Still Yet Another Key Blog

November 30, 2014

It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Sometime today I have to sit down and write another “key blog”. I have to provide links to previous key blogs last year, the year before and also the year before that. Above all, I have to encourage readers to follow a link all the way back to 2009, when the Thornapple Blog debuted on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I still think of that first blog as laying out the groundwork for what I’ve been trying to do for the last five years. I have to say something about the punning reference to Aldo Leopold’s discussion of the key log in his book A Sand County Almanac. It’s the one that’s keeping things jammed up, and for Leopold it was the tendency to think of land merely as a form of property. Maybe the key log in food ethics is to let food become too thoroughly governed by property rights and the norms of market exchange.

Everybody needs food, after all. It hardly matters whether or not you have the means to pay for it. If you broke with the Ferguson ban and joined the throngs on Black Friday this year, perhaps you can still appreciate the thought that someone who doesn’t have the money for a new electronic gadget should probably figure out how to get along without it. The same thing doesn’t apply in the case of food, at least not in the most basic case. Sure we could get along without that ridiculously expensive Irish butter we’ve taken to buying, but food itself. You’ve got to have it.

So that moves right along to the thought that we (and here I mean “society”) should not allow the norms of market exchange to determine whether or not people get food. There used to be a pretty broad agreement in America on that point, though these days I’m less and less confident of that. There was plenty of disagreement about how we insure that people’s food needs get met. Some people insisted that those who have undertake a personal moral obligation to meet the needs of those who have not. Another point of view held that this way of proceeding puts the have-nots in a morally unacceptable position of dependence on the whims of the wealthy. Meeting food needs is a matter of justice, and no one should be put in the position of needing to beg.

The original key blog had an orientation to environmental responsibility. Leopold’s thought had it that you can’t just let the use land be determined by whatever it is that allows someone to make a buck. Like using your farm to grow corn for biofuels when people are going hungry, for example. Not that I’m deeply opposed to biofuels, mind you, but I am opposed to the view that whether or not this is the most profitable use a farmer can make of his land settles the matter. Writing in the late 1940’s Leopold was less focused on biofuels than he was on biodiversity. He wanted farmers to create habitats for flora and fauna well beyond their cash crops. Thinking only in terms of land as property tends to get in the way of that.

I agree, and that’s why I’m still writing a food ethics blog five years later.

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

Plastic Houses

November 23, 2014

There’s an old saying to the effect that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Good advice for bloggers, I think. If you are “out there” and visible, you should think twice about digging in to someone for something that you could be dug into yourself. There’s also a variation on the adage that has something to do with grass houses and ends with the admonition “…shouldn’t stow thrones.” Figuring out what that has to do with a food ethics blog would be a fine tangent for this week, don’t you think?

But as has become my custom of late, I resist the temptation to make sense of that to get right along with the main theme for the week, which has nothing to do with bloggers who expose their own vulnerabilities (not that I would ever do that) or glass houses, for that matter (though here we are getting nearer to the point). The point such as it is being not glass but plastic houses.

Thanks to my friend John Biernbaum plastic houses are all the rage among sustainable agriculture types here in Michigan. Of course no self-respecting hippie farmer would refer to them as plastic houses. They’re high tunnels or low tunnels (depending on whether they are high or low) or maybe it’s the hippie farmer who’s high or low. They’re also hoop houses. This would not need explanation if you have actually seen one of these babies. A bunch of my students and I went up to the UP earlier this summer to help John build a particularly big one, and I was caught on film (well maybe it was pixels) with a sledgehammer in my hand putting up the support for one of those hoops. I wish I could put that photo in my annual report.

So even though us calloused hands, sledge-hammer swinging, hard-working, dirt on the face sustainable farmer types wouldn’t literally live in one of these plastic houses, the whole routine about not throwing stones would still be highly relevant. Holes are a bad thing. They kind of screw up the whole convection heating phenomenon that allows Michigan farmers to grow spinach or broccoli well into this time of the year. Maybe not this year, because it has been so damn cold, but you know what I mean.

But stones thrown, thrones stowed or what have you, a hoop house is going to occasionally need some first-order maintenance. Which basically means another plastic sheet big enough to cover the whole damn thing. Not cheap, mind you, but also something that requires a whole raft of people just to maneuver around and actually get on top of the skeleton so that it can be fastened down to keep the little budlings toasty when it’s freezing outside. And that whole raft of people thing brings me to my true and honest reason for posting a Thornapple blog (aside from the fact that it’s Sunday). Which is that it’s time for the hoophouse out at Appleschram farm where we grow veggies for the Thornapple CSA to get a new sheet of plastic.

