Solidarity Forever

February 28, 2016

I came across this sentence during my morning reading: “Chimpanzee’s most sophisticated social-cognitive abilities may emerge only in the more natural situations of food competition with conspecifics.” It set me thinking.

But first, the obligatory tangent, this time less in the vein of changing the subject and more in line with being helpful to my readers. The sentence comes from a 2000 article in the scientific journal Animal Behavior. Brian Hare, Josep Call, Bryan Agnetta and Michael Tomasello were reporting that chimpanzees do in fact form beliefs about what other chimpanzees do and do not know, or to be more precise, what other chimpanzees do and do not see. The “conspecifics” they refer to are other chimpanzees, or more generally others of one’s own species. The food connection is incidental. It refers to experiments done to test whether young children have beliefs about what others do and do not know where the test involved what someone else knows about the location of a piece of chocolate.

The Animal Behavior researchers point out that the experiments with humans presupposed the potential for cooperative communication about food resources. They suggest that while this is possible among even very young children, it is more natural for chimps to regard food as a competitive good. Hare, Call, Agnetta and Tomasello are saying that chimps are unlikely to reveal what (or even that) they know about what other chimps are thinking under such circumstances. So we shouldn’t use this kind of situation to test whether they do, in fact, have beliefs about their conspecifics state of mind.

End of tangent. What set me to thinking was the implied suggestion that humans find it natural to engage in cooperative behavior with respect to food. I’m not saying that this is unique to humans. There are a number of predatory species that engage in cooperative hunting. Even bees are able to exhibit some pretty sensational cooperative behaviors with respect to the location of pollen. That’s not the direction my thoughts were headed.

I’m thinking about generalizing the connection between cooperative behavior among humans and food. This could have some significance for food ethics, don’t you think? I’ve noticed that competition over food is crucial to husbandry for some livestock species. They’ll hurt each other, on one hand, and on the other hand they don’t seem to mind trade-offs in their comfort when the payoff is being sure that no one else can get my food. And maybe humans are not like that. Maybe we have evolved both socially and biologically so that cooperating with one another about getting food is something that we just about take for granted. And maybe, just maybe, that has something to do with ethics. How does that kids’ song go? “We’re all for worm and worm for all.”

Not that I want to carry this too far. Humans have fought some pretty devastating wars over food in our past. Yet even my toddler granddaughter seems to be willing to share some mushy bananas now and then, at least as long as sharing doesn’t mean giving up her snack altogether.

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

CSA Philosophy

February 21, 2016

Thornapple CSA is a community supported agriculture group in the Lansing area. They host the website for the Thornapple Blog. It’s not entirely clear whether they are supporting the blog, or whether the blog is supporting the CSA. It’s certainly true that the Blog sits on a website that is maintained by the CSA. All the other pages on the website are dedicated to CSA business. You can find information on the crops being planted, the membership fees and you are supposed to be able to find a form that you can use to apply for membership. There are also some photographs of the farm, or at least there used to be. This is also a place I could point out the we also maintain a Facebook page, where you will probably find more useful and practical stuff than you will turn up here at the website. All that would suggest that the blog is kind of an addendum to the activities of Thornapple CSA.

And it is. The blog was created after the first season in November of 2009. It was originally conceptualized as a weekly delivery that would continue over the winter months in Michigan, when CSA members wouldn’t be getting anything that they could eat. Food for the soul. That kind of thing. The blog was, in that sense, supporting the CSA. Trouble is, the blog just kept going even when the veggies started to roll in during the Spring of 2010. They just couldn’t stop the thing once it got started.

It’s now enrollment season for the 2016 season. It’s an occasion to shout out here in the mid-Michigan area in case anyone is looking to join a CSA, but it’s also an occasion for a brief thought on CSAs for the larger world of readers interested in food ethics. Maybe February is a good time to do this, because I don’t want Thornapple members to think I’m talking directly about them. This week, it’s about the ethics of the CSA idea, in general.

CSAs take many forms, but most of them are operated with a philosophical vision working somewhere in the background. Diane and I first got involved in CSAs when we lived in Indiana, where Jim Rose and Signe Waller were trying to get away from hawking their stuff at the farmers’ market every week by starting two CSAs, one that would deliver in Indianapolis, and another that would deliver in the area where we lived, around Lafayette. Their vision involved making a break from capitalism, though one could question whether farmers’ markets really represent a capitalist model.

