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How the 1% Gardens

» April 30th, 2016

It’s an interesting time for luxury voyeurism. The obvious expressions of rare wealth — the 50,000-square-foot homes, the $250,000 cars, the private jets, the stratospheric penthouses, the monthlong trips around the globe — are, at least in terms of shock value, fading. These acquisitions have become so Disneyland-ish in their well-publicized glitz that they barely register on the over-the-top meter.

But what’s more notable, if only sociologically, is how the wealthy elite, perhaps bored with its own ostentation, has unleashed its purchasing power on the more commonplace aspects of life. Indeed, simple acts that the rest of us could feel a flash of superiority about performing are being colonized by a kind of extravagant, trickle-down consumption manifest in once-humble acts, such as gardening.

This observation came to me while running through Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood, the residential Eden of the city’s moneyed elite. You know you’re in River Oaks because pets are walked by hired help, leaf blowers provide the white noise, faux chateaux compete for manorial distinction and a private police force keeps the peace (well, actually, they pick up newspapers left out too long). But what stopped me while I was running was an activity that had never before registered, in my experience, as a spectacle: Someone was planting a tree. only the act involved an aerial lift crane, a truckload of labor and a backhoe.

The idea had never occurred to me: The super-rich generally don’t drop to their knees and plant saplings. To the contrary, they outsource photosynthesis, allowing annual tree rings to accumulate on someone else’s time, with someone else’s labor, with the nutrients from someone else’s soil. on this occasion, a fully formed willow oak protruded from a root ball the size of a large pickup truck. It swung from a crane that was slowly lowering it into an even larger hole. Six men leaned into the thing. They attempted to hold it steady while shuffling around the canyon’s edge, negotiating the precipice while pushing against the swaying heap, one terrifying misstep away from being smashed between root ball and hole. A master gardener I know (my mother) later told me, in a rather unfazed manner, that the entire operation probably cost well over $100,000.

Read more. 

On the Road

» April 23rd, 2016

In the early 1970s, John Tarrant, a British ultramarathoner who set world records in the forty- and hundred-mile distances, suffered a hemorrhaging stomach ulcer that occasionally sent him to the hospital for tests and blood transfusions. Tarrant despised the interruptions to his training schedule, and during at least one stay, he ducked into the bathroom, changed into running gear beneath his hospital gown, and snuck outside for a quick five-miler. As Bill Jones recounts in his book The Ghost Runner, Tarrant sacrificed everything for his sport—his work, his family, and, evidently, his better judgment.

Today is the 120th Boston Marathon [this piece was originally published on April 18, 2016], and I’d wager that nearly every runner in the race would understand Tarrant’s impulse. Training for long-distance races breeds a restless need to elevate the heart rate, score an endorphin hit, and achieve what Tarrant called that “magnificent feeling of well being.” Running begets more running, an insidious cycle that can become, over time, a game of high-mileage brinkmanship that blurs the line between dedication and obsession. At the peak of his training, Tarrant was logging 180 miles a week—an addiction, no doubt, but a healthy addiction, at least according to the runners. (The doctors aren’t convinced: by 2015, running-related cardiology concerns had crystallized into something called the excessive-endurance hypothesis; google the phrase and “scarring of the heart” comes up a lot.)

Raed more. 

The Paradox of Unanimity

» March 8th, 2016

 

In a paper about to be published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society, a team of researchers identifies something they call the “paradox of unanimity.” If you’ve ever smelled a rat when everyone else is celebrating an idea then this paradox is for you. While unanimous agreement (or something close to it) might suggest that a particular claim is right, the researchers, led by Lachlan J. Gunn, an engineer at the University of Adelaide in Australia, found the opposite to be true. Rather than confirming truth, unanimity indicates that something went wrong, that a “systemic failure” undermined popular judgment, that the confidence of the crowd has been skewed by bias.

