Eric Freyfogle, Agrarianism and the Good Society
Eric Freyfogle, ed., The New Agrarianism
David Kaplan, ed., The Philosophy of Food
Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul
James McWilliams, Just Food
Steve Sapontzis, ed., Food for Thought: The Debate over Eating Meat
Paul Thompson, The Spirit of the Soil
The collection of essays in Food and Philosophy offer up a “smorgasbord” (so say the editors) of essays that span a wide scope of topics in the philosophy of food. The 20 plus contributors present numerous perspectives that should be of interest to anyone wanting to explore the philosophy of food as well as anyone who just wants to think about food beyond the need to consume it. Most of the essays in the volume are philosophically sophisticated; all of them are being engaging and accessible. It’s a very teachable text.
The book opens with a foreword by Odessa Piper. Piper is an award winning chef and an early voice in the sustainable food movement. She writes of Food and Philosophy: “These essays advance the idea that food—and its attendant arts of growing, preparing, and degustation—holds the power to restore meaning and proportion to a society that is hell-bent on consumption for consumption’s sake” (xviii). This captures the heart of the essays collected in this volume.
In the introduction, Allhoff and Monroe describe the book as a collection of “reflective” essays. As reflective beings, food is something worth reflecting upon, especially in light of the fact that the diets we choose have “ramifications…for other people, animals, [and] the world at large” (2). So while we enjoy food we should also contemplate food as well. The ethical implications are easier to grasp, but our contemplation of food can also raise philosophically pertinent questions of epistemology and perception.
Finally, it should be noted that although these essays all bear the reflective character of philosophical thinking, not all the contributors are philosophers. Chefs, food critics, sociologists and anthropologists are also included. Allhoff and Monroe are particularly proud to have included “culinary professionals,” because “who better to talk about food than those for whom it provides a craft and way of life?” (3).
The book is cleverly, if not predictably, structured as a multi-course meal. The sections are named as follows: “Appetizers: Food in Culture and Society,” “First Course: Taste & Food Criticism,” “Second Course: Edible Art & Aesthetics,” “Dessert: Eating and Ethics,” and finally, “Petits Fours: Compliments of the Chef.” The book concludes with a rather humorous afterword, “Thus Ate Zarathustra” by Woody Allen, which originally appeared in the New Yorker and mentions, as the editors note, more philosophers than any other essay in the volume.
The first “course” (the appetizer) is comprised of four chapters that reflect upon food in terms of roots in culture and community. This section is an “appetizer” because our understanding of food ultimately derives from cultural and social contexts. The first chapter “Epicurus, the Foodies’ Philosopher” looks at the ancient philosopher and his love for food and the simple life. Food lovers, Michael Symons argues, can rely on Epicurus to provide a worthy framework for the enjoyment of dining.
Lydia Zepeda in “Carving Values with a Spoon” (chapter 2) addresses the connection of our bodies to our food-culture by looking at our “ever-increasing consumption of calories” (31). How we related to food is directly related to our personal well-being and that of the environment. Zepeda’s chapter is a straightforward indictment against United States food policy, how we let it shape food and what we value, including the very poor way we value those who grow our food. This is easily one of the best chapters in the book. Addressing herself to the debate of whether our ills are a consequence of poor individual choice or food policy, Zepeda concludes: “It is too easy to blame individual choice for food-related health concerns. After all, no one forced us to eat junk food; they just made it incredibly easy and cheap” (43).
Jen Wrye in chapter 3, “Should I Eat Meat? Vegetarianism and Dietary Choice,” also places her topic in the context of personal choice and larger social contexts. She concludes that vegetarianism cannot be reduced to only a matter of personal taste. Likewise, Sheila Lintott (“Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders Beyond Beauty”) places the question of eating disorders in a larger social context; namely, particular aesthetic ideals promoted in our culture. Lintott provides an in depth analysis through Kant’s notion of the sublime arguing that eating disorders are an excessive extension of otherwise normal behavior in pursuit of the beautiful and the sublime.
Once we have had our appetizer, the book moves on to the first course, taking up taste and food criticism. Can taste be considered objectively or is it merely a matter of subjective preference as Hume would have it? Michael Shaffer concludes that there is an objective component to taste, but as the few others who have written on the subject, he acknowledges the difficulty in specificity as to its exact nature. Most of what we know about gastronomic authenticity (such as is claimed by food critics) comes from physiological data.
Food critic Jeremy Iggers examines our “branded” culture and asks why so many live what he calls a “branded way of life” (89). Brands offer familiarity and identity, making things, strangely, taste better to people. Whereas many brands lose in blind taste tests, people still prefer the brand.
Fabio Parasecoli’s “Hungry Engrams: Food and Non-Representational Memory” (the final chapter of this course) is easily one of the most fascinating chapters in this volume. Drawing on findings in neuroscience as well as the insights of psychology and literature, Parasecoli explores the connection between mind and body and the numerous interactions within and among both with regard to memory and how this affects human memories with regard to food.
The “second course” of the book is addressed to the aesthetic dimension of food. Kevin Sweeney asks if a soup can be beautiful. From the foundations of the history of Western philosophy, we have been told that food is not a subject of the category of “the beautiful” as food and drink are “objects of the bodily senses… and must always remain caught up in the material and be excluded from having any aesthetic character” (117). Adding to the growing literature of gustatory aesthetics, Sweeney makes the argument that soup can indeed be beautiful.
Dave Monroe continues this line of defense in “Can Food Be Art? The Problem of Consumption.” The consumption of food is a typical basis from which philosophers rule out food as art. Monroe argues that this is an insufficient basis and, moreover, food shares many structural qualities of other accepted art forms. He continues by addressing other arguments against why food can be a “proper art object” and providing positive arguments as to why food is worthy of art.
Carolyn Korsmeyer, in “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting,” tackles the problem of food as art from a different perspective: that of taste. She briefly touches on arguments she makes more extensively in her book Making Sense of Taste (see the review also on this site). Korsmeyer goes on to show that sense pleasure (including taste) is far more complex than typically considered, arguing that “our pleasure responses to tastes are themselves complex cognitive responses that involve highly compressed symbolic recognition” (147). Highly significant in this chapter are the arguments from disgust. Rather than simply the opposite of pleasure, disgust can reveal the aesthetic dimension as philosophers of art have amply shown. The experience of an initial aversion to an object can open the way to profound aesthetic experience. Korsmeyer offers examples as to why this is no less true in the realm of food.
“Food Fetishes and Sin-Aesthetics: Professor Dewey, Please Save Me From Myself” by Glenn Kuehn is a rather odd contribution to this collection. Kuehn appears to be arguing that the aesthetic enjoyment of food is of greater importance than knowing anything about it—e.g. where it comes from, how it was produced, whether it may kill me, etc. In other words, the author argues for the justification of the notion: “Don’t ruin my enjoyment of the food I’m eating by informing me about it.” The overall justification runs, if I can summarize and perhaps embellish, as follows: society tells us some foods are guilty pleasures, things we “indulge” in but “shouldn’t” (166). Society further tells us we should diet and not get fat. But this socially induced obsession with our bodies means that we eat what we like the most in secret rather than communally. But why shouldn’t we eat what we like with others? Kuehn is partially responding to an argument an audience member at a conference asked him. When, in dialogue with Lisa Heldke on a conference panel, he argued for “reasonable” ignorance in eating so that we can avoid the guilt and not ruin the pleasure, a commenter noted that he “was arguing for a sense of the aesthetic that was not intended for communal growth or indicative of inquiry or intelligence” (164). Kuehn’s chapter does not answer his interlocutor, whose comment was in the context of a conversation on being informed about what we eat, but instead argues that we communalize our shared ignorance of food.
The book now moves to “Dessert” focusing on “Eating and Ethics.” This “course” begins with “Eating Well: Thinking Ethically About Food” by Roger J.H. King. In sharp contrast to the preceding chapter, King wants to argue that “…it matters morally how and what we eat. Consumption…is an activity about which we can, and should, think ethically” (177). Likewise in sharp contrast to the chapter before it, King argues that eating morally creates relationships—i.e. eating morally is communal—with people, the air, the soil habitats, animals, ancestors, and so on.
King’s chapter is the apparent sandwich stuff between the bread of two very odd chapters in terms of food ethics. Whereas Kuehn argues, it seems, that we not moralize about food so we can enjoy it (apparently the higher value), Matthew Brown argues for chapter 13 that “Picky Eating is a Moral Failing.” He argues, for example, that we have an obligation to new experiences and duties to ourselves that picky eating subverts. After all, how do you know you don’t really like something? And even if you don’t now, you might later…so don’t be picky. Be open minded because that is a morally superior value.
Socially speaking, Brown argues, you might inconvenience others by picky eating. Such inconvenience is a type of harm. Don’t constrain others by being a picky eater! Brown doesn’t take into account other social values such as accommodation, compromise, tolerance for the choices of others. While it may be kind to accept a meal placed in front of you that you don’t like, it is hardly a moral failing to decline something you do not like. Brown takes on the “tough cases” such as vegetarianism and the refined palates of super tasters. Vegetarians close themselves off by refusing to have an open mind and explore dishes with meat. Brown is careful. Vegetarianism might be the right choice (how exactly he says is “beyond the bounds of this essay”) and, he claims, his “view can better explain the proper way to arrive at it” (204). Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us how. Supertasters? Well, you may not really have a refined palate, you might just need to get used to, for example, bitter foods.
The next chapter by Paul B. Thompson, “Shall We Dine? Confronting the Strange and Horrifying Story of GMO’s in Our Food,” bears all the marks of critical thinking (peppered with a good deal of humor) one should expect from a philosopher. Thompson notes that all of our typical arguments against GMO’s fall short because the same ones can be made about our entire food system! He does say that there are many valid reasons (political, environmental, religious) that one might say “no” to GMO’s. The most compelling observation is Thompson makes is that while we cannot argue for a “positive right” to eat what we want, there is a “negative right” not to be coerced to eat something we do not want to eat. Even if we do have insufficient arguments against GMO foods, there are sufficient reasons to say we do not want to and we have that right not to. Hence, labeling GMO’s is morally indicated in light of this negative right. Thompson’s chapter is an excellent as well as delightful read.
Chapter 15, “Taking Stock: An Overview of Arguments For and Against Hunting” by Linda Jerofke, is precisely what the title says. Jerofke offers the reader the perspective of the hunter, which includes the notion that animals are here for human use, hunting teaches children many important lessons about responsibility, and so on. She also includes a Native American perspective. Native Americans “consider game hunting to be an integral part of their culture” (228), for example, and that they have the right as sovereign nations to enact and observe their own laws about hunting. The arguments from those who oppose hunting are primarily moral consisting in the proposition that animals have rights equal to humans, the right not to be killed, and that modern society no longer requires hunting in order to acquire adequate and healthy sustenance.
The next section, “Petit Fours: Compliments of the Chef,” begins with “Food and Sensuality: A Perfect Pairing” by Jennifer L. Iannolo. She writes: “No two acts are as similar in their effect on the senses as eating and making love, and by understanding the roots of each you will amplify the sensations of both. Let us take a look at the groundwork…” (240). The heart of this chapter is that eating food or preparing and cooking it, much like making love, is not merely about immediate gratification. Both go much deeper into who we are as human beings. Iannolo also makes some good observations about “food porn,” that is, how the true enjoyment of food is replaced by watching others prepare it.
Chapter 17 focuses, as did chapters in the “dessert” section, on ethical questions. In “Duty to Cook: Exploring the Intents and Ethics of Home and Restaurant Cuisines,” Christian J. Krautkramer looks at duties and intents of those who prepare food in these two different contexts. He argues that each cook has a different duty in terms of the object of their cooking. The restaurant cook has a duty “to the food” while the food preparation of the home cook is oriented to those for whom he cooks out of love and friendship.
