And Still Another Key Blog

November 29, 2015

We set aside the Sunday after Thanksgiving every year for the key blog. It’s a tone-setting effort that reiterates the environmental theme that is intended to be the overarching orientation to all the other blogs, serious and irreverent, that get written every other Sunday of the year. There is a backstory to the key blog that I’ve spelled out on previous post-Thanksgiving Sundays, but if you are a latecomer and want to pick up that thread, I think I’ll just link you to last year’s entry, from whence you will be able to trace the narrative back to its origins in 2009.

I always make a respectful reference to Aldo Leopold, the conservation biologist who is sometimes also regarded as the founding voice in environmental ethics. Leopold decried the tendency to cook up dollar values for those aspects of nature that we love on the pretense that we are just not being economical. Leopold was thinking specifically of songbirds when he made this observation. He was poking a little fun at the economists who were trying to convince people that losing songbirds was the same as wasting money. Better, Leopold thought, to just recognize that we love them. Of course not everyone does love them, so sometimes these economic arguments do some work in a policy context. But this is not an economics blog, whatever you might have thought, and Leopold’s insight is a pretty important step toward thinking philosophically about food, farming and the broader significance of what we eat.

In fact, I’ve distrusted a certain kind of food ethics for a very similar reason. It recommends eating as an act that produces a more environmentally sound world: Buy local because reducing the distance your food travels will have a positive impact on climate change, and eat vegetarian because reducing the emission of methane from livestock production has a similar effect. One can worry about whether these things are really true, but that’s not my issue. What I distrust is the machine metaphor that I see working in this kind of argument: Do A to bring about B. Why? Because B is a mechanistic result caused by A. Long ago (in The Spirit of the Soil ) I put forward the argument that this kind of thinking is just an invitation for more technology: Let’s figure out some way we can still do A, but not bring about B. And I have to say that the clever innovators in the agricultural science world have been remarkably effective about doing just that.

Now just to make things even more complicated, I’m not against technological solutions. At least I’m not against them when they actually work, which is, to be fair, less often than claimed. My complaint is that in thinking that we address ethical issues by short-circuiting the causal connection between our action A and the undesirable consequence B, we are actually short-circuiting the process of ethical reflection itself. Focusing on technological solutions is actually a way to not think about what we are doing in a reflective and careful manner.

I’ve found that it’s pretty hard to engage in reflective thinking when you are limiting yourself to 1000 words or less, and trying not to be so boring that no one would want to look at your effort on a bright but chilly November morning, to boot. At least it’s hard for me. So I wouldn’t necessarily take an overweening pride in what we’ve accomplished over the last six years here at the Thornapple Blog. The blog was originally conceived as something that would remind members of their weekly delivery, even when the Michigan winter has shut down meaningful production of organically grown veggies. So maybe we will go for seven years, if the Thornapple CSA can keep itself together for another season.

And currently it is looking like it will.

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



A Quick One, While I’m Away

November 22, 2015

Nothing about Ivan the Engine Driver this week, just a few random thoughts as we round the corner into Thanksgiving weekend.

I’m eating breakfast in a distant city (again) this week and I’m sitting there sipping my coffee with a copy of my book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone sitting on the table in front of me. A woman at the adjacent table asks me, “Is that a good book?” Well, I should have assured her that it is probably the best book I have read since Thornton W. Burgess’s The Adventures of Grandfather Frog. But instead I was taken aback and just told her that I probably wouldn’t be a very good judge of that because of my deep personal involvement in the book’s creation. To which she replied, “A friend had told me about it, and I was just curious.”

This has certainly never happened to me before, a total stranger NOT at some kind of arcane philosophers’ meeting mentioning that she had actually heard of something I’ve written. Frankly, I’m a bit skeptical. Perhaps she confused “from field to fork” with From Farm to Fortune by Horatio Alger. Or maybe it was From Abundance to Scarcity by Kenneth Boulding. Still I decided to enjoy the moment.

I can also comfort my self with the elliptical ontological observation that if you happen to be reading the Thornapple Blog right at this moment, you too may have heard of something I’ve written.

Next week is the anniversary for the Thornapple Blog.

