August 30, 2015

Terry Link is an occasional reader of the Thornapple Blog who never posts comments, but he will occasionally send an e-mail or make a comment when I see him in person. This week he passed along a link to an article by Sheldon Krimsky that has just been published in Science, Technology and Human Values. Shelly uses an analysis of two key case studies to argue against the claim that there is a strong and wide scientific consensus about the safety of genetically engineered food crops, or GMOs. Now, I can’t possibly say much about what those are and stay within my self-imposed word limit, so I’m just going to assume that everyone knows what Shelly is talking about and steam right on ahead. I’m guessing that Terry passed this along mainly because he knows I’m interested in GMOs, but I suspect that he is especially impressed by peer-reviewed research that gives us some reason to question the boosterism that we hear from many scientists—including many from MSU.

As it happens, I was one of the anonymous peer reviewers for this article. Ooops! I guess that I just blew my anonymity! Lest blog readers question my own ethics for revealing this, I’ll say that there is a weaker compunction against maintaining confidentiality with respect to papers that successfully negotiate the peer review process than for those that don’t. Journal editors shouldn’t reveal the identity of reviewers in any case, and they might prefer that reviewers themselves abstain from such disclosures as a way to protect the overall integrity of the process. But I’m coming out, anyway. If there is anyone out there who wants to take a swipe at the “idiots” who recommended that this piece be published, now you know where to come.

This is not to say that Shelly and I are in lock-step agreement about the two cases that he discusses. I do think that the article successfully shows that there is substantial disagreement within the scientific community about how these dissenters are treated. I agree totally with the part of his paper that criticizes the treatment given to Arpad Pusztai in the 1980s and to Gils-Eric Seralini more recently after both announced results from preliminary toxicological studies that some view as evidence for the riskiness of eating GMOs. Shelly also thinks that a) the studies themselves and b) the knee-jerk over-the-top defensiveness of mainstream science provide reasons to doubt the safety of GMOs. I disagree flatly on both points, though I have myself argued (in my book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone) that drawing the inference from b) is perfectly reasonable. You’ll have to lay out the twenty-five bucks or make a trip to your library to get my views on this latter point, because I just don’t have the energy to go over that point again.

What I would have said on point a) if I had been writing this paper is that the science community has done an exceedingly poor job of explaining why they did not interpret Pusztai’s and Seralini’s results as evidence for an unacceptable risk. If I were inclined to be forgiving, I would note that explaining this is actually kind of hard. It couldn’t be done in a single entry of the Thornapple Blog, for sure. Doing a decent job drags you into thinking about what “unacceptable risk” means in the context of food safety. John Kreb’s little book Food: A Very Short Introduction explains that many foods contain natural toxicants that would prevent them from being approved if the substances had been added artificially. Potatoes are his example. It’s not unusual for potato breeders who are just doing ordinary cross breeding to accidently activate those toxicants, creating a potato that will make you very sick. It may be significant that Pusztai was testing a particular potato variety that had been genetically engineered. It may well have had some nasty bits in it, but Pusztai had no reason to think that they got there as a result of the genetic engineering.

Seralini was replicating an experiment described in published literature that is designed to test for “acute toxicity”—something that makes you sick right away. It’s what we might normally call “poison”. He didn’t find anything, but decided to extend the experiment for a longer time period than would normally be used for testing acute toxicity. This is not standard toxicological practice. The idea is that you would already be sick or dead, so why drag things out? Lo and behold, his rats started to develop tumors. What Shelly doesn’t tell you in his article is that the rats Seralini was using are considered to be good models for testing acute toxicity, but not for long term studies because they are known to have a genetic tendency to develop tumors as they get older. Whoops!

What’s amazing and depressing to me is that you can plow through many pages of tedious peer reviewed literature, not to mention “letters to the editor” without having either of these points explained to you. That, I think, is a problem in food ethics.

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

Amik Minis

August 23, 2015

Just in from a weekend at Beaver Island. I was up there with my friend and colleague Kyle Whyte, and my student Zach Piso. Kyle is scoping out the possibility of a workshop/retreat focused on environmental philosophy, and he has the idea the Beaver Island might be a good location for it. There are some major plus points. We spent a good 15-20 minutes watching a bald eagle that was lording it over Miller’s Marsh, then when came back by the marsh that evening, there were four sand hill cranes standing within a car-length of the road. In short, it more than passes the test for scenic beauty and opportunity to experience nature.