In “Diplomacy of the Dish: Cultural Understanding Through Taste,” chef Mark Tafoya shows the reader the ways in which cuisine is a doorway into learning and appreciating the cultures of others. Chapter 19 is also brought to us by chefs. Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot in “Balancing Tastes: Inspiration, Taste, and Aesthetics in the Kitchen,” discuss how these three elements come together to make for an “amazing” experience of food. Taste they say, however, is fundamental.
Finally, as noted at the beginning of this review, this volume concludes with a brief essay from Woody Allen, “Thus Ate Zarathustra,” that originally appeared in the New Yorker. This very short essay alone is worth the book: Woody Allen on what the great philosophers might say about food and diet.
Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think, and Be Merry is a fine edition to the literature in the philosophy of food. While not all the essays are philosophical or intended for philosophers necessarily, those interested in and who study the philosophy of food will benefit from this imminently readable and teachable volume. DU
At twenty years old, this book is something of a classic. It’s also something of a hodgepodge. It mixes ancient readings – Christian, Jewish, Greek, and Eastern – with more contemporary work; philosophy with poetry, anthropology, fiction, and memoir. Important readings in the philosophy of food are mixed in with pieces that seem to have little connection to food. Although this book was essential to establishing the debate in the philosophy of food, I’m not sure that the entire anthology is essential reading for folks with a general interest in food. Nonetheless, there are some excellent chapters and overall the book is an enjoyable and thoughtful read.
The anthology is divided into four sections, and each section starts out with an essay from one of the editors. These essays both attempt to make specific philosophical arguments and to introduce the contents of the section. This gives the sections the feeling of being extended arguments, but, really, they aren’t. There’s more philosophical pluralism going on in each of these sections than the introductions seem to imply. This pluralism might break up the extended argument, but makes the anthology more well-rounded. Interspersed amongst the essays, the poems usually serve as pleasant intermissions and as reminders that philosophers are not the only people who can draw important meanings out of food.
The last section – with an introduction by Heldke – seems to have weathered the time the best. Her introductory article’s title, “Food Politics, Political Food,” gives us a hint about the content. Six of the twelve selections are poems, and these fit better into the overall picture of the section than most of the anthology’s poems do. The section is mostly about hunger and agricultural politics. It has a short, myth-busting, selection from Anne Buchanan which cites statistics showing the economic basis of many “natural” disasters that create famine. The Buchanan piece leads well into a selection from Vandana Shiva – “Development, Ecology, and Women” – which points out the gender biases in the famine-inducing system of agricultural development which Buchanan describes.
Just as a section on food politics would be incomplete without Shiva, it would be incomplete without a selection from Wendell Berry. The book ends with his “The Pleasures of Eating,” where he writes the famous phrase, “eating is an agricultural act” (p. 374). (This essay also appears is Berry’s Bringing it to the Table and What Are People For?) Berry’s essay gives advice to “city people” on how to eat in an ecologically and ethically sound manner; this advice makes it a helpful essay for the end of the food politics section. Also in this section is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which gains an element of depth beside Buchanan’s discussion of the economic basis of the Irish potato famine. An essay by the Land Institute’s Wes Jackson, which focuses on reintegrating farming into culture, rounds things out.
The third section of the book presents an interesting argument for cooking as epistemology. In her introduction, “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice,” Heldke draws on Dewey to show how making food, and thinking about it, helps eliminate the theory/practice dichotomy. Another of her essays in this section, “Recipes for Theory Making,” argues that “theories, like recipes, are most usefully regarded as tools we use to do things” (p. 256). The parallels Heldke draws between creating, and using, theories and creating, and cooking, recipes are substantial and interesting; she doesn’t just stop with the abstract observation I’ve just quoted.
Her account is also fleshed out by several non-fiction, autobiographical, pieces, and by a selection of Patrick Suppes’ Probabilistic Metaphysics. Suppes’ praises the author of his favorite cookbook because of “the lucid justifications she gives for various recommended procedures.” He draws on the procedures of cookbooks to show how different epistemological tasks require different levels of justification. He points out that variations in cooking methods “produce different results to obtain the same goal and there can be argument about the virtues of one procedure over another in terms of the outcome” (p. 239).
The third section also foreshadows the fourth with Al Sicherman’s article about Burger King’s pies. The way the pie is cut is “a trade secret … this guy is willing to tell me less about how Burger Kind pie is cut than the Pentagon and NASA leaked about the supersecret spy satellite that was launched on the Atlantis space shuttle!” (pp. 233-34).
Section two starts off with Curtin’s “Recipes for Values,” which – compared with section three – uses “recipe” in a decidedly metaphorical manner. His argument for contextual moral vegetarianism is interesting, and perhaps could be convincing if he didn’t rush through it so quickly. The centerpiece of this section seems to be Peter Singer’s “Becoming a Vegetarian,” which gets fleshed out by selections from Buddhist texts and from the Bible. Selections from Jean-Francois Revel’s Culture and Cuisine seem to be included largely as a foil, as do the selections from Plato throughout the book. My favorite selection from part three has Calvin Trillin bemoaning the difficulty of finding quality regional food in its home region while traveling; he’s always directed to disappointing upper-scale restaurants.
Section two doesn’t hang together as well as section three, and section three doesn’t hang together as well as section four. Following this pattern, the first section is the most disjointed, but it also has some of the best essays. The selections by Susan Bordo, Kim Chernin, and Kelly Oliver make rich connections between eating practices, gender, the body and our notions of selfhood. But each of them does so in importantly different ways. Accordingly, Curtin’s introduction – “Food/Body/Person,” which attempts to synthesize these accounts in some sort of Buddhist Ecofeminism – reads a little disorganized.
It’s not always clear why food in particular was chosen as a central topic for this essay; at times, it seems that food is an abstract stand-in for the concrete. But the selection from Bordo – on anorexia – makes the connections between food, the body, and Descartes that Curtin barely sketches out, and Bordo makes a much more convincing argument, as well. And as much I liked, agreed with, and learned from Maria Lugiones’ article about the need for a self, which shifts and flexes with its relationships and environment, I’m not sure that it had anything to do with food.
Overall, the book has some really interesting ideas, and some terrific articles. It wouldn’t be my recommended first book for someone interested in the philosophy of food, but it wouldn’t be the worst introduction either. Perhaps because so little work had been done in the field at this point in time, the editors occasionally seem to feel a need to justify their choice of food as a philosophical topic. For those of us who already find the philosophy of food interesting, arguments connecting eating to the Buddhist understanding of personhood might seem superfluous and distracting. But there’s enough interesting material in this volume that it’s worth reading through. JA
Being a thoughtful eater can mean a number of things. Eat healthily and for good nutrition. Eat environmentally conscious and friendly. Eat to support local or smaller scale agriculture. What about eating such as to avoid being a cultural food colonialist? Lisa Heldke takes up the complex question of cultural food colonialism in her book Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer.
But what is cultural food colonialism and why is it problematic? Isn’t colonialism economic and political, Heldke asks? Not exclusively. In contrast to cultural imperialism that imposes the cultural practices of the imperial power upon another, and along with it eliminates some or all of indigenous practices, cultural colonialism takes place when a people appropriate the practices of another. Cultural colonialism can co-exist with the economic and political forms of colonialism. Cultural food colonialism, then, is the appropriation of the food practices of exotic others that bears some resemblance to other forms of colonialism and may even be supportive of such forms.
But wait! Can’t one even eat out or cook cuisine at home except that of one’s own culture? Heldke doesn’t want to suggest that, but she does want us to discern the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways in which cultural colonialism can exist in our desires toward exotic foods. Many of us are “food adventurers.” We want to explore and try new foods. In doing so, we demonstrate (we suppose) that we are cultured. Sometimes we try our hand at cooking as well for many of the same reasons. Such food adventuring exposes us to the risk of cultural food colonialism.
The first section of the book (“Let’s Eat Chinese”) addresses itself to the colonizing attitudes of the food adventurer. Attitudes are joined to practices, which is why attitudes are worthy of examination. Heldke identifies three colonizing attitudes of the food adventurer: 1) the obsession with that which is novel, obscure, or exotic; 2) the view of other cultures as resources that satisfy personal interests; 3) the desire for “authenticity” in the experience of other cultures.
Novelty only lasts so long before we must move on to find the next new thing. Is the culture of another only valuable because it satisfies a curiosity in me? To reduce a culture to that which is “consumed for its novelty” (15) seems to be the central problem of this attitude. In this case, the other is there for me. The desire for novelty is clearly expressed by the second attitude that views other cultures as resources for my satisfaction. Heldke argues that novelty for the sake of novelty is the problem. Novelty in itself is no more a problem than tradition. Both can be stultifying when absolutized, but a healthy respect for both is a sounder attitude.
Authenticity turns out to be an illusion with regard to food. We tend to think that something is authentic because it is different or native. But most cuisines are not a regionally or ethnically isolated reality. Ultimately, because of our Western “consumerist proclivities” (44), the authenticity of the “Other” is only a commodity reducing the Other to a resource for our curiosity and satisfaction.
The next section is the briefest (containing the introduction to the theme and two chapters in contrast to three or more in the other parts), but should probably be required reading for anyone who wants to be a food writer or have their own television show about ethnic foods. Heldke writes: “Food writers who write specifically about ethnic foods contribute significantly to the care and feeding of a culture of food colonialism” (61). The food attitudes and practices discussed in the previous section tend to be fostered and encouraged by things like dining guides or restaurant reviews. The culture of the Other is served up for the food adventurer to consume. Food writing tends to make a commodity of the cultures of the ethnic Other.
Heldke highlights one television chef (she likely could have chosen from hundreds) who prides himself on his sense of white privilege. “Natives” who serve him on his travels, for example, are “naïve, available and eager to please, or—if they fail to do his bidding—unreliable, intransigent, and uncooperative” (94). This particular chef was outraged when indigenous peoples would not allow him to film their marketplace for one of his shows and asked for money to do so. Their culture was his right to consume in film for his own profit, but the peoples who actually live where he wants to film have, apparently, no rights in their own world.
One need not watch too much food television to see a smorgasbord of self-centered, mouthy, and arrogant chefs with an overblown sense of their own importance. Indeed, these types seem to be the most popular! Yet such attitudes and personality defects, when placed in the context of other cultures, perpetuate the kind of food colonialism this book wants to reflect upon and learn to avoid.
The third section is about cookbooks. Cookbook writers have the challenge of alluring the reader and would be chef with the call of the exotic without making the cuisine to familiar so that it loses its novelty. Cookbook authors must also present themselves as “insiders” to the cultures and cuisines in which they instruct their readers to maintain the air of authenticity. This section also shows who cookbook authors reduce the cultures from which the draw to a resource to exploit. For example, if a recipe is said to be “authentic,” wouldn’t it have been learned from someone else? When was the last time you saw an ethnic recipe said to be authentic credited to an indigenous person?
The fourth and final section of Exotic Appetites is the one we have all been waiting for. What are we supposed to do to avoid being food colonialists and become cultural food anticolonialists? What appears to be the obvious answer is simple “stay home!” In other words, eat only foods of your own traditions and ancestry and don’t eat the foods of Others. There are many good reasons to eat at home, so to speak, Heldke does say that there are anticolonial virtues to staying at home but rejects it as a “all-purpose strategy for resisting colonialism” (157). For one, whatever we think our own cultural food heritage to be, if we can be sure of it at all, “foods of my various homes already bear the stamp of earlier colonization” (161). We are all, it seems, especially Euroamericans, a hodgepodge and patchwork of ancestry. The answer to not being a food colonialist is not to become, ultimately, a food isolationist. Closing oneself off from other cultures and new experiences means one will never learn anything new and important. Such an isolationist attitude is a subtle kind of imperialism. It is not, Heldke argues, that we eat ethnic foods that is the problem, but the “exploitive” ways in which we do so.
