Among the World-Feeders

June 29, 2014

I spent a couple of days last week amongst folks who are diligently at work developing new crops. They are after new varieties that do well in the dry conditions farmers may experience during climate change, and they’re working on varieties that resist disease, too. And then there are the longstanding enemies: weeds and insect pests. Striga is a major target, especially in Africa. Also known as witchweed, striga lies in wait in the soil. Where other weeds compete with your crop for sun and soil nutrients, striga attaches itself to the roots, hijacking your crop’s own system for capturing energy from the earth. I learned that some scientists are having some success with herbicide tolerant crops. You spray some glyphosate on your field and it kills the striga, but not your crop. But I’m not here to plump for herbicide tolerant crops this week. Some of these things might work for farmers, and I say go for it. Yet even on our own family farm in South Georgia where our lessee has been growing Roundup-Ready® cotton, we’ve already seen the emergence of pigweed that’s naturally tolerant of glyphosate.

Hence and forthwith “Go for it,’” say I, but cautiously. So much for the obligatory tangent this week, and a road we went down for a few blogs back in 2012. What I really sat down to think about this morning was an ethics issue. It’s the way that these guys (the ones who are working on all these new crops) think. They are pushing to get these new technologies out, and they definitely stand to make a buck off of them if they are taken up by farmers. But they say that they are motivated by a desired to help poor farmers. And frankly, I believe them. They are born world-feeders, and they are on a mission.

Why am I troubled by the world-feeding missionaries? They are, after all, armed with impressive statistics on global crop yields and their statistics are made even more impressive when you throw in the predictions of climate-models. They all show that humankind is in for some deep stuff if we can’t make some leaps in total food production, never mind putting off the losses in total food production that goes along with rising sea levels, frequent droughts and tsunamis. We can’t seriously doubt that poor people in developing countries will bear the brunt of these events when they eventually transpire. And note that it’s when not if.

Could my troubles stem from worries about what it takes to finally bring these world-feeding technologies on line? I mean, take this herbicide strategy for controlling striga as a case in point. Making that work means having the seeds, which maybe we’ll give away in a newfound spirit of largess. But it also means having the herbicide, which somebody has to make. If somebody is going to make it, they’ll need to get paid, so having the herbicide requires sombody’s largess year after year. Either that or farmers that are rich enough to buy it themselves. We see plenty of sufficiently rich farmers here in the United States, but not so much in the African countries where striga is a serious pest. So making that particular technology work requires a form of largess that itself may not be sustainable given what we know about human nature, or it requires making the farmers rich enough so that they are no longer among the most vulnerable who need our help.

And why would I be troubled about that? Isn’t that “the American way”? Could it be that even here in America there are three to five people who stay poor (even if they do not remain as farmers) for every farmer who gets rich enough to buy his or her own herbicide. Some of them migrate to cities, where some of them find jobs, to be sure, so where’s the harm in that? Could it be that for everyone who finds a job there is one who doesn’t, and another who dies penniless leaving six children to fend for themselves in the slums of Harare or Kalundu View? Could it be that world-feeding humanitarianism seems to wind up being followed by an Operation Murambatsvina? Could it be that realizing these statistical goals of food production seems to require the removal, humiliation and oppression of so many people who just happen to be in the way?

If it wasn’t for that, I assure you that I would be a totally un-troubled world-feeder myself. It’s not like I have a better plan. Feeding the world is what ethics would certainly require. … But for some troubling collateral damages.

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


Food Enmity

June 22, 2014

As threatened a few weeks back I’m on a jag about food sovereignty. I decided that the best way to approach this topic would be to read up on the way that food showed up in the lives of history’s great sovereigns. I pulled my copy of Selected Lives by Plutarch down from the shelf and started reading. So far I’ve worked my way through Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius, Themistocles, Camillus, Pericles, Fabius Maximus, Alcibiades, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus and Alexander. Some—Alcibiades, for one—were generals who never exercised the power of a sovereign. The Romans on this list date from the age of Republic, so their sovereignty was temporary. The Greeks, too, often elected their sovereigns. So except for Alexander these would be sovereigns more in the sense of Obama and Bush than Caesar. Plutarch does do Julius Caesar, but I haven’t gotten that far in my reading. He also throws in some lives like Demosthenes and Cicero who were known for oratory, but since I wouldn’t expect to learn much about food sovereignty from anyone who was kind of like a philosopher, I’m just going to ignore them.

