Chin Warmers

Adzuki beans and arepas make for a pretty good cold weather supper about this time of year. I know we are supposed to be in the midst of Earth shattering changes that will drive all of us into our backyards during late March to grill out before the seriously hot weather sets in. In total honest to God facticity I did actually see some smoke wafting above my backyard fence this week when one of my neighbors took it upon himself to trot outside around six pm and fire up the charcoal. After all we did just endure the “spring ahead” and it’s not all that dark around six pm, so why not trot yourself outside? Especially when due to the Earth shattering changes we are enduring it is actually close to 60° out there. That’s what I’d like to know. I did get a lecture the other day from Chef Daniel Patterson about grilling your meat too long. “Cancer pills” was the phrase he used, but I’m not going to use my cosmic authority as the local expert on food ethics to pull a smug alert and tell you that you shouldn’t be outside in your backyward on a warm afternoon in the month of March checking to see if the bottom of your Weber grill has perchance rotted out over the winter. And what better way to do that, I note, than firing up some of those crumbly briquettes that are lying around in the bottom of the Kingsford bag that you bought last August. Last August was when Chef Dan’s advice about cancer pills was really more appropriate. Of course Dan also gave me a tip about grilling while he was lecturing us on the health risks of eating overly charred meats. “Turn it over every 30 seconds or so,” he said. The point being that this gives you great flavor without creating any of those heterocyclic amines (not to mention polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).

Chef Dan used some horrifying story about holding your thumb over an open flame and noticing that although this is pretty rough on your skin, you don’t feel a thing down in the pit of your palm. I’m not really sure I follow what he was trying to say there, though it did have something to do with idea that you can’t actually cook the pit of your palm by holding your thumb over an open flame. These celebrity chefs! What will they think of next? I’m actually just going to chalk all that up to this week’s obligatory tangent, except that before moving on I’ll note that we usually just refer to heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by the friendly names of “HCAs” and “PAHs” here in the Thornapple Blog. I don’t want any HCAs or PAHs writing lengthy outraged responses in the comments section of the blog. I already have enough trouble with robots who are posting links to Russian shopping malls or porn sites (though I will say it’s much better since we switched to the new WordPress platform). Still and all, I hope all the HCA and PAH readers out there will forgive me if I say that although we take your perspective seriously here at the Blog, we don’t expect to be inviting any of you to dinner.

And that goes especially for those Fridays in March when the temperature has dipped back into the upper twenties. Ha! On Tuesday your neighbors are grilling steaks in the backyard, but by Friday evening it’s feeling pretty chilly out in the backyard and it makes a lot more sense to be cooking up something over the stove that you can slather with the Columbia™ salsa picante that’s been sitting in your spice cabinet ever since you made your last trip to Tampa. Of course my Nana (God rest her soul) would not have known what to make of adzuki beans and arepas. In a similar vein I found myself corrupting the moral fiber of some younger colleagues the other day by suggesting we all head out for some sushi. “We didn’t eat much sushi in my family,” one said. “No kidding,” says I. “We used to scarf down tons of sushi from our TV trays when we were sitting there watching The Red Skelton Show on the little black and white television set mounted on wheels that we used to roll in on those nights when my mother was willing.” She was often willing. I think she rather liked Red Skelton.

Well, I was just kidding then like I am now. My mother may have gotten around to trying some sushi before she passed but I’m as sure that my Nana never did as I am that she never encountered an adzuki bean or an arepa. Pinto beans and cornbread, sure. Chef Dan himself kept referring to himself as a cook, too.

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


Good Stories

March 13, 2016

March is still roaring a bit, though with Mid-Michigan temperatures eking into the 60s it’s a bit more like a purr. Nevertheless, you have to squint pretty hard to see the crocuses peeking out of the ground or the little spots of green that will be turning into budding leaves in the coming weeks. I suppose the real farmers are already getting busy, but it’s a dead season for the faux farmer foodies. We have little in store but waiting, so maybe it’s a good moment to explore obscure literary references in the food world.

