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

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One thought on “Still Yet Another Key Blog

  1. I myself enjoy a bit of corn based ethanol, in some eggnog this time of the year.

    More seriously, the word on the street in the Sand County that I live in is that distillers grains (left over from ethanol production) is one of the best feed additives for putting weight on beef cattle. So corn used for fuel production ends up doing double duty (or even triple duty, if you consider that the less corn sugar we put into the human food chain, the better off we humans will be generally). This doesn’t undermine the point about land use decisions, though.

    Even more seriously: if farmers grow food corn instead of fuel corn, or grew more red peppers, or refused to sell beef to fast food chains, or sold healthy food at half its production cost, would less people be hungry? When I look into people’s grocery carts, the less-well-off folks aren’t buying Irish butter, sure, but they aren’t buying the least expensive nutritious items, either. Seems to me that if Kraft, Nestle and Anheuser-Busch InBev would conspire to make me think that eating polycropped leafy greens would give me more sex appeal (which is true), that would do more good than farmers ignoring the profit motive.

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