The third area of work is on the theory and practice of sustainable food systems. I began this work with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and collaborated with a highly interdisciplinary team at Texas A&M University including Tarla Peterson (communications), Don Vietor (soil science), Bruce Dickson (anthropology), Adolf Gundersen (political science), as well as Jimmie Killingsworth (English). This project bore fruit largely through single-author publications by Petersen (1997), Gundersen (1995), and myself, but it prepared me for more practical work organizing community supported agriculture (CSA) in collaboration with farmers Jim Rose and Signe Waller along with my wife Diane after we moved to West Lafayette, Indiana in 1997. Diane has really taken the lead on food system activism since we relocated to Lansing, Michigan in 2003, doing work with school gardens, farmers markets, and almost singlehandedly organizing a member-initiated CSA for seven years. But Diane’s network is an important part of my ability to do the work I do. At Michigan State University, I’ve worked closely with a group called the Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project (SMEP) organized originally by Sandra Beattie. I assumed leadership of SMEP after Sandra’s retirement in 2014. SMEP has done a number of things to promote community-engaged research on sustainability, and I will simply refer readers with an interest in this program to the SMEP website: www.canr.msu.edu/smep/. This kind of field philosophy is almost invisible to colleagues and administrators, and it is important to me that others know how much I value it.
The more overtly philosophical dimensions of this work began with The Spirit of the Soil (Thompson, 2017), the book that emerged out of our NSF project at Texas A&M. Here I began some pretty traditional philosophical theorization of sustainability with the expectation that it would be critiqued by other environmental philosophers. That really never happened, but the book was read in Europe where it sparked a number of developments, including my collaboration with the Italian animal scientist Alessandro Nardone. Our paper on livestock science (Thompson and Nardone, 1999) argued that sustainability articulated a general norm for agricultural production systems rather than a singular type of system (such as organic or pasture-based production). We argued that all agricultural systems needed to be sustainable and we articulated some initial ideas on what this would mean. Although my views have developed over the years, the key philosophical claim is that there are two related but nonetheless distinct conceptualizations of sustainability. One emphasizes the availability of resources needed to continue a process or practice, while the other envisions sustainability as a property of a socio-technical system that includes and depends upon the continuous reproduction of biotic elements. I have gone on to develop these ideas in publications that were intended for philosophers and for agriculturalists alike (Thompson, 1997).
The primary evidence for impact in this case is a fairly traditional one for academic scholarship: citations. My scholarship written for the agricultural and environmental science audience are among my most frequently cited, especially by scientists working in what are called ‘the production disciplines’ (e.g., animal science, or plant and soil science). This is not to say that the citation count would be considered high by the standards typically employed in natural and social science disciplines, nor are they high in comparison to the citations garnered by philosophers like Peter Singer. At the time of writing, the aforementioned “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (Singer, 1972) is showing 2479 citations on Google Scholar, while I am pleased with a publication that gets into three digits. This, too, is a topic for the concluding section. At the same time, I would say that my work on sustainability has had absolutely no influence within environmental philosophy itself. I see no evidence suggesting that anyone has even read these papers, or my book-length study The Agrarian Vision, much less that they have felt that my approach is worth talking about.