Another Reason I Didn't Write to the Times

April 22, 2012

Not long after posting last week’s blog on the New York Times “ethics of meat eating” contest I heard from my friend Andrew Light, who is one of judges. Andrew doesn’t read the Thornapple Blog, but I had sent him a copy of the first draft as a courtesy. He reports that The Times has received more than 5000 entries to the contest, some of them sounding themes very much like my blog. He also notes that the judges weren’t to have finished their work until this past Wednesday, so if you went looking for the results in the NY Times Magazine last week, you were probably disappointed. Maybe next week.

Andrew picked out this sentence of the blog for comment:

You can’t live in the world of food ethics without being aware that many philosophers who live on considerably more than $2.60 a day have decided that eating meat is a “trivial pleasure” which people are morally obligated to forego in light of the fact that producing animal protein (and this would include eggs the way we do it in the industrialized world, by the way) requires the death of animals.

He assures me that none of the judges (two of which, himself included, are philosophers making more than $2.60 per day) hold the opinion that meat eating by the poor is a trivial pleasure. This may be so, but the other philosopher who is a judge has in fact written that meat eating is a trivial pleasure, and when he did so, he did not qualify his statement by confining it to people at higher levels of income. I have had this phrase thrown at me on several occasions, and I rather suspect that people who use it picked it up from the writings of Peter Singer. I wrote about a particular occasion on which something rather like this phrase was used in a Thornapple Blog on November 14 of 2010.

Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not also point out that Professor Singer is one of the loudest and most consistent voices raised on behalf the poor. He is known for donating a substantial percentage of his income to charities running aid and development programs in developing countries, and this is not something that I do myself. So Andrew would be quite right in correcting any implication that the sentence he quoted was a valid criticism of the contest judges. Singer is notorious for his advocacy on behalf of animals, but he has always qualified this advocacy. It is not based on a concern about the death of animals, nor does he present it as a rationale that could cited to deprive people in poverty of the food that they need.

In fact it was never my intention to criticize Andrew Light, Peter Singer or the other judges (who are not philosophers, in any case, and two of whom are not, so far as I know, vociferous advocates of ethical vegetarianism). I was being sincere in trying to explain why I find philosophical arguments about what other people should eat to be so troubling. The 2010 blog also talked about people a bit less fortunate than I am, though in that case they were my neighbors, which means that they are getting by on significantly more than $2.60 per day.  I could have talked about some other people I know who are every bit as well off as I am.

There is a woman I know who struggles with several dietary conditions and takes virtually no pleasure (trivial or otherwise) in eating whatsoever. What’s offensive about the “dietary ethics” arguments in this case has little to do with vegetarianism, and everything to do with the assumption that what you eat is a matter of choice. As further evidence, I could cite my own case. I’m a diabetic, though my blood sugars are reasonably well controlled at present. They tend to be better controlled when I eat a meat heavy diet. In fact I don’t eat a meat heavy diet, which means I have to offset rice or pasta meals with some pretty vigorous exercise. But for me, diet is a regimen contextualized by numerous factors, only some of which are ethical in nature. It’s still not really a matter of “choice” in any straightforward sense.

And then there’s the poor fellow who takes a bag full of medications every day. Some drug or some combination of drugs and/or food sets off a round of explosive diarrhea every other week or so. If you see him make a beeline for the men’s room, cut him a little slack, would you? Trouble is, he can’t figure out what to eat, what not to eat, or whether it’s some weird combination of the moon, the tides or bulgur and tofu that’s the root of all.  If he could help his condition by eating meat, I’d say go for it. I probably wouldn’t encourage him to write to the Times, though. His case points us to a reason why we’d probably all be better off not to talk so earnestly about what’s at the end of each other’s fork.

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

Why I Didn't Write to the Times

April 15, 2012

According to the World Bank, the criterion for “extreme poverty” is an average income of €1.00 per day, which works out to be about $1.30. When you earn $2.60 per day, you leave “extreme poverty” and are then (by World Bank standards) simply poor. Roughly 3 billion people in the world are below the poverty line, and about half of them live in extreme poverty. According to research by household economists, when people move from extreme poverty to just being poor, the main thing that they spend their second Euro on is animal protein. They buy a little meat to eat, or possibly some eggs or (less frequently) milk.

