Give Me the Power!


December 29, 2013

A few people outside the mid-Michigan area may have some vague awareness that we had a little incident about a week ago. I woke up last Sunday, drank some coffee and looked outside to a crystal wonderland. All the trees, every surface, had about a quarter of an inch of ice wrapped around, producing a twinkly glow. Diane decided that discretion was the better part of valor and decided not to try and drive to church. I had a cup of coffee and drifted upstairs to write last week’s Thornapple blog (which did elicit one response from a reader who was excited to know whether the Gailey’s I was referring to might be in Springfield Missouri). [It was.]

So, deep parenthetical references and all, I blithely posted the blog. We heard a few cracks. I’m not talking wisecracks now. We hear those every Sunday. I’m talking tree limbs breaking in half, sometimes tree trunks breaking in half. Readers from mid-Michigan do not need to be told. The ice was taking down limbs and the occasional tree left and right. Creative destruction is what Paul Samuelson might have called it. And then of course the power lines started to come down with it. So to make an already meandering story a wee bit more direct, out power went out at about 3 pm last Sunday, not long after I posted the blog.

So at this point, both of my regular readers are wondering what the food connection is here. Well, we did immediately cook up a bunch of bacon that was sure to go bad if the power stayed off. Which it did. About three days later, the refrigerator was the warmest spot in the house. When the power finally came on again last Friday, a fair amount of stuff was, as they say, ruint. Some of the frozen goods remained frized for all that time, but there was a big bag of frozen raspberries from last summer that was down on the bottom shelf, and they looked kind of like a recently severed head.

So I guess there’s a connection here to vulnerability. Not so much that severed head thing. People like to eat something pretty much everyday, but events like this remind us of how fragile our web of dependency actually is. Not that we have anything really worthy of complaint, mind you. Pretty soon people started pitching in to help each other out. We wound up eating our Christmas dinner courtesy of the chefs at Grand Haven Manor. There are hundreds of millions of people, and hundreds to thousands in mid-Michigan alone, who have it a lot worse every day of the week. It’s that sharing spirit that hooks this story up to food ethics, and it just harks back to the perrenial theme we hit every so often here in the Thornapple blog.Wonderful how the warmth comes through when a big storm throws everyone into a tizzy.

But I have to say, it was mainly a royal pain in the butt!

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

Ice Box

December 22, 2013

We have now officially arrived at that time of the year when the Thornapple blog sinks far below its normal standard of mediocrity. December has always been the month for some of the worst blogs. It started the very first year. Even when there were less than a half dozen entries to the Thornapple blog, the best I could do was recycle some bits from the annual Thompson family Christmas letter. The next year, all I could come up with was a blog on some of the memorable meals I had eaten that year. Like anybody cares? And things didn’t really improve in 2011 or 2012, either. Not that I’d really like to send people scurrying back to those pathetic efforts. “Ooooh! Let’s read some really boring stuff. There’s nothing else happening this time of year.”

Fortunately, the readership of the blog seems to tail off in December anyway. Not even the robots are interested. The chickens are molting, and the elves are revolting. “There’s a list for who’s been naughty or nice but consider the price for an elf.” Admittedly the food connection to this song is pretty thin: some tangential reference to handing the fat man a beverage, I think. It wouldn’t have been there at all but for the fact that Ed Robertson was trying to find something that rhymed with “leverage.” If getting barenaked for the holidays is foreign to you, here’s the link to a U-tube clip that ‘splains it all.

So I’ll just use up the rest of this week’s space on some utter trivia. Like noticing that the phrase “food baby” made the Oxford English Dictionary this year. A food baby is the protruding stomach you show off (presumably patting it gently) after an especially large meal. Other newbies on the list include “selfie”—the self portrait you take with the camera in your cell phone. Everybody and I mean everybody does this, and now you have been recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary. There is also, taking this inane line of thought even further, the “food selfie”, which is technically not a selfie in the straight up sense, at all. It’s a picture of the meal that you are about to eat. I presume this derives from Ludwig Fuerbach’s aphorism, “Der Mensch ist, was er ißt.” This is rather freely translated as “You are what you eat,” but in the case of the food selfie, it’s what you are about to eat. It’s about to become you, so I guess that makes it a selfie in some obscure ontological sense.