As it’s currently framed, the paradox applies primarily to criminal justice concerns—police line-ups and the like. But it also has implications for food and agriculture. Few fields of popular interest have cultivated a wider array of glib axioms of empowerment than food: genetically modified organisms are bad, local is better, you shouldn’t eat food your grandmother wouldn’t eat, and so on. In the context of Main Street foodie wisdom, these claims enjoy something close to unanimity. But, for all their support, none comes closer to the unanimity quotient than the gilded assertion that organic food is food grown without pesticides.

 Read more here.

Putting An End To “Anti-Science”

» January 6th, 2016

 

Now that the Food and Drug Administration has approved genetically modified salmon for human consumption, a timeworn debate over the safety and effectiveness of genetically modified food has once again resumed. Several lazy tropes drive this discourse—GMOs are “Frankenfood,” GMOs will feed the world, GMOs cause cancer—and none of them are true, which is, in part, what makes this revolving argument so frustrating to follow. But one phrase more than any other routinely gets tossed into the conversation like a grenade: anti-science.

The phrase feels good—there’s nothing more rhetorically satisfying than ejecting a dissenting view before the game even begins. But we need to stop using it to characterize those who disagree with a scientific position we support. For one thing, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being anti-science, if only because science is neither a) an all-encompassing explanation of everything, nor b) an inherently virtuous phenomenon. For another, such a dismissal obscures the deeper reasons for being doubtful about GMOs (and vaccines and global warming and so on), reasons that can teach us a lot about how we incorporate science into a democratic society and monitor its applications

To condemn a person as anti-science implies that science is the intrinsically superior explanation for phenomena we encounter. But it’s not. Read more

Horse Meat in the Food Chain

» December 10th, 2015

 

Exotic game meat is a specialty food item that’s becoming increasingly less special—currently it’s a $39 billion a year industry. This might be great news for consumers with a taste for bear, yak, lion, or beaver (you can place an online order with a quick click), but it’s not so great in terms of knowing what’s in our food.

Exotic meats shipped globally have long had a reputation for being mislabeled (in some cases, almost 70 percent of the time) and, closer to home, a recent Chapman University study found that the problem was prevalent in the United States as well. More to the point—and of possible concern to those who aren’t even in the market for exotic meat—the study found that some imported game contained traces of something that’s illegal to produce and sell commercially in the U.S.: horse meat.

Exactly how horse meat gets mixed up with other meat (processed or exotic) is hard to say. There are multiple points where supply chains might cross and most of them are obscured by the intricately global nature of the trade. But one pipeline stands out as a perfectly plausible source. Notably, it begins and ends in the U.S.

Read more here.

“Humane” Turkeys Come from Factory Farm

» November 30th, 2015

 

 

In preparation for this year’s Thanksgiving feast, more consumers than ever before will seek turkeys that have been humanely raised. For these shoppers, optimistic messages offered by Whole Foods and other animal welfare–oriented food retailers will provide assurance that they’re making an ethical food choice. “Our birds live in harmony with the environment and we allow them plenty of room to roam,” explains a Diestel Turkey Ranch brochure, prominently displayed at many Whole Foods meat counters. Diestel turkeys raised at the Ranch’s main farm earn a 5+ welfare mark—the highest—from the nonprofit Global Animal Partnership, which contracts with third-party certifiers and administers the company’s rating system for humanely raised animal products. Diestel is one of only a handful of Whole Foods meat suppliers out of about 2,100 to achieve this remarkable distinction. So, along with the Diestel’s promise that “on our ranch a turkey can truly be a turkey,” it seems safe to assume that the Diestel turkeys sold at Whole Foods lived a decent life.

But a recent undercover investigation by the animal advocacy group Direct Action Everywhere tells a more complicated story.

Read more here.

Citizen Monkey

» November 5th, 2015

 

As a writer who covers animal issues, I routinely get alerts from public relations firms seeking ink on the case du jour of animal abuse. These press releases typically detail horrific instances of decrepitude—piglets being flung to the ground and tossed into the trash and the like. Earlier this month, though, I was brought up short by an unexpected subject line in an email from one of these doomsday firms.

It read: “Did a Monkey Pick Coconuts for Your Coconut Water?”

