The Last Key Blog

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sure you’ll need them!

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

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Perdurance

November 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

Remembering 9/11

September 11, 2016

I’m going to take a “time out” from the usual September theme today to remember what I was doing 15 years ago on September 11. I had gone into my office at Purdue University a little earlier than usual, and I was busily working on something that dealt with a front page story in the early edition of The New York Times that morning. The story was about then-recent research on the impact of genetically engineered crops on the monarch butterfly.

I’m not particularly interested in the monarch butterfly debate this morning, but here’s just a little bit of background (because inquiring minds want to know). In 1999 Cornell entomologist John Losey published a short note in the prestigious journal Nature indicating that when he fed pollen from Bt-transgenic corn to monarch butterfly larvae, it was fatal. On the one hand, this was not a very significant finding, because we (and by ‘we’ I mean scientists) already knew that the Bt toxin killed caterpillars. On the other hand, Losey’s note implicitly called the regulatory review of transgenic crops into question simply by pointing out a rather obvious “non-target” impact that had been overlooked by regulators who had been overly obsessed with estimating the effect of gene flow to wild relatives. None of the “on the other hand” stuff was actually in Losey’s article. You had to be a biotech insider with an unusual sensitivity to the regulatory process to “get it”.

On still another hand, an unsubtle and simple minded reader might have inferred that these Bt crops were going to exterminate monarch butterflies. Indeed, many scientists just assumed that this is what the article intended to imply. Now I should point out that I’ve never met John Losey and I have no idea what he intended to imply, but this morning I’m going with the less simplistic interpretation in the preceding paragraph. My point is that the broader science community reacted immediately against the simplistic interpretation, and their reaction caught the attention of the wider mass media. There were prominent stories in USA Today and The Washington Post that would have led you to believe Bt corn and cotton posed significant risk to the much loved monarch butterfly.

The science community doubted it, but pertinent to my reading of Losey’s intent, there was nothing in the scientific literature at the time to support their skepticism. It was an obvious “non-target impact” that had not been studied in 1999. I will suppress my temptation to launch into a tangent on “non-target impacts,” and herewith end the background.

Except to say that following Losey’s article there was a rush to conduct some research that would ascertain monarch’s actual exposure to Bt toxin from transgenic pollen under field conditions. The seed industry also responded by developing corn varieties that did not express the toxin in pollen, but that really is a tangent in the present context. The point that led me to launch into this subject during a month when I would normally be writing about food songs is that on September 11, 2001 I was sitting in my office at Purdue writing something now long forgotten about the Times piece reporting the results from those studies on the risk that Bt crops pose to non-target species (like monarch butterflies) This was around nine or ten o’clock on a Monday morning. Then my daughter called me from Texas. She almost never calls me at work and she did so that morning because she was upset about what was happening at the World Trade Center.

Needless to say, I forgot all about Bt crops and monarch butterflies, and I have never gone back to them. More pertinently, the story about monarchs and the science of risk assessment was pulled from the front page of The New York Times in later editions and if you scour any newspaper from the entire week of September 11, 2001 you will be hard pressed to find much about monarch butterflies or the environmental risks of transgenic crops. The world’s attention had been turned to other issues, and science stories that get into the details of thinking about environmental risks have been relegated to the back pages ever since.

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

One Last One on Food Waste

June 26, 2016

I have to bring this series of diatribes about food waste to a close, but there was one more thing that I wanted to write about when I started this thread six weeks ago. I’m reminded of a fascinating talk I heard from the former Vice President for Sustainability at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. It was a good talk with lots of good ideas. So I’ll warn both my regular readers right at the get-go that even though my memory of this talk is going to wind up being a dig on the Walmart Way of Waste (or the WWW, as us food waste insiders refer to it), I don’t really mean to be digging on this guy, or even Walmart. I’m sure that if one of my irregular readers happens on this week’s blog, I’ll get some sort of e-mail pointing out all this giant corporations’ flaws and warts, now that I’ve said something implying that they might not have been the supernatural entity that the Louvin Brothers were referring to back in 1959 when they wrote about the testimony of a poor fellow who had been “a leader in my community,” before this entity “came into my life.” And then…

I grew selfish and un-neighborly My friends turned against me And finally, my home was broken apart My children took their paths into a world of sin

No, that wasn’t Walmart, even if giant food companies like Walmart are responsible for similar events in the lives of some people today. Heck, Wal-Mart Stores wasn’t even around in 1959, so let’s just forget this little tangent because what I sat down to write about this Sunday was that little lesson in the WWW that I was talking about two or three sentences ago.

