Food Waist

May 29, 2016

So picking up right where we left off last week, I’m going to loop back to the week before last when we were wringing our hands about our own pointy headedness at the 4th Annual Food Justice Workshop. Galen Martin was one of the pointy-headed academics who showed up all the way from Eugene, Oregon to regale us about food waste and food justice. I hope Galen will forgive me for calling him a pointy-headed intellectual here in THE BLOG. He’s on the faculty in environmental studies at the University of Oregon which according to the rigorous technical standards applied here on the Thornapple CSA website automatically qualifies him as a pointy-headed intellectual. If you are a sophisticated practitioner of de-colonizing rhetorics (and I’m sure you are) you have already decoded the irony and sarcasm and seen that this is in no way intended to be a slight to Galen on a personal (which is to say sure-enough human-to-human) level. The chance that he will ever see this infinitesimally small, but every now and then someone that I have made highly ironized and triply rebounded significations around does in fact get on the website and take things the wrong way. It’s all part of my contractual obligation to make fun of myself by parodying the non-parody-able.

Take that, Frederic Jameson!

So now on to some stuff that people who actually eat vegetables can make some sense of. Galen introduced his talk on food waste and food justice by pointing out to us that the Pepsi he was drinking was actually a good example of food waste, even though he was planning to drink all of it. He did in fact drink most of it while he was standing there, so if you think that food has to go unconsumed in order to be wasted, you would be puzzled by his introductory comments. Well, not being so inclined to bury his points in indecipherable sarcasm as we are here in the Thornapple Blog, Galen explained what he meant. He meant that he did not really need to be drinking a Pepsi. The energy he was going to get from high-fructose corn sweetener in his Pepsi was a form of wasted calories. The Pepsi was, to engage in some punning that explains the title of this week’s blog in an uncharacteristic moment of direct explanation, an instance of waisted calories.

Being a professor of environmental studies, Galen went on to make the general environmental ethics point that we mentioned last week: Isn’t it a shame that we had to grow the corn that this high-fructose corn sweetener came from, in the first place? His answer: Yes, it is a shame because, as we have (I think) already established he as a food secure citizen in an industrialized society did not really need to be drinking a Pepsi to maintain his basic bodily metabolism. There were already plenty of calories (we can surmise) in whatever it was he had for lunch that day, which was probably some delicious vegan food from Altus. I realize that this won’t mean much for the readers outside the East Lansing area, but being the sophisticated practitioners of de-colonizing rhetorics that you are you can probably Google it if you haven’t already figured out that it’s a local Ethiopian restaurant. I surmise that Galen had eaten something from Altus because that was what we had catered for the workshop, but here I have to admit that I might be wrong.

So I guess Galen made his way down to the vending machines after eating to buy a Pepsi. Maybe like me what he was craving some caffeine, though what I wanted was a cup of coffee. It’s something that can’t be had in that vicinity of the MSU campus on a Saturday in May. I’m not sure that there is a waste in my own inability to satisfy my post-lunch cravings with a cup of joe, much less something going to waist. But I did rather like the way that he pointed out to us how probing more deeply into the very idea “food waste” can lead us to some surprising ethical conclusions. So I decided to encode his subtle but still well-formulated point into a sarcastic parody of pointy-headed intellectualism for consumption here in the Thornapple blog.

No need to thank me for it.

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


What a Waste!

Here we are as usual, a day late and a dollar short on the latest hip fad in food ethics. That, of course, would be food waste. We are so dang slow on this one that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has beaten us to it, having announced a major initiative on curbing food waste way back in the fall of 2015. We (and by “we” I mean folks in general) are launched on a headlong assault on one of our big numbers: the amount of food that goes uneaten.

I actually have quite a bit to say about this, and it’s going to take me more than one blog to do it. I might as well start by admitting that I’m being just a little bit disingenuous there in the first paragraph, because we have in fact visited this question once or twice in the last half century that we have been reading and writing the Thornapple Blog. It is not as if the whole phenomenon of waste has escaped my attention altogether. As a matter of larger metaphysical facticity, I included a little discussion of waste in my 1995 book The Spirit of the Soil. Of course the point there was to notice that while you, me and our friend Bob might think of waste as food spiraling down the garbage disposal, from the typical farmers’ point of view waste is a plot of land that doesn’t have a crop on it. Which just goes to show how the very idea of waste has quite a few norms and judgments already bound up in it. It’s an inevitable topic for food ethics.

But for today I think I’m just going to certify the common sense perspective that has led lots of God fearing Christians (not to mention the USDA) into paroxysms over wasted food. This starts with the obvious thing: It is a crying shame when someone goes hungry while someone else is swilling perfectly good food down the garbage disposal. I’m not sure I want to go from this observation to judging the ethics of the person swilling food down the garbage disposal, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The common sense perspective is indeed a perceptive and perfectly valid ethical starting point. It identifies a problem and it points to the sense in which this is an ethical problem, one that calls for all of us to make a reflective and responsible response that addresses the mismatch between food insecurity, on the one hand, and edible food swilling down the garbage disposal, on the other.