The gist of the story is that macaques—nimble little monkeys—are evidently being bred and trained throughout Southeast Asia to scurry up trees, scamper across limbs, reach their tiny hands into clusters of leaves, pluck off bunches of coconuts, and deliver the goods to their human caretakers, who then manufacture and sell a variety of products, including coconut water, pulp, and milk.

As you’d expect, the monkeys excel at their job. Males typically retrieve upwards of 1,600 coconuts a day; females about 600. This is in sharp contrast to humans who, with our comparatively poor climbing skills, can harvest around 80. If the phrase “exponentially increased labor productivity” leaps to mind, you’re probably not alone. But my press release went dark. It called the arrangement “monkey slavery.”

Monkey slavery? Seems a bit extreme.  . . .  Read more here.

Gourds

» October 26th, 2015

 

A version of this piece ran in the New York Times in 2006. 

This time of the year, the windows of America are beginning to be dotted with carefully carved jack-o’-lanterns, but in a week or so, the streets will be splotched with pumpkin guts. Orange gourds will fly from car windows, fall from apartment balconies, career like cannon fire from the arms of pranksters craving the odd satisfaction of that dull thud.

There are, to be sure, more productive ways to deploy a Halloween pumpkin. Post-holiday, composting is a noble option. A pumpkin grower in Wisconsin once turned a 500-pound Atlantic Giant into a boat.

But what we almost certainly won’t do is eat it. First cultivated more than 10,000 years ago in Mexico, cucurbitaceae were mainstays of the Native American diet. If for no other reason than its status as one of America’s oldest cultivated crops, an honest pumpkin deserves our reverence.

The current batches that will soon litter the pavement, however, are for the most part irreverent fabrications, cheap replicas inflated for the carving knife. Food in name only, they’re a culinary trick without the treat. For those of us who value America’s culinary past, smashing a generic pumpkin is more of a moral obligation than an act of vandalism.

During the colonial era, the pumpkin was just one squash among dozens, a vine-ripening vegetable unmarked by a distinctive color, size or shape. Native Americans grew it to be boiled, roasted and baked. They routinely prepared pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin porridge, pumpkin stew and even pumpkin jerky.

Europeans readily incorporated the pumpkin into their own diet. Peter Kalm, a Swede visiting colonial America, wrote approvingly about “pumpkins of several kinds, oblong, round, flat or compressed, crook-necked, small, etc.” He noted in his journal — on, coincidentally, Oct. 31, 1749 — how Europeans living in America cut them through the middle, take out the seeds, put the halves together again, and roast them in an oven, adding that “some butter is put in while they are warm.”

Sounds tasty. But one would be ill advised to follow Kalm’s recipe with the pumpkins now grown on commercial farms. The most popular pumpkins today are grown to be porch décor rather than pie filling. They dominate the industry because of their durability, uniform size (about 15 pounds), orange color, wart-less texture and oval shape. Chances are good that the specimen you’re displaying goes by the name of Trick or Treat, Magic Lantern, or Jumpin’ Jack. Chances are equally good that its flesh is bitter and stringy.

In contrast, pumpkins grown in the 19th and early 20th centuries — the hybridized descendants of those cultivated by Native Americans — were soft, rich and buttery. They came in numerous colors, shapes and sizes and were destined for the roasting pan.

The Tennessee Sweet Potato pumpkin looked more like a pear than a modern pumpkin and, as its name implies, was baked and eaten like the sweet potato. The Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin, first introduced in 1893, became so popular for pies that it posed a fresh challenge to the canned stuff. These pumpkin varieties, and scores of others, were once the most flavorful vegetables in the American diet.

Fortunately, the edible pumpkin is not completely lost. While akin to endangered species, heirloom seeds are only a few mouse clicks and a credit card number away. By growing heirloom pumpkins, you can have your jack-o’-lantern and eat it too. More immediately, you can search out heirloom pumpkins at some farmers’ markets.

