Susan George

January 26, 2014

Now if Frances Moore Lappé was the “no brainer” when it came around to naming the food ethics icons for 2014, Susan George is probably the dark horse. For no better reason than the fact that she lives in France, Susan George is all but invisible in present-day discourse and activism on the food system. There is also the fact that she is sort of an all-purpose lefty advocate, having spent much of her effort over the last decade or so on the problems posed by global capitalism writ large. And on top of that there is the fact that her focus has always been on hunger and maldevelopment in the global South. I may have missed something, but I don’t recall any place where she can be heard advocating that we shop at farmers’ markets, eat more slowly or “go local”. All of these things might fit with what she does advocate, which is a radical restructuring of global trade, with more constraints on corporate power and a revamped system of public finance in service to more equitable exchange.

Susan George was on the train very early, and well before it left the station. Her books How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger (1976) and Ill Fares the Land: Essays on Food, Hunger and Power (1984) were an early and formative influence on a young assistant professor who was trying to figure out how to teach a course on agricultural ethics down in Texas during the 1980s. I decided to gauge the overall level of awareness of her work by typing ‘George’ and ‘Ill fares the land’ into Scholar Google. For those among my regular readers who are not academic geeks (which, by the way, is most of you) Scholar Google is a search engine that focuses on refereed journals and scholarly books. You can find it buried deep under the more detailed Google tabs, if you can even find the more detailed Google tabs, given the way that robots seem to be taking over everything. You can also find it at  Scholar Google will create a link to George’s Ill Fares the Land on Google Books (yet another robot run initiative). It will also build a list of all the books and articles in the data base that include Ill Fares the Land in their references.

So to continue a context-setting tangent for just a few more sentences, the vast majority of publications that are electronically searchable have fallen completely on deaf ears. They have never been cited by anyone, and there’s a fair chance that they’ve never been read by anyone, either. Put that in your pipe and smoke it when you hear some university administrator puffing along about the research productivity of their institution. So a book or article that has, say, 30 citations is having a pretty big impact. On the other end of the spectrum, there are books and articles with over 1000 citations—the big winners, some of which have several thousand citations. Ill Fares the Land currently has a little over 100 citations. It’s definitely something, and it would quite probably get you tenure, but to put this more deeply into context, Diet for a Small Planet has almost 700 citations, and it’s not even considered to be a scholarly book. That’s why I’m calling Susan George something of a dark horse.

I should probably admit that there is a sense in which Ill Fares the Land isn’t really a scholarly book either, or at least not by the standards of political science—Dr. George’s discipline. It’s rather thin on numbers, heavy on conceptual analysis and argument. Her writing style may reflect the fact that in addition to her political science doctorate, she has a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne. (Hooray for philosophy!) But frankly, with the exception of Joan Dye Gussow and James McWilliams, none of our food ethics icons (and this would include several who were college professors, like Norman Borlaug) achieved their iconic status by publishing in academic outlets.

More telling is the fact that when you click on the “Cited by” tab in Scholar Google, you will discover that as you go through the first three or four pages of books and articles that have included Susan George’s work in their references, all of them have at least twice as many citations as her own book does, and several of them have a couple of thousand citations. Susan George’s name may not be on the tip of the tongue among food system activists, but she has been pretty influential among others who have been even more influential. And that’s what makes her a food ethics icon.

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


Frances Moore Lappé

January 19, 2014

Well this one is kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Frances Moore Lappé wrote Diet for a Small Planet, published originally in 1971. Simply noticing that date should give some recent converts to the food movement pause. It’s worth recalling that sixties hippies were eating brown rice, bulgur and waxing poetic about the miraculous benefits of macrobiotic diets. That was the milieu in which Diet for a Small Planet appeared. Shifting subtly away from possibly spurious health claims, Lappé put forward an ecologically based rationale for shifting to a more plant-based diet, interspersed with recipes for a few dozen vegetarian dishes. I have the sneaking suspicion that the early success of the book depended heavily on those recipes. We were a generation who simply could not imagine a proper meal with a fairly significant chunk of meat at the center of the plate, after all.