Of course, we’re post-postmodern hipsters here in the blog, so we’re a little put off with the whole idea of experiencing nature. Nature, after all, would be a social construction, wouldn’t it? Maybe we’re better off just saying that we enjoyed seeing a marsh populated by some sensationally large birds. Yet we could go the full hog and push the line that what’s what on Beaver Island is not exclusively the wildlife and relatively untrammeled ecosystems. It’s the overwhelming sense of place.

And there are many things of human origin that contribute to the sense of place. Michiganders typically know about this guy James Strang, at one point in contention with Brigham Young for leadership of the Mormans following the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844. Strang wound up on Beaver Island with a contingent of disaffected Mormons, where he eventually declared something rather like the ISIL caliphate that is dominating the nightly news (albeit without the beheadings). There is pretty good stuff on Strang to be found at Wikipedia, so there’s really not much point in going on and on about him here.

We might be slightly better advised to indulge a tangent on Protar. Protar’s house is on the National Register of Historic Places (or some such official designation), and we were able to drive up and walk around it without interference. Protar is a long story, but he is a revered figure up there because he served as the island’s only doctor prior to his death in 1925. He was, however, trained as an actor, leading me to think that he was the 19th century version of Marcus Welby (I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV). Tip of the Protar iceberg, these facts, but definitely part of the Beaver Island sense of place.

We did hear some of the Island’s distinctive Celtic music, which relates to the Irish on the Island. And we should also note that there were Odawa living on several of the islands in the Beaver Archipelago back in the days of Strang and Protar. They were excellent fishermen (as were the Irish) until a sudden collapse in the fisheries there in the 1940s. It occurred to me that Beaver Island is a lot less accessible today than it was in the 19th century, when there were hundreds of vessels plying the waters of Lake Michigan on a regular basis. These days you can fly in all year around (not something they did in Protar’s time) but the ferry that runs to Charlevoix is the main commercial ship going in and out on a regular basis.

I went up there looking for the North American home of Simone de Beauvoir, the prominent French existential feminist. I was thrown off by some work by a contemporary existential feminist who refers to de Beauvoir as “the Beaver.” I won’t speculate on the subliminal themes here, but Kyle informed me that the French would have referred to the place as l’île Castor. Food? Not so much in our brief experience. We did eat some local whitefish, but though I’d say the places we dined were just fine, I don’t think you’d go to Beaver Island for food culture. That’s generally true of the U. P., too. It’s a bet they’re missing so far.

And we didn’t actually see any beavers.

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


The Skitters

August 16, 2015

Longtime blog readers expect an entry on peaches about now, but sadly the peach crop in Michigan was not so good this year. In lieu of overpraising the Colorado peaches we’ve been vacuuming into our gullets for the last week, I think I’ll just segue right back to some food references in American literature. Here I’m thinking of a passage in The Grapes of Wrath where Ruthie and Winfield Joad endure a case of the skitters from eating too many peaches. (And I think we’ve visited this incident briefly once before).

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel The Grapes of Wrath would be an obvious choice for anyone interested in food ethics. As I’m sure at least a few blog-readers know, it begins (nominally) in Dust Bowl Oklahoma and ends with the Joad family suffering the indignities of migrant labor in the orchards of California. Steinbeck deftly combines the two big ethical issues of industrial agriculture—environmental devastation and social injustice—with this particular bit of plotting. I’ve written about this in my real-world life in my book The Agrarian Vision, so frankly I’m already bored with the prospect of probing Grapes on these counts. There is the minor point that the region of Oklahoma where Steinbeck situates the Joads during the chapters where they are being evicted from a dust-clogged and no longer productive family farm isn’t actually in the Oklahoma panhandle (where the Dust Bowl was a very real phenomenon), but I’m going to let that one pass this morning.

Although the links between a certain type of greed and the exploitation of Dust Bowl soils was a common enough theme in the 1930s, Steinbeck was always more interested in what happens to the Okies once they get to California. He was an advocate of the poor and downtrodden, though not necessarily an advocate of any particular social policy along these lines. The Joads bounce around from various Hooverville encampments to substandard housing being supplied to pickers at large scale California fruit and vegetable farms. They are generally (though not universally) cheated on these farms by being paid significantly less than the advertised rate for their unskilled labor. However, at one of the locations they are allowed to eat as much as they want. What they are picking at this farm is peaches, hence the link to Ruthie and Winfield’s fate.

