Breakdown Lane

October 25, 2015

I’m writing on the bus from Xitou to Taipai City, and the traffic is heavy on Sunday evening. Things run in a smooth and orderly way here in Taiwan, unlike the roads around Beijing. Still and all, I see quite a few drivers zipping past on the right in the breakdown lane at about 70 mph. I’d hate to have a flat tire here.

And speaking of which, we’ve kind of had a flat tire year in the Thornapple CSA, haven’t we? We’re ten days or so past the last distribution day, and maybe it’s a good moment to reflect on the past. I always have to be careful with this, because Diane is afraid that Thornapple members reading the blog—she’s crazy to think there are any—might think I’m speaking for her. Well for the record, Diane and I are on opposite sides of the globe. My e-mail is not working, and I can’t get cell service here. Meanwhile she doesn’t have an internet connection. So I’m speaking just for myself.

Looking back on seven seasons, I’d say we’ve done well for the members on five of them. We had a rocky year some time back, but memories are short. This year there were a number of things that members were hoping for that never materialized in the weekly baskets. Hopefully next year will be better.

But there’s another side to this and that’s how things work out for our farmers. As both long-time readers and most local Thornapple members probably know, we have a “core group” of members that takes on responsibility for steering things on behalf of the entire membership. Unlike farmer-organized CSAs, we hire a farmer at Thornapple. Often it’s a relatively young and idealistic person or couple hoping to get a start in small-scale organic farming. In fact, I can’t think of an exception to the “young and idealistic” part of that, but maybe the fact that it seems that way to me reflects more on me being old and cynical than them being young and idealistic.

I’m not going to do a tally, but I will say that more often than not, the main thing these young and idealistic types learn is that this small organic farming life is not really everything that it had been cracked up to be. Many of them would not like to hear me say that. They have often remained idealistic even as they have confronted some disappointments. And there’s no single failure mode here. Sometimes the physical labor has just been too much, and at other times the ability to build extra income through sales at farmers’ markets or the like has just not proven to be as lucrative as it needed to be in order to make being the Thornapple farmer into a viable lifestyle. Sometimes it was just that a more attractive alternative beckoned. For many of those years we would have been happy to have a farmer come back, but wound up searching for a new farmer over the winter months.

But let’s face it members. We have a tendency to wear out farmers. Making all the pieces fit in terms of matching work expectations,  meshing a communication style with the needs of our members and then jibing with the facilities at Appleshram is just not a trivially simple affair. It’s kind of amazing that on 5 out of seven tries, the membership has come away with warm and fuzzy feelings about the CSA way, even when on three or four of those occasions the farmers have concluded that it is an experience they don’t need to repeat. Coming to appreciate that complexity is one of the lessons that the whole CSA experience is designed to teach us urbanites, disconnected from our food systems as we tend to be. Let’s not forget that as we start planning for a more satisfying year in 2016. I hope all the members who do read this can see their way clear to shaking off that flat tire and giving it one more try.

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

A Rose Is Actually Not a Rose, Afterall

October 18, 2015

In a rare and uncharacteristic mood of timeliness, I note that the Senate Agriculture Committee is supposed to hold hearings on GMO labeling this week. “Supposed” rather than “will” because a) who knows what they will actually do? I’m not omniscient, and b) I’m too lazy to dig into their calendar and figure out whether there has been a change since the last time I knew anything about this (which was, truthfully, a couple of weeks ago). So with both readers forewarned and my contractual obligation to pursue irrelevant tangents fulfilled, I plow ahead.

I have advocated some form of GMO labeling since 1997, when doing so was exceedingly unpopular. However, I have also argued that the best case would be for the food industry to figure out how to do this voluntarily. We have lots of voluntary labels in the food world: fair-trade, gluten-free, Red Delicious. You don’t have to tell customers that this apple is a Red Delicious variety. All the Government cares about is whether or not once you’ve made these claims, they are in actual fact true. But before you can decide whether the claim is true there is also a bit of sticky philosophical business to sort out in terms of what the claim means. I’ve always presumed that a “GMO free” label means that the labeled product is neither itself GMO (e.g. its genetics are a product of gene transfer) nor does it contain GMOs in the case of a processed food.

