October 2,2016

How many blog readers remember Euell Gibbons?

I thought so.

If you Google his name, he is apparently best remembered as pitch man for Post Grape Nuts™. I was interested in his appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

How many blog readers remember Johnny Carson?

Well, that’s a tangent I won’t touch. Let’s stick with Euell Gibbons, who did in fact make two appearances as a guest on the Carson show. I barely remember Gibbons, and I am old. I suppose Gibbons would be a candidate for “food ethics icon” if it were January, but last time I checked, it is only October. I bring him up to ask (in a mildly serious vein) whether we have anyone around quite like him today. I ask this in a mildly serious vein because I’m really curious, but I’m also not feeling serious enough to actually write a serious blog this week. So mark this one “funny”. Even though it really isn’t.

As his appearances on the Tonight show and hawking Grape Nuts would suggest, Gibbons attained a fairly high degree of notoriety back in the 1970s. According to the Wikipedia article on him—which is covered up with notes asking for further development and corroborating citations—he was either on or parodied on a number of shows, including Sonny and Cher (remember them?) and Carol Burnett. What he was on those shows was “a health food nut”. Without really knowing much about it (remember this is not a “serious” blog) I’m inclined to think that he must have had a pretty good sense of humor about himself. Along with people like Adele Davis (who also appeared on the Carson show) he became an iconic figure representing the off-kilter and wackiness about foods. This was, if you recall—and I think it’s pretty well established by now that you don’t—a time when all the kids were going goo-goo for brown rice, and bulger. It was a time before quinoa (of course the Peruvians were eating it), though a few people on the extreme margins of the counterculture were discovering fiddleheads and claiming to like them.

They owed the ethos behind that to Gibbons, who popularized foraging in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Now I should own that I have not read this book, though if I live long enough I will get around to if sometime. Foraging is more hipster now than it was in Gibbons day. Of course, we couldn’t just do that here in the 3rd millennium, so now we call it “wildcrafting” or some such. I do have the sense that Gibbons extolled the healthiness of foraging, but what self-respecting forager wouldn’t? My feeling that he had a sense of humor about himself suggests that any goofiness that went along with this was something of a pose. I mean if you are trying to sell books (or Grape Nuts, for that matter) getting on TV couldn’t hurt, could it?

So to circle back to the present: no Euell Gibbons was not the “me” decade’s Bear Grylls (the Wikipedia article on him does not need additional cites). Gibbons knew how to forage for lots of wild foods, but he was neither a survivalist nor a reality TV personality. My thought is that although we still have the cultural stereotype of “the health food nut” today, we don’t actually see any of them on television.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

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


Bot Angels in the Food World

April 10, 2016

There’s something serious to be said about robots and their persistent intrusion into the food world. But saying it requires a bit of set up, so don’t expect anything too serious in this week’s blog. We got off on robots years ago when any blogger was going to be beset by dozens of computer programs—bots, they call them—written to scan the Internet looking for an opening. Bloggers in their intense insecurity are always hoping for some meager sign that their activities are being noticed, so most of us use platforms that encourage readers to leave comments. But that comment box is what the bots recognize as an opening, an invitation of sorts to inject a bit of code. At least that’s how I imagine the bots thinking, when I imagine them as thinking at all.

When you see the “robots” tag on a Thornapple Blog, 9 out of 10 times those are the robot demons I’m complaining about. They encourage you to download their software to boost your blog’s visibility, and they pimp all manner of consumer products. They entice you to “Accept” the comment with bogus questions or over-generalized praise. They are less of a problem than they used to be, and I presume that’s because WordPress has unleashed its own fleet of robots to combat them. And then there are the WordPress robots that let you write a blog in advance and then schedule it to post at some designated time in the future. That’s what I did last week when I was down in Arizona and working of a Sunday. These are often some of my least inspired blogs, but my penchant for regularity overrides the blogger ethic of spontaneity (and sometimes good taste). So although I think of the WordPress robots as my friends, I’m not altogether sure that they are good for me.