I mention this factoid because I’ve been getting e-mails about the New York Times writing contest on the ethics of meat eating. It seems that someone at the Times thought it would be fun to see who could come up with best ethical argument in defense of eating meat, so they offered a prize and put together a jury of white males from the industrialized world to judge the entries. The winning entry is probably being published in the NY Times Magazine today.

I’ve heard from friends who thought I should enter, and I also heard from people in the world of livestock production who wanted me to complain about the judges. It’s not that livestock producers see a problem with an all white male jury, mind you. They think the whole contest is biased against them.  As for myself, I think the whole contest is biased against people who are just now starting to earn their second Euro, and have started integrating meat into their diet a little more frequently than they did when they were extremely poor.

I do not have the temerity to present myself as someone who could speak on behalf of someone who lives on $2.60 per day, so I was loath to even try to justify the dietary preference of people who do to the Editors of the New York Times. I was not surprised by this contest, however. You can’t live in the world of food ethics without being aware that many philosophers who live on considerably more than $2.60 a day have decided that eating meat is a “trivial pleasure” which people are morally obligated to forego in light of the fact that producing animal protein (and this would include eggs the way we do it in the industrialized world, by the way) requires the death of animals.

Although I can’t really imagine what it would be like to emerge from extreme poverty into a world where I am now earning a second $1.30 per day, I cannot convince myself that such a person would spend their “windfall” income on trivial pleasures. I have thus become exceedingly cautious about pontificating on the ethics of eating meat. I feel that someone who is spending a portion of their second Euro on some meat or eggs deserves at least this modicum of my respect for their preferences.

This is not to say, mind you, that there are no ethical problems with meat eating. Readers of the blog know that I work with mainstream livestock producers to help them think through the ways that they can improve the welfare of animals in their care. And the planetary ecosystem simply cannot tolerate a world where everyone ate as much animal protein as the typical American eats. But a contest calling for an ethical defense of meat eating? I think I have to pass on that one.

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

Agrarian Ethics

April 8, 2012

Looking back to last week’s blog on “Industrial Ethics,” I ask you “How serious could an April 1 blog be, anyway?”

In fact I do think that most Americans think of agriculture as “just another sector in the industrial economy,” and I do think that a lot of good, important and totally legitimate work can be done on agriculture and food issues under the umbrella of an “industrial ethic”—an ethic built on efficiency, on the one hand, and not harming third parties, on the other. I do think that a lot of heroes in the food movement are working out of that paradigm. If you’ve read my book The Agrarian Vision, you would know that I include some icons like Michael Pollan and Vandana Shiva among them.

But here’s what I wanna say when it’s NOT April Fool’s Day: It hasn’t always been like that, bucko.

Back in the first half of the 20th century (which is to say before even I  was born) it was not all that unusual for people to think that farming and ranching had unique roles to play in making us the kind of people like we are. And we could probably include fishing in that, too, for some coastal areas where commercial fisherman braved the wine dark sea to provide subsistence production. I’ve hit this note in the Thornapple Blog before, talking about “the agrarian vision” of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought we needed a nation of farmers because a person whose livelihood is tied to the land won’t hightail it off to Bermuda when the Redcoats show up to collect more taxes for King George. Farmers are more virtuous as citizens, Jefferson thought.

In the Thornapple Blog’s tradition of celebrating popular song lyrics in which food is mentioned I should point out that this may be the coded meaning behind one of best loved (but least understood) musical poems of our era:

The poor cook he took fits,
threw away all of my grits,
then he took and ate up all of my corn.

As you will recall, all this occurs “round Nassau town” with “my grandfather and me.” But that’s probably a story for another time and place.

We have some agrarians in our own time, too. Victor Davis Hanson wrote a couple of interesting agrarian books before he became a reliably Republican commentator on current events from a post at the Hoover Institute. Brian M. Donahue is someone you could look to if you wanted a more reliably left-leaning version of a contemporary agrarian vision. Donahue has argued that farming, gardening and participating a community supported agriculture can give as a more rooted sense of the way that we are integrated into the natural world, and this rootedness translates into a form of environmental citizenship.

And I do think we’d be more ethically competent if we could recognize the difference between an agrarian argument and standard left-right politics. My book has been called “conservative” simply because I say nice things about Hanson’s agrarian writings.

This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.

Agrarian ethics: something we need in our time as much as Jefferson needed patriots in his.

