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


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

John Stuart Mill

January 10, 2016

My second “food ethics icon” for 2016 is John Stuart Mill. Mill is a pretty interesting figure in his own right and certainly one of the most important individuals of the 19th century. Mill inhabited a rarified intellectual and political environment from his London birth in 1806 to his death from a severe skin infection at Avignon in 1873. He associated with everybody who was anybody in English society and was an influential government advisor, especially in connection with the administration of Britain’s most important colony, India. When I started studying philosophy in the 1970s, Mill was known primarily for two short works: Utilitarianism and On Liberty. Today he is also known as an early advocate of feminism, largely for another short work The Subjection of Women. Mill probably considered all of these to be works of popularization. The first was serialized in Fraser’s Magazine—a publication that near as I can tell would have been something like The Atlantic. Mill thought of the work as a concise exposition of some views advocated by his father, James Mill and other close Mill family friends including Jeremy and Samuel Bentham and Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. It continues to be cited as perhaps the most authoritative (and certainly the most readable) of all works on utilitarian philosophy.

On Liberty was probably more important. It was in fact a collaboration with Mill’s wife, Harriett Taylor Mill (1807-1858). On Liberty is a historically important articulation of liberalism in ethics and political philosophy. In this context, ‘liberalism’ doesn’t mean big government. It’s the idea that individuals should be pretty much free to conduct their private lives according to their own lights. The only justification for interference in one person’s freedom occurs when the exercise of that freedom imposes or threatens harm to someone else. It was a doctrine that cut against the idea of state-sanctioned religions and was in fact intended to limit both the power of government and the influence of busybodies. The Subjection of Women is entirely consistent with this theme, arguing that women have a right to be free architects of their own lives as much as men. I’ve argued that this core liberal idea is so ingrained in the way that we think about inter-personal relationships that it has to be the starting point for any contemporary discussion of food ethics.

When did you make that argument, the attentive blog reader asks? “Well,” the solicitous blog writer answers, “maybe I haven’t actually made it in my blog. But it does show up in my book on food ethics, From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone.” But is that enough to make Mill a food ethics icon, the inquisitive blog reader inquires? “Perhaps not,” the chastened blog writer replies. So here are a couple of other points to consider.

Mill spent much of his professional life as an official of the British East India Company. He gave much thought and extended writing to the question of whether Hindoo (that’s his word) farmers were competent administrators of their own lands. Contrary to what you might think the author of On Liberty might say, he concluded that they were not and relied on a utilitarian argument to establish the right of the British Crown to make key land use decisions.

There’s another thing, too. Mill was an active participant in the debate over the Corn Laws, which placed heavy tariffs on imported grain. The Corn Laws were enormously beneficial to English farmers, and Thomas Malthus was probably the leading advocate for the view that they were needed to insure a fair price for farmers. The farmers themselves were needed for more complex reasons. Mill was among those economists who argued that free trade in grain would bring the price of food down and that this would be beneficial to the poor. Needless to say, Mill and his friends won this argument.

I write this without feeling like I’ve done enough reading on either subject to say much more than these bland generalities. I recommend them as important topics in food ethics that need the attention of future scholars. Still, doesn’t Mill’s role in these two crucial questions qualify him as an underappreciated food ethics icon?

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

John Locke


January 3, 2016

Newcomers to the Thornapple Blog may not know that January has been “food ethics icons month” ever since 2011. We started out with some very well-known names and by 2013 we were doing rock-star farmers. Last year the theme was population growth. This year I’ve decided to focus on some bona fide philosopher types, people that everyone would recognize as such. I’m not sure we’ve ever done one that meets these criteria, though I personally do think of Xenophon, Emerson and Malthus as philosophers. I would also include Amartya Sen, even if he is mainly thought of as an economist. Vandana Shiva has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but I have never seen her identify herself as a philosopher.

I’m starting out with John Locke. No, I’m not talking about the guy from Lost. Thankfully, you have to get at least to the second page of a Google search before you start hitting this fictional character from the series that ran for what seemed like an eternity back in the last decade. I never paid any attention to it, but the writers’ penchant for naming characters after philosophers provided many opportunities for sophomoric humor. Of course, we never indulge in sophomoric humor here in the blog, so I’ll just reiterate that I am, in fact, talking about the John Locke, who lived from 1632 to 1704.

Locke would not strike many contemporary readers as an obvious choice for a food ethics icon. He’s known on the one hand as the founder of British Empiricism, a theory of knowledge which held that at birth the mind is a blank slate latter to be filled with impressions and ideas. Knowledge accrues first through the temporal and spatial association of impressions, giving rise to ideas formed by generalization. This is a pretty skimpy (and probably) misleading account of Locke’s epistemology, but hey, you didn’t open up the blog to read about epistemology anyway. On the other hand, Locke is known as offering what is probably the most influential version of the social contract. This is the idea that our social ethic is based on our mutual need to manage the risks of life in a commonwealth. Sure, we might all get along most of the time, but there are a few bad apples out there, and things can turn nasty even when well-meaning people get into a dispute. So we set up a mutually agreed upon system of rights and duties, and we create governments to inforce that system and mange disputes.

