Genuine Article

March 30, 2014

A few years back I met a fine fellow at an international consultancy I was on who regaled the group with stories of academic ritual, on the one hand, and the trials of small farmers in India, on the other. As I recall it, the rituals had something to do with Oxford University in the UK, where memory tells me that this chap was on the law faculty. As it happens, I just spent the amount of time it took me to listen to “Kaulana Na Pua” by John Keawe and “Wherever You May Be” by Bonnie Riatt (where Bonnie sings “If I must do without, I’ll let these sparks fly out Across this wilderness from me to you”) trolling through the Oxford Law webpage looking , and I can’t find anyone who looks remotely like him. So maybe I misremember, or maybe it was something else entirely. Chalk that lost 10 minutes up to tangential rumination, because it was his latter tales that brought me to this morning’s blog topic.

It seems that he had been working on the problem of counterfeits in the Indian seed industry.  Now everybody knows about counterfeit CDs and DVDs from Asia, and a few of us may have heard about the problems raised by counterfeit auto parts or pharmaceuticals. The ethical problems with counterfeits may be a bit more subtle than one suspects, however. I mean a counterfeit is a lie, right? And what could be more straightforward from an ethics perspective? But truth-telling is philosophically interesting because there are several different ways in which it turns out to be morally wrong. If you are of the deontological persuasion, it’s just intrinsically wrong—a paradigm case of moral lassitude. But if you are a consequentialist, it’s wrong because the people who are mislead by a lie are likely to suffer harm. When we circle back to the CDs and DVDs, they mostly work fine and the people who buy them are pretty much in on the caper; it’s the people losing money from unpaid royalties who are harmed. But auto parts and pharmaceuticals? That fits the consequentialist’s concern more neatly. Those auto parts and especially those drugs may not perform as the buyer expects, and here the consequences can be fatal.

We could do another tangent on deontology and consequentialism (a topic that we typically avoid here in the Thornapple blog), but I think I’ll just pretend that these rather obscure (or central, depending on your proclivity) doctrines have already been adequately explained by the above proffered example and steam on ahead. Now, seeds. How would you counterfeit a seed? And the answer need not detain us long. Many commercial seeds bear paint or dye marks intended to identify them as such, and sometimes they come in bags identifying their source and identity. Farmers buy commercial seeds—in the developing world as elsewhere—because a) they have run out of seeds or b) because they expect them to perform better than the seeds they saved from last year’s crop. And frankly, folks, it’s mostly “b”, because if you are so poor that you had to eat your saved seed to get through the winter, you are probably not showing up at the seed dealer a few days later with enough money to buy anything. So you can fake seed by making some dubious or simply lousy crap seed you have lying around look enough like a high quality commercial variety that you can pass it off as the genuine article. The unsuspecting farmer goes back home and plants what he or she takes to be a high performing variety, well worth the premium, and then when summer rolls around it’s just a field full of weeds.

Counterfeit seed is a major problem in developing country agriculture, or so I was being told. Now perchance you are wondering whether this fellow that I can’t even recall by name was himself the genuine article. And if he wasn’t a genuine article, then maybe this week’s blog is just a premature April Fool, an article of a different sort, to be sure, but no more genuine than the “some guy who told me” I based the whole episode on. But it’s not. Do your own research: Google “counterfeit seed” and discover. Here are a few places you can start.

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

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House Made

March 23, 2014

Norman Wirzba was on campus at MSU this week. He gave a rousing foodie talk to an audience of mostly undergraduates. He was encouraging them to think about where their food comes from, and since Norm is a theology professor at Duke University, he didn’t shrink from the God-talk in making his case. I picked up on a different point. Norm started his talk by encouraging everyone to pay attention to the words that we use in connection with food. He was railing against the tendency to speak as if food were a mere commodity. It’s a nice theme for the Thornapple blog, but neither of my regular readers will be surprised to learn that it’s not where I’m heading this morning.