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

Industrial Ethics

April 1, 2012

I think most Americans think of agriculture as just another sector in the industrial economy. The economy has an energy sector, a health-care sector, a manufacturing sector, an entertainment sector and an agricultural sector. When it comes to ethics, there’s nothing special about agriculture either. Every sector in the economy gets evaluated equally when it comes to ethics. And we can break that ethical evaluation down into two parts.

First, the firms in each sector of our economy are supposed to be efficient, which basically just means that the sector as a whole is supposed to be competitive. When the sector is efficient, every firm has to work hard to keep their costs low so that they can keep the price of the goods or services they offer as low as possible. If they don’t, buyers go to another firm and the inefficient firm is out of business. But sometimes the big boys are able to bend the rules so that they get an unfair advantage. That’s why “be efficient” can be thought of as a principle of ethics for an industrial economy.

The sector we worry about most with respect to this rule is probably the financial sector, but this is a food blog. And I do think that one key area for agricultural and food ethics has to do with questioning whether big players have advantages that allow them to be inefficient. That’s the ethical rap against genetically engineered seeds, for example. Big companies like Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta are said to have an oligopoly over seed, and they are using their power to put the squeeze on little guys. Be efficient, fellows!

But there’s a second ethical rule that we also apply to firms in every sector of the economy: Don’t get your advantage by hurting bystanders. In the language of the economists: Internalize your costs! Although we want firms to supply the crap err.. commodities (yeah, that’s the ticket) we want to buy, and we want them to supply it as cheaply as they can, we don’t want them cutting corners in ways that simply pass on costs to their workers, their neighbors and to future generations. So we have rules of the game that they have to follow, and the short-version of these rules is this: Don’t harm third-parties!

This is the rule where the main part of the action in agriculture and food ethics takes place. We don’t like agricultural practices that screw farmworkers, either by exposing them to undue risk or by using their economic vulnerability to short their pay. We don’t like farmers who lower their costs by using chemicals that accumulate in the environment and wind up killing songbirds and causing cancer. We don’t like it when farmers squeeze get the price of that hamburger or bacon down by imposing intolerable conditions on their animals. All these gripes (and they are legitimate) in agricultural ethics fall under the general principle of not harming third-parties.

Now we have some disagreements about how to flesh out these two rules (Be efficient, but don’t harm third parties). Some people have a more robust sense of harm than others, and some people are willing to live with a world in which everyone has a little bit higher chance of coming down with stomach cancer or heart disease so that they can put by a few pennies on lunch and dinner and spend them on something else.  Some people root for the workers and others root for the people who write their paychecks. So we hash these differences out in our political debates and in our philosophy classrooms. There’s nothing particularly unique about the agricultural or food related character of these debates. They just reflect the different opinions that people have about how every sector in the industrial economy should operate.

Which makes my job easy. We don’t really need a philosopher of agricultural ethics at all. Any old crackpot prof from the business school could have already told you everything you need to know.

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

Late Frost?

March 25, 2012

Thornapple CSA members who have been in the neighborhood of the Thompson homestead after dark may have noticed a glow coming from the basement. It’s not Paul down there, putting together model airplanes, nor is it Diane doing a late load of clothes. We’re starting seeds in the basement and we’ve got an elaborate set-up of grow-lights so that Thornapple CSA members will be assured of getting their summer veggies at the earliest possible moment. Of course, given the way things have been over the last ten days or so, you may wonder why we are bothering to start seeds in the basement. Get those boys outside like everyone else in town.

Although the date at the top of the page says “March 25”, the weather in mid-Michigan has been distinctly un-lamblike. Not that it’s lionlike, either, unless one is referring to Leo, the astrological sign for early August, rather than the feline that March is generally said to come in like. Everyone is talking about this weather, but contrary to the saying, there may be few people doing something about it. That would be farmers out there getting their crops in early.

Of course, there are also farmers sittin’ there on the porch whittlin’ sticks, shaking their heads over all this commotion in the fields. They know that 4 out of every 5 turns of weather like we’ve been having here in late March, early April brings another killing frost. Or even sooner (like tomorrow). So they’re biding their sweet time. Maybe they have some seeds in the basement, too.

Then there are the tree farmers, and we’ve got a lot of ‘em here in Michigan. The apple trees, peach trees and cherry trees (not to mention the blueberries) all tend to make up their own mind about such matters. And these girls are blooming. There was a bit on the news about early cherry blossoms in Washington DC. These blushing beauties have put kind of a dent in the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which wasn’t scheduled to begin until today. Next Tuesday is the centennial anniversary of Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo’s gift of two trees to the city of Washington.