This is also a pretty skimpy account of Locke’s social contract theory, because one of his chief aims in writing social philosophy was to provide a philosophical basis for challenging the authority of absolute monarchs. You’d hardly pick that up from my summary, and you’re still wondering what all this could have to do with food ethics. I’m not going to be able to ‘splain it all without busting my word limit, so just take a couple of items on faith. First, the disputes that Locke was thinking about mostly had to do with property rights, and in the 17th century when we’re talking property, we’re mainly talking agriculture. Locke’s pronouncements on property need to be interpreted in light of views being advocated by the diggers and levelers.

No, the diggers are not a reality-based TV show about guys with power shovels, and sadly you do have to get pretty deep into a Google search before you will turn up the political movement led by Gerrard Winstanley. They advocated for a “commons” on which anyone (by which of course, they meant, any Englishman) could farm. They were against “enclosure”, which was literally a practice of building fences and walls around fields. There was a rousing egalitarianism behind the diggers’ point of view, and it makes me think that I should probably be celebrating Winstanley as the food ethics icon, rather than Locke. The levelers were also egalitarians who were pushing against the power of the aristocrats, but that’s a tangent that we’d best not explore for now.

At any rate, Locke defended enclosure in his Second Treatise of Government, despite admitting that God gave the earth to mankind in common. I’m calling him a food ethics icon because the argument he used is still used to argue for all manner policies, practices and technologies today. Here’s the quote:

[T]he provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common.

We use a similar argument to defend chemical fertilizer and pesticides, African land grabs and GMOs to this day: If you can produce more food by doing something, that’s a justification for doing it. I’m not saying that Locke was the very first to come up with this, nor am I saying that I necessarily agree with it. But he’s the first I know of, and for that I’m calling him a food ethics icon.

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


Truly Exceptional

December 27, 2015

I got a survey this week asking about my experience getting my car serviced at Williams Volkswagen here in Lansing. I’m very happy with the service department at Williams, by the way. I’ve bought three cars from them in the decade I’ve lived in Michigan. But the survey sent by Volkswagen of America kind of bugs me. It requires you to answer on a scale where “satisfied” is a middling response, and even “excellent” can be topped by the response “truly exceptional”. I’m of the mind that “truly exceptional” things are rare by nature. After all, how could the service I get by “truly exceptional” if excellent, prompt and thoughtful service is what I have come to expect?

But I have learned that Volkswagen of America penalizes dealers who are less than “truly exceptional,” and so I dutifully check that box at every opportunity in the survey. It’s the inflationary expectations that really drive me to distraction. After my China trip, I picked up a book by Yang Jisheng about the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1962. I was writing a little bit about this last week. Millions of Chinese died from hunger and many of those that survived were forced to eat leather, tree bark and even human flesh in order to so. For the first three years of the famine, those who tried to call the dire situation to the attention of the authorities were ostracized, removed from their jobs and often physically beaten. Victims of this violence added to the overall death toll.

You may be wondering what this has to do with my Volkswagen, but the connection here is inflationary expectations. Famines are seldom caused by only one thing, and there were drought conditions in 1959 that reduced the size of the harvest by eight to twelve percent. That would be enough to cause problems, but not starvation, and certainly not on the scale that actually occurred. The root cause of the famine as reported by Yang (and other scholars agree) was different. The official government policy at the time was to calculate how much food would be needed for the local population, and to requisition the balance to be kept in government controlled storage facilities. This was actually supposed to be a famine-preventing policy, one of those ant and the grasshopper things where the wise and thrifty government was putting things aside for a rainy day. So we have the drought plus this socialist vision of food security, but that still doesn’t add up to famine.

The tipping point came because government officials felt themselves under pressure to demonstrate the ongoing success of China’s experiment with socialism by reporting a year-to-year increase in total production from every industry, including agriculture. They felt that they had to show that productivity was “truly exceptional” every time they made a report, and this meant that this year’s harvest had to be at least fifteen to twenty percent bigger than last year���s. And indeed, according to Yang, those that didn’t play this game were punished and replaced by someone who would. In fact, yields were relatively steady except in the drought year, and even then would have been enough to feed the local population (including their pigs, chickens and goats).

But if the government thinks that the harvest is truly exceptional, then decision making by the central authorities will demand that the “surplus production” (e.g. the overage beyond what is needed for immediate consumption) be appropriated and set aside for that rainy day. By 1959, this inflationary spiral of expectations had grown to the point that when the government officials came down to requisition the putative surplus, they in fact seized every kernel of edible food that had been produced that year in many of China’s most agriculturally productive provinces. With literally nothing to eat, peasant farmers in the rural areas were thrown into the dire straits that eventually led them to scourge the countryside for anything that would quash their raging hunger.
There’s one more ripple. Officials who couldn’t scrape up the expected amount of overage from these “truly exceptional” harvests accused people of holding out, of being “capitalist roaders,” and of having right-leaning tendencies. And that, of course, led to more beatings and another inflationary cycle of rhetoric and unrefutable expectations. The famine was, in truth, a case where careless use of language produced a human tragedy of epic proportions.

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