It isn’t easy to transform the ideologies of entire cultures, the kind that fosters cultural food colonialism. Such things are deeply embedded. Yet, we must begin somewhere. One of the beginning steps is to exercise a healthy self skepticism and self-questioning. This is an exercise in health self-examination and virtue development. When practicing food adventuring, it is useful to stop and check attitudes. Heldke writes: “Used persistently, self-questioning can work to challenge the hierarchical dichotomy that separates knowing, powerful subject from known, subordinate object, and that serves as one of the defining elements of the colonizers attitudes” (171). We must also do our best, Heldke urges, to eat in context and for the food adventurer to use the desire of authenticity as strategically as possible when approaching new cuisines.
Food colonialism is a very difficult practice to locate and overcome. It is hard to know when we are actually doing it. Food colonialism is the product of a complex web of factors that food adventurers find themselves within. What Heldke offers in Exotic Appetites isn’t a how-to book of avoiding food colonialism. But she does offer a way to begin to be a thoughtful eater that is directed ultimately at social justice. And it could be that in becoming a cultural food anticolonialist, we may find we touch other related aspects of justice as well. DU
When one considers the five senses and how they function, it becomes clear that the sense of taste possesses a unique intimacy, not shared even by the intimate sense of touch. Touch does require direct contact with the body, but taste goes a step further in that its object must enter into the body. In everyday experience, taste is unquestionably highly important to us. While we need food for nourishment, we tend to eat things the taste of which we enjoy. If we try something new and the taste is not pleasant, we rarely if ever give it a second chance. Moreover, we frequently eat and drink some things for positively no other reason than that they please our sense of taste. It would seem that for these reasons and many others that the sense of taste offers rich ground for philosophical reflection. Yet, in the history of philosophy, there has been little such reflection on the sense of taste and of what reflection there has been, the sense of taste is relegated to a lower place and even disregarded as unimportant to the loftier aims of philosophy.
Carolyn Korsmeyer, in her book Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, sets out to help us understand why all the philosophical disdain for taste and to elevate taste as a proper object of philosophy. Korsmeyer begins with an insightful journey throughout the history of philosophy. She observes that, from the very beginning of philosophy, whenever the five senses are discussed taste is most often relegated to a place of supreme unimportance. Why is this? In summary, taste is too closely bound to the body and our animality. From Plato and Aristotle forward, philosophy has highlighted human rationality as that which makes us unique and higher beings. When this supremacy of the mind over the body is brought to bear on the senses, sight and hearing are considered higher senses whereas smell, touch, and taste are the lower senses. The further the object of sense is from the body, the higher the sense. This explains why so much of Western philosophy is articulated in the metaphor of sight. We can see things from very far away. We can hear things, likewise, from a distance. But the sense of smell generally requires much greater proximity and, of course, that of touch must have direct contact.
Of all the senses, none is closer to the body than taste. Indeed, as noted above, taste takes place within the body. The “hierarchy of the senses” has dominated Western philosophy and its metaphors throughout its history. Beginning with the priority of the mind over the body, Korsmeyer eloquently elaborates on the many reasons that flow from this ordering that characterize philosophy in every era. The consequence for taste has been the little attention paid to it in philosophy. When it has, as Korsmeyer addresses in the second chapter, taste has been considered in metaphoric language primarily in the realm of aesthetics.
After a scientific explanation of taste (revealing the complexity of the sense of taste as well as its interaction with other senses), Korsmeyer provides a “phenomenology of taste that ultimately reveals that taste is not merely subjective. Taste also has an intentional object that communicates knowledge of the world. Moreover, taste can be express different cultural values, that is, shared values. “That there are no common grounds for preferences is dubious” (101). The science of taste also tells us what “gastronomers” have long known that the sense of taste is “discriminating and refined” and can be cultivated so as to be very sophisticated. Contrary to the disparagement of taste, especially in philosophy, as a primitive and mostly meaningless sense, the science of taste brings our focus back to taste as a largely unexplored and worth object of philosophical reflection.
The referential character of taste is more fully addressed in the fourth chapter (“The Meaning of Taste and the Taste of Meaning”). Korsmeyer returns to the aesthetic question that was touched upon in earlier pages. She does not make the claim that food should be classified as are, especially in the sense of fine art, but she does argue that there are many similarities between art and food that tell us a good deal about why taste is much more philosophically interesting than has been thought. For example, food has many symbolic functions much like art such as representation, exemplification, and other symbolic relations. In sum, food is used and understood to denote things beyond itself. Taste, of course, is central here (e.g. the meanings of “sweet” or “bitter” and how food represents or exemplifies these things in life experience). Food also is at the center of ceremonies, rituals, festivals, and the like.
The fifth chapter does a more extended analysis of different ways food and art are related in terms of the “visual” (e.g. how food is frequently depicted in art). The sixth chapter, “Narratives of Eating” is particularly rich showing the relationship between food (and thus taste) and the qualities of narrative. Eating, like narrative, has a temporal dimension. It involves time. Like narrative, Korsmeyer tells us, “eating is [a temporally] extended event.” From preparation to actual eating, it all takes and happens within time. Further, the meaning of all the multiple phenomena of eating and taste can be gathered together by narrative itself. The temporality of easting and taste further speaks of their referential character. The narratives of eating also include the notion of community. Korsmeyer makes note of the Latin meaning of the word “companion”—“a person with whom one shares bread” (200).
As Making Sense of Taste comes to a close, Korsmeyer writes: "Taste and the enjoyments of eating have traditionally been accorded less philosophical weight than other sensory experiences because they have been interpreted as merely pleasant at best and self-indulgent at worst. This mistaken assessment, I hope, has been dispelled…. But this practical fact [the repetitious exercises attached to eating] does not mean that when eating is conducted with reflection and grace it manages to be only pleasant, nor does it mean that its pleasures do not reach beyond themselves to anything more profound. Scrutiny of taste, of foods, and of eating, for all their domestic and quotidian context, does not sustain the assumption that attention directed to these things must be trivial or superficial" (222 – 223).
She has eloquently accomplished her task of elevating taste to its worthy philosophical importance. DU
In her book Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (2001), Carolyn Korsmeyer--Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buffalo and a former president of the American Society for Aesthetics-- delves into theories regarding our fascination with objects and experiences that incite disgust. She offers her support in an attempt to answer the question of how we go from aversion to attraction to things deemed disgusting while she provides philosophical analysis, insight and aesthetic theory to how we experience the grotesque.
The book is most likely directed towards an academic audience as it is rife with philosophical terms which would be best read if one is familiar with phenomenological accounts of subjectivity and experience; however, Korsmeyer’s easily digestible prose and delivery of the concepts allows for non-academics to enjoy her investigation of the aesthetic query at hand. She provides decades of experience in the field of aesthetics and delivers an extensively researched discussion of our responses and intrigue to things deemed disgusting. She begins by defining disgust and then discusses the paradox of attractive aversions in several realms of aesthetics including gustatory and visual experiences.
Korsmeyer begins by defining disgust in terms of neurological response and our emotional perception and experience. She divides disgust into two response categories: nausea (or visceral response) and moral distaste. She refines disgust as “an extreme emotion, an absolute recoil from its object [. . .] A deep aesthetic apprehension of difficult experiences including some that might even qualify as beautiful [or] delicious”.
She goes on to discuss our evolution of emotions as intentional states towards objects used as affirmations, appraisals, and distinct modes of apprehending value. We have developed a natural repulsion to disgusting states of objects such as decay in order to avoid a contamination, and we associate this state with uncleanliness or something that may pose harm. In the same way, we have come to develop culturally influenced values regarding the morally repugnant.
Chapter two introduces a discourse on attractive aversions or the allure of disgust. Questions asked include how do we go from recoil to attraction? What compels us to horrific scenes in art or elsewhere? Korsmeyer cites Plato’s resemblance of “a mind at war with itself” as what compels us to be allured to the disgusting, grotesque, or even profane. She gives examples ranging from fascination with visual art representations to our appeal to aged or moldy foods that are received with delight.
Chapter three on the “Delightful, Delicious, and Disgusting” discusses culinary varieties of prototyped disgusting objects that are received with enjoyment as opposed to an initial revulsion to a certain food. For instance, gustatory pleasure is met with foods such as fermented cheeses or aged meats--processes that emit a sense of decay or rot are taken as tasty and considered delicacies with nuanced enjoyment.
Korsmeyer proposes a new category of aesthetic recognition of our conversion of aversion to positive experience--one that moves from disgusting to delicious. This movement from fear to thrilling delight is paralleled with the state of the sublime. We enter a state of fascination with the things that at first terrify, yet receive a sense of enjoyment when the element of terror is relieved by a degree of safety. Aged meats and moldy cheeses become intriguing to consume when the possibility of illness is removed. There is also a desire to consume that which is forbidden.
The remainder of the book discusses in greater depth varieties of disgust, our attraction from psychoanalytical and phenomenological accounts, and disgust’s contribution to artistic beauty. There is also a chapter on the human heart and its representations in horror and religious and secular works.
Savoring Disgust is a fascinating discourse on the human compulsion towards revolting objects and experiences. Korsmeyer goes in depth with well-thought-out concepts related to aesthetic experience while using a variety of examples ranging from food to art and the ordinary. Her extensive references bring dozens of theorists into the discussion while offering well-rounded insight to the concept of attractive aversions. Korsmeyer has done a fine job of introducing the phenomenon of aesthetic disgust while leaving readers with much to contemplate about their own lived experiences. JO
Nathan Kowalsky’s edited volume offers spirited defenses and criticisms of hunting. The essays are readable, approachable, and all quite well done.
The first section examines the ethical foundations of hunting. Jesus Ilundain-Agurruza, in the opening essay, “Taking a Shot, Hunting in the Crosshairs,” challenges the anti-hunting arguments of Peter Singer and Tom Regan. He relies on many of the previous criticisms of Singer to argue against his utilitarian position. He rests much of his case on Singer’s use of the phrase “trivial purposes.” Other notable chapter in this chapter are “But They Can’t Shoot Back: What Makes Fair Chase Fair?” by Theodore R Vitali and Lisa Kretz’s “Hunting like a Vegetarian: Same Ethics, Different Flavors.”
The next section considers the experience of hunters. Brian Seitz’s chapter, “Hunting for Meaning: A Glimpse of the Game,” draws heavily from Jose Ortega y Gasset while providing his own existential account of hunting and meaning. Following in Seitz’s footsteps, Alison Acton’s article, “Getting by with a Little Help from My Hunter: Riding Hounds in English Foxhound Packs” exhibits the sense of meaning and place found in “foxhunting spaces.” Acton shows that, “the human and animal collective of the Hunt become bound together with the fragile and mutable nuances of the hunt country and everything therein.”
The common thread weaving this section together involves a sense of meaning, both individual and cultural, providing hunters with senses of self and community. In Jacob Wawatie and Stephanie Pyne, “Tracking in Pursuit of Knowledge: Teachings of an Algonquin Bush Hunter,” one gains an understanding of a traditional indigenous perspective and sees insights into the Anishinabe approach to hunting. Wawatie and Pyne explain how the Anishinabe’s framework for thinking about hunting differs from the mainstream: “The epistemological perspective sees all of creation—humans (past, present, and future), animals, fish, birds, insects, plants, the water, the land, the air, the trees, the sky, the clouds, the rain, the mountains and the rocks—as belonging to the same family, in relationship with one another.”
The third section examines the cultural and scientific roles that hunting plays in the lives of humankind. Valerius Geist, in “The Carnivorous Herbivore: Hunting and Culture in Human Evolution,” looks at the complex relationship that hunting has with human evolution. He argues that several specific features defining humankind are best understood through the context of hunting. In turn, Geist’s argument raises difficult challenges for those who argue against hunting and eating meat.