I can attest that the cherry trees in Portland, OR (where I’ve been spending some sabbatical time) have been blooming for over two weeks. As for our own Michigan cherries, well the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau says they bloom “as early as May 5,” so maybe we’ve got a while to catch our breath. We Midwesterners don’t have cherry festivals when the trees are merely blooming, by the way. We wait till they fruit. We know where the business end of the cherry tree is.

Well, the TCCVB notwithstanding, the trees have a mind of their own. They get out the buds and hit the road for spring whenever there is a reasonably long spell of warm weather. And as the main thrust of this blog indicates, that would be now. For this year, at least, there’s not much that a tree farmer can do about the weather. They’ll just have to wait and see about that late frost, and maybe use this warm spell to catch up on their whittlin’. They’re thinking about it, to be sure, wondering if the horticulture folks down at Michigan State have got any ideas about frost hardy trees. And maybe if these early springs really are a permanent fixture, they’ll get down off the porch next year and put down some fertilizer.

Now in the spirit of genuine edification, I should probably remind both of my readers that not everything you read in the Thornapple blog is strictly true. Whether there’s another frost coming or not, this is actually a pretty good time to do more than think about the annual pruning. So there’s probably not all that much whittlin’ going on among the tree farmers, but it makes a good story. We call this “adaptation”. File this blog under “climate ethics.”

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

Nobody Checks In

March 18, 2012

Last Wednesday I checked in for a mocha at The Energy Bar down on the corner of Market and Park St. in SW Portland. I had been there once for some fresh carrot juice and I noticed the neon sign in the window advertising espresso drinks. There’s a Starbucks right across the street, and I had originally been gravitating in that direction looking for something to stimulate the brain-cells after my tuna sandwich. But when I noticed the sign at The Energy Bar, I thought “Why not?” I am all down with that local thing, after all. And Starbucks, well, that’s Starbucks.

When I say that I checked in at The Energy Bar I mean that I opened an app on my smart phone called Yelp!, did a quick search for “energy bar” and then hit the “Check-In” button. Not being as young as people like James McWilliams, I am not particularly hip with apps, but my daughter had suggested Yelp! back when I saw her last January. You can use Yelp! for a number of different things. For one, you can “Search Nearby”, and Yelp! will use the GPS on your smartphone to bring up a list of restaurants, pubs or coffee shops that are in your general proximity. These establishments are tied to “ratings” and reviews that are contributed by subscribers to Yelp!, and I have found that consulting these ratings and reviews can be somewhat helpful in finding a place to eat or drink when you are on unfamiliar turf. Not to mention the fact that your phone will also bring up a Google map showing you how to get there.

You can also have a list of “Friends”. Those of you (probably neither of my regular readers) who are down with Facebook know that this word has absolutely no relationship to the meaning of the ordinary English word ‘friend’, much less to Aristotle’s celebrated discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics. “Friends” are just people to whom you are linked by the app in cyberspace, the cloud or wherever it is that links do that voodoo that they do. Du? But if say, you’ve decided to pop into The Energy Bar for a mocha, and one of your “Friends” is also in the mood for a coffee or a glass of carrot juice, they can open their smartphone, consult Yelp! and learn “Hey! Paul just checked in at The Energy Bar. I think I’ll head that way and see if he wants some company.”

Being the guru of food, fun and conviviality that I am, I think that this is an absolutely smashing innovation, certainly something that should be vigorously endorsed by anyone interested in food ethics. And so I “check-in” religiously on Yelp! whenever I wander into a pub, coffeeshop or other general dive with nothing better to do besides sit there by myself, peruse the newspaper and enjoy a mocha or a tuna sandwich. There is a rub, however, and it is that I have no friends. Zero. Nada. So when I go to the Energy Bar, the chance that I will run into somebody I know is pretty much the same whether I “check-in” or not.

Which makes me feel sort of like some pathetic loser when I “check-in” and Yelp! advises me that I have no friends. Nevertheless, when I did the check-in at The Energy Bar last Wednesday, my phone automatically opened a new page congratulating me on the fact that I had just become “The Duke” of The Energy Bar. Now, this is getting really obscure, but it turns out that Yelp! keeps track of check-ins, and the person with the most check-ins at any given establishment becomes the duke or duchess of that establishment. It is also apparently possible to achieve higher levels of Yelp! royalty by being the duck, er duke, of many different joints. So even for us pathetic losers with no friends, cyberspace has cooked up a rewards system to make us feel good about checking in!

