Truly Exceptional

December 27, 2015

I got a survey this week asking about my experience getting my car serviced at Williams Volkswagen here in Lansing. I’m very happy with the service department at Williams, by the way. I’ve bought three cars from them in the decade I’ve lived in Michigan. But the survey sent by Volkswagen of America kind of bugs me. It requires you to answer on a scale where “satisfied” is a middling response, and even “excellent” can be topped by the response “truly exceptional”. I’m of the mind that “truly exceptional” things are rare by nature. After all, how could the service I get by “truly exceptional” if excellent, prompt and thoughtful service is what I have come to expect?

But I have learned that Volkswagen of America penalizes dealers who are less than “truly exceptional,” and so I dutifully check that box at every opportunity in the survey. It’s the inflationary expectations that really drive me to distraction. After my China trip, I picked up a book by Yang Jisheng about the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1962. I was writing a little bit about this last week. Millions of Chinese died from hunger and many of those that survived were forced to eat leather, tree bark and even human flesh in order to so. For the first three years of the famine, those who tried to call the dire situation to the attention of the authorities were ostracized, removed from their jobs and often physically beaten. Victims of this violence added to the overall death toll.

You may be wondering what this has to do with my Volkswagen, but the connection here is inflationary expectations. Famines are seldom caused by only one thing, and there were drought conditions in 1959 that reduced the size of the harvest by eight to twelve percent. That would be enough to cause problems, but not starvation, and certainly not on the scale that actually occurred. The root cause of the famine as reported by Yang (and other scholars agree) was different. The official government policy at the time was to calculate how much food would be needed for the local population, and to requisition the balance to be kept in government controlled storage facilities. This was actually supposed to be a famine-preventing policy, one of those ant and the grasshopper things where the wise and thrifty government was putting things aside for a rainy day. So we have the drought plus this socialist vision of food security, but that still doesn’t add up to famine.

The tipping point came because government officials felt themselves under pressure to demonstrate the ongoing success of China’s experiment with socialism by reporting a year-to-year increase in total production from every industry, including agriculture. They felt that they had to show that productivity was “truly exceptional” every time they made a report, and this meant that this year’s harvest had to be at least fifteen to twenty percent bigger than last year’s. And indeed, according to Yang, those that didn’t play this game were punished and replaced by someone who would. In fact, yields were relatively steady except in the drought year, and even then would have been enough to feed the local population (including their pigs, chickens and goats).

But if the government thinks that the harvest is truly exceptional, then decision making by the central authorities will demand that the “surplus production” (e.g. the overage beyond what is needed for immediate consumption) be appropriated and set aside for that rainy day. By 1959, this inflationary spiral of expectations had grown to the point that when the government officials came down to requisition the putative surplus, they in fact seized every kernel of edible food that had been produced that year in many of China’s most agriculturally productive provinces. With literally nothing to eat, peasant farmers in the rural areas were thrown into the dire straits that eventually led them to scourge the countryside for anything that would quash their raging hunger.
There’s one more ripple. Officials who couldn’t scrape up the expected amount of overage from these “truly exceptional” harvests accused people of holding out, of being “capitalist roaders,” and of having right-leaning tendencies. And that, of course, led to more beatings and another inflationary cycle of rhetoric and unrefutable expectations. The famine was, in truth, a case where careless use of language produced a human tragedy of epic proportions.

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

Let Them Know It’s Christmas

December 20, 2015

Following up from last week, I want to report a few more observations from my China trip. Last week I gave a short description of the sad conditions existing in my friend Xu’s home village. As I noted, by global standards, these farming families are not doing badly. An annual income of $5000 would be well above the global standard of poverty (roughly $1000 per year), not to mention the World Bank definition for extreme poverty ($500). A half century ago China experienced a famine of historic proportions. Xu recalls this time from his childhood when his mother was reduced to begging for food with shame and horror. Other reports of the three year famine period indicate the consumption of corpses and even the murder and cannibalism of strangers and children. The estimated death toll ranges from 20 to 45 million people. The Chinese government has not cooperated with scholars who have attempted to understand the root causes of their Great Famine, insisting that it was a simple natural disaster. That debate aside, it is important to note that those days seem long past in present day China. The aura of sadness and resignation in Xu’s village notwithstanding, people not only have enough to eat, they can afford some technological conveniences—like scooters and farm equipment.

