The Last Key Blog

So for latecomers, the title is a pun on “key log”, which is the log that you have to remove to break up a logjam. I tend to conflate this with something the like the key note, which is the tonic in a scale, the note on which songs frequently (but not always) end. As my one remaining regular reader knows quite well, I always take the Sunday after Thanksgiving to make a reference to Aldo Leopold’s discussion of the key log in his foundational work on environmental ethics, A Sand County Almanac. Way back in 2009 I wrote:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold was trying to get us to see that our community was more than human, that we are in community with the land. His ethic was revolutionary in many ways that we are only now starting to appreciate.

  • The original key blog went on to talk about how focusing on food might be a good way to act on Leopold’s desire to incorporate the land itself into our understanding of community. That’s a nice theme for a blog written under the auspices of a Community Supported Agriculture. It was, I hoped, something that we could see as a fundamental part of the CSA way.

Well, I’m not backing off from that thought, but I am done writing the Thornapple Blog. You’ll just have to get through the winter of 2016-17 without me, I’m afraid. I’m sure I won’t disappear from cyberspace completely, but the routine of sitting down every Sunday and ginning up 400 words or so has gotten tiresome.

Happy Thanksgiving, America. And may God’s blessings go with you.

I’m sure you’ll need them!

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



November 20, 2016

If my math is correct (and it might not be) this is the 364th Thornapple Blog. I’ve written the blog from Italy, France, Japan and Germany, as well as at least four or five times from the lounge at Schipol in the Netherlands. My laptop has gotten thinner and lighter over the years, and in truth, so have I. Although I still carry too many pounds, I dropped about 15 of them a couple of years back when I switched medications and stopped trying to eat so many vegetarian meals.

Sooner or later (if I live that long) I intend to write a piece for my day job which I’ll call “Why I Am (Not Even) a Demi Vegetarian.” It’s an oblique reference to an essay by R.M. Hare, who was Peter Singer’s mentor. Singer was one of our “Food Ethics Icons” so if you’re scratching your head with that reference, follow this link. Hare was quite influential in ethics for developing “two-level utilitarianism”. The basic idea is that common sense morality is just fine most of the time (that’s one level), but sometimes you need to think more carefully about the consequences of your actions (that’s the other level). It is kind of amazing what you can become well-known for in the academic world, but that’s another rabbit-hole altogether.

At any rate, Hare felt compelled to explain why he had not followed his more famous student’s reasoning into vegetarianism. He gave his answer in an essay called “Why I Am Only a Demi Vegetarian,” He pointed out that Singer’s argument was targeted against factory farmed animals, and that he (Hare) was convinced that Singer was right on that score, but it didn’t mean you couldn’t eat any meat, just that meat. Besides, he was not eating much meat—mostly fish—and cutting down on your meat would send the same signals. Hare wrote before we had the sense that beef and dairy production might be contributing to global warming, but his arguments would have meant pretty much the same thing on that score. I guess you could say that it was the rationale for “meatless Mondays” type of dietary activism.

Well, I had been doing that kind of vegetarianism for a while, though given the number of meals I eat away from home, I really can’t say I know much about where any meat I eat at a restaurant might have come from. But the general point being that I was trying to do several meatless days a week, while also trying not to eat meat more than once a day. I wasn’t trying to cut down on dairy, and that might have been my downfall. At any rate, this diet did not make me thin. And in fact after a bout with a nasty anti-biotic resistant microbe a few years back, it took over a year for me to bring my blood sugars down to the just “slightly elevated” target level for most Type 2 diabetics. Finally, my doctor said that I had to give up the pasta and rice meals that had become too frequent on my meatless days. Eat a burger instead was the medical advice.

And in fact I lost some weight and my blood sugars went down. It’s my little personal “maybe vegetarianism isn’t for everybody” story. I’ve long argued that my colleagues who support vegetarianism as a moral obligation are rather insensitive to the life rhythms of working mothers, people who depend on hunting and, indeed, the very poor around the world whose meat consumption consists of a little broth in their gruel. My point was not that vegetarianism is impossible, but that it is a lot more difficult for some people than it is for others. I’m not sure whether Hare would count this as a moral argument, but I think that he might.

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


November 13, 2016

I had a great idea for this week’s blog sometime around Wednesday of last week, but then I forgot what it was. I don’t think that this is a sign of senility in my particular case, but it does suggest that I’m wearing out my willingness to dedicate some of my brain cells to cogitating on the Thornapple blog during the time periods that I am supposed to be focusing on my day job. I do, however, keep something of a list of possible topics and these are a few of the things that are on it:

  1. Fake Food. We have a unit at MSU that focuses on counterfeit foods. This may strike you as odd, because if you can eat it, it’s food, right? And how could you fake that? In fact, its food that is intentionally mislabeled, often with a brand name when some huckster has just stuffed substandard ingredients into packaging that looks so much like the real McCoy that you, me and our friend Bob will have trouble detecting it. That’s so obviously an ethical problem that I’m not sure what else I would have to say about it.
  2. Dual Use. This is the totally opaque term that national security geeks use to talk about what the bad guys are able to do with technologies that we typically extoll for their impressive benefits. Weaponization is a multi-syllable approach to the same idea. We might think of it as food bioterrorism. Again, so obviously ethical that what could I possibly add? And it’s just not that funny, either.
  3. Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats, better known as CRSPR. This is the new new thing in biotechnology, and the good news is that makes genetic engineering more precise in terms of where the new gene goes and the potential for screwing up other gene functions. The bad news is that it makes genetic engineering of anything—including food—a lot easier. Maybe so easy some jerk in his garage could do it. I’ve stayed away from this because I bore readers with too much emerging science as it is, but just conjoin this with numbers 1 and 2 above (or think what the supplement industry might do with it), and then it’s ‘nuff said.
  4. Vertical Agriculture. Have I hinted at this? Maybe. As I said at the top of the page, it’s getting harder and harder for me to recall. The idea is to combine business principles developed in the tech industry with the idea of producing food. The vertical part comes from the idea that we do this in skyscrapers instead of farms. I’m ruminating about it quite a bit in my day job, but I’m afraid it’s just not blog ready yet.
  5. The fate of MSU’s student organic farm. Another day job thing, and I try not to import too much of what goes down at the sandbox into the Thornapple outlet. This much loved local institution is under siege yet again. Meanwhile the University of Michigan is putting serious money into starting its own student organic farm. Wasn’t it my hero John Lennon who sang, “You don’t know what ya got (Dum dum dum) until you lose it.”

So it looks like I food ethics is purdurant (e.g. capable of going on forever, for those of you who love philosophical obscurities). Would that we were!

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

In Geometry, the Amount by which an Angle Is Less than 180°

November 6, 2016

I’ve been writing this blog once a week for seven years now. Maybe that explains why every now and then I sit down of a weekend and discover I don’t really have much to say—a phenomenon that accounts for recent stream of consciousness rants that link PBS commercials to cooking shows and the debacle that Americans have come to know as their current political culture. I’ve covered a lot of the ground that can be covered in 800 word blurbs over that seven years, including even a few reflections on the very idea of ranting. Nevertheless, I can still be brought up short by the obvious things that I’ve omitted in accumulating enough entries to fill a daily calendar. One of them showed up on the front cover of the September 2016 issue of Consumer Reports. To wit: food supplements.

The notion that our spiritual elders possessed knowledge that is disrespected, repressed and largely forgotten by mainstream food culture has a lot of appeal. The idea that when they incorporated things like St. John’s wort or ginko balboa into their diet it helped them ward off obesity related diseases or fluctuations in mood fascinates the same aging hippies out there who also extol the benefits of brown rice, bulger and quinoa. (Kale is another story altogether). It jibes nicely with a narrative that has a science community that developed the A-bomb and Agent Orange conspiring with the greedy barons of a food industry that spends all day trying to figure out how they can replace food with some of industrial detritus of building A-bombs and Agent Orange in order to increase their already obscene profits. We certainly can’t trust any of them when it comes to figuring out what we should be stuffing into our faces.

Our lack of confidence in the people behind the stuff on our supermarket shelves translates into a lack of trust in the products themselves. The last two or three decades have only added farmers themselves to the people we can’t trust. My point here is that there really is an ethos, at least, behind the scramble to recover these sources of ancient wisdom, and this ethos feels a lot like an ethic to anyone who is inclined to think that ancient wisdom is more credible than modern science. I’ve always thought it kind of strange how ancient wisdom now gets dispensed out of little plastic bottles containing capsules and tablets, but that’s also another story altogether.

Or maybe it isn’t, because Consumer Reports is urging us to notice that the profit-orientation of the supplement industry is pretty similar to that of that evil demon presiding over the fires of Mordor, the industrial food system. The Food and Drug Administration has been urging us to adopt a skeptical attitude for some time now, but they’ve been spanked by Congressional action back in 1994. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act sharply limits FDA’s authority to regulate products in this category, so long as they do not represent themselves as having therapeutic uses. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but it seems to be a pretty fuzzy line that’s drawn between claiming that you can cure a disease, on the one hand, and merely implying that using the product might have healthful benefits, on the other. If there are readers out there who want to weigh in on this nebulous point, have at it.

I hope I’ve already said enough to demonstrate that there are philosophical questions at stake here, and ethical implications involved in whether something gets called a food, a dietary supplement or a drug. And that would be a sufficient objective for even the most serious-minded entries in the Thornapple Blog. Consumer Reports has another shoe they want to drop, however: Oh, and by the way, these supplements can kill you. If that seems a bit overheated to the aging hippies out there headed down to the supplement section at the local co-op, just pare it back to the possibility that they can hurt you as surely as they can possibly help you. After all, we know that’s true for any food, right from the get go. I’d finish up by saying that if I’ve really piqued your interest in something you didn’t know already, you should just go read the Consumer Reports articles yourself. I’m never been here to distribute health or dietary advice in all the years I’ve been pushing this turkey, and I’m not about to start now.

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