Of course from this common sense perspective, there would not necessarily be an ethical problem with that spiral of edible food disappearing down the garbage disposal if it were not for the fact that some hungry person would have liked to have eaten it. So there is one more obvious point to certify before heading off into the ozone of metaphysical facticity, and that point would lie in the domain of environmental ethics. Producing food (e.g. farming) can be hard on the environment. A pointy-headed intellectual would say that food production has inevitable environmental costs, and this is, indeed, probably a slightly better (if also wordy) way to put the point. So if even if we managed to solve the hungry people part of wasted food, it would still be a crying shame to have produced some stuff that we didn’t really need in the first place. We might have saved the farmland that was used to grow the food spiraling down the disposal for some endangered butterfly, and if not that, we might have at least let the voles and mice whose bungalows were turned up by the plow sleep in a little bit longer.

These points are correct. They provide a starting point for recognizing that waste is an ethical problem. From this starting point, it’s possible to start making mistakes, and I’m going to examine a few of them from time to time over the coming months. I’ll be linking back to this cornerstone blog when I do so.

As the real-estate developers out there say, “Watch this space!”

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


May 15, 2015

The 4th Food Justice Workshop was held at MSU yesterday. There was some hand-wringing about “who is at the table.” Mostly academics was the answer, though a few people active in various community organizations dropped by for short stints. By the time we got around to the serious hand-wringing they had all gone home, as had all but one of the non-White participants. I’m sure that the “drop-in” visitors to the Thornapple Blog (as distinct from my regular readers) must have some sympathy with the thought that there can’t be anything more useless than a bunch of pontificating academic types sitting around in conference rooms talking about food justice.

Some of the hand-wringing comes out of the thought that the young scholars who were there (mostly graduate students) want to “make a difference” and they are aware that most people who are active in trying to change food systems for the better are totally bored by what they are writing in their dissertations. The activists already know what food justice is and they are only interested in very practical discussions that help them do it. And even that is a bit of an overstatement, because even practical discussion is a lot less useful to them than greater resources of money and time. So why waste money (albeit the registration was only $25 and you got three great vegan meals + coffee for that) and especially time sitting there listening to a bunch of 30-somethings gas about food justice? And for the most part, young scholars agree with this assessment. They are keenly aware that it would be presumptuous of them to expect food activists to find participating in their rarified conversations about the male-privilege embedded in our cultural construction of what it means to be a farmer interesting.

As ripe for sarcasm and parody as that scenario is, I’m going to take a serious turn this week. I’m going to say that we academics need this kind of space and that the food system activists out there need be patient with us. First off, I need to point out that the Food Justice Workshop is, in fact, a pretty unusual thing. Most of the people who attend represent fields of study (philosophy is the big one) where food is not a standard topic. It’s a good sign that young academics are taking up the study of food justice. They will think about it, talk about it amongst themselves, write books and articles about it, and most importantly teach about it in courses that will be taken by hundreds and possibly thousands of students who are disaffected from politics and unconnected to the food they are wolfing down between classes. Just getting food justice outside the narrow coursework in food and agricultural science or rural sociology will be a big thing. Take my word for it.

I was ranting against “stink of the lamp” food ethics in this space just a couple of weeks back, so don’t take me wrong. It’s too easy for a bunch of philosophers to get totally sidetracked. Yet I do think that maybe, just maybe, some small percentage of this highly rarified and over-theorized talk actually will come back and make a difference. It probably won’t happen because some food activist showed up “at the table” and decided to take a pearl of wisdom back to the streets, however. Change in ideas occurs through a process of diffusion that’s a bit like those homeopathic treatments they use in biodynamic farming. Too small and indirect to make a difference according to the basic principles of physics and chemistry, somehow it works anyway.

So give us a break and the space to sit around at these annual workshops. We’d love to have you drop by next year, and be assured that you’ll be taken seriously if you do. Don’t expect to come out with a recipe for food justice, because you can teach us more than we can teach you. But one more thing: what you can teach us IS NOT that we are a bunch of pompous gasbags sitting around talking nonsense that means nothing on the street.

We already know that.

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


Mansplaining Egg Prices

May 8, 2016

Hanging out with Jane Bush the other day, she mentioned the dramatic decline in the wholesale price of eggs. Here, I must note a disconnect because since Diane and I buy all of our eggs directly from Jane, I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the retail price of eggs. As such, I could be accused of mansplaining in today’s blog, but here goes anyway.

You may recall that it was just a little over a year ago that bird flu wiped out a number of flocks in the Midwest. According to a Wall Street Journal report, U.S. egg poultry producers lost 39 million birds in April and May of 2015. The same report notes that egg prices were soaring. As crazy as it might sound to a person with average economic understanding, the same thing explains why egg prices are plummeting today.

