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


Bindweed & Stinkbug Season

August 14, 2016

I never thought it would come to this.

As both of my regular readers know, I’m contractually obligated to post a blog sometime about now when the tomatoes come in in Michigan. It’s a hot year (in case you didn’t know) and we are short quite a bit of rainfall. The “hot” part is good for tomatoes; the drought part, not so much. However, we are, I think, on our third week of tomatoes in the share of the Thornapple CSA, and for the first time this year we may have more tomatoes than I can eat in a single sitting.

There are also some of those very nice heirloom varieties in the mix. I don’t know who thought up the term “heirloom variety.” They are, as I’m sure both of you already know, much tastier than those tomatoes that have been bred in California to get past the thirty mile per hour impact they must withstand. First their vines are ripped from the ground by the celebrated mechanical tomato harvester then blown through a devious mechanism that separates the fruits from the leavings and then chucks them onto the conveyer belt that hurls them at said 30 mph into the bed of a truck. Kersplat for the so-called heirloom tomato, hence the geniuses at the University of California’s Vegetable Research and Information Center (or maybe it was the geniuses at the grower funded California Tomato Research Institute) had to breed up these blemish free and perfectly round pinkish red but not especially tasty types that have to be gassed with methyl bromide (or maybe it’s just ethylene—remember not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true) in order for them to be digestible. Not edible, necessarily, but digestible. If you have a methane digester.

But fresh homegrown heirloom tomatoes, or as our grandparents used to call them, tomatoes, they are a different kettle of fish altogether. So about this time of the year, I’m supposed to write a blog reminding everyone that the tomatoes are in, and if by some screwy logic you are NOT a member of Thornapple CSA and have failed to plant your own homegrown heirloom tomatoes out in your backyard, it is most definitely time to scuttle your butt down to the local farmer’s market to buy some. I generally try to come up with some amusing, like the Fat Elvis blog we did way, way back in 2010. Or I’ll mention some tomato oriented song like Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” or Trout Fishing in America’s “Pico de Gallo.” But of course I’ve already done that, so now I have to come up with something original.

By the way, if you are troubled by managing your stinkbugs, or you came to this week’s blog hoping to engage in a bindweed discussion, the website at the California Tomato Research Institute might actually be able to help you out. Meanwhile, I’m still thinking.

I never thought it would come to this, but I just may have run out of things to say about tomatoes.

So excuse me while I cut off the blogging and just go eat some.

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


The Hipster Donut Experience

August 7, 2016

We might have seen this one coming. I mean Voodoo Donuts in Portland has been around for quite a while now. In the spirit of what I laughingly call “research” I Googled them and found out that there actually is no such thing as Voodoo Donuts. It’s Voodoo Doughnuts, and their website says that they got started in 2003, the same year as the Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State. I’ll resist the tangent to riff on that coincidence because although I’ve known about Voodoo Doughnuts for a good long while, (though maybe not since 2003, but certainly before this decade) I frankly failed to see that this was going to be more than a one-off phenomenon.

Not that I’m surprised to learn that there are now Voodoo Doughnuts in Eugene Oregon and Austin Texas. Maybe there will be one in East Lansing by the end of the decade, but I doubt it. That’s not what I meant by “more than a one-off phenomenon.” What I meant was that I failed to anticipate that donuts (or doughnuts) would actually become a hipster thing. I should have latched onto it when Glazed and Confused opened up in downtown but somehow I missed it. I think I was still thinking more along the lines of Cops n’ Doughnuts in Claire, which though they make some very fine donuts and are definitely worth a stop when you are on your way going to or from “up North” (or, for that matter, if you happen to be intentionally going to Claire—possibly for donuts) are definitely not hipster. Although it will be very clear by the end of this blog that you should not be relying on the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State for your hipster pronouncements, I can you tell that no place with hoards of sweaty tourists lined up of a Sunday afternoon could possibly be hipster.

Which would, of course, rule out Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland. So what do I know?

Except I wandered into Morningstar in Houston last week at about 7:15 (am, that is) looking for coffee. This is a place tucked into the back of strip mall with no sign out front. Inside everything is dark and shiny. They will make you a pretty decent cappuccino, right down to the little flowering design in the crema, but there is no coffee on the menu. You can get a flat white here, and there is a long list of matchas on the board. But there is nothing on the menu that says “coffee” or “drip” or “joe” or “COD”. They do have something called “The Daily Black” so I decided to order that, to which thankfully you can actually add some cream to (as well as any of several matchas). And what you will have is, in fact, a pretty decent cup of coffee. There is also a menu with a list totally unfamiliar things that probably turn out to be quite a bit like an Egg McMuffin, but I didn’t try any of them.