But there are angelic robots in the food world, not the least of which are the ones that make the hundreds if not thousands of food related blogs possible in the first place. One might be tempted to say that there would not even be a food world without them. That’s not quite right, though. I think all human beings have inhabited a food world. We do tend to eat, don’t you know. And because of that we carry around an implicit sense of how to do that. I’m confident that the food world of many of my undergraduate students is severely impoverished. Food has always just been “at hand” for them, whether that meant being hailed for dinnertime by the parent-in-charge or being able to amble into a dining hall or drive-through whenever the moment struck them. Getting interested in local food is often an early step toward building out one’s food world, as is watching Iron Chef or Guy Fieri on the Food Network.

But neither of my regular readers will be surprised to learn that this is not what I sat down to write about this Sunday (no robot posts on April 10, mind you). No, the angelic robots I was thinking about this morning are the armada of apps that service our dining needs. I should start out by saying that I’m pretty oblivious to this aspect of modernity. I don’t have an app on my phone that helps me figure out how to prepare celeriac or that computes the nutritional value of items in my shopping cart. If I want to know what guanciale is I have to Google it: I don’t have a specialized app on my i-phone that helps me probe the obscure details that distinguish salami and bologna from bresaola and mortadella. It’s embarrassing, but as a foodie, I am pretty low grade.

I do use Open Table and Yelp!, however. And frankly, because I am such a low-grade foodie, it’s Yelp! mostly. Of course Yelp! is not even exclusively food oriented. Until just recently I was the “duke” of Williams Volkswagen just because of the work I had done there back in December. (It seems that like the Energy Bar, no one checks in at Williams Volkswagen.) I think it’s great that these feisty little robot angels are out there enriching our food world by giving total strangers a way to vent their emotions about the service they got at some random Applebee’s in Poughkeepsie way back in August of 2013. I want to know about that. Or how they don’t really care much for the General Tso’s Chicken at some Chinese joint in Murphysboro because it isn’t authentic enough for them. I want to know about that, too. My food world is infinitely richer for it.

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

Peter Singer

January 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Marx

January 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Got My Mo-Zhou Working

December13, 2015

I’m writing this week from seat 11J on a long-haul flight homeward bound from China. I spent a week in the vicinity of Nanjing giving some talks at universities and visiting my friend, Xu Huaike. Xu spent a year as a visiting scholar at Michigan State University, and he wanted to show me his home village. The word ‘village’ can mean something different in the Chinese context. It might be a town of 200,000 people, but in this instance I think anyone would agree that I was going to a village. We drove about an hour out of Ming Guang, which is too small to have an airport, but might have 400,000 people, passing through the small city where Xu had taught high school students. He wanted to show me the farmer’s market: chickens and geese being slaughtered, plucked and dressed; old men sitting with a few cabbages and a handful of cilantro to sell for their daily living; live fish swimming in dishpans.

We kept on driving for another 10 or 15 kilometers on a very narrow but well maintained paved road until we came to the place that Xu was born and spent his childhood. It was a farming village with perhaps 30 small compounds tightly packed together. The Chinese farm household consists of two or three squat rectangular buildings arranged around a hard (possibly concrete) rectangular pad that is used to thresh and dry grains. Corn is what I saw on a pretty chilly December morning. The compound might be walled and gated, with tin roofs over the brick buildings. One of these buildings serves as the house, with two or three rooms, including a small kitchen, while others are for storage of grain and tools, or barns for chickens, pigs or goats. We pulled into a drive and parked the car, then walked about a quarter of a mile down a dirt path to two of the compounds where we met some of the family still working at farming.

The men and women alike were grizzled and weathered to the point that it was difficult to guess their age, though I suppose they ranged from mid-forties to late fifties. There is electricity that runs to the compound but no plumbing in these houses. I’m not sure how that little bit of human necessity is handled. I saw no evidence of electrical appliances. The power is for the farming work.

After a few pleasantries, the dogs were shooed away and narrow benches were brought out so we could all sit in the compound for a smoke and a chat. There’s not all that much compelling work on a farm during the second week of December, so everyone was more than willing to spend a few moments with the pale, blue-eyed stranger that had appeared in their midst. Some of the talk was typical farm stuff: how the bumper crop in rice and corn this year had led to a collapse in prices. When we got around to talking about the outlook, none of them expected to be there in ten years. None of their children are there now. Everyone expects to lease their land to a contractor eventually and move into the city.

