June 28, 2015

Is there anything less enduring than a meal? Whether cobbled together from leftovers and scraps in the refrigerator or the result of detailed planning and careful preparation, that last meal you ate, well, it’s gone. And really, folks, is there anything less memorable? I mean sure there are going to be a few exceptions in your life. The octopus in its own ink I ate in Bilbao has stuck with me, but mainly, if I’m honest about it, the visual effect of that inky black plate being set before me, that’s what I remember. And there were plenty of reinforcing threads around that particular meal, too: joking with Peter Sandøe, thinking about the octopus itself, not to mention just trying to stay awake until 11:00pm to start dinner. But I mention such peripherals only to underline the sensation of memory. Most meals won’t surrender themselves to that kind of recall.

There are also those dishes from one’s childhood or from some especially precious habitus. We remember them fondly. Except that I’m going to say, in fact we don’t. What we remember is something else—a generalized feeling of well-being, perhaps, but probably a generalized feeling of well-being that we recall from some previous episode of thinking about those times, those people. We may associate a smell, a taste or the picture of some especially scarlet tomato sauce with those memories, but I’m going to insist that we’re not really remembering any particular tomato sauce at all. It’s something with a real referent, to be sure, but what we’re remembering is a collage, an assemblage of emotion colored images that we have, in fact, projected and constituted in a performance of nostalgia.

Not that there’s something wrong with that. These kind of false memories can play a role in “essentializing” ideas of Motherhood and femininity, to be sure. When that happens, stereotyped roles can get constructed that can, in turn, be deployed in oppressing real people—strangers and family members alike—who inhabit our orbits of daily practice. Not a good thing. But surely everyone lives in a memory palace that is largely tissued of bricolage and partial lapses, bearing little actual verisimilitude to our respective pasts. The fault lies not in the way we re-member the past, but in the way we (sometimes) project those constructed memorials on the present. And that’s not what I sat down to write about today.

No, I was stirred by the ephemerality itself, and then I got carried away trying to evoke it. Of course there’s another sense in which our past meals are anything but transient. Those fats, carbs and proteins become a part of us in a very literal sense. And if they happen to be carrying a few toxins along as hitchhikers, well, those pesky little badboys become a part of us, too. We are what we ate, and we may yet pay for it. Yet I’ll insist it’s that the temporary and evanescent dimension of eating that we should lift up in food ethics. We should remember how far we are from the eternal verities that are more typically celebrated by the moral sages of yore.

George Steiner says that most people who write have a hankering for immortality lurking somewhere hidden in their subconscious, and I can’t say he’s wrong. He wrote that a few years before blogging became commonplace, and he even anticipated the way that the Internet might undo the potential for anyone to hanker for immortality without simultaneously feeling a keen sense of embarrassment. Yet if food is the quintessence of transience, what can we say of food writing? And if food writing lives only for the Wednesday “Food” section, what can we say of a food blog?

And yet, and yet, there are so, so many of them! What are we trying to memorialize?

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

Letter from Rome

June 21, 2015

In case you missed it, the major food ethics newsflash for last week came out of Rome. Pope Francis issued an encyclical entitled Laudato Si’. At first I thought it was from a crowd chant heard when the Allman Brothers Band played stadium gigs in Italy: Alberino fustigazione, laudato, si! [Tr: Whipping post, louder, yes!], but it turns out that the Allman Brothers never played any stadium gigs in Italy, so I had to go back to square one on the Pope’s encyclical. I must confess that I still haven’t read it, but I did find a link to an English translation, which I am offering right here.

Eventually the hysterical reaction from the right wing press told me that the Pope had done one of two things. He had either suggested that it was time to start looking after Sister Earth, or he had made disparaging remarks about NASCAR. The fact that he decided to name himself after Saint Francis of Assisi is a pretty good hint that it is probably the former, so that’s what I’m going with this Sunday.

Of course both of my regular readers know that I am being coy. While not stooping to the point of having done actual research on Pope Francis’s encyclical, I have been following the buzz on the International Society for Environmental Ethics List Serve. If you are one of the Thornapple Blog readers who does not know what a “list serve” is (and believe me, you would not be the only one), I’m just going to suggest that you Google it. I’ve already fulfilled my quota of tangential misdirection for the week, and it is really time to get on with the main point.

Folks on the ISEE list are generally favorable. They approve of the fact that the Pope has said that humanity has a responsibility to halt the harm that it has been doing to the global ecosystem by releasing a toxic cocktail of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and even to undertake measures that would repair some of the damage. The amount of kneejerk outrage spewing from the climate sceptics on this is really kind of depressing, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. I’m not going to be lured into that quagmire.

I will point out that not everyone on the ISEE list is wholly positive about the Pope. There are a few who are kind of grudging about their approval of the Laudato Si’ encyclical mainly because, well, after all, he is the Pope, and they are just kind of down on things religious, being (as many are) formally trained philosophers and all. There are some who object to his association of “the Earth” with a gendered term (e.g. ‘sister’), seeing it is more than a bit passé and even sexist coming from a man in his position. And there were longer rants about his refusal to endorse the idea that human population growth was a driving source of the problem. I point out these objections in the spirit of reportage. I have no more intention of engaging these points than those of the nutcases.