There is also a very large and impressive rack of donuts. Jason (“Hello. My name is Jason.”) urged me to try the CLP, which is a chili-lime-pineapple fritter (“We grind our own pineapple in house”), which is indeed made with lime and chili (“Not too spicy though”). Though he admitted that he himself was fond of their cake donuts, especially the cinnamon sugar ones, which also include chili (but no lime, I think). They also have special donuts with icings that have the word “Grenache” in them. If you order The Daily Black to go, which is not even discouraged—they are making an effort to be friendly—you get a cup holder with their logo on it, which is a cartoon drawing of a ball-and-chain flail.

So it turns out that the hipsters have gone well beyond the hyphen-free menu of foods produced on local farms run by former CPAs and retired firefighters. Donuts are now hip. Heck, they may have been hip for some time for all I would know. Maybe since 2003. I was going to write a blog this week telling you how you would know whether you had stumbled into a hipster donut shop.

But as it turns out, I have absolutely no idea!

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

Just Desserts

July 3, 2016

I was down in Atlanta last week and had a couple of dinners-out with some friends & fellow workers. The names of the restaurants have been expunged to protect the innocent (not that there are any innocent victims in this story).

We started out a pretty good place, a bit high-toned and treadling the foodie vibe. All the signs encouraged us to expect that the chef (or kitchen, as the case might be) was taking their mission seriously. The fried chicken wasn’t Deacon Burton’s, but I would go back. I was sitting next to an acquaintance named José and we found ourselves ordering the same thing, happy as clams until we got to the mango sorbet on the dessert menu. I’m noticing that this sorbet has more of a reddish hue than I expect from mangos but I’m not deterred. A bite or two into it, I’m definitely experiencing that uncanny strangeness of being that comes over you when you are just realizing that some of your expectations are being subverted.

Then José says “This isn’t mango!”

He’s right, I’m thinking. Then I speak up: “And it isn’t sorbet.”

For some reason that probably had something to do with the wine and will not translate well into written form, this causes an outbreak of hilarity around the table. What we have before us is a rather ordinary orange sherbet. José points the ontological faux pas out to our waitperson and asks if he can get a scoop of vanilla to make it into “creamsicle”. She brings him the vanilla but whisks away the orange sherbet, at which point he’s through voicing complaints and just settles in to the ice cream. Me, I’m eating the orange sherbet.

We are out the next night at a place that is cultivating a more aggressive upscale ambiance. I mean, there may not be any restaurants in Atlanta that you can’t go into in shorts these days, so it’s not like we are wearing white tie and tails. Both of these places were white tablecloth joints (if white tablecloth and joint can be conjoined), but this one was deliberately abjuring any down home feel. (Don’t you love it when I throw a verb like “abjure” into the blog without any warning?) But the food was barely edible. Still and all, we stuck around for dessert, mainly for the camaraderie, I think, or possibly because we were not responsible for our own check.

We ripped that dessert menu apart like red Rizla to raas. Don’t ask me what that means, just roll with it. Everyone was asking for some special twist. The woman across the table from me had been asking for me to explain all the Italian dishes listed on the menu to her all night because she wants non-dairy and gluten-free. Nothing on the desert menu fits, but one item combines watermelon sorbet with a pastry. “Can I just get the watermelon sorbet?” she asks, and our waitperson replies, “Of course!”

So you’re thinking, “It’s neither watermelon nor sorbet,” and when it appears my companion asks me to taste it. I do and in fact it is watermelon sorbet, and probably the best dish that has been set on the table all evening. Except that the waitperson has referred to it as gelato, and when my companion asks a second time she (the waitperson) says “I served it out of a box that says gelato.” Well, it’s probably watermelon sorbet from the Atlanta Gelato Co., or something but my companion is taking no chances. The watermelon gets sent back on the off chance that it has some dairy in it. In the meantime, I’ve been served some panna cotta that tastes like Jello chocolate pudding with some crumbled up granola bars and Cool-Whip on top. Not that I am deeply opposed to Jello chocolate pudding but as we say in the South, my mouth was set for panna cotta.

Actually we wouldn’t say that. We might say that our mouth was set for sweet tea or fried okra, but not panna cotta. But you know what I mean. I would have liked to have had the watermelon sorbet that was undoubtedly thrown in the trash. (Speaking of food waste).

