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Paul Thompson

Dr. Paul Thompson, a PhD in philosophy, is a professor at Michigan State University and the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics. He has served on many national and international committees on agricultural biotechnology and is the author of From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone, among many other books discussing ethics in food biotechnology, agriculture, and the environment. His research focuses on the ethical and philosophical questions regarding agriculture, food, and especially the development of agricultural techno-science.

See Paul Thompson March 8, 2016 at “The Impact of What We Eat: From Science & Technology, to Eating Local”.

Paul Thompson

What hooked you on cooking? On science?
My mother was a terrible cook. Lots of canned spinach, frozen fish sticks and macaroni & cheese out of the blue box. Both of my brothers and I learned to cook out of self-preservation.
The science thing is more complex. I trained in the philosophy of science and technology and I have studied the strengths and weaknesses of using science in assessing both food-related and environmental risks.
The coolest example of science in your food?
Don’t eat a potato after it has turned green. That’s a sign that the toxin-producing genes (normally active only in the leaves) have been activated in the tuber (that is, the part we eat).
The food you find most fascinating?
Maize (or corn). It couldn’t exist without human help. I’m fascinated in thinking about how native populations in Mexico managed to develop it from teosinte.
What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
Sustainability. And how it depends on systems thinking.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
The strawberry we know and love would not exist if the genes from two species of berry had not been crossed by French monks back in the 16th century.
We love comparing the gluten in bread to a network of springs. Are there any analogies you like to use to explain difficult or counter-intuitive food science concepts?
I do like to think about how the medieval concept of gluttony had nothing to do with physical health or obesity. It was about being too interested in the bodily experience of eating, not only eating too much, but being picky about one’s diet, eating at the wrong time of day, being too eager or preferring fine as opposed to coarse (e.g. peasant-style) foods.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
Garlic press
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Cottage cheese, pickles, half & half, tortillas (can’t get fresh ones in Michigan) and (of course) milk.
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
Onions. Everything is better with them.
Favorite cookbook?
I almost never use a cookbook, but my favorite would be The Vegetarian Epicure.
Your standard breakfast?
Oatmeal. It has to be steel-cut, preferably with dried Michigan tart cherries thrown in while it cooks.

From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone – An Excerpt


 “You are what you eat.”

This aphorism is consistently used to fit different scenarios, but are we really what we eat? Author Paul B. Thompson begs to differ. In his book, From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone, Thompson presents his case against this statement and brings light upon many ethical food dilemmas, including obesity, livestock welfare, and the environmental impact of food systems. He structures his thoughts around the idea that food ethics are being revived in the contemporary world. Regarding the aforementioned axiom, Thompson explains that food is more than just substance for your body’s functioning. Here is an excerpt analyzing this issue:

“On the one hand, dietetics has become a domain of personal vulnerability calling for regulatory action on moral grounds. What is vulnerable may be one’s health, as in the case of food safety or nutrition, but it may equally be one’s identity or solidarity with others as people attempt to achieve social justice and environmental goals through labels that promise ‘fair-trade’ or ‘humanely raised’ foods. On the other hand, practices that promote hospitable respect for personal dietary committees or solidarity may run afoul of a philosophy of risk that emphasizes classic hazards to health and physical safety. All told, it begins to look less and less like food choice can be confined to the prudential realm” (p. 29) [1].

In this passage, Thompson emphasizes that people may no longer be able to use good reason and judgment when choosing their food. The foods you choose to eat not only affect your body and health, but it also affects people and ideas around you. There is potentially harm being done on third parties connected to certain food purchases.

Thompson’s take on this statement is just one of the many issues he delves into in From Field to Fork. He offers deep philosophical and ethical analyses while integrating economics, history, science, psychology, and politics. For example, when discussing food systems, Thompson addresses multiple factors to consider when ensuring food sufficiency. Environmentally, a growth in monoculture production systems to mass-produce certain crops can tax natural resources. Socially, these industrial systems can destroy healthy rural communities. Politically, there are injustices that make it difficult to distribute these resources fairly. An extensive framework is given regarding how to approach food sufficiency and other issues in the book.

As a philosopher and current W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics, Paul B. Thompson provides a comprehensive guide to food ethics in his book. From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone will not only give you a deeper insight into food, but also into our society.

References Cited:

  1. Thompson, P.B. (2015). From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Catherine HuAbout the author: Catherine Hu received her B.S. in Psychobiology at UCLA. When she is not writing about food science, she enjoys exploring the city and can often be found enduring long wait times to try new mouthwatering dishes.

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