She went on to found Food First (more officially known as the Institute for Food and Development Policy) with Joseph Collins. Food First was (in my experience) the first organization to emphasize the link between food and social justice. Throughout the eighties they produced a stream of publications and multi-media products promoting the idea that a) there was plenty of food in the world, but b) poor people—even poor farmers—were systematically being deprived of any access to it. I used to show the Food First slide show to my agricultural ethics class at Texas A&M. More recently she has partnered up with her daughter Anna Lappé to create the Small Planet Institute. Her latest book is EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want.

Like other food-system icons we’ve discussed, Lappé  tends to paint in rather broad strokes. As long as you think of her as a primary motivator, and not the place to go for details, there is absolutely nothing bad I would want to say about her message. For my money, the key message in EcoMind is simply “Hey! Philosophical presuppositions matter!” It would be easy for a reader to conclude that changing “the way we think” is simpler than it really is, but somehow I don’t take this to be a very serious knock on Lappé  or her contribution to food ethics. I guess I should admit to having a more positive disposition toward Frances Moore Lappé than to some other equally well known activists, and it’s mainly because though I’ve only met her once, I’ve been friends with two of her former husbands: Marc Lappé and J. Baird Callicott. Neither of them seemed to carry any kind of grudge about that “former” part, either.

If I were going to recommend any of her 18 books, it would probably be the latest edition of Diet for a Small Planet—which, I confess, I haven’t read. I think it’s actually the 10th anniversary edition that sits on my shelf, and that one would be more than thirty years old, now. I’m not sure what she’s done with it in recent updates. At one time, she was pressing the idea that her argument was not intended to support vegetarianism. Rather the idea was a rather significant decrease in the amount of meat that people were consuming. The reason being that industrial meat production consumes a lot of soil, water and energy that goes into agriculture. And by “a lot” she meant a disproportionate amount. You have to produce between 2 and 5 times as much plant protein to get a pound of meat as you need to produce if you at that plant protein your own self. And this argument was put together before we had a real grasp of the way that beef and dairy production contributes to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses. But there is an “on the other hand” to this argument, because animals can be an integral part of a sustainable agriculture. I would probably send people to Simon Fairlie’s book Meat: A Benign Extravagance to ‘splain that point, rather than Diet for a Small Planet. But that doesn’t prevent Frances from being this week’s food ethics icon.

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

Wes Jackson

January 12, 2014

I could go on for quite a while about Wes Jackson. Wes runs The Land Institute in Salina, KS. He has fathered and promoted a number of ideas for improving food and farming over his career. Take the “sunshine farm” as a for-instance. The driving idea is that a farm gets an energy boost from the sun every year, and it puts out a burst of energy in the form of edible crops. Aside from the sunshine, every other source of energy—fuel for tractors, fertilizers and the energy embedded in the manufacture of everything from tractor tires to fertilizer bags—comes by taking it from someplace on the planet and bringing it to the farm (a process that involves energy itself, don’t you see). So Wes’s big idea was, if it’s really sustainable farming, sooner or later it has to work solely off that energy coming into the system in the form of sunshine. The Sunshine Farm was originally an accounting project: let’s just figure out where all this energy is coming from. Later it evolved into a study on indebtedness. Theoretically, if Wes flies to California to give a talk (something he does once in while), he has to “pay back” the energy debt with better, more sustainable farming at the Sunshine Farm.

Wes is probably best known for his project on perennial crops. These would be consumable grains that do not need to be replanted every year. This could serve the Sunshine Farm objective because not planting means not plowing, and that saves energy. Not plowing is also good for soil conservation and general eco-system health. Or that, at least, has been one of Wes’s big messages. Wes is also regarded as something of a hero for giving up his university job and making the Land Institute into an independent research and public action organization over the last 35 years. I’ve been there once, but not for the legendary parties.

Calling them parties may be misleading. A convocation or festival might convey the sense better. There’s music and dancing along with tours and demonstrations of the ongoing projects. There is also food. People come from all over the country—probably from all over the world, actually—for these events. Sounds like a party to me.

Wes also writes books. My personal favorite is still New Roots for Agriculture from 1980. He lays out trenchant criticisms of the ongoing research programs being undertaken by faculty at agricultural universities and begins to articulate a program for sustainable agriculture. Sometime around the same time Wes struck up a correspondence with Wendell Berry. His writing took a decided shift toward the conciseness and literary qualities. This resulted in books with wonderful titles drawn from the New England transcendentalists: Alters of Unhewn Stone; Becoming Native to this Place; Consulting the Genius of the Place. Great titles, but for my taste what the later writing gains in style and emotive effectiveness, it loses in clarity. Each to their own, I suppose.

