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

November 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Increase

August 28, 2016

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) is gathering steam for a new push around food and agriculture when the new administration is installed next January. The exact nature of their initiative is still in flux at this writing, so pardon me while I take a few sentences to situate this whole mess for the casual web surfer.

First, who in the bejeezus is APLU? This one is comparatively easy. APLU is an organization of public universities (that would include Michigan State) from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It performs a number of coordinating, planning and lobbying services for members. Now for the context in which the APLU decided that a new effort to draw the government’s attention to what universities are doing with regard to food and agriculture.

One of the big things was “Feed the Future”, so what in the bejeezus is that? Well, succinctly, it’s an existing government initiative, well enough established to have its own website, which you can find here. Go figure it out for your own self, I say, but I will offer this: Based on studies from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at the United Nations, as well as our own intelligence services, folks at the U.S. State Department started to get nervous about what the world would be like in 2050, mainly because the projections indicate a significant rise in hunger. The State Department worries about hunger because they associate it with violence and political instability. Hence, “Feed the Future”: every dollar we spend on increasing food security today repays itself five times over in reduced military spending in 2050.

Universities with food and ag programs feel like they can contribute to food security in 2050, so they want to direct some of these dollars spent today into their budgets. Although this sounds on the face of it like a cynical ploy to garner budget dollars, I do in fact believe that there is an ethically sound rationale buried deep in here somewhere.

But there is more.

However justified a push toward greater food availability might be from a global perspective, just pumping up crop yields has feedback effects. The impact on domestic food systems is one of them. We’re coping with the over-industrialization of our food system here in North America, as countless past blogs in this space have emphasized. Will increasing “Feed the Future” dollars to increase our university’s capacity to increase the food-yield from crops such as rice, wheat, corn and soybeans further increase industrial monocultures, not to mention increasing the profits of farm input suppliers? How many times can you use the word “increase” in a single sentence?

Let’s hope the new push at APLU is mindful of that.

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

 

Resistance

July 31, 2016

There was a lot of lambasting white male privilege at the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association meeting here in Santa Cruz over the last three days. It started with my friend Ricardo dissing the Declaration of Independence as a document asserting the privilege of rich white men. I think he’s right, don’t you know. It’s men who are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Ricardo didn’t mention that Jefferson wanted to put some mild anti-slavery rhetoric in there, but he was overruled by cooler heads who thought that it would be divisive. Planters from the Southern Colonies (of which Jefferson was one, by the way) needed their slaves to plant and pick cotton. So Ricardo was right to notice that the Declaration of Independence is explicitly sexist in not counting women, and implicitly racist by being silent about the enslavement, disenfranchisement and oppression of black farm workers. And there’s that other thing the Declaration is conveniently silent about, which is that the rich white men who gathered to sign Jefferson’s little essay 240 years ago this month were sitting on what the native Americans would have recognized as tribal lands. Whoops! Just another whole domain of oppressions at work there.

Those are the points that set the tone for the whole conference.

So like the cucumber beetles but maybe more so, there’s really nothing funny to talk about here, so I’m just going to straight for jugular. I’m going to reinforce the point that I’ve agreed with all this, and then I’m going to point out that those guys in Philadelphia back in 1776 may have been a bunch of rich white men, but the Declaration of Independence itself comes out of a discourse of resistance. It wasn’t written to affect the oppression of women, blacks or native Americans, not to mention others who have been oppressed as a result of white male privilege. There was plenty of oppression to go around back then, and a good portion of it was directed at groups that still struggle for social justice today. But the DOI was written to resist what was at the time the dominant oppressive power on Earth, the British Sovereign. It was in that respect the paradigm document of decolonialism. “Let’s decolonize,” says Jefferson, and let’s get George Washington to put some teeth behind it. They may have been a rich white guys and slave owners farming on land dispossessed from tribes, but they were putting their rich white guy butts on the line.