Now at this point I’m obligated by my contract with the Thornapple CSA (which hosts this website) to indulge in one or two tangential interludes that take the theme of blog far off track, and instill a sense of befuddlement and stupification in my readers. I’ll start by noting that ‘stupification’ isn’t actually a word, though ‘stupefaction’ is. I think it should be stupification, don’t you? Then I might add that according to the Internet, skitters are functionally nocturnal and communicate using radio waves. You will also learn that they are able to use harnessed children to communicate with humans. If by some chance you were searching the Blogosphere for more up-to-date information on this particular alien life form, I’m now obligated to inform you of my suspicion that this really doesn’t have much to do with The Grapes of Wrath.

Setting aside the possibility that Ruthie and Winfield have been harnessed by an alien life form (there’s really nothing in the novel to support such a reading), Steinbeck is introducing the skitters incident to make a slightly more subtle point. The Joad kids have grown up poor in Oklahoma. As a result, they’ve never seen peaches. It’s their excitement over the rash abundance of what to them is a luxury commodity that induces their overconsumption. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether a case of the skitters is intended to suggest a form of divine revenge for such an indulgence.

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

Oysters, Anyone?

August 9, 2015

I spent a good seven nights (though not all at once) this summer a few blocks from the old location of the Reno House on Sacramento St. near Kearney in San Francisco. It’s where Van Vandover is living as he concludes his downward slide in Frank Norris’ novel Vandover and the Brute, written in the 1890s but not published until 1914. I think of Frank Norris as a possible food ethics icon in virtue of the work he completed toward a trilogy he referred to as “The Epic of the Wheat.” The basic idea—which might actually be somewhat misleading given the components that Norris did get written—is that a capitalist food system is driven by soul-destroying greed, competitiveness and venality, only to end up delivering heroic blessings courtesy of the invisible hand. Sound familiar? Norris exemplified the first part of this theme in his two most influential novels, The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903). The former book is about wheat production in late 19th century Califorinia and the exploitation of industrial farmers by the railroad. Of course the farmers themselves were themselves exploiting both the land and their hired labor—competitiveness and venality, don’t you know. The latter volume is also about competitiveness and venality but this time at the Chicago Board of Trade, where wheat winds up after the railroads have gotten their hands on it.

Norris had reportedly planned a third volume where this wheat was going to end up feeding hungry people in the Ukraine (or some such exotic location—don’t quote me on this), redeeming all that soul-destroying venality and corruption. But he died of peritonitis at the tender age of 32, and he never got around to finishing “The Epic of the Wheat.” I guess that means that the capitalist industrial food system remains unredeemed to this day. I frankly don’t know whether Norris should be regarded as an apologist for the industrial food system, or one of its most effective critics.

Vandover and the Brute is not about food and farming, but I’m here to tell you that there are themes in food ethics that might be gleaned from it, nonetheless. If there are redemptive qualities to Norris’s first effort at the long form (and I think they are), they do not reside in the plotting. Vandover is the son of a wealthy San Francisco attorney. Right away we know that he’s a shiftless bum, more interested in his inflated dreams of painting a monumental battle scene than in actually doing any useful work. He ends up swabbing toilets and removing the rotting carcasses of vermin from the mill houses owned by his former Harvard chum Charlie Geary. It’s Charlie who is soulless, competitive and venal, while Van is a hapless boob consumed by the passions of the moment. But Norris is a writer who can strike just the right note in passages that recount the quotidian details of Vandover’s daily life—his ability to be deterred from his art by the pleasures of a bath or a cigar, for example.

And as any faithful reader of the Thornapple Blog would expect, food also shows up on the list of corrupting distractions. Welsh rabbits and oysters top the menu while Vandover still has enough of his family wealth to indulge himself. Meanwhile Charlie is downing steak after steak at the Imperial eating house. By the end Vandover is surviving on the crackers and sandwiches set out for taking for anyone who has a nickel for beer in the low-end barrooms of the late 19th century waterfront.