Except that this was exactly the second time that I had actually stepped into The Energy Bar. Aside from the fact that Starbucks is across the street, I have no explanation for my sudden royal status. The Energy Bar makes great carrot juice, and their mocha is passable as well. Aside from that, if there is anyone out there who would like to be my friend, please sign on to Yelp! and look for the Duke of The Energy Bar. Pathetic losers should stick together.

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

Tea Party

March 11, 2012

If you read the blog last week, it will not surprise you too much to learn that ten days ago I was standing on an impossibly steep mountainside in Taiwan. I was visiting a tea plantation—actually one of two tea research centers maintained by ROC Ministry of Agriculture. In the spirit of The History Channel, I could use this occasion to launch into a brief lesson about the ROC, which was established in 1912 and is not to be confused with the PRC. I’ve learned some interesting things about the ROC on my two trips to Taiwan, and about 30 seconds ago I learned that if you Google ROC all you get are links to a mid-90s TV show or discussions of the mythical bird that destroyed Sinbad the sailor’s ship. So maybe I’ll skip the digression.

If I got the story straight, the use of the word ‘plantation’ may be a bit misleading in the case of Taiwan. It seems that what you need to be a tea producer in the ROC is secure access to say 5 or 10 acres of mountain slope, often terraced, and about $10,000 of equipment for rolling and drying the tea. The tea plants look like simple hedges about 1-1½ meters high. The pitch of the hedges ranges from steep, as in you are leaning forward a bit to walk up it, to precipitous, as in a set of terraces much more vertical than any staircase you ever climbed. Each leaf is picked by hand, and then begins a process of consisting of alternating steps of exsiccation, fermentation and various forms of mixing, tossing and rolling. All this is done “on farm” so to speak, and the end product is then graded before being sold to tea buyers. The picture I got is that while these tea producers are doing okay by Taiwanese standards (which are pretty darn close to U.S. standards) they are not the kind of Big Daddy bigwigs I associate with the word ‘plantation.’

In the spirit of A&E, I could use this occasion to bring up Burl Ives portrayal of Big Daddy in Richard Brooks’ 1958 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (also starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor), except that if you Google “Big Daddy” what you get is a 1999 film starring Adam Sandler. So maybe I’ll skip the digression, and just move right on to the reason why I decided to write this blog.

They were putting organic fertilizer on the tea plants the first couple of days in March, which led me to ask about organic tea and pesticides. The “tea guy”, who was explaining all this in Chinese, told me that while things are nice right now, if you come back in June, these tea plants will be covered with insects. So yes, they do use pesticides. This is not organic tea, despite its reputation for high quality. In fact, the organic tea in Taiwan is not very highly regarded. So I decided to do a little research on organic tea, and I came up with this little gem from the Journal of Guangxi Agriculture:

Owing to the bottleneck problem in technology that constraints the development of organic tea production, the technique system of standardized production and management of organic tea are studied in terms of the environmental quality of organic tea production base, production technique, processing technique and product criteria based on standardized technique system of organic tea in this paper.

Maybe it reads better in Chinese. In the spirit of Discovery Channel, I could use this occasion to bust the myth about the incommensurability of translation thesis advanced by Thomas Kuhn, but when I Google ‘Kuhn’ what I get are pressure cookers. So I’ll skip that digression, too. When I Google “organic tea” I get page after page of people trying to sell me organic tea over the Internet. So the protestations of my friend from the ROC Ministry of Agriculture to the contrary, organic tea does exist. If you believe the advertising, it is produced by sturdy women using artisanal practices—actually not that different from what the ROC Ministry of Agriculture guy was describing, only it seems that some of them do use pesticides.

Which leaves me with…

Not all that much, really. Should you be seeking out organic tea? I have no idea. And for those of you who Googled ‘tea party’ expecting some discussion of U.S. Presidential politics, sorry for the digression.

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

East West

March 4, 2012

March forth, young people. Today is the day to march forth!