I will admit to having sat around the table at Gailey’s taking pics of everyone’s breakfast, and I will further admit to having posted those pictures on Facebook. So I guess I’m as guilty as anyone. Or maybe not quite everyone. Lest you think that I’m especially indulgent of idiocy this week, I’ll note that CBS News thought the phenomenon of people routinely posting photos of their next meal on Instagram (I really don’t know what this is) was significant enough that they devoted a segment to it.

We are socked into an ice box here in Michigan this December Sunday morning. The limbs are down all over the yard, and we seem to be one of the few houses in the neighborhood who have power. Christmas will be here in just a few days, and we still have shopping to do. All in all, it seems like a proper morning for indulging lunacy. Fortunately, we have some leftover pizza in the ice box. Maybe I’ll take a picture of it for Facebook.

Joyeaux Noël, mon amies! Eat hearty.

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

Our Vast Influenza

December 15, 2013

Last week’s page 4 news from Washington demonstrated the vast influence of the Thornapple blog on the nation’s elite decision makers. Just six weeks after blogging on the problems associated with the sub-therpeutic use of antibiotics in meat production, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (that’s FDA to the policy geeks among my readership) announced a new plan to combat this scourge. As reported by Dan Charles on National Public Radio (you wouldn’t think that I’d do any of my own research, would you?) the FDA will ask drug companies to “de-list” the sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics from their labels. If you recall, small amounts of antibiotic drugs are routinely added to animal feed—amounts too small to be effective against a microbial infection. What they do—and the science is pretty unequivocal about this—is to make the animals grow faster. If you’re talking aggie geek speak, they help producers make more efficient use of feed.

There’s a whole rap that any self-respecting aggie geek speaker can recite about how this promotes sustainability because we don’t need so many acres dedicated to feed production, and how that reduces the gasoline and diesel fuel (not to mention the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer) that we use in planting those acres. And since the carbon released from using all those fossil fuels isn’t released into the atmosphere where it causes global warming, using all these antibiotics is actually a form of environmental stewardship! But frankly, that’s just a tangent from the perspective of this week’s blog. So having fulfilled my contractual obligation to point out at least one tangent every week, I go back to the FDA.

Dan Charles explains that FDA has decided not to issue a regulation here. That would be slow and clumsy. Instead they are just asking the drug companies to voluntarily remove “feed additive” from the list of approved uses. It’s not entirely clear what effect this will have. It does mean that when a veterinarian looks up the drug, she won’t find “stick this in the feed trough” as one of the recommended uses. It may also have the effect of making it difficult to access these antibiotics without a veterinarian’s prescription. But unless I am even more poorly informed than I think, veterinarians will still have the legal authority to write scripts for anything that they personally and on their own recognizance believe to be medically legitimate. So in one sense, it all hangs on what the vets themselves think about this antibiotic resistance thing.

Or maybe not quite all of it hangs that way. There are also the producers. About a decade ago I participated in a study with Alex MacIntosh and Wesley Dean of Texas A&M. Alex and Wes did a survey of veterinarians and beef producers, and what they found in a nutshell is that both vets and producers would be more than willing to give up sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in feed. They were resisting regulation because they feared they would lose their ability to use antibiotics to treat sick animals—and they viewed this as a matter of ethics. They felt a moral obligation to treat sick animals. But for feed additive use, the only thing they were concerned about is whether or not they guy down the road would have a competitive advantage. In other words, if everyone plays by the same rules, then giving up on sub-therapeutic use in feeds is not a big deal,(that aggie geek speak sustainability argument notwithstanding).

So will this FDA voluntary action accomplish that? Well folks, that is the $60,000 food ethics question for Dec. 15, 2013. We will have to wait to find out.

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

Not Yet Sick

December 8, 2013

Well, I guess I need to start out this morning by confessing that I am out of sync with the season. I’m sure that both of my regular readers have moved beyond Thanksgiving leftovers, but I ate two (count ‘em—two) turkey sandwiches yesterday. I made a special trip down to Goodrich to buy some of Aunt Millie’s Butter Top White Bread (conveniently on sale) in order to make the kind of turkey sandwich that reminds me of home. Chasing down the white bread tangent, I note Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s social history. He thinks that white bread went out of style because sometime in the ‘80s (remember then?) rich hipster boomers learned to associate the pneumatically enhanced, industrially produced loaves made from denatured wheat flour with Southern working-class white people—simultaneously eliding (while racially coding) widespread use of the pre-sliced and plastic-bagged sponge-cake comestibles by American racial and ethnic minorities. I think his version of the story overlooks a fact I observed personally during the aforementioned ‘80s: Anyone who grew up eating real bread (which is to say Europeans) thought that stuff was terrible!