Jonathon Parker’s “The Camera or The Gun: Hunting through Different Lens,” offers an excellent evaluation of wildlife photography as an alternative to hunting. He argues that we cannot look at photographic hunting as a complete and total replacement for sport hunting. Parker argues that, “insofar as we conceive wildlife photography as ethically superior to weaponized hunting, we actually end up with a misconceived and potentially dangerous perspective that loses touch with fundamental knowledge of the environment and, by doing so, risks assuming a stance of mastery that is environmentally destructive.” He qualifies his points well, arguing that we should restrict sport hunting in certain ways. Parker’s essay exhibits that he has a keen eye for subtle details, and it shows the significant degree of nuance that one can expect in many of the chapters in this book.
In the last section, “The Antler Chandelier: Hunting in Culture, Politics, and Tradition,” the authors focus on the historical and ongoing importance of hunting in our lives. Roger Scruton, in “The Sacred Pursuit: Reflections on the Literature of Hunting,” shows how authors throughout history write about hunting, which helps us understand what it means to be a human. Ranging from Homer to Herman Melville, Scruton shows hunting’s prominent and important role in literature. Debra Merskin’s essay, “The New Artemis? Women Who Hunt,” one of the best in the book, shows what an ecological feminist perspective of hunting looks like. Merskin’s views challenge stereotypes. She argues that one’s personal directive ought to be the basis for hunting.
In the last essay, James Carmine explores American hunting identity in “Off the Grid: Rights, Religion, and the Rise of the Eco-Gentry.” He takes a firm anthropocentric stance, arguing against Aldo Leopold: “The ‘land ethic’ as envisioned by Aldo Leopold, and later adopted by animal rights advocates like Tom Regan, is born not out of respect for wild animals but out of antipathy for the uniqueness of being human.” Carmine challenges popular views in mainstream environmental ethics such as ecocentrism. He frames his argument as going against the “eco-gentry,” the elite who use environmental law to control wildlife and land. It is a polemical ending to an otherwise measured volume on the virtues and vices of hunting. SE
Food, Massimo Montanari insists in his book Food is Culture, is too quickly, and incorrectly, associated with nature when it is more accurately understood to “result from and represent cultural processes dependent upon the taming, transformation, and reinterpretation of nature” (xi). Setting aside the cross-disciplinary debate over the nature-culture dualism as well as what constitutes “nature” in the first place, we can take the author’s point to be (as the text seems to indicate) that “nature” is that which functions on its own without human intervention and “culture” is what humans do with natural products. For example, the earth does not produce bread but raw materials that humans fashion that become bread. Even when nature produces a food (a fruit or vegetable, for instance), the way it is harvested, prepared, presented and so on are human activities—products of “culture.”
The central argument of the book is that pretty much anything and everything related to food is associated with culture. The argument begins with a section entitled “Creating One’s Own Food.” Whether food is understood as nature or culture is a matter of perspective. While those of us in contemporary culture may look back at certain forms of agriculture and consider it to be more closely associated to “naturalness,” we must recall that “the ancients [posit] agriculture as the moment of breakthrough and innovation, as the decisive leap that forms ‘civilized’ man, separating him from nature….” (4). Although the earliest agrarians relied on natural cycles and seasons, food itself was created by people in ways not found in nature (agricultural techniques) as well as the creation of foods themselves not found in nature (for example, as noted just above, the making of bread). That said, in agricultural societies as well as hunting and gathering ones, mythologies developed based on natural processes indicating “that the opposition between culture and nature is in large part fictitious” (10).
Time and space also reveal a similar interplay between nature and culture. With regard to time, we find that contrary to the romantic notions of a “perfect symbiosis between man and nature” (13) human beings have always had to adapt to nature’s rhythms or seek to modify them. Human activities such as canning and preserving are ways in which the natural time of foods are extended (often for months or even years Montanari observes) for later consumption. Just like time, humans also seek to overcome the strictures of space when we endeavor to fulfill our desire for foods from faraway places or those that are not in season in our locale.
The next section, “The Invention of Cuisine” begins by asking what it is that distinguishes humans from animals. There are, of course, many things that come to mind, but in the context of this book the obvious distinction is that humans cook. Montanari writes: “Cooking is the human activity par excellence: it is the act that transforms a product ‘from nature’ into something profoundly different” (29, italics original). A raw food enthusiast may object at this point that the joke is on us as eating food “from nature” is the form in which the food is healthiest and at its most nutritious. We have in one sense taken a step backward by cooking the nutrition out of our food. Nonetheless, the ability to take a variety of foods and put them together creatively and cook them into a meal is a uniquely human achievement.
Interestingly, not so many pages over in a chapter entitled “Anticuisine,” Montanari attempts to tackle the question of eating food “from nature” and to demonstrate the superiority of culture. He relates a story of an “old ascetic” (45) who would eat only raw foods. But not being able to know good herbs from poisonous ones, the hermit became violently ill and determined not to eat at all, which of course would only lead to starvation. It wasn’t until a goat was miraculously sent to show the old ascetic what to eat so he would neither be poisoned nor starve to death. From this story Montanari concludes:
We learn here that using wild resources and eating them just as they are found in nature is not at all a simply, natural procedure born of instinctive wisdom. Rather, it is the result of a learning process, of acquired knowledge of the land and its resources. That knowledge is gained by gathering information and taking advantage of the teachings of those already familiar with the land in question and the uses of its resources. In the case in point the informant was an animal sent by God: there were no other men around to transmit culture to the solitary hermit. But he could not have survived without culture (45).
It is uncertain precisely what Montanari thinks he has proven here. There are a few difficulties with his line of thought. First, there is no one who argues that eating from nature is easy or a “natural procedure born of instinctive wisdom.” At least not anyone who actually practices what they preach and lives this way! In fact, all who would advocate eating in this way would insist that it is a process of learning that takes time and the instruction of others. And perhaps this hermit didn’t have others to “transmit culture” to him, but it doesn’t seem Montanari has considered where “culture” comes from in the first place. For those who do transmit culture and learn it from others, it was precisely the lengthy process of learning of the land and its resources through trial and error that produced this knowledge the author calls culture. Lastly, in the context of this chapter, culture is manifested in “cuisine”—i.e. the art of cooking foods. By Montanari’s own definition, the hermit in the story didn’t learn and survive from culture as in contrast to raw foods from nature. He learned (in this case from the goat), which raw foods to eat and which to avoid.
The thinking here assumes far too much of a dualism between nature and culture rather than a close relationship between the two. Further, why is cooking considered culture but a fine and aesthetically pleasing presentation of raw foods not culture? It seems that nature and culture are not recognized by raw or cooked food, but the ways in which foods are arranged, prepared, presented, and consumed. There is no doubt many benefits that have been derived from mixing food and fire (i.e. cooking). Montanari notes several in this book.
A brief section, “The Pleasure and the Duty of Choice,” looks at the role of culture in “taste” as something not entirely objective but conditioned by culture. Also, the intermingling of cultures with regard to food as well as the way foods common to one culture are introduced into others in a globalized world is discussed. Montanari notes that “when foods and beverages resurface in the gastronomy of different countries or regions, they are never exactly the same” (87). That is, cultures tend to have different taste preferences so a food or drink that comes from one culture may be modified somewhat to be acceptable to the tastes of another.
The final section is about “Food, Language, Identity.” What makes food about culture is that we have a way of speaking about it and it also has something to do with who we understand ourselves to be. Food is social, for example. We eat together. Food is communicative in this sense. Food and eating brings us together and who we share food with and how we eat it says something of who we are. One of the key things that all of the chapters in this final section highlights is that culture and its relation to food is not static. It is fluid and dynamic. It is about change and exchange, learning and growing.
Food is Culture is an enjoyable read. If you are looking for a heavily footnoted text substantiating the books many claims and assertions (the author, after all, is a professor of medieval history and the history of food) this is not the book for you. This book might be best described as the reflections of a scholar in a relaxed, non-academic format. The only real shortcoming of the text is that it tends to present nature and culture as antagonists with culture winning out in the end. The narrative would have been enriched by presenting nature and culture as complementary and mutually dependent. That aside, there remains a wealth of insight in this relatively short and highly readable text. DU
How should we treat wild animals? Is it right to kill animals for food? Is eating hunted meat more, or less, ethically problematic than eating farmed meat? These questions are essential for any thorough philosophy of food; any thoughtful person can’t ignore the ethics of eating meat. But don’t expect Ortega’s book to help you sort through any of these issues. Although Ortega only mentions the relationship between hunting and food very few times, Meditations is both a must-read for thoughtful hunters and a decent introduction to Ortega’s thought.
Partly this neglect comes from Ortega’s focus on sport hunting, or on hunting as a diversion. Ortega’s first two chapters – “Hunting as Diversion” and “Hunting and Happiness” – focus on this aspect of hunting as a diversionary sport. Hunting is different from other diversions available to modern humans; hunting takes work. These two chapters are also an excellent introduction to Ortega’s general philosophy. He writes that “existing becomes a poetic task,” that “the major part of life consists of … chores,” and that “dedication is the privilege and torment of our species” (p. 36, 30). Because Ortega puts these musings near the front of his book, we get the feeling both that the book will be philosophically rich and that the practice of hunting has helped form Ortega’s philosophy.
One of the few times Ortega mentions hunting for food, he calls it “the purely utilitarian form of hunting” (p. 57). He contrasts this utilitarian hunting for food with sport hunting, but not in order to analyze of the role food or economic necessity plays in the hunt. Rather, he wants to show how the fate of the animal is not anchored to the essence of hunting. In the chapter “The Essence of Hunting,” he defines hunting as “a contest or confrontation between two systems of instincts” (p. 64). These two systems are, of course, housed inside the bodies of two animals. Sometimes, one of these animals is a human. But the eating of one of these animals by the other is inessential to the act of hunting.
It is essential that one of these animals has prey instincts and the other predator instincts. Even more important is that these animals “find themselves a very specific distance apart on the zoological scale” (p. 63). Hunting, for Ortega, is a contest between unequals, but this inequality must be within certain limits. As Ortega puts it, “man does not hunt ants” (p. 65). These biological limits make a hunt a hunt – rather than a slaughter or an impossible chase.
But this specific distance is only one of the many ways that hunting is essentially a sport of limits. Ortega also points out that hunting is defined by “The Scarcity of Game” – the title of the fifth chapter. The scarcity of game essential to hunting is not, however, brought on by industrialization. Rather, Ortega claims that game has always been scarce. He clarifies this with a comparison: “Since air is usually abundant, there is no technical ability in breathing, and breathing is not hunting air” (p. 77). The exertion and reliance on instinct which distinguish hunting from other forms of diversion would never happen if deer, for example, were always within shooting distance of our porch.
Ortega also worries about species extinction and preservation in an environmentalist sense – to the point where he claims that “the greatest enemy of hunting is reason” because reason has resulted in a movement “farther and farther away from Nature” (p. 79). This is the third way that limits come into play in hunting: the human hunter limits her use of reason. More importantly, the hunter limits her use of the fruits of reason – the technologies which would make the hunt lose its character of effort. “Instead of doing all that he could do as man, he restrains his excessive endowments and begins to imitate Nature” (p. 63).
This third type of limit – the voluntary limiting of the use of reason – is central to Ortega’s discussion in chapter seven: “The Ethics of Hunting.” In this chapter, he takes seriously the fact that the hunter kills. He writes that “assassination is the most disconcerting event that exists in the universe,” but acknowledges that, nonetheless, “when death is said to be horrible, very little has been said about it” (pp. 99, 101). Although this chapter raises more ethical puzzles than it solves, Ortega clearly shows a deep and sincere concern and respect for the inner life of animals.
He acknowledges that choosing to hunt is itself an ethical decision, but denies that this decision annuls further ethical reflection. Expressing again the importance of limits, ethically-based limits this time, Ortega writes that “the real care that man must exercise is … in avoiding more and more the excess of his superiority” (p. 106). This conscious limiting of the hunter’s use of reason is “spiritual” and “almost religious” is all that Ortega claims for the ethical benefits of hunting.