As for me, I’m having biscuits at Mother’s. That would be the one down on Stark Street in Southwest Portland. The one with the 45-minute wait, but since I’m a single, I sneak in right away and sit at the bar. It’s especially nice to eat some biscuits after a week trying to put together a comforting breakfast off the buffet table at the Howard Civil Service International House Hotel in Taipei. This is not a knock on the buffet, which is sumptuous, but international food-adventurer that I am, it doesn’t take long before I’m ready for comfort food first thing in the morning. The couple sitting next to me at Mother’s was friendly (not that unusual in Portland), and soon the woman inquires about the biscuits. “Not quite as good as my Grandmother’s,” I told her, but pretty soon she was asking for a bite, anyway. As I said, not that unusual in Portland.

The week in Taiwan was a big success. It was an East meets West encounter around the theme of agriculture and environmental philosophy. Not to get boring, but environmental philosophy is about explaining and accounting for our environmental imperatives: the things we are morally required to do for nature. Back here in the West we academic-types have a big debate going over whether we can refer all of our environmental imperatives back to the services that nature provides back to us human beings, or whether nature has some kind of intrinsic value that provides a reason why we should preserve ecosystems whether they are useful to us or not.

I get to go first at the confab. My task was to describe “agrarian philosophy,” which is roughly any worldview that takes subsistence production to play an important role in building basic cultural forms. I argue that some agrarian philosophies have been an important source of environmental imperatives, and that what’s curious from a Western perspective is that they don’t get us into this dichotomy between intrinsic value and a view of nature’s value that is based solely on what’s in it for us. Agrarian views emphasize humans in nature, but because farming, fishing and other daily activities are the basis for culture and identity, nature becomes a source of imperatives, rather than something to be valued because it pays off to do so.

I point out that although agrarian views can be found in the history of Western philosophy, they begin to disappear about 200 years ago. The “official” Western culture transmitted in universities begins to regard agrarian thinking as a relic, and emphasizes ethical views formulated in terms of human rights or economic costs and benefits. People in the West become more and more detached from the experience of subsistence production, and agrarian philosophy just doesn’t resonate for them.  But I also give two important reasons why academic types East and West shouldn’t give up on agrarian philosophy entirely. First, agrarian worldviews are still around, and we should show respect for the people that hold them. Second, I believe that there are important things we can learn from these philosophies. They contain a moral wisdom about nature that is lacking in our current thinking about environmental imperatives.

This sets off an explosion. The academic-types from China and Japan talk about the way that an agrarian worldview was implicit in the philosophy of Confucius and Mencius, and how this background is assumed by almost all Asian commentators ever since. They also lament the fact that the new generation in Japan seems to be losing touch with agriculture, and are losing their connection to traditional Japanese culture, as a result. I tell them, “Wow! Who knew! When I studied Asian thought back in the sixties, I thought it was about taking acid out in the desert in order to become one with the universe!” My new friend Toshiro Kuwaka from the Tokyo Institute of Technology closes the conference by saying that he has never participated at an East-West event where there has better communication and understanding among the participants.

It was a great week for me. March forth, my friends, and may the biscuits be with you.

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

A Hazy Shade of Winter

February 26, 2012

If you are one of the two regular readers of the Thornapple Blog, you may have noticed that the “Recent Posts” column on the left hand side of the page scrolls down through the last ten items that I’ve posted. If you are reading this particular post during the week of Feb. 26, 2012 (e.g. the week it was published), then the item on the bottom of the “Recent Posts” list is “That’s It for 2011”. That particular post was actually written on December 25, which last time I checked was Christmas Day. It was so perfunctory (the moo-ving link notwithstanding) that I’m not even going to embed a link to it in this week’s blog. The only reason I’m mentioning it is that this progress of past blogs down the “Recent Posts” list has become a weird way of marking time for me. In one sense, it will not really be “That’s It for 2011” until next week, when my last blog of 2011 slides into the oblivion of the Archives, (where if you really want to find that moo-ving link, you can still click on December 2011).

Of course, if you happen to be reading the last February blog for 2012 at some later time, all these references to the Recent Posts column on the left hand side of the page will be completely meaningless to you. The only thing I can be relatively sure about it is that if you happen to be reading this blog right now, you are right here with my train of thought (however muddled that might be) as opposed to ignoring it, forgetting it or remaining completely unaware of it. Funny how that goes.

Which brings me to this week’s song lyric:

Time, time, time…

See what’s become of me.

While I looked around

for my possibilities,

I was so hard to please

This was penned by Paul Simon as a relatively young man, well before he married Princess Leia or went off to Africa and popularized world-music, and long, long before his peculiar combination of ego and chutzpah started to curdle in the cauldron of advancing years.