What they objected to was wheedling and deedling over prices that they experienced every week. You know how that goes: Shoppers stalking the row of farmer’s lined up with their weekly harvest of squash, beans and kale arrayed before them. Going from one to one, comparing price and quality. Some show up early to get the best rutabagas, others show up late to get discounts on the dregs. The farmers often feel like they are themselves the wares being picked-over by these discriminating shoppers, however friendly and conversational everyone tends to be. It irked Jim and Signe and they idealized the idea of producing for a group of friends—members of their community.

The original CSA idea that came over from Japan held that the members would be subsidizing some of the risk that farmers take when the put a crop in the ground. Some years, the potatoes just don’t make, you know, and other years the mealy bugs eat up all the tomatoes. Members would share that risk with farmers by paying up front and being happy with whatever they happened to get.

This idea is not well maintained in very many American CSAs. Members get huffy when they don’t like the share and tend to drop out. Sometimes they demand their money back. Other times members offer helpful suggestions about how the CSA could do a better job of “marketing” their product. Then they get into a snit when the farmers (who are generally overwhelmed just getting the crop in) don’t pick up on their suggestion. It’s not supposed to be the CSA way, but that kind of consumerism is pretty deeply ingrained in the American mindset.

Here at Thornapple, we’ve got a few special twists to CSA philosophy. One that’s not particularly unique is that we run with the idea that CSAs are supposed to promote edification about our relationship to food and to the broader natural environment. We do that by getting in touch with seasonality and the kinds of stuff you can actually grow in Michigan. We also try to get people out to the farm now and then for workdays and celebrations. The blog plays is small role in that, too. Our other special twist (unusual in our area) is that we are run by members and we hire our own farmer. We’ve learned that this involves a certain amount of risk sharing, too. This year we are feeling more confident because James Benjamin is coming back for another year. But generally speaking making this food thing work for both the farmer and the eaters is a major issue in food ethics. Thornapple CSA is just a microcosm of that problem.

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


Heart-Shaped Blog

February 14, 2016

Although we find frequent occasions to complain about robots here in the Thornapple Blog, I do have to acknowledge that The Google is a regular blogger’s friend and savior. I sat down with a few half-baked ideas this morning (they will probably be back soon, but hopefully more fully baked). Then I noticed it was Valentine’s Day. Typing “valentine food” into my search engine (in full disclosure, I should note that it was Bing, not Google) the robot coached me with “valentine’s day food ideas”. Let’s see what that turns up, I thought to myself.

Well it will not be a surprise to very many blog readers that it turns up quite a lot. One high-ranking link is to a site at Now here’s a tangent: what’s the proper grammar for listing a URL at the end of a sentence? If you put a period after it, you’ve corrupted the address, but if you leave the period off, well that’s just not right, is it? Let’s leave that one for some non-food blogger to ponder. A better tangent would be to speculate on this website, which seems to be run by one of those aggregating robots that collects information from all over cyberspace and then puts in conveniently on your screen. Frankly I wouldn’t trust these guys, especially when it comes to “local”. Who knows what kind of standard they are applying?

In any case, the “valentine’s day food ideas” page starts out with links that are, I note, disclosed as “ads” (though in tiny grey print). They would take you to other websites sponsored by Rice Krispies™, Hot Pockets™ and Hidden Valley™. It just goes to show how quickly we go from “local” to giants like Kellogg’s, Nestlé and Clorox. This is probably not a surprise to anyone reading the Thornapple Blog, but it can never hurt to mention it. I didn’t bother to click on any of the sponsored links, even though I’m sitting here dreaming of rice krispie treats (maybe with some of that extra-special pink food coloring) and wondering how salad dressing can figure in a Valentine’s Day meal. But that’s yet another thread we’re going to drop for the time being.

The Valentine’s Day Party Food Ideas page at goes on to aggregate some results from other Q&A websites. We are advised to “Make heart-shaped cookies and then decorate them.” Well, duh! We are also told that children like mini-pizzas and caramel apples, and reminded that school districts are quite strict about food: “Absolutely NO peanut items!” It suggests that we should run a food ethics theme on allergies pretty soon, but we’re too deep in this week’s blog to take off on that one. There’s also a curious link that I didn’t follow suggesting that an “anti-valentine’s day” party can be stoked with a mix of “un-love” songs. Robots! How do their minds work, anyway?