Now this land thing is a complicated story I don’t fully understand. All the land in China is owned by the socialist government. However, farmers do have the right to farm on designated plots. Although they can’t buy and sell land, they can either lease their right to farm to a contractor, or they can sell it permanently. I’ve read that a few farmers have exchanged their farming lease for a similar lease on an urban apartment, and perhaps that’s what Xu’s family is hoping to do as well.

These plots are exceedingly small by U.S. standards—no bigger than the patch on which we grow vegetables for Thornapple CSA and some much smaller. What is more the plots are separated from one another by berms and the level of the fields are not at the same height. Rice fields, in particular, may be two or three feet lower than others. You could not run even a medium-sized farm tractor over these fields without a major landscaping effort. Patchwork is an understatement. Nevertheless, I did see a small tractor, and also a small (by U.S. standards) harvester.

This is obviously a hard life that is mostly dominated by work with few amenities. Xu says, “I think their lives are miserable,” though by world standards they are not poor, earning about $5000 annually from tending their plots. You can live on that, but not well. A cup of coffee in Ming Guang will cost you about what it does in the U.S.A, so there’s not money for extra clothes or home improvements. At the same time, I’ve seen poor farmers in India and Africa who would not have even the bits of equipment that the farm families in this village have.

The story is missing lots of important details, though I do have a few that I might be sharing in future blogs. What’s most unclear is who will be doing the farm work when everyone leases out their right to farm and heads to the city. Xu’s village once had over 300 families, but on the day I visited they were down to 19. Most of the farm compounds were abandoned. I’m sure I will be mulling over this trip for some time to come.

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




October 11, 2015

All joking aside, I am still thinking about the revelation that agricultural scientists were sending e-mails that were supportive of the food industry point of view on several sensitive issues. In all seriousness I want to suggest that this is less nefarious than it has made out to be. At the same time, it’s more troubling.

In my experience, here’s how the “industry ties” thing works. It’s certainly true that rich people and rich organizations (like major food companies) have the wherewithal to commission research that is of interest to them. They also have the means to generate studies that are skewed in a manner that supports their commercial or political agenda. In the former case, they genuinely want to understand something, and it is not in their interest to spend money on biased research. This is not to say that there are no ethical issues. There are ethical issues encountered in any and every research project, but it is not necessarily the case that industry wants those issues resolved in such a way that the researcher just becomes a high priced “yes man.”

Of course, in the latter case that is exactly what they want, and the presumption that critics are making is that corrupt researchers shill for industry. It’s more like this: Those of us with university appointments are publishing our ideas and findings on a constant basis. (Witness the fact that you are reading the Thornapple Blog, and that it’s been coming out every Sunday for almost six years.) It’s pretty easy for industry to cherry pick the researchers that they like and then drive up to their office door with a truckload of money. The researchers themselves may not be doing anything different from what they would do if some neutral party—the National Science Foundation or the Gates Foundation—drove up with a truckload of money. From the researcher’s perspective, it’s totally objective research. It’s just happenstance that this research chooses framing assumptions (what to look for, what to compare it against) that lead eventually to a pattern of findings that some person or group (like a major food company) wants to promulgate.

In some of the more blatant cases, a company or a trade-group that represents a bunch of companies will find a scientist whose views suit their agenda to a tee. They will then start flying that individual all over to hell and gone, attending conferences, public hearings and giving lectures. They will put their substantial financial clout behand getting that scientist’s message out. But this doesn’t mean that the scientist in question is saying anything different than they would have said in the absence of all those plane tickets. In my experience, he or she is totally committed to their message, and has in no way been induced to say it because they wanted to fly all over hell and gone. Speaking of myself for a moment, I fly too much and am usually looking for ways to cut back my travel. What’s seductive is when someone thinks you are important enough that they want to hear what you have to say.

Of course in the cases we’re talking about, the industry wants other people to hear what these scientists have to say, and the fact that they are saying some particular thing is the reason why industry thinks they are important. Which is my way of circling back around to that “more troubling” thought we started with way back in the first paragraph. Academic researchers do seem to have a need for a certain amount of ego-stroking, and there may indeed be subtle forces that drive people to construct their studies along certain lines because doing it that way has led to strokes in the past. I have a friend named Jonathan Marks at Penn State who calls this “institutional corruption.” That and the fact that there is a systematic bias in the kind of research that gets done in the first place: lots of dollars for research that might lead to a new product, very few dollars to investigate its possible risks. So I’m not saying that there is no corruption here; just that it may not be nefarious in quite the way that some newspaper reporters seem to think.