So you may be thinking to yourself now, “I get the food thing, but where’s the ethics.” Well, I could change the overall tone of this week’s blog by going off on the ethical responsibilities of restauranteurs, not to mention waitstaff who really should know the difference between gelato, sorbet and sherbet. And why that’s ethical in a world of touchy stomachs and food allergies. But that would not be mango.

Nor would it be sorbet.

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

Waste (at last)

June 12, 2016

So finally after last week’s silliness and the week before that’s semi-seriousness I want to circle back to the week before that’s deadpan no-foolin’ serious talk about the moral dimensions of food waste. I’ll start by apologizing to anyone who might have been offended by the sarcasm or by the flippancy implied by the way I’m sidling up to what many people would take to be a deadly serious topic. Except by ‘apologizing’ I mean what Socrates meant right before drinking the hemlock; to wit, defending myself, (as opposed to what Paul McCartney meant when noting that the kettle’s on the boil and we’re easily called away just before launching into that ditty about Admiral Halsey, a cup o’ tea and a butter pie).

Which is, in effect to prod a little harder on the deadly seriousness of food waste. And speaking of butter, we’ve blogged about leftovers at least once before and even then we were poking just a little bit of fun. Yet there is a strand running through food culture that sees any waste of food as a huge sin. People who have lived through hard times come by this very honestly, and I don’t mean to poke fun at them. There are precious few Americans around these days who endured food shrortages during the Great Depression, but there are plenty of Chinese who lived through the Great Famine years in the late 50s and early 60s. The tragedy in both cases was that there was food to go around, but a breakdown in the economic system that kept hungry people from getting it. So there’s this one kind of running-short-of-food-that-leads-you-to-conserve-every-scrap-of-butter-because-who-knows-when-you-might-need-it-and-even-if-you-don’t-someone-round-the-corner-does kind of worry about food waste, and then there’s a somewhat different kind of damn-I’m-hungry-why-can’t-I-have-some concern that is actually a little bit misplaced when it is understood as a problem of waste.

Now remember that we’ve already allowed as how throwing away food that you could have meaningfully used to feed a genuinely hungry person is a moral shame. Shame on the communes in China who threw food into garbage cans when others were so hungry they were boiling tree bark and digging up fresh corpses. But not, I dare say, on the farmers who plowed unsaleable crops into the ground while others stood in breadlines during the Great Depression. Somebody needed to buy those crops to feed hungry people, else the farmers themselves were going to be the ones taking the biggest hit. The shame here in the USA was on people who refused to support programs to give hungry people the money they needed to buy those crops themselves. By plowing them back, the farmers were at least saving on next year’s fertilizer. Which is to say that they were not literally wasting them in a morally pernicious way.

But to push my larger point, while there are moral shames in both counts, it’s potentially misleading to characterize the failure as a problem of some person or group wasting food. Nevertheless, talk about food waste seems to be a very natural way to encourage people to do something about a situation where people are going hungry. So here’s my dilemma. I don’t really want to criticize the recent push among news media (and the USDA) to bring this huge problem of food waste to everyone’s attention. Using the word ‘waste’ here does engage our moral sensibilities in a way that might get us around to doing something about food security. I don’t want to short-circuit that.

Yet you might be mistaken if you thought that the solution to this problem was to give hungry people some of the food you were about to “waste”. They don’t really need the food that you were literally about to throw in the garbage (there are some exceptions to this, which we’ll get to in the weeks to come). And if you’ve got cans on the shelf or something in the freezer that you decide to give away, well it’s not at all clear that you were going to waste it. In most instances, you’ll just go right out and buy some new food for the shelf…and then you’ll waste that food instead of the food you gave away. So I think that we’re really just talking about a charitable gift on your part  when you contribute to a food drive, rather than something like “not letting it go to waste.” All well and good. I don’t want to dissuade you from charity, even if this is not really doing anything to address the larger problems of food waste.

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

What a Waste!

Here we are as usual, a day late and a dollar short on the latest hip fad in food ethics. That, of course, would be food waste. We are so dang slow on this one that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has beaten us to it, having announced a major initiative on curbing food waste way back in the fall of 2015. We (and by “we” I mean folks in general) are launched on a headlong assault on one of our big numbers: the amount of food that goes uneaten.

I actually have quite a bit to say about this, and it’s going to take me more than one blog to do it. I might as well start by admitting that I’m being just a little bit disingenuous there in the first paragraph, because we have in fact visited this question once or twice in the last half century that we have been reading and writing the Thornapple Blog. It is not as if the whole phenomenon of waste has escaped my attention altogether. As a matter of larger metaphysical facticity, I included a little discussion of waste in my 1995 book The Spirit of the Soil. Of course the point there was to notice that while you, me and our friend Bob might think of waste as food spiraling down the garbage disposal, from the typical farmers’ point of view waste is a plot of land that doesn’t have a crop on it. Which just goes to show how the very idea of waste has quite a few norms and judgments already bound up in it. It’s an inevitable topic for food ethics.