The big event is scheduled on Wednesday from 3 to 4 in the afternoon, assuming the wind is not blowing too hard. Cold will not deter us, but wind well might. If you’ve longed to be part of barn-raising on the day before Thanksgiving, this may be as close as you’re going to get this year. Call Diane (you know the number) if you have any questions, and bring your own sledgehammer if you are in it for the photo op.

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


Embarassing Behavior

November 16, 2014

I made one of my contributions to the food movement this week stopping by McDonald’s for my once-a-year Big Mac. This observation could provoke a tangent on the “once-a-year” theme and whether or not my need to point that out reflects some sort of guilt feelings about frequenting such an icon of the industrial food system. But I don’t think I’ll head in that direction this morning. Take note of it, though because that thought is definitely worth a blog or two sometime in the future. I might have had a thought about the political implications of eating that Big Mac down on Grand River in East Lansing, and I generally do take a quick inventory of “what have I been eating lately” that’s roughly health-related before I decide what to do for lunch. But I wasn’t deeply worried about being seen at McDonald’s, or what people would say when they saw me carrying my McDonald’s cup down the hall of the Natural Resources Building after lunch. Or in full disclosure, it would have been the “industrial food system” thing that would have been on my mind had one of my garbology colleagues encountered the McDonald’s cup in my trash bin, rather than some deep indicator of my class identity. Perhaps they might think I’m not showing a proper commitment to “sticking it to The Man”.

But I wouldn’t have worried about them thinking that I was tainted by a lower-class value system. Maybe that’s because I still hang out with old hippies for whom being pegged as having lower-class values is a badge of distinction. Yet it was not like I was actually hoping that someone would see me flouting my déclassé McDonald’s cup, either. In fact, the only reason I become conscious that this little episode in my week might be blogworthy came later when I was listening to Marketplace on NPR. They were discussing how Pizza Hut was trying to “rebrand” itself as a more upscale place, and expressing doubts that it would work. They noted that all the trendy hipsters frequenting my classroom are heading to Chipotle in search of that “fast casual” vibe. Restaurant chains like Red Lobster or Olive Garden are really sucking wind in the current economic environment because they are too expensive for their former customers (who have seen too many years of stagnant growth in wages) and not hip enough for the fast casual crowd. You can read more about this take on food and identity in Forbes Magazine.

The radio analysts were saying that McDonald’s had already tried a rebranding strategy by upgrading their coffee and offering salads, but that it hadn’t really worked. It seems that the people who go to McDonald’s are still pretty much focused on getting the most for their food dollar. And it was then that I realized how embarrassing it is for my friends when I show up with that McDonald’s cup. I mean it’s not just my own image I have to worry about if I’m going to be a beacon of food ethics, don’t you know. Every parent experiences a phenomenon explained by Erving Goffman back in the late fifties: you have to be sensitive to the way that your everyday self is a performance in multiple little overlapping dramas. As far as your kids are concerned, you are expected to be “uncool” but there are limits, after all, and you need to learn what it is that will cause them to lose face in that pressure cooker of identity construction we know as the junior high or middle school.

So I’m writing this week to apologize to all my friends and colleagues in the Natural Resources building at MSU. Next year when I go to McDonald’s for my annual Big Mac, I’ll take off my socks and put one over the McDonald’s cup. Walking down the hall in a coat and tie with no socks won’t be a problem, will it?

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


The Movement

November 9, 2014

Last week I watched an old BBC documentary about Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting “The Death of Marat.” (Since this puts us in late 18th century France, it will help if you silently pronounce David as Dah-VEED and Marat as Mah-RAH throughout the rest of this blog.) Simon Schama was prattling on about how Marat was whipping up enthusiasm not only against the royals but also a growing number of counter-revolutionaries. You have to be literate in the battle between Jacobins and Girondists to follow this story in its details and if you are like me you have trouble telling the difference between a radical revolutionary and a white-collared hummingbird. Let’s just say that as the Jacobins held power during a brief interval during the 1790s, being thought moderate was not a particularly laudable (or for that matter, healthy) form of repute. Those advocating moderation were likely to lose their heads. Marat had been something of a hero among the radicals, hiding out in the sewers of Paris in order to escape the authorities during the waning years of the monarchy. When the Jacobins came to power he became one of the most vociferous in calling for purity of revolutionary zeal. Schama, who has argued that violence was inherent in the very origins of the French Revolution, agrees with many others who now regard Marat as the very paradigm of irresponsible radicalism.