The chapter on ethics and the two surrounding chapters contain some philosophically rich material on Ortega’s understanding of animals. He has a chapter devoted completely to the discussion of the dog’s role in hunting; along the way, he mentions briefly falconry. He obliquely argues that the good hunter shows more respect for the agency of the animal than does the farmer, because the hunter “reduces his advantage over the animal” while the farmer increases this advantage (p. 114). More explicitly, he argues that the hunter respects the animal better than do ‘photographic’ hunters (pp. 102-106).
Along the way, he makes plenty of interesting observations about human nature, evolution, and the functions of rationality. Perhaps the biggest oversight of the book comes in these sections. Ortega claims that “man’s being consisted first in being a hunter.” On the other hand, Ortega acknowledges that Paleolithic humans ate “roots, tubers, and wild fruits,” but he claims that it left no lasting impact on human nature (p. 112). This oversight is unfair; the human mind is surely as formed by gathering as by hunting. The search for patterns, the desire for experiment and attention to minute details and differences which make up ‘reason’ seem essential for any creature who has to separate poisonous berries from wholesome ones.
An environmentalist reading of Ortega can easily be found in these pages; humans can best learn to follow nature by hunting. But he seems blind to the frailty of the human body, and our potential to become prey rather than predator. A comparison with Val Plumwood’s “Being Prey” or James Hatley’s “On the Uncanny Goodness of Being Edible to Bears” would bear this out. Humans can clearly be prey as easily as we can be predators, and the right type of attitude in this situation can be as instructive to environmentalists as mindful hunting – perhaps more.
Overall, Meditations on Hunting is worthwhile reading for environmentalists, natural philosophers, and people interested in animal studies. It’s a short book, and an easy read. Many of his arguments seem to prefigure some of the ideas of deep ecology; Paul Shepard wrote an Introduction to this edition. I find it a pity that as sharp a mind as Ortega almost completely ignores arguments for vegetarianism but Meditations is not really a defense of hunting. And as I said, the eating of the hunted animal is almost entirely untouched. But, for philosophically-minded hunters, this is still a must-read book. JA
Genetically Modified Foods: Debating Biotechnology (Prometheus, 2002) contains with over two dozen essays from scholars and experts across various fields with their arguments and discussions for or against the controversial method of altering food that is prevalent in twentieth-century food sources across the globe. With ten sections and 35 essays, this anthology covers issues ranging from ethics in agriculture, labeling, precautionary principles, and religion. Editors Michael Ruse and David Castle—Professors of Philosophy at Florida State University and University of Guelph in Ontario, respectively—provide concise yet provocative introductions to each section while setting the stage for the arguments to follow.
The prologue opens up the debate with essays from The Prince of Whales and is followed by a retort from controversial biologist Richard Dawkins. Here, Prince Charles—an avid proponent of organic gardening—opposes all things artificial or genetically modified to enter our food supplies. The rebuttal by Dawkins opposes Charles’ “embracing of an ill-sorted jumble,” and that the prince’s argument for upholding “a sense of the sacred in our dealings with the natural world” is nonsensical (10). These two positions provide excellent starting points from which to begin the complex discussion of how to approach this morally perplexing issue.
Part one consists of seven essays on a case study concerning “Golden Rice.” The vitamin A-enriched rice variety promises an increased amount of the vitamin for deficient populations who are at risks of serious health concerns due to the deficiency. Critics of the genetically modified (GM) rice, however, assert that impossibly high amounts of the rice would have to be consumed in order for the amount of vitamin A to be beneficial. They also claim that the GM rice is a “hoax” and marketed to developing countries for the economic gain of the GM seed companies and not for the benefit of the health of those with vitamin deficiency. Essays in this section vary from Indian environmental and social justice activist Vandana Shiva to articles from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that are rife with scientific research, which offer proof for the superiority of the GM rice variety.
Part two provides four essays on ethics in agriculture from notable philosophers including Paul B. Thompson of Michigan State and Gary Comstock of North Carolina State University. This section raises a vital issue: “What is it about genetically modified foods in particular that warrants ethical outcry about modern food systems? (65)” Another critical question raised in this section and one to follow provokes the concern of whether we should take a precautionary (as opposed to proactive) approach to introducing genetically modified foods due to its unknown consequences on human and environmental health. This section explores how our values help to inform decisions for the future use of GM foods while offering clear and concise arguments to resolve the debates about these foods and their impacts on humanity. Part three follows suit with these philosophical perspectives but focuses on the topic of religion. One of the three essays in this section is from Pope John Paul II, who takes the position of support for scientific innovation. His endorsement includes the genetic modification of organisms in order to leave open possibilities of all sorts of “developments of the technological era” (110).
Part four is on labeling of GM foods—an issue that has received recent attention in states such as California who attempted to pass a bill that requires such labeling (a.k.a. Prop 37). This section raises questions such as, “Should GM foods be labeled as such? If so, why?” “What is it that is actually deemed necessary for labeling?” David Spencer raises an essential concern of what information consumers have the right to know about the manufacturing of their food; however, how much information is too much and at what point does too much information become no longer helpful to anyone but instead raise needless or ill-informed fears?
Part five addresses concerns of law making that protects the intellectual property rights of GM agriculture. Critics of GM patents are usually met with arguments that claim that these laws merely protect greedy corporate control of agriculture while those in favor of these laws maintain that patent laws have existed for a long time and that the protection from these patents is not newly put in place simply in order to protect corporations as claimed.
Parts six and seven deal with food safety and risk assessment of public perception, which raise concerns of consequences of GM foods that range from allergy issues to herbicide-resistant GM crops. Part eight follows with a critical review of the precautionary principle, which is noted in the Cartagena Protocol for protecting biodiversity (249). The objective of the protocol is to protect against adverse affects of modern biotechnology that may contribute to loss of biodiversity. While this may sound like a sound way to ensure sustainable protection of ecosystems, opponents claim that this is a radically technophobic and unnecessarily extreme response that would essentially ban all genetically modified plants from entering natural habitats.
The book concludes with sections concerning developing countries and environmental impacts. Part nine addresses the debate of whether or not GM foods are the resolution to food insecurity faced in developing countries. While GM crops that are designed to produce high yields are marketed towards much of the marginalized Third World, economic interests lie with the wealthier industrialized countries who own the property rights to the seeds that are sold in these areas. This raises concerns of whether biotech introduced to developing countries is actually beneficial or is encouraging economic disparity and domination. Part 10 addresses the environmental assessments of the use of GM plants and discusses the possible threats. Concerns include potential overtaking of GM plants when they crossbreed with non-GM plants, which poses great risks to biodiversity.
This collection of debates concerning the risks and benefits of biotechnology in food systems provides readers with a diverse introduction to this complex issue. The topics covered provide ample preparation for readers to consider the future of food that will affect eaters across the globe. Although the book is nearly a decade old at this point, the issues still lie relevant. As GM foods are increasingly creeping into the world’s food supply and gradually more countries are passing laws to either ban the use of GM foods or necessitate their labeling, the question concerning biotechnology’s place in our food supply will become ever more critical. How we choose to approach bioengineered foods will rely on a well-educated public who can make informed decisions regarding the foods they consume and this book provides a fair starting point for such education. JO
The Ethics of What We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter
Peter Singer and Jim Mason
Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006. 288 pages.
(Originally published under the title, The Way We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter).
The Ethics of What We Eat addresses the effects of our eating choices on others by looking at three different families. These three families represent different circumstances, priorities, and levels of knowledge that exist among eaters today. The three families fall into the categories of the “standard American diet,” “conscientious omnivores”, and the “vegan” lifestyle. The ultimate goal in analyzing these different families and scenarios that involve our eating choices is knowledge. Knowledge of where our food comes from and how it impacts other lives (and here Singer and Mason mean non-human animals just as much as other humans) is the first step towards ethics in eating.
The first family lives in Mabelvale, Arkansas, which could be almost any small town across the country. It is described as having no real public square or historic district. Mabelvale has “four lanes of traffic running through a corridor of gas stations, convenience stores, and strip malls…” (15). The Hillard/Nierstheimer family who lives in Mabelvale are typical of the “Standard American Diet” (SAD) that consists of a lot of meat, potatoes, dairy products, bread, but very little in the way of fruits and vegetables. The SAD also includes a good deal of fried foods and animal fat.
Most American families shop in large supermarkets. More and more the large supermarket is one in particular—Wal-Mart. This is no different for the Mabelvale family because of its convenience and low prices. Jake Lee notes that among the motivations of her family’s food choices, “Price and convenience are way up there, especially now with the kids” (18). These motivating factors make up the stories of hundreds of thousands of American families. Most Americans have been conditioned not to even consider the sources of our food and to think in terms of more visible, immediate concerns such as the family budget.
What Singer and Mason do after a shopping trip with the family is to seek to track down where the actual foods that were placed in the shopping cart come from. They begin this quest in chapter 2: “The Hidden Costs of Cheap Chicken.” Citing the National Chicken Council, the note that 99 percent of chicken sold in the United States “comes from factory-farm production,” primarily from producers like Tyson (22). From there the authors describe in all its horrible detail the way chickens in such facilities are treated. Other ethical issues are not left untouched either such as the environmental impact of raising chickens in this, the low pay and poor conditions for workers, and health concerns. Earlier in the book Singer recalls that when he was a child chicken was a rare treat since it was more expensive even than beef. But due to things like factory production and huge federal subsidies, chicken is both inexpensive and plentiful. The hidden costs of the current system, though, are staggering.
A very brief (five page) chapter 3 is aimed at exposing the spin behind such labels as “Animal Care Certified,” which amount to little more than a cover for animal cruelty and consumer fraud (41). Certain standards are offered to be adopted voluntarily by the egg producers. By making only a few significant changes (for example, increasing the cage space for the egg laying chicken to 67 square inches) won the egg producer the right to the label on the carton. Chapter 4 is a much lengthier chapter that traces the sources of the Mabelvale family’s choice of bacon, milk, and beef. The final chapter in this section asks “Can Bigger Get Better?” referring to mega fast-food chains like McDonald’s and superstores such as Wal-Mart. The authors do give McDonald’s credit for seeking to improve some standards, most notably antibiotic use in its meat, but the chain still has a long, long way to go to in America to even make the standards already being phased out in Europe at the time of publication. The remainder of the chapter covering the true costs of Wal-Mart low prices.
Part two turns to a family in Fairfield, Connecticut who are described as “conscientious omnivores.” The description refers to the fact that this family seeks “ethical principles—leaning to green, coupled with concern for animal welfare—that guide their food choices” (83). The wife and two daughters are meat eaters, while the father abstains.
Like in Mabelvale, the authors go on a shopping trip. This time it is the specialty chain Trader Joe’s instead of Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, Trader Joe’s (like Wal-Mart Singer and Mason had said earlier) would not allow a camera in the store. All of the products are more expensive but boast of things such as “no antibiotics” in its meat and “cage-free” eggs. Milk is said to be from local family farms and is certified organic.
As in the first part of the book, Singer and Mason follow the path back to where the food came from. What they find is considerably different than the food sources of the family in part one of the book. The bacon, for example, comes from pigs that are not confined inside on concrete but live outdoors and walk on earth. Likewise, the hens that laid organic and certified humane eggs were not confined to cages.
The particular farm the authors visited did not allow the hens to be outside (hence, the eggs are not labeled “free range”), but they note that the large sheds afford the birds significantly more space than factory farmed birds. And since the birds are not confined to cages, they were free to roam the massive shed (60 by 400 feet) and flutter their wings. The situation is not perfect, the authors contend. Most farms, while better and more humane by far than factory farms, still must engage in practices such as “beak searing” to avoid cannibalism among the birds. The chapter concludes by asking that if what they have described is the best that can be done, wouldn’t it better to “eat no eggs at all?” (110). This question will be taken up later in the final section on the vegan family. Chapter 9 takes up a number of ethical questions with regard to the growing seafood diet in American life.