One thing you learn from reading Plutarch is that very few of these sovereigns died what we here in the 21st century would call a natural death. And no, they didn’t die from consuming too many chips and sausages, drinking 32 ounce Big Gulps or eating the Big Whooper everyday at some drive-through they encountered while leading legions of phalanxes and cavalry all around the Mediterranean. Sovereignty seems to have been accompanied by enmity. Since I’ve yet to read anything about food enmity coming out of the contemporary food movement, I’m going to report this with my hand rubbing my chin, mumbling an audible “Hmmm!” Then I’m going to chalk it up to a diversion for now, but if you start hearing people chatting about food enmity, remember that you read it first in the Thornapple Blog.

Most of these sovereigns (and some orators, too) met their end by the sword, but there are allegations that Alexander, who was the Big Kahuna among sovereigns, was poisoned. We could indulge ourselves in another diversion here, exploring the root of the word “kahuna” which comes from the Hawaiian verb “to cook”, but my point (which less linguistically erudite readers probably inferred already) was simply that among ancient kings and generals Alexander was great. They called him “Alexander the Great”, don’t you know? So let’s just get right on back to the food connection here.

Plutarch was a bit fastidious in his reporting and does not fully credit the story that Alexander was poisoned, putatively at the behest of the philosopher Aristotle. You’ve got to watch those philosophers, you know. But even if we can’t take this story at face value, we have plenty of hysterical evidence that other sovereigns were betrayed at table. The Roman emperors Vitellius, Domitian, Hadrian, Commodus, Caracalla and Alexander Severus are on the list, but the biggie would be Augustus, who was putatively wasted by his wife Livia with a bag of poisoned fig newtons. There’s no report as to whether or not he ate them with milk. Claudius was also done in eating poisonous mushrooms by his wife Agrippina. Agrippina was a real piece of work, by the way. She poisoned Claudius to ensure that her son Nero would assume the throne but held the threat of further poisoning over Nero’shead. Nero himself allegedly used the services of the official poisoner Locusta to off his half brother Britannicus. Britannicus wasn’t a sovereign though so this is just a side note in the present context.

And so my fastidious research shows that when you hear someone advocating food sovereignty, it means that they are in favor of using food as a means of homicide. I’ll go on record as saying that food ethics frowns on food as a means of homicide. But maybe those Big Whooper meals are part of the food sovereignty story, after all.

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


Right On, Man

June 15, 2014

Since Father’s Day happens to fall on a Sunday this year, I’m dedicating this edition of the Thornapple Blog to my own personal father. Don’t laugh. Lots of people have their own personal fathers, so why should it seem strange to be talking to them on Father’s Day? By chance my own personal father (who lives in Missouri) has asked me to write about “right to farm laws.” In short, I’m offering good advice this morning and as the fool-poet of the 1960s Allan Sherman once sang, “Good advice costs nothing and it’s worth the price.” But here’s a warning to my other regular reader: this may get a little boring.

One thing to notice is that “right to farm” covers a lot of turf. Mainly we are talking about a bunch of laws and ordinances that have been enacted throughout these United States of America since the mid-1980s. They don’t all say exactly the same thing. Some of these laws have been more carefully crafted than others, but getting into the details of that would involve actual research on my part. Being a modern academic person I do not do actual research unless and until someone gives me a grant that allows me to make one of my students do the heavy lifting. What’s more, I’m not aware that any of the Great Philosophers from Socrates, Plato and Xenophon right on through to Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche ever wrote about the right to farm. Hegel may have gotten close but we would still be stretching things just a bit to extract a right to farm discussion from Grundlienen der Philosophie des Recht. So I’m just going to make everything that follows in today’s blog up from scratch.

