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


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