Indeed, I’m sure on reflection that some of the dejection I was picking up was being projected by Xu, who was telling stories about happier times in his own childhood. He talked of how there had once been a stream that flowed through the village, and how his family had survived over the winter months by fishing. The stream is long gone, and when I asked why he wasn’t sure. Something to do with restricted water flow from a reservoir not far away. Similarly, he pointed to a shallow pond overgrown with brush and told of how it had once been an attractive swimming hole for village children. As we walked along the dirt trail that ran between the walled household compounds, he passed what looked like an overgrown vacant lot saying that this was the village center. In his youth it would have been filled with children, but as I wrote last week, there are no children in the village today. All the families with children have abandoned their farms, seeking a better life in cities.

It seems that people in China are fairly mobile these days, though I also pieced together a story about how they are supposed to seek authorization for such moves. Failing to do that, they lose access to some of the benefits that are supposed to be guaranteed by the socialist state. Now here I have to caution blog readers that I’m no China specialist, so take all this with large doses of salt. I infer that either the inducements of the city or the despondency of rural life (likely a combination of both) are enough to override any incentive to maintain the official status that entitles many Chinese to benefits. But the result is that one hears talk of homelessness and vulnerability within this socialist state that is very much like that of dispossessed people in neoliberal societies like our own. If the Great Famine is past, that does not mean that everyone is food secure.

I also talked to a couple of “farmers” who are, in fact, very much like our absentee landlords. They have contracted with farm families to secure the right to use their assigned plots (remember, the Chinese government owns all the land, but families retain alienable rights to farm it). It was one of those good/bad years in China. Growing conditions were good, but with a glut of commodities, the market for farm produce is weak. One of these investor/farmers I met talked about the high cost of farm labor, the low return on crops and concluded that she had lost her capital and would not be doing this kind of farming in the future. Another one told me that there were still opportunities to sell crops to the government at above market prices, providing a kind of farm support very reminiscent of what we do here in the United States. The fact that these two reports are somewhat contradictory just testifies to the difficulty of piecing together any concrete story about what is happening in China today. Or maybe it’s just my own limitations as an observer an analyst.

To quote Bob Geldof and Midge Ure,

Oh at Christmas time, it’s hard, but when you’re having fun There’s a world outside your window And it’s a world of dread and fear Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.

Feed the world? Maybe not as straightforward as one might think.

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

Got My Mo-Zhou Working

December13, 2015

I’m writing this week from seat 11J on a long-haul flight homeward bound from China. I spent a week in the vicinity of Nanjing giving some talks at universities and visiting my friend, Xu Huaike. Xu spent a year as a visiting scholar at Michigan State University, and he wanted to show me his home village. The word ‘village’ can mean something different in the Chinese context. It might be a town of 200,000 people, but in this instance I think anyone would agree that I was going to a village. We drove about an hour out of Ming Guang, which is too small to have an airport, but might have 400,000 people, passing through the small city where Xu had taught high school students. He wanted to show me the farmer’s market: chickens and geese being slaughtered, plucked and dressed; old men sitting with a few cabbages and a handful of cilantro to sell for their daily living; live fish swimming in dishpans.

We kept on driving for another 10 or 15 kilometers on a very narrow but well maintained paved road until we came to the place that Xu was born and spent his childhood. It was a farming village with perhaps 30 small compounds tightly packed together. The Chinese farm household consists of two or three squat rectangular buildings arranged around a hard (possibly concrete) rectangular pad that is used to thresh and dry grains. Corn is what I saw on a pretty chilly December morning. The compound might be walled and gated, with tin roofs over the brick buildings. One of these buildings serves as the house, with two or three rooms, including a small kitchen, while others are for storage of grain and tools, or barns for chickens, pigs or goats. We pulled into a drive and parked the car, then walked about a quarter of a mile down a dirt path to two of the compounds where we met some of the family still working at farming.

The men and women alike were grizzled and weathered to the point that it was difficult to guess their age, though I suppose they ranged from mid-forties to late fifties. There is electricity that runs to the compound but no plumbing in these houses. I’m not sure how that little bit of human necessity is handled. I saw no evidence of electrical appliances. The power is for the farming work.

After a few pleasantries, the dogs were shooed away and narrow benches were brought out so we could all sit in the compound for a smoke and a chat. There’s not all that much compelling work on a farm during the second week of December, so everyone was more than willing to spend a few moments with the pale, blue-eyed stranger that had appeared in their midst. Some of the talk was typical farm stuff: how the bumper crop in rice and corn this year had led to a collapse in prices. When we got around to talking about the outlook, none of them expected to be there in ten years. None of their children are there now. Everyone expects to lease their land to a contractor eventually and move into the city.