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

Overheard at Ellyington’s

November 15, 2015

It’s hard to avoid a little inadvertent eavesdropping when you are waiting for breakfast by yourself at a quiet restaurant. The two guys at the adjacent table are also waiting for their food, but they are engaged in an intense conversation over things like “core samples” and some sort of foibles that have occurred of late that will require them or their partners to redo something not done properly. The conversation seems to be about drilling of some kind, but I don’t think they are dentists. They drone on. I’m not really trying to listen, and my coffee is much more interesting in any case. After my oatmeal shows up and I have creamed and sugared it to my taste, I’m working through my daily regimen of morning medicine and happen to catch a few more snippets of their exchange. Now things have moved on and the topic has turned to Peyton Manning and last week’s loss to the Colts. It’s something else I’m not deeply inclined to listen in on, but at least I can make a little more sense of the apparent concern being expressed about whether the Broncos are really as good as their record would suggest.

Next morning I’m seated in a different area of the same restaurant near a table with two women, both younger than me, but between 35 and 50. I overhear something about a rehearsal dinner and am trying to tune them out, but the topic segues into shopping for dresses and the pair are quite animated, if certainly well within the range of decorum one would expect at a place with white tablecloths. The detail on colors, styles and how they make them look is a little embarrassing to listen to, but strangely compelling, too. Eventually my coffee is enough of a distraction and I am able to tune out this conversation at least until my bran muffin shows up. Their food has arrived as well and just like the morning before I catch a few more lines of the conversation, which has now turned to contracts, expectations and foibles. One says, “I see that I did not ask the right question.”

So both of these couples are conducting business over breakfast—something I do very rarely. The men apparently got right down to it, finishing all the tough stuff about digging holes over their coffee and juice, leaving plenty of time for exchanging sports-talk once the omelets arrived. The women might have been friends or relatives planning an event at the hotel I was staying at given their OJ and coffee talk, but that turned out to be pleasantries that were being exchanged until the serious food arrived, at which point they got down to business. And clearly one of them had a pointed message that she wanted to get across to the other.

Now, I’m just sayin’, but do you think there was some kind of gender/food thing going on here?

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


Whatever Will Bee, Will Bee

November 8, 2015

I warned you last week that I was heading to a meeting about the difficulties of industry-generated science, so you shouldn’t be too surprised that I am following up on that this morning. Here’s the context: we just don’t trust claims made by representatives of the food industry, even when those claims are putatively backed up by science. And even if the claims are made by nominally disinterested parties (like university scientists), we still don’t trust them if the putatively disinterested party was paid to do the research by the food industry. Most people who have been looking at this have come to the conclusion that the problem is actually quite subtle. On the one hand, there are obvious cases where for-profit firms have perpetrated frauds: they have effectively been lying to us. Volkswagen came up in this connection, as did the very recent allegations that Exxon perpetrated a disinformation campaign on climate change that was directly contrary to what their own scientists’ were reporting in internal documents.

On the other hand, these incidents don’t speak to the heart of the problem. It would be rare for university scientists or other disinterested parties to be enrolled in this kind of deceit. The problem resides more in the way that certain research methods can be predictably associated with certain kinds of results, and that though it might be scientifically valid to do research of that sort, there may be unasked questions (to which other methods might have been amenable). As I intimated a couple of weeks back, it’s easy enough to identify the university scientists who are going to do stuff you like, and then to give the money to them, rather than someone who is doing stuff you might not like. We don’t trust the industry or the scientists who work for them not because we think they are lying to us, but because we suspect that they are just not asking the questions that really matter.

As it happens, there were a couple of bee papers at this conference. You may have read that our bees are in trouble. The technical name for this is colony collapse disorder, and the leading hypothesis is that it is caused by a relatively new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. In this connection, the discussion took up some industry funded research that did not involve collaboration with university scientists or even disinterested parties. It was a collaboration between a company that makes neonicotinoid pesticides and does not want them banned (and hence has an interest in disproving this hypothesis) and beekeepers who have an interest in regulating neonicotinoids, if the hypothesis is shown to be true.

One paper by Sainath Suryanarayanan from the University of Wisconsin claimed that industry research in cooperation with beekeepers had used methodologies that skewed results by limiting the timeframe in which observations would be collected and by discounting beekeeper observations that were out of the mainstream. They got away with this, Suryanarayanan claimed, because they were able to assert an authority for Science (with a capital S) that the claims of working beekeepers lacked. He then sketched an alternative method that accords more epistemic authority for the knowledge claims of beekeepers.

Now here would be an excellent opportunity for the obligatory Thornapple Blog tangent to discuss “epistemic authority”, but instead I’ll just say that it’s a term that is intended to convey whether or not some person or group’s claim to know something should be taken seriously. If, for example, you think that I am a trusted source of knowledge about neonicotinoids just because I can spell the word, you have seriously overestimated my epistemic authority.