I would tie Norm’s concern about the words that we use to the conversation we’ve been having here in the blog about food ontology. Well, I know, I know. How can you use the word “conversation” when you are pretty much just talking to yourself? AS IF someone was even listening! That, too, is an ontological question, but it’s one that would take this week’s blog further and further from the food theme, so I’ll bag it and just keep on with that skeptical (but attentive) conversation partner who exists in my imagination.

I’d like to take food ontology in almost the opposite direction Norm went. While Norm was focused on “mere commodities”, I’ll query those foods that purport to be homemade. I’d like to start with an observation on the robot that lives inside my computer and who monitors my spelling. This robot (don’t know if it’s he or she) is obsessed with correctness. He/she slips up now and then, as he/she did when I meant to write something about “lab courses” earlier this week and wrote “lab curses” instead. One of those quasi-Freudian slips (had it something to do with sex), I think. But my robot has absolutely no trouble with “homemade”. It’s not a mistaken contraction of “home” and “made”, as if we were trying to say that something was made at home. Nope. It’s a real word.

Homemade foods are supposed to be just the opposite of commodities, which are something you bought at the store or at a fancy restaurant. Or maybe not even a particularly fancy restaurant. Just one that cranks it out, assembly-line style. Homemade foods may have little imperfections, but they are delectable. They are what Mom used to make, or if you had a working mother, what Grandma used to make. They are not particularly efficient. They take time. They come out just a little different every time, but there is a certain consistency to them that tells everyone in the know that this was made in the kitchen of some special person. I should protect myself against the flood of angry comments by noting quickly that although if we look backwards it usually was an at-home woman (we used to call them homemakers)  who did this, the adjective “homemade” could and not infrequently did apply to something made by a working woman (not necessarily a mother) or even a male. In the latter case, it was barbecued ribs, generally.

But being the acute observer of cultural trends that I am, I’ve noticed that “homemade” is in decline and “house made” is on the rise. Note that we don’t conjoin these words. My robot (who approved of lab curses) would want “housemaid”, instead. And note that they don’t really mean the same thing, anyway. “House made” is made by “the house” (as if buildings could cook), which means by the establishment at which one is either dining or otherwise procuring food. House made foods are intended for sale. I was down at the Soup Spoon on Michigan Avenue earlier in the week for a rare breakfast away from home, so I treated myself to some of their house made smoked salmon. Not bad, I might add.

House made is substituting for homemade on restaurant menus. And maybe this is just a turn toward truth in advertising. I mean if you are sitting there ordering off a menu, you would probably rather have something conjured up in the restaurant kitchen than something one of the server’s brought in from his or her grandmother’s. Food safety and all that. But rather than honest representation I suspect that it’s just a deflation in language of the same sort that’s already claimed the homemade. When proprietors go down to Sam’s Club to buy up the super-pack of generic or (hey, let’s splurge) Nature Valley™ granola bars, then go back to the restaurant and break them up into little bite-size pieces, I’m sorry. That does not qualify their granola as “house made.”

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

Fertile Musings

March 16, 2010

Ever so frequently I wake up on Sunday morning with the urge to blog on a topic that has some nominal connection to the “food ethics” theme of the Thornapple blog. Then there are Sunday mornings like this one, when I’m sitting there with my coffee and thinking that I’m supposed to post a blog today. The mind drifts toward a bit of chaff that’s stuck in my teeth from the oatmeal I’ve just eaten. I’m not saying that I couldn’t make something interesting out of that thought. Everyone loves a challenge now and then. But both of my regular readers will probably be relieved to hear that just as I was in the earliest stages of mulling that over—(Gee, a blog entitled “The Chaff”: what would that look like?)—an article in the USA Today section of The Lansing State Journal caught my attention.

It seems that Wal-Mart has latched onto a plan to reduce the overuse of fertilizer in the United States. Yes, overuse of fertilizer is a longstanding problem in agricultural ethics. When fertilizers get into lakes and streams they cause all manner of predicament and difficulty. There’s straight off toxicity to start with (bad if you are a fish) and extra nutrients can cause algae blooms. There’s also hypoxia. Now isn’t it exciting when you can encounter a word like “hypoxia” in an otherwise inane setting? I thought so, but if you really wanted to know what hypoxia was, you wouldn’t read philosophical blog posts. Even Wikipedia is going to be more informative.