The remaining chapters in this section look at practices related to eating. Chapter 12 extols the virtues of eating locally with arguments that are now commonplace in the local food movement. To the authors’ credit, they write briefly that as far as ethical choices, such as energy use, local food isn’t as simple as it seems and sometimes energy used in buying local is less efficient in the long run. Chapter 11 provides a thoughtfully written analysis of fair trade and the rights of workers. Finally in part two, chapter 12 “Eating Out and Eating in, Ethically” offers a look into ethical restaurant choices (both for customers and owners) and the possibility of ethical supermarkets, using Whole Foods as the prime example. While not avoiding the problems and pitfalls of Whole Foods, Singer and Mason find it preferable to the Wal-Mart model, both in food sources and employee treatment.
Part three of the book returns once more to looking at the eating choices of a particular family, in this case a vegan family, the Farbs. One suspects that Singer and Mason (especially Singer) chose to put the vegan family last in the book to save the best for last. Veganism appears to be the most comprehensive answer to the complex ethical dilemmas raised throughout the text. As with the first two families, we are treated to a trip to the grocery store where the reader follows Mrs. Farb as she selects different organic and vegan foods with an explanation for each choice, especially things such as vegan soy cheeses ice cream. The store, The Wild Oats, does not forbid the use of a video camera as the stores before.
Chapter 14, “Going Organic” is one of the books lengthier chapters addressing a whole host of questions about eating only organically. There are, of course, the most obvious reasons of health and environmental quality. Organic farming is far better for the soil and the environment generally than contemporary farming practices. A large portion of the chapter questions the benefits touted about genetically modified foods such as whether it will solve hunger. Singer and Mason note that “the corporations developing GM foods focus on farmers in developed countries who can buy their products” (215). The profit motive is compared to pharmaceutical corporations who spend more time working on male baldness than malaria.
Not avoiding any of the tough questions, chapter 15 asks “Is It Unethical to Raise Children Vegan?” The issues of protein and iron intake are addressed as these are typically the most serious objections to raising children on a vegan diet. Singer and Mason address these questions in a sensible and balanced fashion while being very clear about the many myths associated with abstaining from meat.
As noted above in this review, it is no surprise that the section on veganism was saved for last. Singer and Mason continue their well-argued advocacy for the vegan lifestyle. Chapter 16 argues that vegans are friendlier to the environment and that even the most sustainable means of eating meat is inferior to an exclusive vegan diet.
Chapter 17, “The Ethics of Eating Meat,” is a scathing philosophical answer to those who defend eating meat. Arguments for which Singer is famous are briefly rehearsed. For example:
The argument is that, despite obvious differences between human and nonhuman animals, we share a capacity to suffer, and this means that they, like us, have interests. If we ignore or discount their interests simply on the grounds that they are not members of our species, the logic of our position is similar to that of the most blatant racists or sexists….” (246).
Those not trained philosophically may miss the subtle point of this argument. One may, for other reasons, defend the killing of animals for food; but the point here is that if animal suffering is ignored on the basis of difference, then such a basis follows the same “logic” (or logical form) as racism. There may well be other reasons that killing animals can be justified, but it cannot be justified simply on the basis of difference. If nonhuman animals can suffer, that suffering becomes morally relevant and it cannot be ignored on such a shaky basis that is, in other things such as racism or sexism, such logic is understood to be quite evidently lacking.
Singer and Mason take on what they describe as the best defenses of eating meat. The most popularly known figure they address is Michael Pollan. One difference between Pollan and the authors lies in the actual killing of animals. For Pollan it seems that animals have the right to be happy and our moral obligation extends to how animals are treated when they are alive. For Singer and Mason, who would agree that happy animals on good farms are better than mistreated animals at factory farms, nonetheless point out that animals, even if treated well and are happy, are being prepared for slaughter. There is also a brief analysis of Pollan’s account of animal domestication and his attendant interpretation of evolutionary “choices” made by some animals. Overall, this particular chapter is the most philosophically dense for the average non-specialist reader. That said, it is quite readable and easily understandable even if the reader must spend more time with this chapter than those following grocery shoppers. There are several other issues taken up (e.g. dumpster diving) that make this chapter well word reading several times over.
The last chapter, “What Should We Eat?” provides a tremendous service to the thoughtful reader. Singer and Mason do not answer the question of the chapter title by telling the reader what to eat, but explains the moral principles through which we must think in order to make ethically informed decisions. The chapter is quite comprehensive and can be considered a summary of the many moral arguments and ethical principles that came up throughout the book. In the end, the point of the entire book can be summed up by saying that our eating choices have impacts of tremendous scope. In light of this we can readily agree with Singer and Mason: “We can make better choices” (284). DU
Manifestos of the Future of Food and Seed
Ed. Vandana Shiva
Cambridge: South End Press, 2007. 145 pages.
Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed (2004) is a pocket-sized book featuring a collection of essays from leaders in the local food movement. The book begins with introductory essays on the topic of creating a closer connection of farmer to consumer. The essays are followed by manifestos—one on each of food and seed—that serve to provide a set of goals in order to address the estranged relationship of farmer and consumer. The manifestos are then followed by two discussions on the state of food systems in the U.S., namely the supermarket culture that is so prevalent among American cities, urban and rural alike.
The book begins with a collection of four short essays by a diverse group of leaders of the international effort to address the future of food. The authors are environmental and social justice activist Vandana Shiva, founder of Slow Food Movement Carlo Petrini, best-selling author Michael Pollan, and British royal Prince Charles, who is an active member of the organic food movement. Edited and with an introduction by Shiva, Manifestos begins by putting forward a conversation of the current disconnect that many consumers in the Western world have from their food sources. The book was put together after the Terra Madre gathering in Italy in 2004, which brought together nearly 1,200 food communities from over 150 countries, while creating a global community in order to celebrate the commonality that all humans share: food.
Carlo Petrini’s essay discusses the right to fair and equal access to the commons, which has been jeopardized due to Big Ag corporations taking formerly public land for industrialized practices. Such widespread privatization of land has created a system of commodified natural resources, which has forced much of the world to participate in a corporate-owned industrialized food system. As head of the Slow Food Movement that brought together the Terra Madre gathering, Petrini makes a call to turn around the current system in order to gain back global food security, while working towards regaining a connection to the land that has served as a vital life source for all humankind.
Prince Charles follows Petrini’s discussion with his essay “Agriculture: The Most Important of Humanity’s Productive Activities.” The essay calls for a critical discussion of the visions of technologization of the world’s food production systems. Despite the assumed good intentions of industrialized farming, globalization is indeed perpetuating an unsustainable food system. He blames much of the detrimental effects of industrialized farming methods on its supposed economic prosperity, which delivers great profits to corporations while leaving many farmers in dire economic conditions. The essay also accuses the industrial farming system of imposing upon traditional cultural economies, while eliminating cultural identity. Ultimately, Prince Charles shows support in favor of the Slow Food and organic food movements as steps towards celebrating cultures of food and traditional eating that emphasizes quality over quantity—a practice that has been all but lost with the globalization of industrialized farming.
Michael Pollan’s short essay “Farmer, Chef, Storyteller: Building New Food Chains” brings to light the plight of many of today’s famers while calling for a community effort to uphold farmers’ rights and traditions. Pollan allocates responsibility to the chefs and storytellers who will serve as mediators between farmer and consumer in order to maintain public awareness of the importance of a shared community food experience. To Pollan, it is the work of chefs, farmers, and storytellers alike “to re-create and defend the foods chains that link us—soil, plant, animal, and eater.”
Vandana Shiva’s essay “For the Freedom of Food” is her call for a fair and democratic participation in food production. Specifically, freedom from “food fascism,” which is dictated by genetically modified seeds companies who control the world’s food supply. The essay introduces the proclamations of the manifestos of food and seed that are to follow. This includes a freedom from controlled types of seeds, freedom of farms to save seeds and to breed new varieties of seeds, freedom from privatization and from biopiracy. Ultimately, it is a cry for a freedom of the commons in an effort to regain the right to control one’s own food supply.
The introductory essays are followed by the Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, all of which lay relevant to the issues discussed by the participants of the International Commission on the Future of Food, held in 2002 in Tuscany, Italy. The manifesto “is intended as a synthesis of the work and ideas espoused by hundreds of organizations around the world and thousands of individuals actively seeking to reverse the dire trend toward the industrialization and globalization of food production.”
The manifestos address in several parts the numerous complex issues with the current food system, which are then followed by practical calls for action. It addresses issues such as food as a human right, food sovereignty, the right to control local inherited knowledge, and democratizing access to land.
These critical issues are then followed by two essays on the future of food in the U.S., authored by Jamey Lionette and Michael Pollan. These articles offer critical conversations of the sly marketing ploys used by supermarkets in order to compete with local business.
Overall, Manifestos offers a comprehensive outline of the injustices facing farmers and consumers alike. There is an apparent widespread interest from citizens across the globe who wish to address the injustices brought upon by the corporate stronghold on food supply. This call to action is a pivotal step in reaching fair and equal access to sustainable food while maintaining the right to uphold traditional production methods that are devoid of industrialized inputs. Manifestos is a relevant work that exposes the current food crisis facing much of the world. Its useful collection of practical steps to reverse the current unsustainable food system is essential to consider if we are to progress towards regaining the ties that have withered between grower and eater. JO
Philosopher, physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva (b. 1952) has become one of the world’s most influential public figures to raise awareness of ecological and social issues in the past few decades. Released the same year that Shiva received the Right Livelihood Award, Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology (1993) explores the ethical implications of industrial agriculture and the justice issues that arise from globalization.
Monocultures is a collection of five essays that discuss the destruction of biodiversity in agriculture and the challenge of exposing who Shiva insists to be public enemy number one: the Big Ag corporations with strongholds on the world’s food supply. She uses the metaphor of monoculture of the mind to illustrate the homogenization of globalized farming and forestry practices that have prevailed due to dominating industrial forces that capitalize on monoculture in agriculture.
The book beings with an essay that was written for The United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research program titled “System of Knowledge as Systems of Power”. In it Shiva stresses that the concept of monoculture first inhabits the mind and is then transferred to the ground, infiltrating conceptual frameworks for land use and agricultural management. She states, “Monocultures of the mind generate models of production which destroy diversity and legitimize that destruction as progress, growth and improvement. […] They spread not because they produce more, but because they control more. The expansion of monocultures has more to do with politics and power than with enriching and enhancing systems of biological production.”
Shiva tracks the spread of monoculture with the assertion that, “The knowledge and power nexus is inherent in the dominant system because, as a conceptual framework, it is associated with a set of values based on power which emerged with the rise of commercial capitalism. It generates inequalities and domination by the way such knowledge is generated and structured, the way it is legitimized and alternatives are delegitimized, and by the way in which such knowledge transforms nature and society […] Power of the dominant political and knowledge systems also built into the perspective which views the dominant system not as a globalized local tradition, but as a universal tradition, inherently superior to local systems. However, the dominant system is also the product of a particular culture.”
This power, in turn, fuels a cultural hegemony that leads to environmental injustices of subordinated communities such as low-income groups, women, and people of minority races who are subjected to low-quality or dangerous environmental conditions.
Shiva points out the danger of globalization and claims that the “universal/local dichotomy is misplaced when applied to the western and indigenous traditions of knowledge, because the western is a local tradition which has been spread world-wide through intellectual colonization.” She explains that dominant scientific knowledge also destroys the very conditions for alternatives to exist very much like the introduction of monocultures destroying the circumstances necessary for diverse species to exist. Indigenous environmental knowledge and farming practices are deemed “unscientific,” subordinate or antiquated compared to technologically advanced industrialization of food production. Eventually, industrial agriculture takes the place of the indigenous practices, forcing cultures to become slaves to capital-driven corporations.