So this isn’t a comeback against all the lambasting of white male privilege, and it isn’t even an apology for Jefferson and Washington. It’s really really true that white guys (rich or not) should find a little time every now and then (if not every day) to think about what implicit bias means and try to understand it a little better. One thing us white guys have to do is not take it personal when a keynote speaker tries to fire up a meeting by pointing out that there are rich white guy privileges woven deeply into the fabric of the American way of farming. So I’m going to mention another speaker who saw fit to call attention to those words from the DOI a little more than fifty years ago next month. He said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” He didn’t say that to assert male privilege or to justify appropriation of tribal lands, though he failed to mention both of those points.

America has a fine tradition of resisting oppression. Let’s live out that creed.

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

Race to the Farm

July 24, 2016

I’m headed off to the SAEA meeting later this week, where I’m part of panel. SAEA is the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association. It’s not part of my regular circuit, but I’m looking forward to it. The panel is being sponsored by INFAS, which is part of my regular circuit. INFAS is the Integrated Network for Food and Agricultural Systems. Not to bore you with more information than you wanted, it was put together about a decade ago by WKKF. WKKF is the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which (if you look all the way down to the bottom of the page) created my position at Michigan State University. After creating a bunch of positions rather like mine at several different universities, WKKF created INFAS to help us coordinate our work. WKKF did both of these things with an eye toward structural change in the global food system. Now if it hasn’t already been bad enough this week, getting into the details on what that means would try the patience of any websurfer. So go find someone who can mansplain it, because I’m just going to skip the whole thing.

Before I got off on this series of acronyms—and we all know that acronyms are second only to robots as the bane of existence in postmodern America—I was going to say that my mind has been on the presentation I have to make at SAEA. And that’s disrupting my blogging this week. So just put up with it. This is one of those occasions where I need this space to sort things out. You can help me if you like, but no sarcastic comments about how all of this is just a bunch of high flown academic BS that means nothing to the average person. As I said earlier this summer, I already know that, and besides, I assert the prerogative to control the flow of sarcasm in this little corner of the Internet.

We’re supposed to be talking about the connection between sustainable agriculture and race on this panel. While there are lots of things that might be said once you get rolling, getting rolling is the hard part. People who teach sustainable agriculture (remember this is the SAEA) mostly do stuff on crop rotations, composting, weed control and (as we mentioned just the week before last) picking cucumber beetles off of your bok choy by hand and throwing them into a bucket of soapy water. I, at least, do not recognize immediate points of contact between these issues and the subject of race and racial oppression. We’ve organized the panel with the general presumption that many people in the audience will not make this connection, either.

So with less than a week before I have to stand up and pontificate about this topic, I have to confess that I still don’t know what I’m going to say. I do think there’s an obvious starting point, however, and one thing I have learned over the last forty years in academic life is that it never hurts to state the obvious. That goes double when topics engage race, because what’s obvious to us white males is not only unobvious to others, it’s obviously false. So stating the obvious, I would point out that sustainable agriculture got its early start in the 1970s and 1980s primarily as a way to simultaneously correct some environmental deficiencies in mainstream farming practice and to help smallish family farmers survive in an era when the margins on commodity crops were just too thin for them to compete. If you were not willing to get big, as Earl Butz once advised us, you’d better get out. Sustainable agriculture was the collective voice of a generation of smallish and medium sized farmers making polis with hippie vegetarians and feministas to say “Hold on there, Earl. We think there is another way.”

Of course, as things have transpired that other way has stressed higher quality fruit and vegetable production (increasingly moving into meat, milk and eggs) and as a way to make this whole thing work for farmers, getting a higher price for that higher quality from consumers. Already by the 1990s some folks had started to notice that whatever this was doing for smallish and medium sized farmers, it wasn’t really delivering much for economically marginalized people living in urban neighborhoods. For one thing, this high quality stuff wasn’t being stocked at the bodegas, quickie marts and liqueur stores where they were often forced to do their shopping, they couldn’t have realistically afforded it, anyway. This sparked a lot of WKKF’s active experimentation with food justice, focused both on the plight of farmworkers (who were still being treated miserably) and on ways to get fruits and vegetables into urban cores. I rather suspect they formed INFAS because they wanted us to tell the world about that.

So maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m sure I’m missing more than a few things in this, but it never hurts to start by stating the obvious.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in 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

Project Verified?