Right to farm laws started proliferating when farmers (by which we implicitly mean big farmers) got torqued by zoning restrictions and county ordinances passed by newly arrived suburbanites who had themselves been torqued when these big farmers decided to lay down a fresh layer of pig manure on the north forty one day when the wind was just right. These newly arrived suburbanites had come out to the country in order to enjoy the bucolic joys of wild nature (especially the picturesque red barns and silos) and the agrarian lifestyle. They never thought that this had anything to do with the smell of freshly applied pig manure, and they were quite reasonably concerned that the odiferous quality of their farming neighbors’ strange proclivities might cause a drop in their property values. Sooner or later the newly arrived suburbanites outnumbered the farmers and when that happens, you can be sure that some kind of zoning or county ordinance is in the offing.

But say hey, said the big farmers. Not only were we here before you, we were the ones who made this place into the bucolic paradise that attracted you out of the city in the first place. Now as a certified academic philosopher I’m contractually obligated to point out that this is not typically the kind of argument that will be recognized to establish a moral right. So the farmers augmented their umbrage with references to Jefferson, the agrarian heritage of the countryside and the moral superiority of the farming people. This allowed them to get some of these laws passed in state legislatures, where they take legal precedence over zoning restrictions and county ordinances. In effect, right to farm laws trump local consensus on land use, giving the prerogative to the landowner.

Time passes. Big farmers get less popular and people start to shop local. You won’t get rich doing it, but you can now certainly make a living by growing high value fruit and vegetable crops on less than an acre. What’s more, with the economy going the way it is there are plenty of urban areas in the United States where plots of 2 acres or more can be had simply by putting up the unpaid taxes. We start to get an urban farming movement. And it turns out that some of these right-to-farm laws turn out to be very useful to the latter day hippies, feminists and organic food fundamentalists who are eking out a living by growing herbs for local chefs and selling carrots, sweet potatoes and cucumbers at the weekly farmers’ market. They are particularly helpful for people who want to keep goats or chickens.

“Whoa, Nellie,” said the big farmers, many of whom were deeply skeptical not only of the idea that a proper farm could occupy less than 500 acres but also of the preposterous suggestion that women could be considered farmers. Now as we’ve said before in this space, the official USDA definition of a farm could apply to a couple of cigar boxes under a Gro-Light (and we ain’t talkin’ babies, Jack). So the next thing you know we are in a bit of a tizzy, with some of the big, self-righteous farmers taking it upon themselves to prevent these upstart hooligans from claiming Jefferson’s legacy, not to mention undercutting their commodity markets. They started coming out against right to farm, or at least such a broad interpretation of it, and then they started to argue that we need a more “reasonable” understanding of what is protected by this right, and what is not.

So in present tense, the right to farm debate is coming down to a contest between people who support “local food” and people who think that this is not real farming at all, mainly because these upstart wanna-be “farmers” don’t survey their domain from behind the windshield of 14-foot tall air-conditioned four-wheel-drive Big Buds. But on the other side of this issue, if you decide to side with the little guys don’t be too surprised if you wake up one morning to the sweet smell of freshly applied pig manure.

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

One Thing or Another

June 8, 2014

Diane and I have spent a chunk of the morning trying figure out where we can get a new Garden Bandit™. This can only mean one thing. The weeds are coming up and something needs to be done about them. We bought our current Garden Bandit™ in Stratford, Ontario a few years back when we were up there for the Shakespeare festival. Stratford might also merit mention in the blog for hosting the Ontario Pork Congress, which will actually be happening next week. Hurry up with your registration, if you were thinking about heading up for either pigs or Perdita. But that’s probably just a tangential thread for this week’s entry.

The weeds are coming up and that can only mean one thing. It is now high Spring in mid- Michigan. I was way up on the shores of Lake Superior last week and I saw plenty of ice in the harbor at Marquette. But then I spent a day at the Michigan State farm in Chatham where it was 86°. Too hot for this time of year, especially in the U.P. We could go off on climate change, but that, too, would just be a tangent. And so I persevere.

It’s high Spring in mid-Michigan and that can only mean one thing. Out of the deep freeze time when we all learned the meaning of the phrase “polar vortex,” it’s now well past the season for planting. In fact the little niblit crops that come in first are now ready for the first harvest. This isn’t a tangent. This is what I sat down this morning to write about.

