good sense. Not only does it provide the proverbial “safety net”, it does so in a manner that re-integrates indigent families into the economy. There are both moral benefits (though they shouldn’t be overstated—people still feel a stigma), and economic benefits to the retail food sector. That money circulates through the local economy, multiplying itself several times over.

Perhaps fearful that arguments citing the velocity of money will just make people think that this is too complicated to understand, the Editorial Board at the Lansing State Journal opts for the simple message. In case you missed it, the editorial comes with a large block print box stating “OUR POINT IS…”, and the point today is, “Donate to the Greater Lansing Food Bank.” My proclivity for complicating things to some vague approximation of their actual complexity to the contrary, I would not dispute that. The food bank is a bit like one of those breadlines, to be sure, but from New Deal food stamps through to SNAP there has always been a gap, a group of people whose immediate food needs are acute and who should not be told they will have to wait until the government can process the paperwork to get on an assistance program.

Food assistance programs may have the effect of encouraging employers to pay poverty wages, though. If your workforce is going to qualify for $1.40 per meal for each person in the family, that’s about $20.00 a day that you don’t need to pay them in order for them to show up at work well enough nourished to be a useful worker. It comes to about a hundred bucks a week for a worker supporting a family of four, and some calculate the amount even higher. Does this kind of effect trickle down through our economy? Well, that’s the kind of issue that I would not be stupid enough to address on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

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

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Dear Camp

November 17, 2013

Took a drive between Chelsea and Lansing yesterday on Rtes. 52 and 36. Saw lots of hunters down by Pinkney. Some were in camo and Jeep Cherokees. One was in feathers and aloft over an open field, looking for field mice, I guess. Friday was the opening of deer season in Michigan, though I’m not sure that the hawk was paying much attention to that. She has a license to thrill 365 days a year, so if you happen to be a field mouse, watch out for that distinctive profile against the marble grey Michigan skies.

It’s also wolf season this year in Michigan. Four have been taken so far according to this morning’s news reports. The DNR claims that the hunt has been specifically designed as a program to control “chronic conflict” between wolves and humans. Well, I suppose there is some kind of logic to the idea that you can control chronic conflict between two antagonists by simply blowing one of them away. But I think we are going to regret this approach.

I appreciate the fact that this is not actually the rationale behind the DNR’s plan to give out 1200 wolf permits in 2013. DNR, by the way, is how Michigander’s refer to the Department of Natural Resources. “As the wind comes whispering through / the trees, the sweet smell of nature’s in the air. From the Great Lakes to a quiet stream, shining like a sportsman’s dream…” Sorry, there just aren’t that many good Michigan songs that don’t involve dying sailors.

So the DNR thinks that shooting a few wolves will make them more wary of people, residential areas and farms. I firmly believe that any mammal and quite likely any vertebrate is going to figure whether or not it is being hunted and will do so pretty darn quick. That’s why it’s so important for all those folks in camo and Cherokees to be out on the very first weekend of deer season.  You’re hanging around Pinckney on Thursday and you are just covered up by deer. Then bang and seemingly it only takes one bang on Friday and the deer have already figured out that it’s time to make themselves scarce. The DNR is figuring that wolves are at least as smart as deer, and that it won’t take too many dead wolves for them to become more wary of people, residential areas and farms.

But based on absolutely zero empirical evidence (well maybe “zero” is a slight overstatement) I think that wolves are a whole lot smarter than deer, and that’s why I think it’s pretty foolish to presume that they will necessarily respond by becoming more wary of people, residential areas and farms. Au contraire Chucko, I think that there is a non-zero probability that the wolves will respond by becoming more aggressive around people, residential areas and farms. Not that you will see them walk right up to you. You could call what I half-way expect greater wariness, but I would call it shrewdness and cunning. More to the point, although a lone wolf or a pack is not going to necessarily pass up a cow or sheep standing out there in some farmer’s pasture, as of right now there’s no particular reason to think that they are hunting us. Maybe the DNR is concerned that the 65 cases of “fearless behavior” they have confirmed among wolves is a reason to think that they might become emboldened enough to take advantage of some lone woodland jogger. I wouldn’t actually doubt that myself. What I do question is the DNR’s confidence that popping a few wolves will make them fearful.

That might work for the deer, but in the case of wolves, I think it’s entirely possible that it will just make them mad. I suspect that wolves have observed human behavior and that they are more “wary” than the DNR suspects. They’ve just concluded—with some fair evidence, mind you—that there’s no reason to defend their turf from humans. They think that we can coexist.

Whatever else this wolf hunt will do, it will very likely shatter the canine faith in that conclusion.

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

Punkin Time

November 10, 2013

I woke up this morning and James Whitcomb Riley was on my mind. Well, maybe it was after coffee, but sometime this morning “When the frost is on the punkin’”  started running through my head. Here’s how the first verse runs:

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,  
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,  
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,  
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;  
O, it’s then the time a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,  
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,  
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

This is definitely an aggie poem. If I were to ask my students to read it, I would have to explain every other line. They would get frost on a punkin, but fodder in the shock? Unlikely. And Riley continues:

The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—

Clover overhead? That’s not going to resonate with very many of the undergraduates I see. Even the few who grew up on farms aren’t going to have seen any “hosses” in the stalls, much less a hayloft above them filled with clover. The idea behind this poem is that all that late summer and early autumn work is done. “your apples all is gathered, and the ones a fella keeps / is poured around the cellar floor in red and yaller heaps.” It’s a fine time, says Riley. We do have a few apples down in our basement, where it is passably cooler than upstairs when we are running the heat—and we have been running the heat here in Michigan for several weeks now. But no, they aren’t poured around the floor, and frankly our basement isn’t a proper cellar, in the first place. Face it. We live in a world where it is impossible to even imagine poetry that takes the ordinary rhythms of farm life as its backdrop.

