Friday, October 26, 2012

Label Me Embarrassed

Prop 37 Supporters engage the Authority/Subversion
foundation to bind their groups together; but it may
have blinded them to the erosion of moral capital their
campaign has caused! 
It increasingly pains me to admit it; but for much of the last 10 years I was firmly situated among the rising tide of self-proclaimed 'food revolutionaries' - seeking change in our food systems towards 'local', 'organic', and 'small-scale' production methods. Now - I still think these are all [potentially] very good things to strive for - but as a cohesive social movement supposedly rooted in 'science' - I now stand quite some distance from my foodie friends.

The latest embarrassment to come from these ever vocal activists is "Prop 37" - a California Ballot initiative to label all foods containing GMOs within the state. If we do a quick analysis of the issue using my favourite moral claims framework - we can make a bit more sense of the diversity of opinion seen here.

According to evo-psychologists; the
mind is like a tongue - with 6 receptors
for tasting morality
Supporters of Prop 37 (those who want to see GMOs labelled) certainly invoke the Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degradation moral foundations when they talk about the impacts of GMOs themselves - but this policy measure goes beyond. It really is about a third foundation - Authority/Subversion. Proponents of the ballot call the measure 'historic' - and claim it will allow consumers to reclaim control of their food system from oppressive food corporations. 

Opponents of the measure generally dismiss these narratives of Authority, and instead focus on their own tribal interpretations of Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degradation. For Prop 37 opponents - worries that the policy will increase food prices appear as the prominent resource for moralising; but even more core to this position is concern about the degradation of scientific integrity among the consumer base. By labelling food as "Containing GMOs", opponents argue, it promotes a feeling that GMOs present health risks - a stance rejected by the vast majority of scientists looking at the issue. 

So - why I am embarrassed by my bleeding-heart cohorts - who's position of "we have a right to know" - seems so utterly reasonable? 

Well - if "morality binds and blinds" - as Jonathan Haidt likes to say - Prop 37 is a shinning example of the self-defeating stupidity this tribalism can cause. The food revolution's taste for the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion is so strong; like a hoard of fat guys at a buffet - righteous minded foodies have been clambering to get a place at the table. In this mad rush to turn tides of power on our 'corporate oppressors' - it seems all reason has been put on hold.

What the foodies forget to tell folks is that GMOs are already labelled - simply by being not labelled. Anything that contains corn or soy and is not certified as Non-GMO (or Organic) - likely has some GMOs in it. Prop 37 does absolutely nothing except to provide a platform for a very unhealthy form tribal discourse. 

The NGO Food Democracy Now! has reported on the millions of dollars 'both sides' have spent on this ballot initiative. The intent of reporting this is clearly to paint of picture that big bad corporations are funnelling so much money against Prop 37; that the grass-roots supporters are being further oppressed. The lesson I took away from these figures was something else entirely.

By my count, just shy of $20 Million has been spent (~15 Million opposing Prop 37; ~5 Million supporting). If you want to try to quantify the erosion of social or moral capital - here it is - $20 Million freakin dollars - wasted! 

What if - instead of scary corn-faces from the left; and glossy PR campaigns from the right - what if we had taken this $20 Million and invested in something with real gain? What if Prop 37 supporters took a moment to see that their adversaries are not necessarily greedy corporate fat-cats? What if Prop 37 opponents took a moment to see their adversaries are not necessarily ignorant granola-munching idealists? What if both sides came together to respectfully recognise the evolved moral matrices we all bring to the table - the foundations that bind us into groups and blind us to the possible truths of others? 

We could then begin the kind of real discussions that an informed democracy requires. Conventional food companies may have wasted some three times the amount of money as their Organic colleagues on this debacle - but I place blame solely on the righteous indignation of the alternative food movement. They let their craving for subversion overtake their reason - and the result was the misdirection of vast amounts of funding that could and should have been put to any number of far more beneficial purposes. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

There's Gotta Be a Better Way to Clean Goat Guts!

The sun hadn't yet peered above the horizon - so I could only hear the crashing ocean waves as I walked to meet up with the family of goat butchers I'd met just two days ago. It was 5am; and by the time I arrived - their one goat of the day was already slaughtered and on the fire. I was greeted cheerfully and offered a steaming cup of malagasy coffee.

The malagache; as I believe for most African meat workers - use an open fire to scorch their animal carcasses prior to removing the guts..... it looks just disgusting - but I try to keep my emotions in check as I remember the lessons learned from a dearly departed colleague; Dr. Chris Raines from the Penn State University Meat Sciences Department. Before his tragic car accident just over a year ago - Chris and I had many discussions about the purported benefits of small scale slaughter and meat processing. I had come to him as a wide-eyed cattle farmer hell-bent on developing viable meat processing on a micro-scale.

At first I thought Dr. Raines was 'just another meat scientist in the pocket of industry' - as the narrative goes; but over our more than year long discourse - I came to see his very valid point. It is a point, as well - reflected deeply by some of the latest evolutionary thinking in agricultural development!

What Chris was incredibly adept at, was understanding the trade-offs inherent in the complex adaptive systems that yield our edible meat-stuffs  The scale of operation (e.g. the size of a butchery) is - in many cases - far less important than the management of the operation. Indeed - very few problems are as scale-dependent as the "Local Organic" food movement too frequently touts; most challenges we find in our meat systems simply require the best and most appropriate management for the size of the operation.

I wanted to visit this family-run independent goat butchery because; compared to the larger scale urban meat markets - their potential for hygienic handling seemed orders of magnitude higher. I chatted with the brethren of butchers as they carefully tended their product - it became clear that their care for their work was genuine. Yet - my point is not that these small-scale goat folk are good; and that larger urban meat markets are bad - far from it.

While the eldest brother prepared the carcass for quartering (dividing the whole animal into quarters and ultimately steaks and ground chevre) - the youngest brother took to his thankless task; manually - or should I say orally - cleaning out the goat bowels...... I've been curious about the hand-made charcuterie that abounds in the marketplaces here - but was not quite prepared for this intensely personal practice. Is this practice requisite to small-scale sausage making? What kind of improvements would it take to make it such that this otherwise 'good' butchery didn't require one of it's key workers to kiss goat butt every time they process?

There are aspects of this micro-butchery that make it far better than "the big guys"; but there are also limitations - for whatever systemic reasons - that make it far worse. As R. Ford Denison describes in his latest Darwinian Agriculture - what we must seek in terms of agricultural development is "trade-off free improvements" - improvements to the whole that don't also 'cost' some measure of quality elsewhere in the system. For evolved biological systems, Denison theorises; such trade-off free improvements may be challenging to find (whether through GMOs or Agro-ecology). For evolved socio-economic systems (such as butcheries), I postulate many of us have only begun to look in this direction.

In the great global debates about meat; we should paying less mind to the divisive "big vs. small" narratives - and more attention to matching the scale to the society; and then adapting the management to that scale. Improving meat systems in Madagascar will be no easy feat for anyone; the only clear thing we can say is that cookie cutter one-size-fits-all solutions imported from the west will be unlikely to work whether they are big and efficient or small and artisanal. What is needed is a concerted effort and support for regional butchers to internally and cooperatively search for those trade-off free improvements that may be out there - and start implementing them!