But I digress. The film was about this painting by David, which Schama regards as a masterpiece despite his (Schama’s, that is) revulsion at its message. David, who was (I learned) right in there with Marat, Robespierre and the other white-collared hummingbirds, painted it to memorialize Marat after his assassination by one Charlotte Courday. “The Death of Marat” was, if we believe Schama, a singular example of art’s ability to galvanize public opinion and motivate action. You probably know this painting even if you don’t have any recollection of David or Marat. Marat had been stabbed in his bath and is depicted holding an apparently fictionalized note from Courday in which she pleads for his assistance. Schama’s film made me recall another even older art documentary where Robert Hughes prattled on about the way that art could mobilize the emotions, but not in any particularly justifiable direction. The same tropes were used by fascists and communists in the 1930s with opposite messages but equally effective results.

But the French Revolution hit me because it is, after all, the granddaddy of all social movements. And if you are at all active in the food world these days, you are consistently being hit over the head by the putatively rising “food movement.” This is, I think, what lots of people would presume that food ethics is predominantly about. I hasten to add that I didn’t get up on a chilly November morning to diss the activism of my friends and comments, but maybe “The Death of Marat” helps me make some sense of that little chill that runs up and down my spine when someone starts talking about how to promote the food movement.

Or maybe it’s something less noble. Maybe it’s the way that the phrase “food movement” seems to spontaneously evoke an association with my bowels. I’m fearful that when someone starts trying to enroll me in the food movement, I’ll lose my head and end up shat out into the toilet.

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

Fun Size Redux

Nov. 2, 2014

So here it is just two days after Halloween night, and I’m thinking that both readers of the blog are probably sitting there munching on little tiny candy bars as they peruse the blog this Sunday. Of course there’s the chance that you aren’t reading the blog on it’s posting date, but if that’s the case, just pretend and go along with the “tiny candy bars” theme. As this week’s title suggests, we’ve hit this theme before, but that was mostly for comic effect. This time I’m going to exploit your guilt feelings over eating all those tiny little candy bars that you either pilfered from your kids Halloween treat bag or, in my case, failed to distribute to the neighbor kids who came around for Trick or Treat. Of course there’s the chance that you don’t feel any guilt, but if that’s the case, just pretend and go along with the “I feel bad about stuffing my face with tiny candy bars” theme.

You are not going to find very many nutrition experts who will step forward to assuage your guilt. It was a couple of years ago that I blogged about having dinner with Walter Willet from Harvard’s School of Public Health. It’s possible that Willet would forgive a once a year splurge on tiny candy bars, but I’m betting we are way past that now, seeing as how it’s pretty likely that you had a few of these bad boys right on Halloween night as you were dishing them out to the little ghosts and goblins that were ringing your doorbell. You might have been nibbling on them for over a week now. And since it’s the second day after Halloweeen, you probably had a face full yesterday, didn’t you? So we’re well beyond the “once a year” forgiveness policy. Those candy bars are “bad for you” because they are full of “empty calories”. They’re full of refined sugar and they very likely have a fair amount of fat, as well.

So to link this up with the last couple of blogs on nutritional science, these tiny little candy bars are, in the mindset of nutritional reductionism, bad, bad, bad because of their nutrient structure, or to put it another way, their “nutrient density.” I should probably step forward and confess that I got onto this stream of nutrition related consciousness because I was reading Gyorgy Scrinis’ book Nutritionism. It put forward lots of ideas (which we noted on October 19), and then I felt obligated to hit another lick last week by explaining what Scrinis was talking about when he referred all this to a problem in “reductionist philosophy of science”. We did a short and probably quite obscure bit on “socially relevant philosophy of science” two years ago at about this time, so I’m just taking an opportunity to knit multiple themes together this morning by pointing out that there really was a “take-home ethics” point to these philosophically obscure musings. To wit: deep connections in how we do science can come back to bite us in the butt when they become embedded in our practical mindset, not to mention public policy.

Of course, I’m not at all sure how this relates to tiny little candy bars. It’s not like Scrinis’s revelations about the reductionism in nutrition is going to excuse this kind of dietary excess, especially when it continues for more than a week. If either of my regular readers decides to plow through Nutritionism, they’ll discover that he probably would complain about the fact that tiny little candy bars are examples of highly refined and processed food. They are “miscellaneous edible objects.” The point of nutritionism is that it actually provides a number of ways that you could work your way to exonerating tiny little candy bars because, for instance, they actually don’t do all that bad when you are focused on the glycemic index. Tiny little candy bars are “gluten-free.” Or maybe you could add some vitamins or Omega 3 fatty acids and claim that they are functional foods! Scrinis wants to tell us that a focus on nutrients and food components gives the food industry too many “outs”, too many ways to divert our attention from the way that tiny little candy bars are not really food at all. I’m sorry if this spoils your morning, but don’t worry. Those leftover Halloween treats won’t last forever.

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