You could go through many pages of links on search results for “valentine food ideas” without learning very much about the way that food and Valentine’s Day are culturally intertwined. To wit: One of the main things that you do on Valentine’s Day is to give your lover a box of chocolates. Another is that the two of you go out for an intimate dinner. If I had been a space alien with a general curiosity about how the earthlings’ food habits are affected by this special day on their calendars, I would have actually been misled by this Internet search. I would be thinking that it was either about making cookies or pizza for children’s parties, on the one hand, or creative ways to cook with salad dressing, on the other. I can admit that children’s parties are indeed a significant part of Valentine’s Day, but I’d still like to insist that these traditions are derivative. Valentine’s Day is for lovers.

So I’m here to tell you that romantic love and food do indeed go together. That might also suggest some creative ways to use salad dressing, but this is a family blog, so I’m just going to leave that thought to your imagination.

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

Genetic Testing

February 7, 2016

This week we are considering a case from the back end of the food ethics continuum: the “devious defecator.” It concerns a legal finding against Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services, an Atlanta-based grocery distributor. It seems that Atlas was having a problem policing their warehouse. They could not positively identify the culprit named above, who was engaging in serial acts of defilement at various locations around their warehouse. They decided to request DNA swabs from two employees who were suspected of the activity.

“How would this work?” the inquiring reader might ask. We consume large quantities of DNA every day. Not so much large by volume, mind you. DNA is tiny, tiny and all the DNA you eat in a week would hardly fill a teaspoon, or so I think. I can’t be sure because pursuing this question would require me to sort out whether the grams that you measure in stoichiometry are the same as the grams you measure in cooking. I know, for example, that a teaspoon of sugar weighs about 4 grams, and I just looked up the molecular weight of DNA on the Internet and found out that we rapidly get into the hundreds of grams. This would make a DNA molecule significantly larger than a 12 oz. can of Diet Coke. Since an ordinary tomato is going to contain hundreds of thousands of DNA molecules, just a single slice of tomato on a BLT would probably make you blow up like a balloon.

This result would suggest that Stephen Colbert, current host of the Late Show on CBS, would have been unable to survive the BLT with extra tomato that he got from Hello Deli owner Rupert Gee on a recent episode. In case you missed this, Bon Appetite has prepared an entry on the “best food moments” from Colbert’s tenure at the Late Show. You can find a link here.

So I think there’s something gone haywire here in my measurement tangent, which only goes to show how difficult it is for us novices to find definitive answers to important genetics questions like, “If you eat a BLT, how much DNA in the tomato is likely to come out in your poop?” Or to put it another way, you just can’t trust the Internet. It’s relevant to the problem that Atlas was facing because they were trying to use DNA analysis to identify the devious defecator. You have to think that the samples they had to work with had bunches and bunches of miscellaneous DNA bits owing to the typically diverse diets of an average citizen of Atlanta. And of course we also know that DNA is significantly degraded by the digestive process, so we would, at best, be looking at little snippets (indeed, as the scientists say, SNiPs—for Single Nucleotide Polymorphism).

But of course Atlas was less interested in what the devious defecator ate than who it was who was doing the eating (or more to the point, the pooping). Here what matters is that we humans are constantly shedding bits of our DNA. That paper cup you had coffee from this morning? There are bits of your DNA on the rim, and a surreptitious dumpster diver or street-sweeper could indeed recover enough of it to reconstruct a definitive genetic profile that would uniquely identify you as the thoughtless litterer who tossed the cup out of the pick-up window as you cruised down Grand River Avenue after a quick one from Bigby’s. And the same goes for the samples being tested by Atlas.

Of course Atlas (or the police lieutenant investigating a serial litterer, for that matter) has to have a known sample of your DNA to prove that it’s you, hence the request that two employees provide cheek swabs to find a match. It turns out, there was no match. But the employees were able to win a judgement against Atlas under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act—or as we food ethics insiders call it, GINA. It seems that sweet GINA protects you from arbitrary collection and discriminatory use of genetic information that you might happen to be carelessly leaving around the environments you populate. If someone does try to keep tabs on the BLTs you are eating through running a test on your poop, you can probably sue them.

So don’t tell us the Thornapple Blog never provides useful and practical advice for daily living!

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