After running into him almost once a year for a patch of ten years, it’s now been almost a decade since I’ve spent any time with Wes. He can be overbearing, and he’s so creative that there’s an almost equal chance that his next idea will be wacky as brilliant. But people who have come into the foodshed in the wake of work by our first class of food ethics icons—Michael Pollan, Temple Grandin or Vandana Shiva—are far less likely to know about Wes Jackson. And that’s just wrong.

Check out the website of The Land Institute, read one of Wes’s books or, for a real treat, read the chapter on him in William Least Heat Moon’s book Prairie Earth. You won’t regret it.

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

Will Allen

January 5, 2014

January rolls in and it’s time for food icons month again. For those readers who picked up on the Thornapple blog after my discerning coverage of the ice storm in Lansing, the last three Januarys have been “food ethics icon” month at the Thornapple blog. All you have to do to become a food ethics icon is to attain some sort of notoriety in connection to food. The first time we did this in 2011, the icons were Norman Borlaug, Temple Grandin, Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry. These are with the exception of Borlaug, who died in 2009, living people. They are people that, with the exception of Shiva, I have met, and in the case of Borlaug and Grandin, people that I know (or knew) reasonably well. More to the point, they are people that I had opinions about when I wrote the blogs, and what’s more, I was willing to express these opinions in the reasonably permanent form of the Thornapple blog. Go down to the archives and click on January 2011 if you want to see what I had to say.

I tried another “icons” month later that year, but decided that icons should really be a once a year thing. So we followed suit in 2012 with four more people I was willing to express opinions about, this time all figures who have passed into the foggy mists of food history. Last year we did “rock star farmers”. This year I thought about doing a month of “food villains”—not that all the previous icons of have been heroes, you know. I also thought about bagging the whole idea. I mean, the Thornapple blog is (aside from almost always being posted on Sunday) not a paradigm of regularity and consistency. Just doing something different is really O.K. Unlike the last two years, when I spent a fair amount of December thinking about who the food icons were going to be, I haven’t given all that much effort to iconography of late. But as you have already discerned, that passing fancy went by the boards. We are, indeed, doing icons again in January of 2014. That idea about villains was not bad, however, so maybe we’ll do that one in 2015, if we are still riding this orb a year hence.

So if I’ve had a thought, it kind of goes back to the original set of icons from 2011. Who was noteworthy enough that they deserve a mention in the Thornapple blog? So that’s how we come around to Will Allen. Allen is definitely someone that it would be worthwhile for me to recognize, and, he is someone who my legions of readers might want to know about, if they don’t already. To the extent that I continue to maintain delusions of grandeur, I can fashion myself as pronouncing iconic status on the worthy and informing the reading public of their exploits and accomplishments. Except that I have absolutely nothing interesting to say about Will Allen. I can pass on the obvious. Will Allen runs Growing Power, a cluster of NGOs in Milwaukee. They are among the more successful urban agriculture/grass roots food system efforts out there. The package has been replicated in many places: an urban farm, nutrition activism, employment for marginalized people, engagement for youth, environmental sustainability through composting and recycling. Allen was on this bandwagon early, and as far as I can tell from a distance, he deserves a lot of credit for his leadership and management ability.

I “met” Allen when he spoke at the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society meeting in 2010. The quotes mean that I heard his talk—a rambling stream of consciousness recital stimulated by a seemingly random collection of photographs from Growing Power—and I stood around in a group of about eight people who were talking to him. I got the impression he doesn’t especially like to travel. There may be a design behind the unprepared speaking style: “Leave me alone. I’ve got enough to do already in Milwaukee.” But I would be just making that up.

Allen has built his operation on grants from U.S. foundations.  This is not a knock on him. More power to Growing Power and to the foundations that have supported it. There is a food ethics point somewhere in observing that pulling this package off  may not be so easy for everyone. You’ll learn more about Allen by googling him than you will by reading the Thornapple blog.

So maybe you should do that?

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