It occurs to me that if you want to explore American food ethics at about this time in the previous century, you would probably be reading novels. Yet that doesn’t seem so much the case today. There were tons of food and farming novels published in an era that runs from about 1860 to 1960. They were, on the on the one hand, novels in a full-blown sense: plot, characters, story development, represented as fiction. On the other hand, they were a form of thinly veiled journalism. The stories being recounted were true, and the books were read with the understanding that one could learn something of significance about the events being reported from these accounts.

Of course, the names were changed. Not so much to protect the innocent, I suspect, as to ward off legal action, especially when the real-life protagonists were both well-known and well-heeled. The stories themselves were very much the stuff of food ethics: fraudulent schemes that deprived homesteaders of their land; cruel exploitation of marginalized groups being employed as seasonal labor, especially in California, where even by the 1870s large estates were dependent on the labor of dispossessed Native American tribes and Chinese immigrants; singular events of violent resistance, such as the Mussel Slough Affair. This last was the result of an extended dispute over land titles between settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was the subject of at least three novelizations, the best known being Frank Norris’ The Octopus.

For racial strife, we could cite Edna Ferber’s Giant. The scene in which patrician rancher “Bick” Benedict (grandfather of a mixed-race child) confronts a racist café owner was an especially telling incident in the 1956 film version. The primary example might be Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (a book I have not read, mind you) published in 1884. The book combines the mutual hatred of Mexicans and Americans with cruel prejudice toward Native Americans. And then a special kind of vindictiveness is reserved for the half-breeds. Maybe not exactly Gloria Anzaldua’s story, but not all that different, either—and a full century earlier!

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, best known example in this genre. It was based fairly directly on reporting that Steinbeck did in the Federally-supported “Weed Patch” camp near Arvin, CA. (We’ve blogged about this before.) After taking a turn through Oklahoma for background, Steinbeck converted straight-up reportage into the story of the Joad family’s eviction, migration to California, exploitation by large growers and eventual dissolution. But you knew that.

I have many questions. To start with, what happened to this form? It’s nothing like today’s novelists would write, and that’s true whether we’re talking Margaret Atwood or John Grisham. Sure, we have Barbara Kingsolver, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was non-fiction. It’s not as if the stories have gone away, but in our time they are much more likely to be recounted simply as a factual exposé.

Perhaps we should regard that as progress. My other questions address the form itself: What made these novels, aside from the fact that names were changed. In some cases (like Steinbeck) the characters are composite, pulled together from the life-events of several individuals he met during his reporting. More generally, I’d speculate that the novel form was just a way to get people to read the damn things, in the first place. I know that I have a lot of trouble just convincing anyone to read this puny little blog! Maybe ethics needs a good story. I guess the authors of The Bible had that one figured out.

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

Oedipus the Scientist

March 6, 2016

We’ve been doing “ways of knowing” in my class at Michigan State, and I’ve been resisting the temptation to drag my undergraduates through a tangent on Sophocles. Blog readers are not so lucky. You’ll recall Sophocles’ play about King Oedipus from your freshman class on world literature. The plot gets rolling because Creon, his brother-in-law and some-time rival is back from Delphi with the news that Thebes suffers because the murderer of former King Laius remains unidentified and unpunished. In true macho fashion, Oedipus immediately sets out to discover the facts of the matter, promising swift action upon learning who the culprit is.

The events of the play all pivot from this point, as a series of witnesses are called before Oedipus to give testimony that will allow him to gain knowledge about this crucial unknown fact. I wonder if anyone who read Sophocles’ play or saw it performed was really in suspense about the final outcome. Most of us know that Oedipus himself is the culprit, that in fact Laius was his natural father and that he has married his own mother Jocasta and fathered children with her in the course of assuming the throne of Thebes. I don’t actually think that discovering all these gory details is actually what the play was about. Even Sophocles original audiences would have known the outline of this story from an earlier cycle of plays by Aeschylus.

Sigmund Freud drew a well-known set of psycho-sexual inferences from Oedipus the King, but in accord with ways of knowing I’d like to point out that all of the witnesses called to give testimony to Oedipus in his quest for the truth are reluctant to do so. First Tiresias the prophet of Apollo, then Jocasta herself and finally the shepherd and former servant of Jocasta resist Oedipus’s prodding, each telling him that he and Thebes will be better off if Oedipus gives up his quest for this particular matter of fact. Much earlier Creon has told Oedipus that facts must be seen in light of the motivations that people have for seeking or stating them. Oedipus’s witnesses are compelled to speak a truth they know will serve no good purpose under pain of death.