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


August 30, 2015

Terry Link is an occasional reader of the Thornapple Blog who never posts comments, but he will occasionally send an e-mail or make a comment when I see him in person. This week he passed along a link to an article by Sheldon Krimsky that has just been published in Science, Technology and Human Values. Shelly uses an analysis of two key case studies to argue against the claim that there is a strong and wide scientific consensus about the safety of genetically engineered food crops, or GMOs. Now, I can’t possibly say much about what those are and stay within my self-imposed word limit, so I’m just going to assume that everyone knows what Shelly is talking about and steam right on ahead. I’m guessing that Terry passed this along mainly because he knows I’m interested in GMOs, but I suspect that he is especially impressed by peer-reviewed research that gives us some reason to question the boosterism that we hear from many scientists—including many from MSU.

As it happens, I was one of the anonymous peer reviewers for this article. Ooops! I guess that I just blew my anonymity! Lest blog readers question my own ethics for revealing this, I’ll say that there is a weaker compunction against maintaining confidentiality with respect to papers that successfully negotiate the peer review process than for those that don’t. Journal editors shouldn’t reveal the identity of reviewers in any case, and they might prefer that reviewers themselves abstain from such disclosures as a way to protect the overall integrity of the process. But I’m coming out, anyway. If there is anyone out there who wants to take a swipe at the “idiots” who recommended that this piece be published, now you know where to come.

This is not to say that Shelly and I are in lock-step agreement about the two cases that he discusses. I do think that the article successfully shows that there is substantial disagreement within the scientific community about how these dissenters are treated. I agree totally with the part of his paper that criticizes the treatment given to Arpad Pusztai in the 1980s and to Gils-Eric Seralini more recently after both announced results from preliminary toxicological studies that some view as evidence for the riskiness of eating GMOs. Shelly also thinks that a) the studies themselves and b) the knee-jerk over-the-top defensiveness of mainstream science provide reasons to doubt the safety of GMOs. I disagree flatly on both points, though I have myself argued (in my book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone) that drawing the inference from b) is perfectly reasonable. You’ll have to lay out the twenty-five bucks or make a trip to your library to get my views on this latter point, because I just don’t have the energy to go over that point again.

What I would have said on point a) if I had been writing this paper is that the science community has done an exceedingly poor job of explaining why they did not interpret Pusztai’s and Seralini’s results as evidence for an unacceptable risk. If I were inclined to be forgiving, I would note that explaining this is actually kind of hard. It couldn’t be done in a single entry of the Thornapple Blog, for sure. Doing a decent job drags you into thinking about what “unacceptable risk” means in the context of food safety. John Kreb’s little book Food: A Very Short Introduction explains that many foods contain natural toxicants that would prevent them from being approved if the substances had been added artificially. Potatoes are his example. It’s not unusual for potato breeders who are just doing ordinary cross breeding to accidently activate those toxicants, creating a potato that will make you very sick. It may be significant that Pusztai was testing a particular potato variety that had been genetically engineered. It may well have had some nasty bits in it, but Pusztai had no reason to think that they got there as a result of the genetic engineering.

Seralini was replicating an experiment described in published literature that is designed to test for “acute toxicity”—something that makes you sick right away. It’s what we might normally call “poison”. He didn’t find anything, but decided to extend the experiment for a longer time period than would normally be used for testing acute toxicity. This is not standard toxicological practice. The idea is that you would already be sick or dead, so why drag things out? Lo and behold, his rats started to develop tumors. What Shelly doesn’t tell you in his article is that the rats Seralini was using are considered to be good models for testing acute toxicity, but not for long term studies because they are known to have a genetic tendency to develop tumors as they get older. Whoops!

What’s amazing and depressing to me is that you can plow through many pages of tedious peer reviewed literature, not to mention “letters to the editor” without having either of these points explained to you. That, I think, is a problem in food ethics.

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