We would also expect the label to imply that some reasonable steps have been taken to assure this, and in the world of voluntary labels that usually means there is some third party that attests to this. So just to be clear, you the buyer and the person or company marketing the product are the first two parties (don’t get me started on who is first and who is second). The “third party” is a mediator who satisfies that the product is “GMO free” in a manner that is putatively satisfactory to both of you. Now if you’ve been paying attention to the food world, you are probably aware that you can in fact buy GMO-free products these days, and you might think that products labeled GMO-free are (just as I said) neither GMOs nor contain GMOs. But while this is the case, the GMO-free label typically means more than this.

Specifically, the groups that promote and certify GMO-free labels interpret this as a moral claim. Not only does a person or company that labels their product as GMO-free have to speak the truth, they must also be philosophically opposed to any GMOs in the food system. They must be enrolled in a social movement that aims to prevent those people who either want GMOs or alternatively just don’t give a hoot from having any opportunity to use them. From a practical standpoint, this means that if I own a tortilla factory and I want to label my truthfully non-GMO tortillas as non-GMO, that’s not enough. I can’t also be making or marketing another line of tortillas that are made from Bt maize. That would be regarded as an insufficient commitment to the cause by the main groups that are certifying products as non-GMO or GMO-free.

However this commitment to moral purity is also kind of half-assed, if I can permit that expression in a family oriented blog, because the rules don’t extend into the supply chain. I can buy the non-GMO maize for my certified GMO-free tortillas from a guy that grows or sells both GMO and non-GMO maize, even if he or she can’t label the non-GMO maize as such because of their insufficient philosophical commitment to a non-GMO food system. Now to be sure, I can’t use his GMO maize for my GMO-free tortillas because my claim that they are GMO-free would then be false. You are, in a strict sense, getting what you pay for. But if you thought you were buying ideological purity along with that tortilla, I’m sorry to report that the purity is only skin deep. If I had my druthers, we’d drop the moral purity thing altogether, and I could sell both GMO-free tortillas and standard non-labeled tortillas (and who knows what is in them—but maybe you don’t care).

Not so simple as you thought, eh, Chucko! Is it any wonder that Senate Agriculture Committee has become convinced that there are tough questions to sort out? Stay tuned (or maybe not!).

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



October 11, 2015

All joking aside, I am still thinking about the revelation that agricultural scientists were sending e-mails that were supportive of the food industry point of view on several sensitive issues. In all seriousness I want to suggest that this is less nefarious than it has made out to be. At the same time, it’s more troubling.

In my experience, here’s how the “industry ties” thing works. It’s certainly true that rich people and rich organizations (like major food companies) have the wherewithal to commission research that is of interest to them. They also have the means to generate studies that are skewed in a manner that supports their commercial or political agenda. In the former case, they genuinely want to understand something, and it is not in their interest to spend money on biased research. This is not to say that there are no ethical issues. There are ethical issues encountered in any and every research project, but it is not necessarily the case that industry wants those issues resolved in such a way that the researcher just becomes a high priced “yes man.”

Of course, in the latter case that is exactly what they want, and the presumption that critics are making is that corrupt researchers shill for industry. It’s more like this: Those of us with university appointments are publishing our ideas and findings on a constant basis. (Witness the fact that you are reading the Thornapple Blog, and that it’s been coming out every Sunday for almost six years.) It’s pretty easy for industry to cherry pick the researchers that they like and then drive up to their office door with a truckload of money. The researchers themselves may not be doing anything different from what they would do if some neutral party—the National Science Foundation or the Gates Foundation—drove up with a truckload of money. From the researcher’s perspective, it’s totally objective research. It’s just happenstance that this research chooses framing assumptions (what to look for, what to compare it against) that lead eventually to a pattern of findings that some person or group (like a major food company) wants to promulgate.