But for today I think I’m just going to certify the common sense perspective that has led lots of God fearing Christians (not to mention the USDA) into paroxysms over wasted food. This starts with the obvious thing: It is a crying shame when someone goes hungry while someone else is swilling perfectly good food down the garbage disposal. I’m not sure I want to go from this observation to judging the ethics of the person swilling food down the garbage disposal, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The common sense perspective is indeed a perceptive and perfectly valid ethical starting point. It identifies a problem and it points to the sense in which this is an ethical problem, one that calls for all of us to make a reflective and responsible response that addresses the mismatch between food insecurity, on the one hand, and edible food swilling down the garbage disposal, on the other.

Of course from this common sense perspective, there would not necessarily be an ethical problem with that spiral of edible food disappearing down the garbage disposal if it were not for the fact that some hungry person would have liked to have eaten it. So there is one more obvious point to certify before heading off into the ozone of metaphysical facticity, and that point would lie in the domain of environmental ethics. Producing food (e.g. farming) can be hard on the environment. A pointy-headed intellectual would say that food production has inevitable environmental costs, and this is, indeed, probably a slightly better (if also wordy) way to put the point. So if even if we managed to solve the hungry people part of wasted food, it would still be a crying shame to have produced some stuff that we didn’t really need in the first place. We might have saved the farmland that was used to grow the food spiraling down the disposal for some endangered butterfly, and if not that, we might have at least let the voles and mice whose bungalows were turned up by the plow sleep in a little bit longer.

These points are correct. They provide a starting point for recognizing that waste is an ethical problem. From this starting point, it’s possible to start making mistakes, and I’m going to examine a few of them from time to time over the coming months. I’ll be linking back to this cornerstone blog when I do so.

As the real-estate developers out there say, “Watch this space!”

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

Chin Warmers

Adzuki beans and arepas make for a pretty good cold weather supper about this time of year. I know we are supposed to be in the midst of Earth shattering changes that will drive all of us into our backyards during late March to grill out before the seriously hot weather sets in. In total honest to God facticity I did actually see some smoke wafting above my backyard fence this week when one of my neighbors took it upon himself to trot outside around six pm and fire up the charcoal. After all we did just endure the “spring ahead” and it’s not all that dark around six pm, so why not trot yourself outside? Especially when due to the Earth shattering changes we are enduring it is actually close to 60° out there. That’s what I’d like to know. I did get a lecture the other day from Chef Daniel Patterson about grilling your meat too long. “Cancer pills” was the phrase he used, but I’m not going to use my cosmic authority as the local expert on food ethics to pull a smug alert and tell you that you shouldn’t be outside in your backyward on a warm afternoon in the month of March checking to see if the bottom of your Weber grill has perchance rotted out over the winter. And what better way to do that, I note, than firing up some of those crumbly briquettes that are lying around in the bottom of the Kingsford bag that you bought last August. Last August was when Chef Dan’s advice about cancer pills was really more appropriate. Of course Dan also gave me a tip about grilling while he was lecturing us on the health risks of eating overly charred meats. “Turn it over every 30 seconds or so,” he said. The point being that this gives you great flavor without creating any of those heterocyclic amines (not to mention polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).

Chef Dan used some horrifying story about holding your thumb over an open flame and noticing that although this is pretty rough on your skin, you don’t feel a thing down in the pit of your palm. I’m not really sure I follow what he was trying to say there, though it did have something to do with idea that you can’t actually cook the pit of your palm by holding your thumb over an open flame. These celebrity chefs! What will they think of next? I’m actually just going to chalk all that up to this week’s obligatory tangent, except that before moving on I’ll note that we usually just refer to heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by the friendly names of “HCAs” and “PAHs” here in the Thornapple Blog. I don’t want any HCAs or PAHs writing lengthy outraged responses in the comments section of the blog. I already have enough trouble with robots who are posting links to Russian shopping malls or porn sites (though I will say it’s much better since we switched to the new WordPress platform). Still and all, I hope all the HCA and PAH readers out there will forgive me if I say that although we take your perspective seriously here at the Blog, we don’t expect to be inviting any of you to dinner.