April 24, 2015

One of the regular readers of the Thornapple Blog posted a photo of the Non-GMO Project Verified label on Facebook this week. This occasions a deep philosophical quandary: What’s the difference between “project verified” and “process verified”?

Now I’ll start right out by admitting that this quandary is so deep that it probably never occurred to most readers of the Thornapple Blog, but of course that’s just an invitation for me to go off on one tangent after another. More to the point, I’ve been curious about trying to figure out what’s going on in the non-GMO labeling space myself, and I’m not at all sure that I have things straight. If anyone from the Non-GMO Project or some other certifier wants to jump in and straighten me out, please feel free to use the comment box.

“Process verified” is pretty much answerable, if not entirely straightforward. This is language that the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses for an accreditation program that they have introduced to give consumers confidence that food labels actually mean something. If I have this right (and I might not) you could pretty much cook up just about any standard that you want and introduce some kind of accounting procedure to insure that the standard has been met and the USDA will be willing to decide whether or not it is “process verified.” The terminology derives from standards that refer to a process, rather than some measurable feature of the product. So if I thought there was a market for “Hoosier-free” corn chips, I could define the “Hoosier-free” standard as “containing no corn grown in Indiana”. I would not be able to tell whether a corn chip was made from corn grown in Indiana by doing a lab test, (or at least I think not). There’s no analytic procedure that can reliably distinguish a grain of corn grown in Indiana from one grown across the border in Illinois, Ohio or Michigan. But I could still have a meaningful “Hoosier-free” standard if I had a reliable procedure to ensure that all of the corn going into these corn chips was in fact grown in Illinois, Ohio or Michigan. I might have to have people watch the corn being harvested in these states and then have them ride along with the trucks all the way to my chip factory, but I could do it. That would be a “process standard”: it certifies the product by monitoring the process, rather than doing some kind of end-of-the-pipe test. On the other hand, I could certify that my corn-chips are “quinoa free” just by sending them to a lab where they can do an analysis that is capable of telling the difference between quinoa and corn. I wouldn’t have to have people watching the production process.

Now, is all that crystal clear? The USDA has a “process verified” program to ensure that labels like “organic” or “fair-trade” have been coupled with an accounting or certification procedure that actually matches up with what’s being claimed on the label. On the other hand, terms like “gluten-free” “prime” or even “fancy” don’t have to be process verified because a trained and properly equipped inspector can tell whether a product meets the standard just by testing or looking at it.

Now before getting too deep into “project verified” I should probably admit that the question I posed at the outset was a little mischievous because there really isn’t anything that’s “project verified.” Hey, it wouldn’t be the Thornapple Blog without a little bit of sarcasm, now would it? What there is are “Non-GMO Project verified” labels. The Non-GMO Project is the name of an outfit that’s cooked up a process based label that they have submitted to USDA’s process verified program. Or at least I think they have. It’s one of the things I could certainly be wrong about, but let’s get on with this complicated story for the moment.

One of my sources of confusion was that you actually can send a food product to a lab and determine whether it contains GMOs. (We’re not going down the “What’s a GMO tangent?” Just shut-up and keep reading.) There are arguably some exceptions to this when it comes to oils like canola or corn oil, but taco shells and tofu? You can tell. Also, all organic products are non-GMO. The Non-GMO Project has a website where they explain why, in their view, you might want to be certified as Non-GMO Project Verified instead of or in addition to organic, and I would suggest that if this is the question that’s bothering you, you should just go right there. There are also some “non-GMO” labels out there that (I think) do send your stuff to the lab, rather than watching your production process. So what’s up with a process label for non-GMO?

Well, here you can also go to the website, but my reading is that the answer to this question is a blend of precaution and philosophy. The precaution piece is when The Non-GMO Project claims that their process label is the most reliable one. The philosophy piece is wrapped up in some ideas about solidarity (again, I think). As I understand it, the big thing is that you can’t be a company that is selling both GMO and non-GMO products, like if were to allow a corn chip plant to make both ordinary and Hoosier-free corn chips, just that I watched to make sure that they never mixed these two things up.

Or at least that’s what I’ve been able to piece out so far. Maybe I have the whole thing wrong.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in 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

 

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