In some of the more blatant cases, a company or a trade-group that represents a bunch of companies will find a scientist whose views suit their agenda to a tee. They will then start flying that individual all over to hell and gone, attending conferences, public hearings and giving lectures. They will put their substantial financial clout behand getting that scientist’s message out. But this doesn’t mean that the scientist in question is saying anything different than they would have said in the absence of all those plane tickets. In my experience, he or she is totally committed to their message, and has in no way been induced to say it because they wanted to fly all over hell and gone. Speaking of myself for a moment, I fly too much and am usually looking for ways to cut back my travel. What’s seductive is when someone thinks you are important enough that they want to hear what you have to say.

Of course in the cases we’re talking about, the industry wants other people to hear what these scientists have to say, and the fact that they are saying some particular thing is the reason why industry thinks they are important. Which is my way of circling back around to that “more troubling” thought we started with way back in the first paragraph. Academic researchers do seem to have a need for a certain amount of ego-stroking, and there may indeed be subtle forces that drive people to construct their studies along certain lines because doing it that way has led to strokes in the past. I have a friend named Jonathan Marks at Penn State who calls this “institutional corruption.” That and the fact that there is a systematic bias in the kind of research that gets done in the first place: lots of dollars for research that might lead to a new product, very few dollars to investigate its possible risks. So I’m not saying that there is no corruption here; just that it may not be nefarious in quite the way that some newspaper reporters seem to think.

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

Teeth of a Hydra

October 4, 2015

“Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’…”

We spent all of September doing food films, but a few things happened that could have been good fodder for the Thornapple blog. One of the big ones was a story that broke when some New York Times reporters did a FOIA request on e-mails from a number of agricultural scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and at land grant universities (like mine, for example). They were shocked to discover that these government employees had been offering advice to various farm organizations and food industry firms with respect to a number of issues: GMO labeling and state initiatives to regulate the welfare of poultry and livestock being among them.

So when this story broke last month I’m thinking, “She’s in the mood; no need to break it.” I’ll just keep on with the food flics and then come back to it in October. Well October it is and so I Google the phrase at the top of page (“Meanwhile I’m still thinking”) and then I am shocked to discover that the Internet thinks that this comes from Marc Bolan’s Get It On (circa 1971). One site even references Santana and Bang a Gong which is, of course Carlos Santana’s cover of the Bolan tune. There are some other references to songs by Johnathan Richman and OutKast, but the closest that anyone gets to the truth is the Rolling Stones Little Queenie.

The Rolling Stones? Well, yeah, the Stones did cover this iconic Chuck Berry song from 1959. The reason I’m letting this tangent run on so long is that I’m beginning to sniff a point here. The point is that our Internet soaked crowd is so out of touch that they haven’t figured out that all of these songwriters, including Bolan, are quoting Chuck Berry. And speaking of being out of touch, the younger generation is apparently so out of touch that they think discovering a close tie between agricultural researchers and bureaucrats, on the one hand, and farmers or the food industry, on the other, is newsworthy.

I blame Abraham Lincoln. Coincidentally, like Berry’s release of Little Queenie, this also happened way back in ’59, though of course now we’re talking about 1859. Speaking at the Wisconsin Agricultural Fair, Lincoln praises farmers, saying “their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated — that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield.” In short, when those scientists and bureaucrats are pimping food producers, they are only doing their job, which is of course, to pursue the national interest. Lincoln goes on in this address to argue for applying steam power to agriculture and supporting agricultural research that would “raise up the soil to its full potential.” When he became President, he delivered on this by creating the USDA, which he referred to as “the People’s department.”

Of course things have changed a bit since 1859, when most Americans were farmers, and poor to boot. I’d like to give Lincoln some credit for those changes, and also for noting that the agriculture of his own day had some moral problems (a little thing called race slavery). Today we are down to less than 1% of our population in farming, and it’s not clear that Lincoln would still be saying that farm interests are the ones “most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated.” Maybe the folks who had their e-mails FOIAed didn’t get the memo.

Still and all, the shock and dismay expressed by those Times reporters tells me that they are living in a different world than I inhabit, for sure. Chuck Berry his own self will be 89 later this month (the 18th, for readers who are counting). I wonder if he would have been shocked by all those e-mail revelations. I wonder if he’s still thinking to himself, “If it’s a slow song, then we’ll omit it. If it’s a rocker, son, that’ll get it”?

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