And that goes especially for those Fridays in March when the temperature has dipped back into the upper twenties. Ha! On Tuesday your neighbors are grilling steaks in the backyard, but by Friday evening it’s feeling pretty chilly out in the backyard and it makes a lot more sense to be cooking up something over the stove that you can slather with the Columbia™ salsa picante that’s been sitting in your spice cabinet ever since you made your last trip to Tampa. Of course my Nana (God rest her soul) would not have known what to make of adzuki beans and arepas. In a similar vein I found myself corrupting the moral fiber of some younger colleagues the other day by suggesting we all head out for some sushi. “We didn’t eat much sushi in my family,” one said. “No kidding,” says I. “We used to scarf down tons of sushi from our TV trays when we were sitting there watching The Red Skelton Show on the little black and white television set mounted on wheels that we used to roll in on those nights when my mother was willing.” She was often willing. I think she rather liked Red Skelton.

Well, I was just kidding then like I am now. My mother may have gotten around to trying some sushi before she passed but I’m as sure that my Nana never did as I am that she never encountered an adzuki bean or an arepa. Pinto beans and cornbread, sure. Chef Dan himself kept referring to himself as a cook, too.

Paul B. Thompson is 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


Truly Exceptional

December 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Rose Is Actually Not a Rose, Afterall

October 18, 2015

In a rare and uncharacteristic mood of timeliness, I note that the Senate Agriculture Committee is supposed to hold hearings on GMO labeling this week. “Supposed” rather than “will” because a) who knows what they will actually do? I’m not omniscient, and b) I’m too lazy to dig into their calendar and figure out whether there has been a change since the last time I knew anything about this (which was, truthfully, a couple of weeks ago). So with both readers forewarned and my contractual obligation to pursue irrelevant tangents fulfilled, I plow ahead.

I have advocated some form of GMO labeling since 1997, when doing so was exceedingly unpopular. However, I have also argued that the best case would be for the food industry to figure out how to do this voluntarily. We have lots of voluntary labels in the food world: fair-trade, gluten-free, Red Delicious. You don’t have to tell customers that this apple is a Red Delicious variety. All the Government cares about is whether or not once you’ve made these claims, they are in actual fact true. But before you can decide whether the claim is true there is also a bit of sticky philosophical business to sort out in terms of what the claim means. I’ve always presumed that a “GMO free” label means that the labeled product is neither itself GMO (e.g. its genetics are a product of gene transfer) nor does it contain GMOs in the case of a processed food.

We would also expect the label to imply that some reasonable steps have been taken to assure this, and in the world of voluntary labels that usually means there is some third party that attests to this. So just to be clear, you the buyer and the person or company marketing the product are the first two parties (don’t get me started on who is first and who is second). The “third party” is a mediator who satisfies that the product is “GMO free” in a manner that is putatively satisfactory to both of you. Now if you’ve been paying attention to the food world, you are probably aware that you can in fact buy GMO-free products these days, and you might think that products labeled GMO-free are (just as I said) neither GMOs nor contain GMOs. But while this is the case, the GMO-free label typically means more than this.

Specifically, the groups that promote and certify GMO-free labels interpret this as a moral claim. Not only does a person or company that labels their product as GMO-free have to speak the truth, they must also be philosophically opposed to any GMOs in the food system. They must be enrolled in a social movement that aims to prevent those people who either want GMOs or alternatively just don’t give a hoot from having any opportunity to use them. From a practical standpoint, this means that if I own a tortilla factory and I want to label my truthfully non-GMO tortillas as non-GMO, that’s not enough. I can’t also be making or marketing another line of tortillas that are made from Bt maize. That would be regarded as an insufficient commitment to the cause by the main groups that are certifying products as non-GMO or GMO-free.

However this commitment to moral purity is also kind of half-assed, if I can permit that expression in a family oriented blog, because the rules don’t extend into the supply chain. I can buy the non-GMO maize for my certified GMO-free tortillas from a guy that grows or sells both GMO and non-GMO maize, even if he or she can’t label the non-GMO maize as such because of their insufficient philosophical commitment to a non-GMO food system. Now to be sure, I can’t use his GMO maize for my GMO-free tortillas because my claim that they are GMO-free would then be false. You are, in a strict sense, getting what you pay for. But if you thought you were buying ideological purity along with that tortilla, I’m sorry to report that the purity is only skin deep. If I had my druthers, we’d drop the moral purity thing altogether, and I could sell both GMO-free tortillas and standard non-labeled tortillas (and who knows what is in them—but maybe you don’t care).

Not so simple as you thought, eh, Chucko! Is it any wonder that Senate Agriculture Committee has become convinced that there are tough questions to sort out? Stay tuned (or maybe not!).

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