Readers of the Thornapple Blog may be asking themselves, “But what does this have to do with food ethics?” But here I will note that based on what I have read (and again I’ll confess in all seriousness to have read only some excerpts), this is clearly what the Pope gets right. There have already been serious consequences from greenhouse gas pollution for world agriculture. They range from loss of farmland due to sea level rise to flooding and drought associated with the increased volatility brought on by change in some of the basic atmospheric processes that make up the global climate system. As the Pope notes, the people being affected by this are not people who have gotten fat eating steak and driving SUVs (to mention two things that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions), nor are they people who can afford to undertake the measures that would offset the devastating impact on their local farming environment.

The Pope is pretty clear that we should think of ethics as involving duties to Nature herself (apologies to my feminist readers for following the Pope’s language use here), but he is also clear that duties to Nature align nicely with more traditional Christian social teachings about duties to the poor.

Now if I could just figure out what ‘encyclical’ means.

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


Book Tour

June 14, 2015

I spent most of last week on a mini book tour to promote my new book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone. It was fun and pretty well received at all four of the West Coast locations. In Berkeley, CA a skeptical gentleman asked me to talk a bit about the case for eating organic food. My answer omitted something that was extremely important for several other people in the audience: You should look for foods that have not been sprayed with chemicals because of the risk they pose for agricultural workers. Less concerned about their own health and safety, at least two people in a rather small audience took me to task for not making this seemingly obvious ethical point.

I must say that my first reaction was to push back. Agricultural pesticides are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or as we farm insiders like to call it FIFRA. (Try saying “fifra” out loud. It’s fun!) It may seem like this list of poisons—to which we could add herbicides—are going to be inherently dangerous. Linguistically they all seem to be in the same family with homicide.

I periodically find myself applying something called Naftin™ to the fungus on my feet, so I guess I should confess that I’m not totally down on fungicides, at least. But maybe that has relatively little to do with food ethics.

The thought that was actually running through my head was an unverified story I heard a few years back: that some larger organic growers were bringing back the short hoe, known among migrant workers as el cortito. Here’s a quote from a PBS webpage for The Fight in the Fields:

In the late 1960s and 1970s, el cortito was the most potent symbol of all that was wrong with farmwork in California: The tool was unnecessary, and farmers in most other states had long switched to longer hoes. Growers argued that without the control the short hoe offered, thinning and weeding would be mishandled, crop losses would mount, and some farmers would go bankrupt. As he prepared to take on California farmers, Jourdane quizzed many physicians—including Cesar Chavez’s back specialist—who said that without a doubt, the hoe was responsible for the debilitating back pain experienced by many of their farmworker patients.

Let me repeat the word “unverified”. The quote above explains why a grower might want to do this, but I have no hard evidence that it’s being done. Carefully regulated use of the more benign pesticides can save some of the “stoop labor” involved in farming, and I rather think that there are a at least a few cases where concern for the interests of farmworkers would run counter to the intuitions of my critics.

Then I reminded myself that the larger history of pesticide regulation has involved both manufacturers and industrial farmers relying on the difficulty of proving that exposure to agricultural chemicals harms farmworkers to resist “careful regulation.” And I remembered Angus Wright’s classic book The Death of Ramon Gonzalez. Wright recounts an episode of pesticide abuse accompanied by utter disregard for the health and safety of farmworkers. So I decided to bite my tongue and simply agree with the sentiments being expressed by the audience.

I’m glad I did.  The book tour comes to mid-Michigan on June 22. Look for me at Schuler Books in Okemos at the Meridian Mall around 7:00 pm.

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

Elegant Economies

June 7, 2015

The 19th century author Elizabeth Gaskel advises that “almost everyone has his own individual small economies—careful habits of saving fractions of pennies in some one particular direction—any disturbance of which him more than spending schillings or pounds on some more real extravagance.” She goes on to illustrate the point with examples, one of which falls squarely in the domain of food ethics.

Small pieces of butter grieve others. They cannot attend to conversation, because of the annoyance occasioned by the habit which some people have of invariably taking more butter than they want. Have you not seen the anxious look (almost mesmeric) which such persons fix on the article? They would feel it a relief if they might bury it out of their sight, by popping it into their own mouths, and swallowing down; and they are really made happy if the person on whose plate it lies unused, suddenly breaks off a piece of toast (which he does not want at all) and eats up his butter. They think that this is not waste.

I may be repeating myself to note how my mother used a similar ethic of limiting waste to encourage me in the practice of eating everything on my plate. I confess to losing track of what I have and have not already said in the Thornapple blog, but I take comfort from the vanishingly small probability that anyone who against all odds finds themselves perusing the words formed by the electrons bouncing about on their screen this week would have read the blog some time ago. In any case, cleaning your plate was a fairly widespread application of the “waste not, want not” adage at one time. Maybe it still is. These days, of course, there’s often so much on the plate that popping that extra bit of buttered toast into one’s mouth in order to effect an elegant economy may be one of the things that’s contributing to our tendencies toward diabetes and heart disease.

Which is not to say that there’s nothing worth talking about from an ethics perspective when it comes to food waste. Here is a link to the Food Ethics Council on food waste. They begin with a quote to the effect that food currently wasted in the USA and UK could “lift 233 million people out of hunger.” But amazingly, they are almost as twisted and noncommittal as we are here at the Thornapple blog. They note (correctly, I think) that simply economizing on waste won’t actually feed the hungry. Attempts to economize on food waste must be accompanied by other efforts deliberately designed to address food security among impoverished and marginalized peoples.

I wonder if they had been reading Cranford?

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