What this guy was proud of was the way that when Wal-Mart Stores started thinking about sustainability, they started looking at stuff like recycling the cardboard in their boxes and reducing the amount of energy they used to run their stores. They didn’t stop doing anything that was contributing to their business, but they figured out how to cut down on waste. Except I’m thinking to myself that in the food part of their business this probably means they are figuring out how to avoid having inventory they aren’t going to be able to sell, as well as maybe figuring out how some of the non-salable stuff can go to food pantries or soup kitchens and the like. And if they’re avoiding having food stuffs they won’t be able to sell, it means that they aren’t buying stuff that’s going to get wasted when it passes the sell by date. And if they aren’t buying that stuff, it means that somewhere along the food chain, there’s a farmer who isn’t selling it.

And all my prior testimony to the importance of reducing the environmental impact of food production to naught, this is a kind of waste reduction that I really have trouble getting behind. At the end of the day, I’m pretty seriously pro-farmer and I’m troubled by ethically motivated transformations of the food system that make it even harder for farmers to make a living.

Now as I said above, don’t hold this against Walmart stores. I think the WWW is fairly pervasive as a strategy for dealing with waste in the food system. It’s certainly not something that’s unique to this particular giant food corporation. Still and all it makes me think. Maybe, just maybe….Satan is real!

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

More Waste

June 19, 2016

We’ve been on a run of blogs focused on food waste. The topic can’t help but bring up memories of my Nana, an obsessively frugal woman whose closets always contained at least fifty rolls of toilet paper purchased with triple coupon savings at her neighborhood Publix supermarket. Although she never did, I imagine my Nana saying things like this: “When I go to restaurant, I hate to waste the water that they’ve insisted on bringing me, despite the fact that I’ve ordered something else to drink, too. So I ask for a to-go cup so that I don’t have to waste that water. I’ll take it with me. Except that they invariably insist on bringing me another cup of water in a brand new to-go cup. So I have to tell them, ‘No, I wanted that water. Now I have even more water to carry around with me until I get thirsty so I don’t have to feel like I’m wasting stuff.”

Then I’m imagining a plumber telling my Nana, that she needs to spend about four thousand dollars on the pipes in her kitchen because she has been so frugal in saving every last of water that might have gone swirling down the drain that her pipes have gotten clogged up with some kind of sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union. In actual real life fact my Nana did have to have a functionally new dishwasher replaced after a decade of non-use (so she could save on both electricity and water) because the rubberized seals had dried out from lack of use. So in my imagination her economy with water has not actually been an economy in the larger sense, and even if she hasn’t been wasting her water all these years, the plumber is telling her that she is now actually going to waste some money (not to mention time and presence of mind) paying to have the sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union removed from the infrastructure of her otherwise efficient modern ranch home.

Which brings us back to the ontological point at issue: what makes something waste, in the first place? I think that both my Nana (notice how she’s replaced the pointy headed intellectuals in my earlier blogs?) and the plumber agree that waste is expending something that did not need to be expended. The difference seems to be that my Nana is placing her chips on a precious natural resource while the plumber has a laser-beam focus on dollars and sense. Err, cents, I mean. (Freudian slip, there, n’est pas?) Not that he minds the fact that my Nana is spending $4000 on a plumbing repair, mind you, but he does consider this to be a wasteful expenditure in some yet to be identified sense. What is that sense? That’s question that should be bothering us, not to mention the question of whether there is any hope that the plumber and my grandmother could ever come to an agreement on the issue.