Now this land thing is a complicated story I don’t fully understand. All the land in China is owned by the socialist government. However, farmers do have the right to farm on designated plots. Although they can’t buy and sell land, they can either lease their right to farm to a contractor, or they can sell it permanently. I’ve read that a few farmers have exchanged their farming lease for a similar lease on an urban apartment, and perhaps that’s what Xu’s family is hoping to do as well.

These plots are exceedingly small by U.S. standards—no bigger than the patch on which we grow vegetables for Thornapple CSA and some much smaller. What is more the plots are separated from one another by berms and the level of the fields are not at the same height. Rice fields, in particular, may be two or three feet lower than others. You could not run even a medium-sized farm tractor over these fields without a major landscaping effort. Patchwork is an understatement. Nevertheless, I did see a small tractor, and also a small (by U.S. standards) harvester.

This is obviously a hard life that is mostly dominated by work with few amenities. Xu says, “I think their lives are miserable,” though by world standards they are not poor, earning about $5000 annually from tending their plots. You can live on that, but not well. A cup of coffee in Ming Guang will cost you about what it does in the U.S.A, so there’s not money for extra clothes or home improvements. At the same time, I’ve seen poor farmers in India and Africa who would not have even the bits of equipment that the farm families in this village have.

The story is missing lots of important details, though I do have a few that I might be sharing in future blogs. What’s most unclear is who will be doing the farm work when everyone leases out their right to farm and heads to the city. Xu’s village once had over 300 families, but on the day I visited they were down to 19. Most of the farm compounds were abandoned. I’m sure I will be mulling over this trip for some time to come.

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



Some Fishy News

December 6, 2015

Here is a post for those Thornapple Blog readers who rely on me to keep them informed of all the doings in the murky world of food regulatory policy. Of course I have to caution any other innocent soul who happens to have stumbled onto the Blog that the readers who rely on me to keep them informed of all the doings in the murky world of food regulatory policy have very low expectations. They don’t really have a great desire to be informed about such matters at all, else they would have long since found a more reliable source. There are hundreds of bloggers frequenting the Internet who (as we have colorfully noted on a previous occasion) write a blog post every time they go to the bathroom, and there are probably be a dozen who write every time someone in a regulatory agency goes to the bathroom, and (although I can’t direct you to this particular website) that suggests there has to be one or two who specialize in the bathroom visits of regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

There is probably somebody with a secret webcam installed in the office bathroom of Larisa Rudenko, who is the FDA official who was charged with responding to questions about the FDA’s announcement that finally, after what seems like centuries but is in fact only decades of delay, they have approved the genetically engineered fast-growing Aqua Bounty™ salmon. I count Larisa as a friend, even if I only see her in a professional context and even then not for a year or so now. She didn’t see fit to call me up and give me advance notice about this, but I’m not complaining. I’m not the one who has a listening device squirreled away in the women’s bathroom at FDA headquarters hoping to scoop the blogosphere on the approval of GM salmon, after all.

And to prove this, I’ll point out that it has, in actual fact, been nearly a month since FDA made this announcement. Now don’t complain. I warned you two paragraphs ago that the Thornapple Blog is not the place you should be going if you want up-to-the-minute updates on the murky world of food regulatory policy. Has the Internet been aflame in the wake of this announcement? Not really. I did a Google search on “GM fish” and the top ranks were all several years old. I also took a look at the Center for Food Safety’s webpage. They are—as one would expect given that they have been one of the most severe critics of genetic engineering in the food system—up to date on this issue. When I checked they had a flash banner pointing out that Costco has announced they would not sell Aqua Bounty™ salmon. Now this may or may not be true. I’m just reporting this in the same spirit that Hunter S. Thompson once reported a rumor that Ed Muskie was using ibogaine. Thompson later clarified, saying that he had never said Muskie was a druggie, only that there was a rumor that he was…which was true, he wrote, “because I started it.”

But I digress. We’ve gone over the ins and outs of these fish on a couple of occasions, and so I don’t actually feel any compulsion to say anything intelligent about the ethics or wisdom of FDA’s decision. I will repeat that this decision has been expected by many of us for a long time. It was hard to imagine given the evidence before them and their regulatory mandate, that they could do much of anything else. But of course having blogged about these piscis before, I felt this obligation to keep my loyal but only mildly curious readers informed—even if it was somewhat late.

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