This overuse of fertilizer has always been kind of a puzzlement to the agricultural economists. Farmers have to pay for that stuff, after all, and why would they apply so much that it washes downstream (where it just becomes a pollutant)? Now I’m not here to resolve the riddles that beset economists, so rest assured that I’m not even going to venture a tangential explanation. I’ll just get right back on track by saying that farmers do allow fertilizer to run off of their cropland. Maybe they are just overly concerned about underuse of fertilizer, but whatever. There is fertilizer in our lakes and streams (not to mention the Gulf of Mexico) that really doesn’t belong there, and now Wal-Mart is coming to the rescue to do something about it. Wal-Mart is going to apply it’s economic power over suppliers to require that they (the suppliers, that is) prove to them (Wal-Mart) that the corn chips and soy lecithin in their processed industrial food products were not produced by Midwestern farmers who were using too much fertilizer.

Wal-Mart’s action is itself something of a puzzlement to the agricultural economists of yore. I mean, really, does Wal-Mart genuinely care? [Which is, in the economists’ world, another way of saying, “Does Wal-Mart stand to make a buck off of this?”] Again I demur. Who knows? But I kind of doubt that Wal-Mart has a compelling pecuniary interest in what farmers are doing with respect to fertilizer use. Au contraire, Chucko, it’s yet another example of Wal-Mart’s ambition to become the Master hall monitor, overseer and moral umpire of the late-capitalist era. If I were a libertarian at heart, I would be much more concerned about this than Obamacare. But I’m not a libertarian at heart. (Nobody’s perfect.) So I’ll just chalk this up as an instance of “supply-chain ethics”.

Of course, the original blog on supply chain ethics was one of the all-time snoozers in the Thornapple blog. Nobody, and by nobody I mean neither one of my regular readers cared much about that one. Even the robots who persistently send comments relating to women’s shoes and bridal wear or Russian shopping malls were put to sleep by it. Perhaps I should just put this tirade to rest before I even get close to busting my weekly word-limit. But if perchance you do have a libertarian bone somewhere in your body that’s being aggravated by this disturbing news about Wal-Mart stepping up to do the work that not even the US Environmental Protection Agency (that’s Eee Pee Aye for the congenitally acronymic among us) has not the gumption (or funding) to attempt, well in that case it’s not my responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff on a chilly March Sunday. You will just have to go all the way back to August 8, 2010 and read it again. Slowly, but with feeling.

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

Artisans All

March 9, 2014

About a decade ago I wrote a little essay on what people mean when they talk about “natural food”. Now to launch right off on the obligatory tangent right from the get go, I would need to clarify: There’s really no telling what some people have in mind when they are talking about “natural food”. The whole reason I was writing on this in the first place was in response to other people who were going on about how it’s so vague that it can’t really mean anything at all. So I was just focused (like a laser beam, I might add) on being able to specify one particular set of meanings that was relevant to the question of whether high tech agriculture destroys the natural quality of foods.

So in response to all these goings on, I was going on about how in some relevant contexts, what people were really talking about was artisanal food. That is (e.g. and for example) foods that are grown, processed and prepared with keen attention to the unique features of the natural textures. Like a master carver works with the grain of the wood—going against the grain being the quintessential paradigm of the unnatural, I said—a master farmer or chef is attentive to those peculiar features of the soils, the plants and the animals that he or she is working with at the moment. Their attentiveness permits a higher level of craft and precision, and allows them to make good use of features that any automated or highly standardized approach to farming or food preparation would necessarily overlook. Hence artisanal=natural=(usually) higher quality. It was one of the few times I managed to impress my darling wife.

Cause pretty soon thereafter she noticed that the word ‘artisan’ was starting to crop up around high quality breads and cheeses. “You are not such a dope, after all,” said she. This is not [I hasten to add] a direct quote, but you get the picture.