What, you may reasonably ask, could all this have to do with food (food being the nominal topic of the Thornapple Blog, after all)? I’d like to suggest that we’ve structured our public policy and our scientific research around food from Oedipus’s perspective: a quest for facts of the matter that is divorced from larger and more fundamental commitments to our own good, and that of those around us. It may not be as profound or tragic as Oedipus’s forbidden knowledge, but is it really helpful to ascertain and enforce an objective standard for the allowable amount of rat feces in our oatmeal? Mightn’t it have been more sociable to rest content with a warranted belief that actors along the cereal supply chain are doing all that they can to keep the Avena sativa and the genus Rattus separate from one another?

An oedipal type of knowing invites a rather uncaring and unbonded form of relationship building. To wit, why not blend an especially clean batch of oats with one that exceeds the allowable ratio of contamination so that the new batch is below the threshold? If there’s no evidence that GMOs, high fructose corn sweeteners or preservatives will harm you, why worry about whether people want them in their food? If the EPA standard for lead in drinking water gives you a year to fix the problem, why do anything now? All of these practices are consistent with the fact of the matter, aren’t they?

Oedipus was a little bit too confident that knowing who killed Laius would put him in a position to fix things in Thebes, and those of us in academe may share an overweening faith in a similar kind of facticity. In fact, we’ve set up all of our incentive structures to filter out our loyalties to other human beings (not to mention other species). Perhaps Tiresias and Jocasta were right to insist that those who search for facts would sometimes be wise to temper their quest and look to that which achieves a larger good.

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

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


Peter Singer

January 31, 2016

We’ve arrived at the fifth Sunday in January. Both of my regular readers know that I am now contractually obligated to come up with one more “food ethics icon,” and that given the parameters laid out on January 3, it has to be a full-bore, no-questions-asked philosopher. (For stray web browsers who just happened to land here, I’ll point out that like many things in The Blog, this is not strictly true, but then I’ll just move right on along without skipping a beat. Take it at face value.) My dilemma is that so far I’ve come up with four dead white guys. I would never put together a course syllabus with all white guys, much less dead ones. I really believe that racial, ethnic and gender diversity of standpoints is philosophically crucial. So how can I write a blog where all the food ethics icons are dead white guys?

Now there are some possible responses to my dilemma. Lisa Heldke, for example. I’ve mentioned Lisa in the blog several times before. At a recent lecture on another campus I was honorifically introduced as “the father of food ethics,” but the host went on to say that Lisa is probably the mother. There are in fact a number of women philosophers doing very cool work in food ethics today—Mary Rawlinson, Erinn Cunniff Gilson, Kate Millar, Lieske Voget-Kleschin. People who focus on animal issues might list Lori Gruen. The trouble with this list—and I would put Lisa right at the head of it—is putting them on another list that already has John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Aristotle and Karl Marx on it. Lifting any living person to iconic status in that company might be a bit of a stretch. I’m sure Lisa would agree.

The one exception that I would make among living philosophers (and remember, the standard is that everyone would recognize our candidate as a philosopher) is Peter Singer—another white guy, though admittedly not yet dead. Singer is by all counts in good health and alternately teaching at Princeton and the University of Melbourne. There are reasons why you might not want to put Singer up there in the same category with Locke, Mill, Aristotle and Marx, but if we look back over the last half century, there are very few philosophers (if any) who have been more widely read. I think there is a good chance that people looking back on our era may indeed think of it as philosophically barren, but there is a fair chance that Singer will be singled out as someone who influenced us significantly and for the better.

What is more, unlike some of the other living philosophers who might be candidates for getting up there on an icons list with bigshots like Aristotle—people like Daniel Dennett or Martha Nussbaum—Singer has indeed made significant contributions on food. His two earliest papers were on world hunger and on animal liberation (with significant implications for ethical vegetarianism and intensive livestock production). He has revisited these themes often and productively throughout his career. And he even wrote a book on food ethics (with Jim Mason) called The Ethics of What We Eat.