Here’s where the mansplaining comes in. With egg prices at record levels in June of 2015, anyone with the basic infrastructure to produce eggs is going to jump in and fill that infrastructure up. In some industries, you can indeed pump up your inventory to take advantage of an increase in the market price of the stuff you’re selling pretty much like you turn up the flow of water from a spigot. If Hot Wheels are selling like hotcakes, you order more. And if there are more orders for Hot Wheels, Mattel puts on another shift at the plant and orders up more supplies to make them. These things don’t happen instantaneously, but they can usually happen pretty quickly. Even more important, though, is the fact that once the fad cools, you turn down these flows just as quickly as you turn them up.

There are some parts of the food industry that are similar. Kellogg’s can crank up the supply of corn flakes because there is generally plenty of corn lying around, and the companies that supply baby chicks to the poultry industry can pump that up pretty fast, too. So last year at about this time, the orders for those baby chicks started to come in. By the time egg prices were peaking in June, there were lots of egg producers and a few wannabe egg producers who were either replacing hens they had lost or (in the case of the Farmers Egg Co-op that Jane is affiliated with) increasing their capacity. But here’s where things start to rub. It takes about six months for a hen to mature enough to start laying any eggs at all, and about nine to twelve months before they are really going to hit their stride. In the case of an egg laying hen, hitting your stride means laying an egg every day.

Economists call this “asset fixity,” and if you’ve ever experienced the constipation associated with a fixed asset, you know how uncomfortable that can be! More mansplaining (which as is typical for mansplaining mainly consists in saying the same thing over and over again): While in many industries you turn your production process off and on like a spigot in response to market prices, increasing your investment when prices are up, decreasing your investment when prices go down, there is a significant amount of irreversibility in the investments that farmers make in response to high prices. It’s going to take months for that crop to come in, and you can’t unplant it. Similarly it’s going to take months for those chicks to become hens laying an egg every day, and once you’ve invested in feeding them for all that time, well what are you going to do? Asset fixity is important in food ethics because it mansplains why farmers are so cantankerous, but that’s probably a topic for another blog, altogether

Amazingly, the robot who monitors my spelling actually thinks that mansplaining is a real word. Now that’s something even I won’t try to mansplain.

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

May Day

May 1, 2016

I wake up and sit by the gas fire with a book. Eventually I go into the kitchen hoping that the oatmeal Diane cooked still has enough heat left in it to melt a pat of butter in the bottom of my bowl. I’ll eventually add a little bit of sugar and some milk. It’s a routine.

Isn’t it odd that the Roman god Janus looks backward to the old year and forward to the new one just at the dead of winter? Or maybe even a little bit before the absolute dead of winter, because psychologically at least it’s going to get worse and worse at least until sometime in February. Of course we all know that this routine is highly relative. That empty set of blog readers from the Southern Hemisphere is headed out to the beach when old Janus rouses himself from slumber to announce the transition from endings to beginnings, looking forward by also looking backward.

But I persist. Why isn’t May Day the beginning, and why isn’t the night of April 30 a time for drunken revels and recalling the days gone by? It seems fitting here in Michigan at least. We’ve rounded the corner even if was below 40° out this morning. Our farmers are smart enough to anticipate a few days of frost here in May, but they’ve also been smart enough to know that they can start getting the soil ready and putting things out a good six weeks or so before May Day rolls in. I probably should be fulfilling my contractual obligation to remind you that Cinco de Mayo is even closer at hand. It’s time to see if you can find the ingredients for some pico de gallo. But I think I’ll just stick with May Day itself this time around the old calendrical continuum.

There’s nothing totally arbitrary about arbitrary distinctions. We mark these junctures on the continuum with the comings and goings of Janus or Persephone for a reason. Maybe just to express the hope that the oatmeal is ready. No reason to be too deep. For some unimportant but not altogether arbitrary reason my friend Michael Eldridge came to mind while I was sitting by the fire. We miss Mike deeply, but I recall some remarks his wife Sue made at a memorial service. She said that his family never really understood what his work as a philosophy professor was about. The just loved him as a person. Well, we all did.

To illustrate her point Sue talked about how right before his death, Mike had been working on an essay. She looked at the file on his computer, which was called “Continuum”. When she read bits of the essay, she couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but if he was working on the continuum, it was probably important, she said. Well, I have a theory, because I had a file on my computer named “Continuum”, too. I could be wrong of course—Mike was and I am a falibilist. But I think Mike was working on his contribution to a collection of essays that was slated for Continuum Publishing. In such arbitrary coincidences great cultural misunderstandings are sometimes born.

So let’s just settle back here and think of May Day as a time for beginning. Since it’s cold outside in Michigan, let’s lift a cup of cheer and look back on auld lang syne. Let’s cook some black-eyed-peas and put on our Janus face as we think about the veggies that will be rolling in from Thornapple CSA before we can say ‘Jack Robinson.” Instead of quoting Robert Burns, let’s look to the Steve Miller Band (or maybe it’s Ben Sidran): Tomorrow’s come a long, long way to help you. Yes. It’s your saving grace.

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