Ah but signs of the artisanal apocalypse are now on the horizon. Yep, you got it. Depressingly like ‘sustainable’ or ‘resilient’, the artisanal seems to be headed for a rapid denouement owing to its sheer ubiquity. Now I again hasten to add, any comments I might have made last week or so about snooty in-flight magazines and their touting of artisan restaurants with their special artisan grown pancake mixes, I’m all in favor of that stuff. Go Westwind Milling go! Bring me some more of their pancakes any morning now, and let’s top them off with some of that wonderful Michigan-made artisan maple syrup. No joking here, I swear it. But perhaps, just perhaps it might be possible to carry this artisan thing too far?

And indeed I had an e-mail this week from Jenny Buckley, recently of local mid-Michigan fame but now resituated in Madison, Wisconsin. Jenny, who defended a dissertation on artisan food producers and how well they do in food safety inspections, was e-mailing to bring something to the attention of everyone one on her advisory committee, which would include yours truly. To wit: she was advising us that in the relatively more-advanced-in-terms-of-hipness community of Madison, she could now go to an artisan dentist. And I promise that, as Dave Barry says, I’m not making this up.

Frankly, I think I’ll pass on that one.

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

Elite Food

March 2, 2014

I got on an airplane last week for the first time in several months. For the first year of the blog I would routinely reflect upon my peripatetic ways, almost always from a different locale every week. 2010 was particularly dense with travel for me, and included an unplanned and enforced 3-day vacation in Rome when an Icelandic volcano decided to disrupt European transportation infrastructures. After about six months of this I realized that the blog was starting to be a bit more autobiographical than I liked—as if I thought that anyone beyond my family cared to read a thousand words each week on where I happened to be journeying. (Well, in truth, my family probably cares even less than the rest of you. But that’s a rabbithole that we won’t pursue today.)

So with the obligatory tangential ruminations out of the way, I was on an airplane for the first time in several months last week. And not so much the being on the airplane as the NOT having been on one for a longer than normal interval caused me to notice more vividly than usual how much the travel culture is oriented to food. Exhibit one is, of course, the in-flight magazine. Itself a curious artifact for people of my age group who can remember general interest magazines like Life and Look (I suppose People is the closest contemporary comparable), the in-flight magazine has to provide a few distractions and an opportunity for advertising, but the readership is just a random sample of the traveling public. Not much direction for the editors to guess what a given individual strapped in and awaiting take-off might find interesting and engaging. They are targeted to the traveling public, however, so there’s a bit of a tip-off for the “exotic destination” theme, usually tempered by a balancing dose of the “you might actually get to go there someday” theme. For the road warriors on the plane (I being a junior member of that group) this latter group includes a few places they’ve already been.

And guess what? It’s largely about going someplace and eating something. But I must say (and here’s what led me to blog in this particular direction in the first place) I’ve never been especially keen on the food destination theme, and I seem to be getting less keen on it as I get older. And lest I fall back into my bad old ways of 2010, I hasten to add that although it’s clear that this comment does indeed reflect on me and my tastes, I don’t think today’s blog is about me as opposed to the nominal food, farming and environment thrust that the Thornapple blog is represented to pursue. No. Being on that airplane helps me understand why some critics of the “local food movement” think that it represents an “elitist” turn. It’s about finding that cute little bistro, recently created by a celebrity chef, of course. It’s the one that is offering handmade bucatini fashioned from locally grown wheat and cage-free eggs, topped with sustainably harvested scallops and mussels in a sauce from heirloom tomatoes and local zucchini. Or maybe there is some pasture-raised veal with a picture of the celebrity chef embracing the farmer, who is either an only slightly disheveled man in his mid-thirties with a single strand of hay in his professionally coifed haircut, or even better, an only slightly disheveled woman in her early forties who looks like that only a dash of lipstick and a change of clothes would be needed to prepare her for a night at the opera. The in-flight magazine may or may not include the photo, but it lurks in the subtext, nonetheless.

And even the in-flight food (such as it is) aims to make a pale impression of the élan being more richly embroidered in the magazine. So, oh yeah. Now I remember. That elitist thing. That’s what lots of people think this “food ethics” trip is all about. Funny how only a month or two out of that world can make you forget that. But maybe not so funny that it’s the world many people seem to be inhabiting even when they are not on airplanes.

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