Of course, advocating a shift in any holiday tradition seems like a futile exercise in a nation that (perhaps because we’re so young) takes its traditions rather seriously. But it’s not as if there’s much of a Halloween tradition to violate. Halloween is relatively new to America. The Irish brought the holiday to the United States in the 1840’s (and used turnips as jack-o-lanterns). But Halloween didn’t become profitable enough for commercial growers to produce decorative pumpkins until the suburbanized 1950’s.

Edible pumpkins were driven near extinction in the early 1970’s when a farmer named Jack Howden started to mass produce a firm, deep orange, rotund pumpkin endowed with thick vines to create a fat handle to hold while carving. The $5 billion a year industry that developed around Howden’s inedible creation is, historically speaking, still in its infancy.

And thus the “tradition” is ripe for improvement. Next year, let’s do something not so different. Let’s replace a fake pumpkin with a real one. The face you carve into it might be more distorted, and it might cost a bit more, but there will finally be a credible reason not to smash the thing at the end of the evening. And most important, as Peter Kalm observed back in 1749, we could once again split it open, roast it, add butter and remind ourselves that some traditions — like cultivating vegetables to eat — should never be destroyed.

The Freegan Solution

» October 19th, 2015

Last month the United States Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency agreed to establish the “first ever national food waste reduction goal.” The program is not only notable for its ambition—it aims to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2015—but for the diversity of its participants. An array of churches, corporations, charitable organizations, and local governments has been asked to play a role. The plan, anodyne though it may be, will surely get a lion’s share of (dull) media attention.

But the one relevant group that’s been overlooked has the most to offer when it comes to reducing food waste: freegans. Freegans encourage eating food sourced from various waste streams pouring from the cracks of an excessively abundant food system. They’re scrappy scavengers who frequent grocery store alleyways, restaurant dumpsters, un-cleared food court tables, and anywhere else that yields a free meal and keeps freegan cash out of Big Food coffers—which kind of explains why the USDA and EPA aren’t terribly impressed. Freegans, who root their lifestyle in 1960s Berkeley-ish activism, package themselves as a subversive social movement.

Precisely what kind of movement—anarchist?, socialist?, punk?—is difficult to say. The freegan manifesto, as it were, reads as if it was written by a precocious if rant-prone high-schooler. It describes freeganism as a “withdrawal from the consumer death culture,” observes that “working sucks!,” condemns “the all oppressive dollar,” and implores us not to sacrifice “humanity to the evil demon of wage slavery.” Couching the generic dumpster dive in this rhetorically shrill language, a “stick-it-to-the-man” posture that supports an “anti-consumeristic ethic of eating,” the freegan manifesto might inspire angrier souls to thrust a fist skyward. But, for the sober-minded reformer, it threatens to condemn the movement to a kind of self-imposed solipsism. This is, after all, America.

Still, we cannot afford to dismiss freegans. . .

Read more.

Do We Have a Contract With Animals?

» October 5th, 2015

 

My last three columns have explored philosophical defenses for eating animals. I’ve done this from the perspectives of utilitarianismanimal rights, and contractualism. My intention with this series has been, in part, to reiterate how difficult it can be to justify eating animals, but also to defuse the off-putting “total abstinence” dictum inherent in the vegan ideology. There is, after all, almost certainly moral space for consuming animals.

But it’s not necessarily an easy space to find. It’s often neither consistent with the way we currently source meat nor tolerant of a business-as-usual approach to agriculture. It may require radical behavioral changes as well as structural shifts that are pragmatically beyond our control. Ironically, given the current configuration of our food system, these changes may be so difficult to achieve that choosing veganism by default could prove to be the easier option.

That said, there appear to be legitimate ways to eat meat, ways that are consistent with the ethical principles that we rely on to guide us through life, and ways that the future’s food architects might consider accommodating.

Wendell Berry has famously declared eating to be “an agricultural act.” This phrase has become a rallying cry for an agrarian reform movement that seeks to know the sources of our food supply. But, perhaps even more so, eating is also an ecological act, an elemental behavior that extends beyond the local farm and the farmers’ market to the endlessly interrelated biotic community. It is from this latter perspective—deep ecology—that I want to suggest a fourth philosophical defense for eating meat.

Read about it here.