The early crops are ready for harvest and that can only mean one thing: The first distribution for Thornapple CSA. Yes, we had something like 17 varieties of kale available for members this past week. Don’t look for tomatoes quite yet. Climate change has not progressed that far. But there is now officially “stuff to eat”. Diane and I also bought some cauliflower from the Giving Tree Farm down at the Old Town Farmers’ Market yesterday. So rejoice! Hallelujah!

There is now officially stuff to eat and that can only mean one thing. We are heading into the hiatus season for the Thornapple blog. When the blog was established back in 2009, the premise was that we would publish once a week during the off-season to substitute for the weekly delivery of fresh fruits and veggies that members get from early June right on up through October. Once the weekly pick-ups start, the obligation to deliver a weekly barrage of verbiage is kaput. Of course you will find very few summer weeks when we did not deliver a blog anyway over the last four years. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure you’ll find any. So maybe I’m just blowing smoke here this week. Maybe we’ll be back next week with another thoughtful and titillating essay on food, farming and the quest for ethical spirituality.

But then again, maybe we won’t. That can only mean one thing. You will have to check up on us every week this summer in order to find out.

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

Question Authority?

June 1, 2014

So here is one of those occasions where I couldn’t get everything off my chest last week so I just have to follow up with another blog entry on food sovereignty. We’ve raised this subject at least once some time back in the Thornapple blog, but maybe it’s time to come around again and think a little harder. That may mean you can expect to hear even more about this in the future. As they say in the blogosphere, food sovereignty has gone viral. It may not be the latest buzzword anymore. Truth to tell, it’s hard to see how we could ever be talking about the latest buzzword in the Thornapple blog, being as what staying at least two long paces behind the curve is the thematic Zeitgeist for us here on this little corner of the Internet. Gearing up to talk about food selfies once a year is just about as au courant as we are likely to get. So never mind about that Zeitgeist thing. If it troubles you just Google it.

My point is that irrespective of what we might have been saying here in Thornappleland over the last couple of years, food sovereignty has been putting on lots of steam. Here’s a link to our earlier thread for the curious. In short, the idea came out of peasant movements resisting their governments’ imposition of new food regimes. Yeah, I know. “Food regimes”: yet another bit of jargon for the uninitiated. Just make up your own punch line and keep reading, I say. Peasant farmers didn’t just want to be fed, nor did they just want to improve their income by switching to crops they could sell on global commodity markets. They wanted to control their food supply in the way that subsistence farmers have always done it: By growing crops suited to their soils, climate and way of life. If they would also like some benefits of modernity like health care, electricity and motor scooters, who could begrudge them that?

Of late food sovereignty has been taken up by anyone and everyone who wants to resist government. This would include American libertarians who object to the threat of being required to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. Now here is a great opportunity for a meaningful tangent. Why, you might ask, haven’t you told us before about the Food Safety Modernization Act (or as us deep background insiders fondly call it FSMA—which you pronounce by putting a rude sputtering sound before “Ma”)? Well what can I say in self defense? I’ve been hanging around with activists lobbying for something like FSMA for most of my professional life. It would put some teeth into a food safety system that relies almost entirely on voluntary compliance, they say. It would give the FDA some authority to regulate the food industry and to investigate packing and processing technologies that relieve corporations from any serious responsibility to protect public health. It’s the response to food scares that run the gauntlet from e-coli to GMOs. If you are an environmentalist or just a friend of the poor and downtrodden, you should be for it, right?

But slow down Chucko. Who would have thought that FDA would actually implement the act by expecting everyone to comply with it? After all, we’re not really worried about those small, artisanal producers, even if their food does make one of us seriously sick now and again. For us artisans, food safety means being able to look your farmer in the eye. Expecting him or her to keep the manure out of the unpasteurized apple cider is, well frankly expecting just a bit too much. They should be off the hook, by which is meant, exempt from the requirements of FSMA. Unfortunately, FDA is not showing signs of seeing things that way.

And so we resist. Nobody out here but us artisans after all. Let’s form alliances and assert our food sovereignty against the overweening Federal bureaucracy (not to mention pesky opponents of global capitalism) intent on making the food supply safe.

Looks like I may be spending more than a little bit of my time over the next little stretch sitting in circles. And maybe going round and round in some.

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