Riley doesn’t tell us exactly when the frost is on the punkin. When we lived in Indiana, this poem used to be associated with Halloween. Riley did write a poem called “The Gobble-uns’ll git ya if ya don’t watch out”. Same meter as the punkin’ poem, so maybe people get confused. If you were living in, say, south Alabama during Riley’s lifetime (1853-1916) the frost wouldn’t be showing up on the punkin until sometime around Thanksgiving. Michiganders would have already expected the hard freeze by Halloween, and they probably wouldn’t have left the house bareheaded. So this is not a big literary point mind you, but one virtue of Riley’s poem is the way it celebrates a moment that is defined by seasonal, farm household rhythm that’s going to vary from one clime to another.

Of course here in 2013, nearly a century after Riley’s death, we’re just now experiencing the hard freeze here in November. I’ve had my hat on once, and you generally can leave the house bareheaded. If you are a college professor like me, or have any of the urban economy jobs that most of my friends have, you don’t have that sense that the season’s work is mostly done. Even the farmers are working toward season extensions, and the Allen Street Farmer’s Market premiered it’s year-round indoor facility this month. It’s not just the climate that’s changed since Riley’s day. Seems like our work is never done.

Well maybe that’s just nostalgia. Farmers had plenty to do over the winter even in 1890. But it’s still a nice if quite unfamiliar thought that Riley’s appealing to here. Plenty to do, but mainly there’s a time to catch your breath. You get those wonderful blue skies and the air is chilled to a wonderful freshness when the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

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

Dealing Drugs

November 3, 2013

Not that I’m keen on sharing my personal issues here in the Thornapple Blog, but I’m sitting here in Michigan writing this week’s entry when I had intended to be on my way back home from a mid-semester trip to Japan. I’m not feeling all that poorly, but I have been running the gamut of antibiotics over the last month, trying to chase one down that is still effective against a low-grade infection that’s been sapping my energy. My doc says no international travel until we find one that works. Just thinking about the travails of travel made me inclined to agree. All of which is the set-up for this week’s topic in food ethics: antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Now this is a serious topic—not that that would keep me from joking about it. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has become an issue in nursing homes and post-op recovery rooms. It can strike seemingly healthy individuals who had no obvious exposure to staph germs, as a Frontline documentary aired recently attests. MRSA has also been a problem in the pork industry for over a decade. Simple word association (assuming we can call MRSA a word) suggests that pig production might be part of the problem. Giving antibiotics to all those pigs confined in tight little stalls has caused staph bacteria to become resistant, and now the human population is suffering. Or so the reasoning would go. I hasten to add that the pork industry is pretty adamant in asserting that these are totally different strains of staph, and there is thus little chance that the bug that is getting people is very closely related to the bug that’s bugging pigs. But I’m not going to do philosophy of science this week. You’ll have to sort that one out for yourself.

I will say that I’m skeptical about the livestock production-antibiotic resistance connection. The story that I hear told frequently is that livestock producers are using antibiotics to keep the crowded and uncomfortable animals in their concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from getting sick, and that sets up an ideal breeding ground for antibiotic resistance. Although I’m no fan of the way that animal producers are using antibiotics, I doubt that story for a number of reasons. First, it’s important to understand how antibiotics are being used in contemporary agriculture. Veterinarians do give animals antibiotics when they get sick, just like docs do for humans, but this is not a commonplace. In many cases it’s economically more rational to just call the sick animal a loss and euthanize it—maybe not the best animal ethics, but a factor that sharply limits this kind of antibiotic use in food production. Ethics weighs in here in favor of antibiotic use: sick farm animals should be able to get the veterinary care they need. We have more than adequate protection of the human food supply.

But this is not where the story ends. Sometimes a farmer who has just bought large animals at a livestock barn (we’re talking cattle and sheep mainly, but pigs are a possibility) will give prophylactic dose of antibiotics. Now stop snickering about the word ‘prophylactic’ and pay attention! Since the farmer doesn’t know much about the history and health records of these animals, and doesn’t want to bring trouble into the existing herd, the prophylactic dosing is an economic precaution. This is something that we could get rid of with stricter rules on record keeping for food animals. The rest of the world is moving in that direction, but here in libertarian land, the ability to sell someone a defective product is considered to be a God-given right.

And then there is the most common form of antibiotic use in livestock production: the sub-therapeutic dose that is included routinely in animal feed. As the story above suggests, livestock farmers are indeed using antibiotics on a routine basis. Contrary to the story above, however, it doesn’t really seem to be disease control that’s on their brain. These sub-therapeutic doses make animals grow faster on comparatively less feed. In short, they pay for themselves (from the producer perspective) in terms of productive efficiency. A producer who doesn’t use them has higher than average production cost. Allow me to remind everyone that since we are playing a capitalist game in livestock production, this means that they also very likely to go broke sooner or later. Which means that virtually everyone does this. Organic producers are the exception, but the blog has already gotten long, so hold that thought for the future.

We could get rid of this, though doing so would require regulation that neither libertarians nor drug companies want. Unfortunately, the story I’ve recounted above just muddies the water and gives the merchants of doubt a deniable response. We should get rid of sub-therapeutic use, even if doing so means that a pork chop or ribeye costs a few cents more. Not that I think this was causally related to my personal issues, but putting antibiotics out into the environment on a widespread, routine basis is just the height of stupidity when you consider how quickly bacteria evolve.

Wow! A clear imperative in the Thornapple Blog! Who’d a thunk it?

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