So I’ve resisted the temptation to go combing back through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to see if I couldn’t scrounge up some passage where they happened to mention food. Either would have satisfied my diversity craving: neither are white males and both have the advantage of being dead. Yet the fact is, we don’t remember these works for anything they said about food, and I’m not inclined to say that as with Locke or Aristotle we might read them more perceptively if we were to pay attention to the role that food plays, however indirectly, in their thought.

Singer it is then. That closes off the food ethics icons for 2016. Next Sunday, it’s back to the usual nonsense.

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

Karl Marx

January 24, 2016

Yikes! Although he died peacefully sitting in a London armchair in 1881, Karl Marx’s name still provokes kneejerk responses from Americans of every political persuasion. Totally aside from the fact that listing him means that I have four dead white guys for my 2015 food ethics icons, you would think I might be a little more circumspect at raising someone like this to iconic status. There are still plenty of Trump voters out there who think that taking interest in what Marx said or thought disqualifies you for any position of leadership or responsibility.

The misunderstanding of Marx runs deep. I recall an episode where a parent complained that students were reading Marx in a German literature class. Anxious to set aside the impression that they were ideologues, they assured the department head to whom the complaint was addressed that they would not object to students reading Marx in a Russian class. They just felt students should be reading material written in the original language.

Of course that was back in the day when the Russians were scary Communists, whereas today they are just scary. So for the record, Marx was born at Trier in 1818. Trier—which has often been called “Treve” in English—is now a part of Germany (though it was in Prussia during Marx’s time). Marx lived in London for his most productive years and he wrote in both German and English. To my knowledge, he was not fluent in Russian. The Communist Manifesto (which he wrote with his friend Friedrich Engels) is a marvelous bit of prose that really should be read by everyone. Now I know I’m in trouble. My brother Dave tells me that the leading candidate to lead his university in the Atlanta suburbs was disinvited after a local columnist discovered that the candidate had cited Marx in one of his academic papers. “We don’t want no Marxists running our schools!” And here I am saying that you should actually read Marx. It’s probably like one of those satanic curses you get from the subliminal effect of playing the Beatles Revolution # 9 backwards. John Lennon was probably referring to Marx when he said “Turn me on, dead man!”

However, Marx did include a wise and fascinating chapter on agriculture in his magnum opus Das Kapital. Marx was working from an economic paradigm (I know, I know—another big word. Look it up on Wikipedia) where production was thought to be a function of three factors: land, labor and capital. Land actually referred to all of the material stuff that things were made from. We would call it “resources.” You know what labor is. The leading idea of the early 19th century was that “resources” are worthless in their natural state. It’s only after labor transforms them (maybe by just digging them up) that they have value. So how come the men and women who are doing that labor are among the poorest people in society? That was (if you’ll pardon my excessive reductionism) Marx’s question.

Well, we need to look at that third factor for the answer, and Marx wrote several large volumes on it. I still think the very idea of capital is pretty vague. No one in Marx’s time would have thought that money was capital, yet financial capital seems to be the most important mojo around today. For the economists of Marx’s time, capital is the stuff that doesn’t get “used up” in the production process. If you build a house, the mud for the bricks and the trees for the wood are consumed in the production process. They become part of the house, and aren’t available for the next house you want to build. There’s the labor you expended building the house, but what else is there? Part of the answer is “the tools”. And indeed the technology you use in a production process is capital. But you have to have the tools before you can start building the house, and noticing that small fact was a key to Marx’s economic thought. All the power resides with the guy who already has the tools (or the wherewithal to buy them). He can hire labor on the day he needs it. So the big money goes to the capitalist. You can add “pig” to the end of that sentence if you are a Sanders voter.

But in his agriculture chapter, Marx noticed that soils are in basically the same shape as the worker. There’s really nothing beyond the long-term interest of the landowner to ensure that they are not exploited beyond their capacity to renew themselves, just like members of the proletariat who were driven down to wages that were not even sufficient to buy food and a warm place to sleep. And as the power shifts to the owners of technology (you can substitute “Monsanto” if you are a GMO hater) that kind of exploitation will become more and more common, he thought.

Well maybe it’s another blog that won’t make sense to a lot of readers, but still and all, I’m calling Karl Marx a food ethics icon.