Shiva sets her target at The Green Revolution, which gained speed in the 1960s, and displaced not just seed varieties but entire crops in the Third World. Just as seeds deemed “primitive” or “inferior” were replaced with “high yield variety” super-seeds, so were food crops declared “marginal” and “inferior”, as these had little market value.
Through the critical lens of ecofeminism, Shiva contests that, “Only a biased agricultural science rooted in capitalist patriarchy could declare nutritious crops like ragi and jowar [which have high protein and mineral value] as inferior [to cash crops such as wheat and rice, which are inferior to these in nutritional value]. Peasant women know the nutrition needs of their families and the nutritive content of the crops they grow. […] Not being commercially useful, people’s crops are treated as ‘weeds’ and destroyed with poisons.”
Shiva’s second essay calls out the destruction of biodiversity. What she calls First World bio-imperialism is inherent in the mission of industrial forestry and agriculture to control plant and crop production. A natural forest is characterized by richness of plants including non-marketable, non-industrial species, which the “scientific forestry” paradigm would find abnormal compared to their controlled monoculture forests of which single species are allowed to flourish. The natural, diverse forest is thus seen as “chaotic”, the man-made forest is in “order”.
Shiva asserts that this is an anti-nature bias and insists that cultural diversity and biodiversity go hand-in-hand. There is, therefore, an imperative for the decentralization of rights to biodiversity, which, in turn, will reduce the chances for the monopolizing tendencies of corporations.
Her third essay addresses the anxieties surrounding biotechnology and the probability of health effects on humans and animals. She reviews a list of potential biohazards of biotechnology and the possible risks associated with genetic engineering. The central purpose of the essay is to reveal that biotechnology must not err on the side of technological optimism as bioengineering can give rise to serious social, ecological and economic misfortunes. Shiva maintains that due to secrecy and violation of the public’s right to safety and knowledge of unsafe conditions, lax governments with diluted democratic processes (she especially targets India) have exposed the public to unknown health issues. Shiva’s contends that there is an unjustifiable prioritization for profit over the protection of public health.
The book’s fourth essay addresses the interrelatedness of biodiversity erosion due to increase in dependence on technology and the erosion of livelihoods of the peoples who depend on rich biodiversity in agriculture. There is a direct correlation between loss of biodiversity and loss of cultural diversity and sustenance. Along with her sharp criticism of cultural hegemony and homogenization of land and culture, Shiva declares that for biodiversity to be conserved, diversity must be revered as a critical element in agricultural production practices.
The final essay is a Third World perspective on the Biodiversity Convention (June 5, 1992). She blames the corporation-favoring Global North for its attempts to globalize the global South in an effort to secure policies that will ensure their own profits. From a first-person perspective situated in the Third World, Shiva insists that the criminal act of biopiracy of the West be met with resistance.
The topics addressed in the book hold relevance nearly 20 years after it was first published. Shiva’s exposure of truth for justice’s sake is evident in her persistence on laying out the intricate system that is the global food supply. The statistics included in the book concerning the safety of biotechnology may be outdated at this point, but that should not deter readers from realizing that there is a serious cloud of anxiety still looming over the uncertainty of the long-term effects that bioengineering can have on our health in the future. If the ambivalence of health issues concerning GM foods is not enough to sway consumers from purchasing such foods, the knowledge of the social injustices caused by the Big Ag corporations ought to sway most readers to consider the power of their dollars. As Monocultures consistently addresses, the way we eat can have far-reaching political implications that directly affect our livelihoods and welfare. JO
Popular writers on the subject of food and eating often point out the fact that although we need to eat and drink to survive, there are many other reasons besides nutrition and survival that we do so. And even nutrition conscious healthy eating is undertaken for other goods; for example, as a means to other ends such as wanting to look and feel good about oneself. Elizabeth Telfer opens her book, Food for Thought, with essentially this question. She says that beyond the obvious need to survive, we eat for other reasons just as we wear clothes for reasons besides dying from exposure. She observes that we often eat as a leisure pursuit, which seems paradoxical as leisure is typically defined as something that we don’t have to do. But even though eating and drinking (or as she says “feeding” and “watering”) are necessary for life, these activities must not be treated this way exclusively. There are, indeed, many ways that the subject of food can be approached, such as for pleasure or its artistic qualities. Before embarking on these philosophical paths, however, Telfer directs her attention to those for whom the loftier issues of food are not a question—the hungry.
Telfer, in Chapter 1 “Feeding the Hungry,” says that those suffering hunger, whether Third or First World, are not asking philosophical questions about food. They are asking the practical question of “how to get enough of it to say alive and healthy” (5). The philosophical question to this practical problem is an ethical one. This chapter asks precisely “what is the moral obligation is to feed the hungry?” and looks at the various answers to that question. She first addresses two claims that we ought not to intervene—it is the fault of countries who suffer hunger, so we are not morally obligated to help and the neo-Malthusian position that to stave off the immediate disaster of starvation would lead to greater disasters in the future.
Telfer finds each of these claims wanting as moral injunctions to refrain from acting. She turns then to the question of whether we ought to intervene. Just because it isn’t the case that we should not doesn’t require we should—i.e. that intervening is not morally prohibited and, therefore, we may if we choose, we are still not necessarily morally obligated to intervene. Appealing to our “pre-philosophical reactions” to encountering images of hunger, most people have a “strong sense that there is something morally wrong” (7). In contrast to an unpreventable natural disaster that leaves people in dire situations, we generally have a sense that hunger could be prevented and therefore there is a moral duty that has failed to be met. But whose duty is it?
The remainder of Chapter 1 works through various moral arguments and positions, weighing individual and social obligations to feed the starving. The concluding paragraphs of this chapter are rather revealing. While there are obligations to relieve hunger and starvation, she lists four moral considerations that “limit our obligation to relieve suffering” (23). In short, if there is a greater moral principle at stake we are not obligated, those closest to us (family and friends) take moral precedence over others, we have a right to our own happiness, and finally we are morally permitted to engage in self-development and cultivation.
Telfer concludes that since there are limits to our obligations to help others, we are fully justified in being interested in food for its own sake above just our need to survive. In other words, we are free to consider the loftier philosophical topics about food since we are not absolutely obligated to relieve hunger. It is as if the remainder of the book could not be written unless it could be determined that we could be morally interested in food apart from the survival of ourselves and others.
The need to justify pursuing food for its own sake is troubling to say the least. Taken to the limits, must we ask if are we permitted to do anything at all until all forms of suffering and moral outrage are alleviated? Why stop at just food? Do we have to prove that there are limits to our obligations to bring medical care to the entire human race in order to justify engaging in recreation? Should we be allowed to philosophize at all about anything while any suffering still remains unless we can show that there are limits to our obligations? While there are no qualms with Telfer’s arguments that there are limits to our moral obligations and that there are indeed other valid interests that we may engage in, these limits aren’t the only, or even fundamental, reason why it is okay to consider food as pleasure and so forth. How about it is interesting in and of itself regardless of the fact that it is a moral outrage that some people don’t have access to it? Does my enjoyment of a fine cuisine cause starvation?
A dedicated and passionate devotion to alleviating hunger and food injustice is not mutually exclusive with enjoying food for itself. May we not do both at the same time? It would be all too easy to obscure the larger reasons why hunger exists if one must prove it is okay to enjoy food on the basis of limits to one’s obligations. By analogy, we have an obligation to people who suffer from sickness due to malnutrition or lack of medicine. One doesn’t need to show the limits of that obligation to engage in strength training. Strength training isn’t necessary for health, it is a luxury. But that one need not wait until all privation of medical care is alleviated before engaging in strength training is not only a matter of the just limits on an obligation.
Chapter 2 asks if food is, and should be, a source of pleasure. If we have a right to our own happiness and a “worthwhile life,” we can ask what role food may play in the practice of these rights. Telfer wants to consider food in isolation from other pleasures since it is often easy to only consider the pleasure of food in its relationship to other pleasures. Considering food in isolation is a philosophical exercise and justly so in that food, like many things, can and should be understood in themselves. That said, in practice “the pleasures of food are not usually found in isolation” (40). Food has the capacity, as do many pleasures, to enhance and be enhanced when joined to other pleasures.
Whether food is art is the subject matter of Chapter 3. Telfer works through various arguments of food as giving rise to aesthetic responses in contrast to food itself being art and she looks at the social dimensions of the claim that food is art. The final conclusion is that food is indeed art but only a minor art form. Among her reasons is that the “peculiar poignancy” of food, like fireworks and flowers, “depends on their evanescence, and such are cannot have immortality as well” (59). Ultimately, food cannot give us what major works of art can and we shouldn’t expect it to do so. Hence, while we can call food art, she says, we must not on the other hand think about doing so as it may rob us of the experience of food that is aesthetic. So in relation to food as art we should make something of it, but not too much.
“Food duties” (Chapter 4) takes the reader through some fundamental arguments of our duties to others and to ourselves in relation to food, then spends the final half of the chapter with a defense of vegetarianism and examining arguments against it. Chapters 5 and 6 explore the moral virtues of hospitality and temperance in relationship to food. The former being a virtue concerned with others and the latter concerned with ourselves. Both have a relationship to food.
The conclusion briefly rehearses what has been covered in the book and then ends with a discussion of solitude and timeliness. Telfer thinks that these two human experiences are not well suited to food. Solitude, she says, is better catered to with other activities as food. Why? Activities related to food “tend to be social” and the “weight of custom” causes eating along not to be as desirable even though it is something we can do (122). Throughout the book, Telfer’s analysis of the various topics is intricate and detailed, at times to a fault. Here it is not so much. It is true that food has an undeniable communal and social dimension, but is that essentially or intrinsically the case? Arguments could be made for the enjoyment of a good meal in solitude away from the pressures or requirements of social activity. There seems no reason that food can’t be both suited to social life as well as solitude. Experience indeed suggests otherwise.
Likewise, timelessness is presented as an experience we don’t get from food. Telfer gives a number of very good reasons why this is so. For example, the preparation and enjoyment of food is itself time bound. Strangely, however, Telfer exempts wine from being bound by time because of the way it can be savored. Why food cannot be enjoyed slowly much like wine is unclear. Further, while contemplating a work of art is distinguishable from enjoying food, the experience is also bound by time and place. Each of her reasons have objections that she does not address, but one that could be mentioned goes back to why she thinks food doesn’t lend itself to solitude. Namely, it tends to be social. But through the phenomenon of memory is it not possible for a communal experience centered on food to become timeless? Hypothetically, imagine some exclaiming: “I’ll never forget that meal we shared in Italy when we discovered that quiet restaurant in the back alley off the beaten path! It was the most exquisite lamb I’ve ever tasted!”
A few such criticisms aside, Elizabeth Telfer’s Food for Thought provides thought provoking analysis to philosophical questions concerning food. And being written for a mainstream audience more than for philosophers, it serves the purpose of introducing philosophical ways of thinking to the general public. DU
Can the quest for sustainability be realized through agrarian principles? Paul B. Thompson thinks so in his The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics. Thompson, it should be clear from the outset, is not arguing for a return for agrarian society. When he appeals to Jeffersonian principles of agriculture, he is not proposing that we return to Jefferson’s world. What Thompson does argue is that the agrarian vision of society provides conceptual models and metaphors for the challenges we face as we seek to have a sustainable world. He writes:
A philosophy of sustainability needs a health dialectic—a robust exchange of views—that is informed both by moral and political philosophies that emerged in the Enlightenment and matured in the twentieth century and by environmental ideals that were once expressed in connection with farming and that date back to the early Greeks (4).
Thompson hopes that The Agrarian Vision will start that dialectic. He aims with his book to start a conversation, not finish it. Part of that conversation is also to engage environmental ethics and philosophy. Environmental philosophy is important to this conversation because it can provide the critical lens necessary to examine and challenge assumptions about environmental policy and action. We are motivated toward sustainability. We should be clear as to why.