There was also a paper by Iain Kelly who works for Bayer CropScience, a company that is a major supplier of neonicotinoids. Kelly claimed that the evidence for “the leading hypothesis” is not so clear and that one of the difficulties that his company had in conducting research with beekeepers is that they would say one thing the first week and something entirely different the next. Frankly, I’m not really sure that there was a deep logical contradiction between the way that Kelly described this research with beekeepers and the way that Suryanarayanan described it. These two papers did not get us to the point where we could ask ourselves, “Should the EPA ban neonicotinoids just because beekeepers don’t like them?” or even to “How should the evidence provided by beekeepers be weighed in making regulatory decisions about neonicotinoids?” Kelly did say that he (and we can presume Bayer CropScience) did learn some things that will influence future research from their collaboration with beekeepers. He didn’t say exactly what it was, but it might have had something to do with epistemic authority.

I can’t entirely bee sure. Que sera, sera.

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



November 1, 2015

A few weeks back I did a blog about academics and their relationships with big players in the food industry. My point was that we really shouldn’t be shocked, shocked (quoting Captain Louis Renault from Casablanca) when we learn that university scientists share the values and perspectives of major food industry firms. It was, in a twisted sense perhaps, just what Abraham Lincoln had in mind. I’m headed to a philosophy conference on industry/university science relationships down in South Bend, IN later this week, so the story is on my mind.

As it happens, I talked to a reporter named Brooke Borel about this, and she sent me a link to the story that she eventually wrote for Buzzfeed. It’s pretty interesting and I recommend following the link that I embedded in the date text above. For some unexplained reason, the robots at WordPress aren’t letting me embed a link in the right place when I work on my Mac. Must be one of those Cupertino rivalry things.

In a nutshell, a University of Florida plant scientist named Kevin Folta had been running a podcast under the penname “ Vern Blazek.” In one episode, Blazek interviewed Folta. Borel wonders if this is deceptive. There’s also the point about the Borel/Folta “interview” being rather positive (that’s putting it mildly, I think) about GMOs. Then Folta denies any relationship with industry, but it turns out (according to Borel) that Monsanto had given him an unrestricted grant of $25,000. Borel wonders if this, too, is deceptive.

Now to put this in perspective, $25,000 is, on the one hand, not an awfully lot of money in the world of grants. It costs us almost $40,000 to support a graduate student for a year, and this is before we spend a dime on any of the research that they would be doing. On the other hand, any kind of unrestricted grant is rather rare, and $25,000 unrestricted dollars can be paired with other more restricted funds in a manner that benefits a researcher pretty substantially. So I’m at something of a loss to make any sense of how Folta could have denied having a relationship with industry. It’s pretty clear to me that Monsanto was telling him, “Hey, we like you,” and given that, it’s not really all that much of a stretch to think that Folta’s use of his alter ego Blazek was a way of saying “Hey, I like you back.”

What about that penname thing? Some time back, a University of Colorado political scientist named Ward Churchill was charged with misconduct because (among other things) he had actually written some of the essays that appeared with other author’s names in books he had (nominally) edited. Churchhill was a) a very controversial activist in support of Native Americans and other marginalized groups and b) eventually fired. Now the Churchill story is pretty convoluted so Google him if you want the background. I mention him as a contrast case to Folta primarily to show that academics with very different political leanings produce written work that they prefer to have attributed to some identity other than themselves.

I’ve thought about it. I once entertained fantasies of writing a book I would call How to Cheat at College. It would in fact recount some of the cheating techniques I’ve actually seen, but it also would have had a subliminal argument that would have led readers to think through whether cheating on class assignments and examinations wasn’t really just a way of cheating themselves. Of course, such a book might have caused me some embarrassment, because you can be sure that the average TV or radio journalist would not have been able to figure out what I was really up to. And there was also the chance that I might actually make some serious money (like more than $25,000) off such an effort. How could an ethics professor stand that kind of publicity? I wasn’t about to do something like that under my own name!

Well, I never got around to it, in any case. Eventually I did think about writing something that would have a life beyond just being a tickbox on my annual report. That was about six years ago when I started writing the Thornapple Blog on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2009. I suppose if I had been really smart, I would have used a false name and asked Monsanto for an unrestricted grant so I could keep doing it. What do you think they would have said?

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