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


January 17, 2016

A couple of weeks back when I decided to dedicate this year’s series of blogs on “food ethics icons” to full-bore, no-one-would-raise-an-eyebrow-about-me-calling-them-philosophers philosophers, Aristotle was one of the guys I had in mind. He certainly meets the no-eyebrows-raised criterion. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, but these days it’s Aristotle who is thought to be the pinnacle of thought in Ancient Greece. He was a Macedonian born in 384 BCE, but like Socrates and Plato, his philosophical legacy is tied closely to the city of Athens. I’m not going to do biography. I kind of like the way that Plutarch makes Aristotle out to be something of a gangster in his time, implicating him in a plot to assassinate his onetime pupil and conqueror-of-the-known-world Alexander. It’s probably not true, but hey, that hasn’t stopped us here in the Thornapple Blog before. Aristotle died on the island of Euboea (can I resist a surrealistic tangent on Ebola?) in 322 BCE.

I’m also going to break form from the last two food ethics icons by saying absolutely nothing about Aristole’s general philosophy. There’s way too much of it, for one thing. In ethics, he is cited as the paradigm expositor of virtue ethics, which is just a bizarre conceit among philosophy professors that is intended to mark out three general approaches to ethics. Consequentialists think that ethics is only about getting the best outcome from what you do, while deontologists think that ethics is only about knowing and discharging your moral duty. Virtue ethics is in truth kind of a trash-can “not either one of those” approaches, but it does pivot on the idea that ethics is predominantly about developing a strong moral character.

So you protest, dear reader, “I thought you weren’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s general philosophy, yet here you are prattling on about virtue ethics!” But I have two responses. One is to remind you (for the second time in this blog) that not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true (though of course, some of it is). More substantively, a) I haven’t really told you much of anything about Aristotle because b) in fact all the Greeks were really doing virtue ethics, especially when you compare them to the way that consequentialists and deontologists do ethics today. One key point would be go back to the last paragraph and ponder the fact that the word ‘only’ is italicized. Twice.

So I do in fact think that food ethics really demands a ‘virtue ethics’ approach, but that wouldn’t be why I picked Aristotle as a food ethics icon. In point of fact, I’m not so sure that he was a good choice, after all. There’s not a hell of a lot about food or farming in Aristotle (not that I would represent myself as having read every word of Aristotle, mind you). You could go off on a few passages where he talks about the appropriateness of eating animals. But I won’t.

What made me think of Aristotle as a food ethics icon are a few passages in the Politics where he says that the family household is the model for a good society. Some of my feminist and gay friends tee off on this, but that’s not reading Aristotle in the appropriate historical context. He’s not defending the model of a family household that we learned from watching Leave It to Beaver back in the 1950s. He’s actually thinking about the kind of farming household that Xenophon discusses at length in his Oeconomicus. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, we’ve already done Xenophon, so here’s a link. You can tell that Aristotle has the farm household in mind because he talks about the hoi mesoi which we would probably translate as “the middle class”. This ties in nicely with themes Aristotle stresses in his virtue ethics, where he writes that a virtue is usually a “mean” or middle-point between two vices of excess. “Courage,” for example, is the mid-point between cowardice and foolhardiness. But I said I wasn’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s larger philosophical views, so I’d better just drop this right now.

It’s easy to read that “middle class” thing to mean people just like you, me and Bob, but neither you, me nor Bob very likely represents the hoi mesoi unless Bob happens to be a farmer who is also a member of the National Guard. The farm households had a special relationship to the heart of the polis, which is, in turn, the heart or core of political solidarity. Unlike the hoi polloi they were not plutocrats, but had to work for their living, and the work they did depended on the sustainability of society and its ability to protect their fields from invading hoards. Invading hoards like Cyrus and the Persians, who were not a Peloponnesian punk band, but actual and for instance in fact invading hoards.

Well, I’m being a bit sarcastic and stretching the truth a little and I might as well admit it. But it’s also just a fact that lots of philosophy professors who know a lot more about Aristotle than I do seem to miss this singular fact about the way that he describes the basis of political association. So to push this line just a little bit harder, I’m calling Aristotle a food ethics icon.

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