Chapter 1, “Sustainability and Environmental Philosophy,” sets the tone for the rest of book and provides an overview of ethical systems and how they are addressed to environmental policy. Thompson proposes agriculture as a model for environmental philosophy and then discusses why the agrarian model is ethically superior to the industrial “cost-benefit” or “efficiency” model. He believes that the distinction between the industrial and agrarian “mind-sets” allows for a “more extended and careful inquiry into sustainability and its relationship to agriculture” (40). While not rejecting the importance of impact assessments, Thompson holds that an agrarian vision can add more to the conversation in terms of the ecologically grounded philosophical insights associated with it.
The next several chapters expand on the dichotomy between agrarian and industrial visions of agriculture. Thompson does so first in light of their growth and development throughout the history of America, noting the loss of the influence of agrarian ideals. Staying true to the spirit of dialectic, he notes that the system of moral, social, and political thought that created the industrial world, and therefore industrial agriculture, also produced ideals that “helped end slavery and moderate oppressive systems in human history” (61). And although Thompson is championing an agrarian vision, he does not do so uncritically. For example, while agrarianism promoted ideas of community bonding that we could benefit from today, some of those ideas were based on oppressive gender stereotypes. Further, agrarianism could not have flourished as it did without the forced labor of slavery. Still, he argues, many agrarian ideals are needed to pursue a sustainable society.
Thompson then turns from the past to look at competing visions for the future between industrial and agrarian visions with consideration ultimately to how each answers the call to sustainability. He considers industrial agriculture in terms of its own efficiency model of cost-benefit analysis, arguing that the “calculation of efficiency should include all costs and benefits” (77). This would include hidden costs that are passed off to others or future generations as well as environmental costs. Whether industrial agriculture can be made to be truly sustainable cannot be calculated unless all costs are considered.
An agrarian vision highlights the importance of the virtues of stewardship and self-reliance.
One of the most important insights here is that farm experiences (we can’t all be farmers, but we should all experience the farm in some tangible way) show us that “we must work to make the food that makes our bodies, and they show agriculture involves production, not just consumption” (83). Thompson says a good deal more on agrarian virtue and how it can be related to the better aims of the industrial model, but the insight that the two poles of production and consumption and the close relation between the two should be understood by all is a truth far too overlooked in agricultural discourse.
Chapter 4, “The Moral Significance of the Land,” continues the examination of the themes of the industrial vision in comparison with agrarian ideals that focus on virtue and solidarity with a literary detour through John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Chapter 5, “Farming as a Focal Practice,” introduces Albert Borgman’s philosophy of technology on focal practices into our vision of agriculture. The discussion on the link between focal practices and place is particularly enlightening.
Chapter 6, “Food and Community,” is described by Thompson as the centerpiece of the book. It is a pivotal chapter between the more theoretical discussions of the previous chapters and the policy oriented discussions of the remainder of the text. Building on the previous chapter concerning focal practices, he begins with a discussion on environmental ethics and intrinsic value. Thompson draws on the thought of environmental philosopher Mark Sagoff’s Kantian ethics and then goes on to Wilfrid Sellars and others in order to build various ideas of how communities operate and value things. This brings Thompson to the primary point of the chapter, which is the connection between food and community. The close relationship of food and community shouldn’t be a revelation to any reflective person.
But Thompson offers profound insights into this relationship that tend to be taken for granted. He writes: “Community may have its forays into formal politics or social activism, but the habits of the table provide these forays with the patterns of interaction that ground them in quotidian practices. Arguably, it is these relatively unreflective daily routines that make more philosophically and politically potent notions of community possible” (153). Thompson does not think his hypothesis of the metaphysics of food and community as proven, but suspects that the agrarian vision of a “mutual hope” of social stability might give rise to the sustainable future to which we aspire.
Chapters 7 through 12 embark on discussions surrounding policy and competing visions and philosophies from which policy is constructed. A unifying thread through these chapters, regardless of one’s theoretical starting points, is that agricultural policy and practice is inextricably linked to our sustainable future. “Agriculture both contributes to and must be governed by principles of sustainability” (174). We tend to understand and focus on the latter, but it is also necessary to understand how a larger sustainable world is affected by how we do agriculture. Agriculture, as chapter 8 explores, has social goals beyond the farm itself. Farms do not just produce food, but shape larger social practices and determines whether they will be sustainable.
Chapter 9 provides a brief history of our understanding of sustainability and “sustainable development” from the Brundtland Report forward as well as what preceded and informed the Brundtland Report. Chapter 10, “Sustainability as a Norm,” begins to make the stronger case for agrarian ideals as a basis for sustainability. Chapter 11 discusses various conceptions of sustainability and attempts, without insisting on a static definition of the concept, to delineate what sustainability is and is not. Chapter 12 considers sustainability as a social movement and its relationship to hope.
The book concludes by returning to Thomas Jefferson’s “bequest” to overcome the challenges to the sustainability of America. Like Jefferson, we need more than simply intelligence, but “cunning and guile” (277). The rational approach of seeing our goals and then determining the shortest route to achieving them lacks imagination and reduces sustainability to simple calculation. The larger society must be shaped and formed in terms of a broader “functional integrity.” Jefferson did this in early America, Thompson notes, “by an appeal to agrarian ideals.” These agrarian ideals must by revised and adapted to apply to contemporary challenges and problems as we move forward to a sustainable future. It isn’t simple. Thompson concludes: “As I envision it, sustainability is something we must both do and discuss together. No ones’s book can possibly have the answer” (291).
Paul Thompson has given us a book that is not driven by ideology or narrow agenda. Offering a conversation rather than rigid and dogmatic answers, The Agrarian Vision, might be described as a gesture towards a communicative rationality of sustainability, with “agrarian ideals” as Thompson’s own contribution to the discourse. The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics is an important book that should be read by anyone concerned about sustainability, environmental ethics, and agricultural policy and practice. DU
The Essential Agrarian Reader aims to show agrarianism as much more than nostalgia for life on the farm but rather a philosophical worldview with breadth, depth, and relevance. The anthology covers the history of property law, new ideas for land ownership, international economics, the New Urbanists, and the human soul. It’s not only an excellent introduction to agrarianism; it’s also an excellent addition to agrarian philosophy as a whole. The overall message of the book is that industrial farming is destructive of nature and of culture, and that a better world can be found in the practices of small family farmers.
David Orr attributes this wealth of agrarian thought to Wendell Berry’s influence. In his “The Uses of Prophecy,” Orr writes that Berry’s agrarianism is “a philosophy that begins with place, soil, and farming, but is extended to include race, religion, sexuality, science, politics, wilderness, economics, world trade, food, foreign policy, and more” (pg. 184). Berry himself is author of both the first and last chapters of the book. Even if he weren’t, though, he’d still have a presence. In the Introduction, editor Norman Wirzba tells us that several of the essays in this book were first presented at a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of Berry’s The Unsettling of America (pg. 20).
Vandana Shiva writes that, after reading Berry, she realized that the “unsettling of India” was happening just as Berry describes the unsettling of America (pg. 122). But her analysis is even more bleak and disheartening than Berry’s: the title of her article is “The War Against Farmers and the Land.” A stellar essay overall, perhaps the most worthwhile contribution Shiva’s essay makes to the collection is to add an international perspective on agrarianism. She does a wonderful job pointing out the ways in which the problems American agrarians see and the solutions they propose run parallel to the solutions and problems of small farmers worldwide.
Wirzba’s essay is an extended meditation on how agrarianism understands the soul. He begins the essay by discussing the disembodied character of the soul for Western philosophy since Plato. Wirzba’s agrarianism shows how we cannot understand the soul apart from the body, and we cannot understand the body apart from other bodies – the ones that feed us. Most importantly, Wirzba argues, the body is always in a particular place, and this has huge importance for the agrarian understanding of the soul. Berry has said similar things before, but Wirzba’s essay clarifies these ideas, unpacks their implications, and rigorously connects them to the ideas of selfhood and ethics in the philosophical canon.
A couple of essays show the breadth of agrarian concerns by making connections to other movements. Benjamin Northrup and Benjamin Bruxvoort Lipscomb compare the New Urbanists to agrarians. Both groups similarly reach into tradition to find new ideas for the future, and both disagree with land-use patterns in the US since WWII.
Hank Graddy discusses the ups and downs of the Sierra Club’s fight against industrial agriculture. The Club wanted their fight against the pollution of CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations – live meat factories) to be more positive, and they realized that “the logical place to look for the alternative was the food production system as it existed before industrialization” (pg. 229).
Several essays move forward from these revitalized traditions to discuss new practices that remain true to the spirit of agrarianism. Some of the new practices – economic and land ownership practices – I’ll discuss in a minute. First, let’s discuss land use practices. Gene Logsdon’s essay – “All Flesh is Grass” – draws on such odd bedfellows as Jared Diamond, Masanobu Fukuoka, and Bob Evans in his defense of pasture farming. The basic idea is that the less work farming is, the better it is for the animals, the land, and the farmers.
Fredrick Kirschenmann’s article tells us about Takao Furuno’s integrated rice-duck farm. This system not only produces three different crops – rice, duck, and fish – in the same paddy; it also avoids the use of all pesticides and fertilizers. Even more exciting, “the gross income from Mr. Furuno’s six-acre farm in Japan slightly exceeds the gross income of a typical six-hundred-acre rice farm in Texas” (pg. 116).
Both Logsdon and Kirschenmann mention The Land Institute as a source of inspiration. Wes Jackson, the Institute’s founder, has an article describing agrarianism as based in sound science. It’s a wonderful concise introduction about Jackson’s natural systems agriculture and its sources in both traditional and new agrarian thinking and practices.
Maurice Telleen – founder of the Draft Horse Journal – twice defines agrarianism in his essay “The Mind-Set of Agrarianism.” The first time he calls it a “religion … without the clergy [and] sacraments,” and ends the essay with the religion’s ten commandments (pgs. 53, 59-60). These are, of course, funny. But the second time he refers to agrarianism as a “loose garment,” and this seems a better way to define the Reader as a whole (pg. 61). To see how loose this garment can be, let’s take a look at the economic theories offered up in the anthology.
Brian Donahue’s “The Resettling of America” suggests we legally require that people buying homes in rural areas also buy “a share in the much larger surrounding countryside,” especially the working farms of the countryside (pg. 46). Farms are a communal good, and so ought to be common property.
Eric Freyfogle’s article, on the other hand, acknowledges that the “United States only has weak traditions of lands that community members own collectively” (pg. 254-55). Freyfogle’s article also shows that notions of private property have morphed and changed over the years. His argument, then, is that some reformed type of private property can made to aid agrarians.
On the other hand, (as Telleen points out, you need a lot of hands in this business) Susan Witt argues that land, “a limited natural resource,” ought to be “removed from the market” (pg. 216). Land ought to be privately owned by communally run non-profits – even though all the buildings and crops will be owned by the farmers – because, Witt argues, the market continually de-democratizes land ownership.
Logsdon implies – and Kirschenmann outright argues – that government subsidies are to blame, not the market, for the economic weakness of agrarian land practices (pg. 117, 159). Kirschenmann writes that the “enormous public subsides” that the government gives to agribusiness “distort free market signals that might otherwise give the competitive advantage to more agrarian production systems” (pg. 117).
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Herman E. Daly gives an agrarian spin to his ever-lucid ecological economics. Simply put, infinite economic growth on a finite planet can’t work. It produces “illth” rather than “wealth.” A steady-state economy based on natural cycles is a healthier alternative.
So which is it? Is private property the problem or the solution? Is the market to blame for the dominance of industrial agriculture or is the government? Do we need to end economic growth altogether, or merely grow in agricultural niche markets? The answer we get from this book is very clear: “Yes. Both. But…” And that’s one of the most interesting and inspiring things about The Essential Agrarian Reader.
Like agrarianism at its best, the book refuses to give simple answers to simple questions. Everything depends on the character of the terrain and of the folks using it. The details of particular times, situations, and especially of particular places make all the difference. JA