And maybe they just can’t and maybe there is some deep truth about waste to be revealed in that circumstance. I’m resisting the thought that waste is all in the eye of the beholder. After all my Nana, the plumber and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have already circled the wagons around this theme of food waste, so doesn’t there have to be something more to it than the difference between strawberry and vanilla? I think there is. Nevertheless I am coming around to the idea that there might be some deep moral commitments—like the commitment to nature vs. the commitment to money—that are going to reverberate through anyone’s decision making about whether a given thing you’re doing at any random moment is frugal, wasteful for none-of-the-above. I think that coming to any kind of community based action plan on limiting food waste is going to require us to sit down together and hash some of that out.

Don’t you?

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

Food Waist

May 29, 2016

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

Take that, Frederic Jameson!

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

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

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

No need to thank me for it.

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

Metabolic Rift

April 17, 2016

I spent most of the beautiful afternoon weather we had yesterday sitting within four walls at the Kellogg Center listening to Brett Clark talk about “the metabolic rift.” Like most academic outings and too many Thornapple Blogs, the conversation drifted into overly fine attempts at correction and counter-correction. But I think I’ll resist the temptation to indulge in a satire of our fumbling disputations and just try to say something about the metabolic rift.

This has just got to be extremely obscure terminology for almost anyone, but the core idea is not that tough. First, you’ve got to latch on to the fact when Brett talks about metabolism, he is not constructing a metaphor. He is talking about the biochemical interactions that occur within our bodies when, on the one hand, we do some work, while on the other, we have dinner. When we work, we expend energy (again in a deadpan literal sense). There are biochemical transformations taking place that yield muscle power, and these transformations literally consume or “use up” the physical materials from which our bodies are composed. We are able to do this as living beings because when we eat something, other biochemical processes convert the peas, beans and potatoes we are eating into fat, blood and muscle tissues that replenish the materials that were used up when we worked. So this does have something to do with food ethics.

Whew!

Brett’s also pointing out that the peas, beans and potatoes are available for us to eat because a different set of biochemical transformations fueled by energy from the sun converted physical materials in the soil into peas, beans and potatoes. More metabolism, in other words. But the soil itself is a metabolic system where microorganisms fueled by the energy in rotting plant matter and animal manure convert inert matter from rocks into the physical materials that eventually show up on our plates. Still more metabolism, and even closer ties to food ethics. And oh yes, all this needs water. This system of metabolism can reproduce itself over and over as long as the sun keeps shining and there are inert bits of the earth for microorganisms to convert into fertile soils. “As long as” isn’t forever, but it is a long time. We might call this a sustainable system.

Now for the rift part. The links in this system get broken when the animal manures don’t get returned to the soil. Pardon me for once more bringing up the subject of poop in a family blog, but this does have something to do with food ethics. So ask yourself whether your poop from the stuff you ate produced in Iowa, Chile or China is likely to get back there in order to replenish the soils, and as you ask this question you are beginning to get some idea of what Brett meant by “the metabolic rift”. There’s a gap in the system, and we can ask ourselves “Is it still sustainable?”

Now here my penchant for honesty compels me to say that not everyone has the same answer. What we do in real facticity is use fossil energy to convert air into nitrogen fertilizers, which farmers apply to the soil, allowing it to keep on keeping on with its little metabolic thing. This ends up with a supply of peas, beans and potatoes (not to mention ribeyes and airline chicken breasts) that seems to run on forever. We have plenty of air, but the fossil fuel thing may be a bit of a problem. There’s also the way that this complication of the basic system creates sinks of the poop that should be going back to Iowa, Chile and China, while also pumping out emissions that are screwing up a totally different system (e.g. the climate). I don’t think of the climate problem as metabolic, but Brett’s point is that this gap we noticed in the previous paragraph may actually be pretty dang big, e.g. a rift.

Now being of the Marxist persuasion, Brett is strongly inclined to blame all these complications that create gap after gap in our metabolic system (resulting in a metabolic rift) on profit seeking. But here I’m already softening his Marxism because what he would and did say is that this kind of system breakdown is just what we should expect from the infusion of capitalist social relations into our potentially metabolically sustainable world. And once we’ve gone down the Marxist road that far, why not add the observation that our difficulty in perceiving this metabolic rift is what we mean by alienation.

But once he did that, the card-carrying Marxists in that room at the Kellogg Center started accusing him of trying to reassert Engels’ discredited claims about the dialectic of nature, and we were right back into academic lala land. So forget that I mentioned it.

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

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

 

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