Not that this has all that much to do with food, except that I’m struck enough by the perishing nature of the eating experience, not to mention the farming experience, to keep bringing this up, time and time (and time and time) again. I did a goofy version of it reflecting on what it feels like to sit on Grand River and drink coffee when all the MSU students are coming back for classes, and I got rather serious about it a couple of weeks later after seeing the Richard Serra exhibit in Bilbao. And here I am again, well into 2012 and only now waving goodbye to 2011. It’s kind of like that last burp from a cheese enchilada with extra onions—the one that shows up hours later and reminds you how good they tasted.

Food is time. Time passing, time that is what we are. A food ethic that denies this to push hard on getting the environmental impacts right, or even one that is so focused on fair trade and just wages is getting a bit ahead of itself. And when you get ahead of yourself, well, where are you?

Elsewhere, I suppose.

Sure, food security is about ensuring that everyone has access to the food they need to survive, but the time that hungry people spend eating, not to mention procuring and preparing, is what makes up their lives. That has to be quality time in any adequate food ethic. So next time I reference Guy Lombardo (like a did last October), give me a break.

It seems to be one thing that I just can’t allow to slide forever into the Archives.

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


Feb. 19, 2012

Both of my regular readers know that I’m hooked up with eggs, and as such I feel obligated to write about them every now and then. It’s actually been about six months since I filled everyone in on the straight poop from the eggworld. And when we say “poop” in the eggworld, I can assure you, we know what we are talking about. I’ve introduced myself to ag audiences over the years by saying that I have pretty limited personal background in food farming. The only thing I did before becoming a perfessor was to work for two summers on one of the early big egg farms down in southwest Missouri. I follow this up by saying “I won’t say what I did, but I worked with a shovel and it was good preparation for my career in agricultural ethics.”

This is always the occasion for an outburst of hilarity. I realize that if by chance I happen to have picked up a less agriculturally-informed or less-scatologically-inclined reader today, this may strike you as neither funny nor particularly meaningful. If so, don’t worry about it. Nothing in the rest of the Thornapple Blog depends on being down with barnyard humor.

So back to the eggworld. When last we visited this exalted clime I was pointing out that the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers had reached an agreement on “enriched colony housing”. One of the wonderful things about the internet is that instead of having to explain this to you again, I can just post a link to my blog last July. Then you can go look it up yourself and I can steam blithely along into mounting fog of the blogosphere. This is also the point in the blog where I usually insert some totally off-topic comment about the fact that although my word processor dictionary doesn’t recognize a perfectly good word like “permaculture”, it does recognize “blogosphere”, or I go off quoting some obscure song lyric like “Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long” in the vain hope that one of my readers will make the connection to what I’m blogging about and post a comment about how clever that was. Never happens.

So back to eggworld. The follow-up is that HSUS and UEP are having trouble getting Congress to take up this proposal. This may surprise you. One might think that when two groups formerly on such opposite sides of an issue come together on a proposal for action, our government would oblige them. On the other hand, this IS our government, so it may not surprise you to learn that it now looks unlikely that any action will be taken at all. The proposal is being opposed by the major beef and pork commodity organizations. My inside sources say that they are opposing it because they hate Wayne Pacelle, who is the President of the Humane Society of the United States, and they don’t want to give him any props to boost his street cred with the pro-animal homies. If this fails to strike you as either funny or meaningful, don’t worry about it. I don’t understand what I just said, either.

Of course, I don’t have very good inside sources outside the eggworld, so this is the point in the blog where I provide a link to last year’s blog where I explain that not everything you read here is necessarily true. It’s also the point where I go postal explaining my inside connection to the eggworld, but since I’ve already given you links where you can figure that out if you’re so inclined, I’m not going to do that. It could be that the mainstream animal producers are opposing this bit of legislation regulating eggs because they think it establishes a precedent for Federal regulation of farm animal welfare. If so, their action implies that they oppose regulation of farm animal welfare. I explained a rationale for being leery of a regulatory approach way back in one of those blogs I’ve already linked to, but if you’re confused, here it is again. But the argument there would not apply to producer groups that are actually asking for regulation, which is what the eggmen are doing. And some of you may have heard the stories by Dan Charles on National Public Radio. If not here (again) are some links. You wouldn’t want to be clueless in eggworld.

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