I’d like to go off on a typical Thornapple Blog tangent on the Welsh rabbit, which we typically render as “Welsh rarebit”, though Wikipedia tells me that “welsh rabbit” is, in fact, the original spelling. Norris uses both spellings, but it is always “welsh rabbit” when the reader is seeing the world through Vandover’s increasingly clouded perspective. Out here in the Great Midwest, we call this a “hot brown.” This nominally because something rather like it was served at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. As it happens, I was also at the Brown Hotel earlier this year, but I’m getting to the end of the blog this week, so I guess I’d better resist the tangent.

Unless I just did it. There are some random synapses lurking in my own debauched, corrupt and competitively venal brain suggesting that I should take up literary criticism and write about the food ethics themes in novels that are manifestly not about food, novels like Vandover and the Brute. But I doubt that I will ever put enough effort into that kind of thinking to pull it off. I would have enjoyed some oysters and a hot brown while in San Francisco, but the closest I came was some sushi from Bristol Farms.

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

An Additional Appearance by Our Favorite Satellite

August 2, 2013

We have finally made it to August. In Michigan, that means tomatoes. I realize that some of you may have been enjoying tomatoes for several weeks now, but give me a large break. It’s not only Michigan, where we never get tomatoes much before the last week of July, it’s been kind of a cold and wet summer. It’s still a little too early to tell how all that’s going to affect our tomatoes. Probably not for the better, but I’m still hopeful. We have a few little boys from last week’s CSA share sitting downstairs on the counter right now, trying their hardest to get just a little bit redder. You can hear them working diligently if you are quiet, squirming and a puffing almost inaudibly in that winning way typical of domesticated garden plants.

Diane and I went out to the farm on Friday night for the Thornapple CSA Blue Moon Party. I must say that it was pretty rowdy event, reaching a peak when core group member Ryan Apple (no relation to Appleschram) and Farmer Paul (no relation to Paul Thompson) broke out in a stirring fiddle toon. Or maybe it was a stirring fiddle tune. In any case a wonderful time was had by all and you can gaze at pictures on the Thornapple CSA Facebook page.

There is, in astrological fact, a bit of confusion about the blue moon. I suspect that it is closely tied to the confusion that prevented us from making an appropriately forthright statement about climate ethics a couple of weeks back. Thanks to John Zilmer for straightening that one out for the legions of readers that flock to the blog’s website on a regular basis. Or maybe they flock only once in a blue moon.

The confusion arises in virtue of the fact that a so-called “blue” moon is in fact an intercalary lunar phase—an extra cycle above and beyond the twelve normal (e.g. non-blue) moons that occur during a typical year. Those of us who are deeply schooled in metaphysics know that there is, strictly speaking, never a typical year. There are only years whose atypical nature goes unnoticed by the shuffling hoards. But that’s probably altogether much too depressing for an August blog, so forget that I brought it up. Unfortunately for those who like to keep their peas and their mashed potatoes from touching one another, our calendar (that would be the one by which we reckon that today is, indeed, the 2nd of August, 2015) is solar, rather than lunar. And there are about 12.37 lunations in every solar calendar. Which makes seven blue moons in every Metonic cycle.

I bet five dollars to a donut that you did not expect to encounter the word “lunation” when you opened up the Thornapple blog. This would be a good name for spells experienced by Larry Talbot (as memorably portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr.) whenever the moon was full. Remember, “I saw Lon Chaney walkin’ wi’ da Queen. Dah dah dah. I saw Lon Chaney JUNIOR walkin’ wi’ da Queen. They were doing the werewolves of London,”? Well it’s actually supposed to be the third lunation in a seasonal cycle with four instead of three moons that counts as the blue moon. But that’s just a little too complex for us lameheads to grasp, so we typically just call the second full moon in a month the blue one, which is what we did last Friday night, when the second full moon showed up on July 31st while we were out singing songs and cooking wienies at Appleschram orchard with Ryan Apple and Farmer Paul.

An intercalary chapter is a little extra insertion that does not advance the plot. Not that we would stoop to such nonsense in the Thornapple Blog! John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is loaded with intercalary chapters, providing American high school students of a certain era to become familiar with a crazy word that might show up on a pop quiz. Knowing this, we were not surprised when an intercalary lunation showed up last Friday. We didn’t see any werewolves, though.

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