But, as usual, I digress. Perhaps it was my misspent youth but once a year I hanker for a puffy white loaf sandwich. And that once a year coincides with leftover turkey. Make mine with mayonnaise. Of course, being a rich (globally speaking) white post-hippie hipster who would not normally be caught dead with a loaf of Aunt Millie’s, Mrs. Baird’s or Bunny whitebread in his grocery cart, I now make my once a year turkey sandwich creation with mayonnaise that contains olive oil. Don’t read the ingredients too closely unless you want to learn that the percentage of olive oil in that jar of Hellmann’s (Bring Out the Best®) is rather puny—but that would just lead to a digression that is unnecessary in the present context.

I also like to have sweet pickle chips, a few olives, a pickled pepper and some pepperonci on the plate. I like the idea of pickled okra, but I don’t really need to eat them. And then, for that final touch: Cheetos.

Well, in truth, Cheetos are not part of the traditional after-Thanksgiving snack supper—a tradition that goes on for at least a week after Thanksgiving, as this week’s blog cheerfully attests. But when I was down at Goodrich looking for the Aunt Millies, it just happened that the Cheetos were a weekly special. And how can you resist that, I ask? Or more to the point, why (beyond the obvious links between diabetes and obesity) should you resist that? I mean, if you are going to buy white bread, you’ve already blown any cool that you came into the store with, so you might as well throw some Cheetos in the cart, too. Maybe it’s just my personal household, but it seems that we are heading into that time of the year when all the usual food rules go out the window.

Pretty soon now that turkey in the refrigerator will be teeming with so many bacteria that even I won’t want to touch it. But up to now, I’m still not sick (of turkey sandwiches). So enjoy yourself: It’s later than you think.

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

Still Another Key Blog

December 1, 2013

Sunday after Thanksgiving is the anniversary date for the Thornapple Blog. I always write something that recalls the very first blog in 2009. That one built on Aldo Leopold’s classic work in environmental philosophy A Sand County Almanac. The “key blog” idea is that at least once a year we would remind ourselves of Leopold’s ecological vision. Farms were certainly a part of that vision, though Leopold was not naïve about farmers’ tendency to abuse. Leopold’s own farm located in one of Wisconsin’s sand counties (there is no “Sand County” in Wisconsin) was more like a weekend retreat. It was a piece of land that had been ravaged by some poor schnook who was trying to wrest a livelihood out of some marginal scrub land. Leopold was undertaking an ecological restoration project on the place, and not really trying to make it pay for itself. He died fighting a wildfire out there in 1948.

As I’ve said at least four times before, the key blog is a pun on Leopold’s key log—the log that has to be removed to break the logjam. For Leopold, the key log was the idea that that land is merely property: something that the owner has the right to dispose of at will, and with little regard for the thing’s integrity. Leopold discussed Homer’s Odyssey to make his point, noting that on his return to Greece Odysseus hung his slave girls all on one rope. He had the right to do it because they were his property, plain and simple. We’ve moved beyond that, Leopold thought: we accept the idea that all human beings are part of the moral community. Now it’s time to take a step further and incorporate duties to the land itself into our concept of community.

The trick here is to have an ecological understanding of community. Or at least that’s how I read Leopold. A community is not just a bunch of people who happen to be living in geographical proximity. A community is an interacting system that produces and reproduces its fundamental institutions and social relationships generation after generation. People are dependent on their communities in myriad ways. Communities are the source of basic needs; they are (or at least used to be) the underpinnings of an economy. They imbue practices of mere subsistence with dignity and meaning. They tell us who we are.

Failing to be who we are, we allow the workings of community to deteriorate. We find ourselves living amidst people we cannot recognize. And in turn their failure to recognize us leaves us at a loss. It’s quite possible that this loss puts us at risk in a material sense, but there’s no question that we are spiritually bereft and emotionally adrift when communities devolve into mere social groupings. Leopold’s idea—and on this point Wendell Berry is clearer—is that once upon a time human communities could depend on their natural environment and their subsistence activities to provide a crucial infrastructure to the reproduction of community. But not so now. Not only have we lost our understanding and appreciation of our dependence on a natural ecology, our persistent abuse of it threatens its very existence.

Not such a heartwarming thought for Thanksgiving weekend, I admit, but still and all, maybe we do need to remind ourselves at least once a year.

Thanks to both of my regular readers for your occasional responses. Everyone needs a little recognition now and again.

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