Agribusiness Targets Michael Pollan
When Michael Pollan published “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in 2006, he became an overnight hero for the sustainable food movement. Now he’s taking on a new role: lightning rod.
Pollan’s scheduled speech Thursday at California Polytechnic has raised the ire of Harris Ranch Beef Company, an industrial-sized feedlot and meat-processing operation based in Selma, Calif. Company chairman David E. Wood, an alumnus of Cal Poly, objected to giving Pollan “an unchallenged forum to promote his stand on conventional agricultural practices” and threatened to withdraw a promised corporate $500,000 donation for a meat-processing facility on campus.
In response to the criticism, Cal Poly reformatted the event. Instead of giving a speech, Pollan will now participate in a panel discussion that will also include Gary Smith, a professor of meat science at Colorado State University, and Myra Goodman, cofounder of organic vegetable company Earthbound Farms.
Until recently, agribusiness had not directly challenged Pollan and other well-known advocates of sustainable agriculture, casting them as impractical elitists. But Pollan’s growing appeal to college students and children – a new young reader’s edition of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is released today – may have spooked conventional producers. Harris Ranch, which operates a large-scale feedlot that accomodates 100,000 head of cattle, for example, believes Pollan’s message must be combated:
“For too long now, those intimately involved in production of agriculture have silently allowed others (academics and activists) to shape their future. Not any longer!,” Wood wrote in a Sept. 30 letter to Cal Poly President Warren Baker.
In an interview, Pollan said he supports a vibrant debate, but “what's happening at Cal Poly has a very different flavor. They want to close this conversation down. Harris Ranch does not understand academic freedom.”
The controversy began on Sept. 23 when Wood sent an angry missive (PDF) to Baker. In it, he demanded an explanation of why Pollan had been invited to speak at the campus. (He was particularly enraged that the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences had contributed $5,000 to pay for Pollan’s speaking fee.) Wood objected to Pollan's definition of sustainability, which he believes demonizes rank-and-file food producers. In particular, Wood was concerned about the opinions of professor Rob Rutherford, whom he said does not believe that grain-fed cattle production, which Harris Ranch practices, is a sustainable method.
“Please assure me the facility I am helping to build will NOT be used one day to teach students that only 'sustainable' (read: non grain fed beef) meat products should be produced!” he wrote.
Baker defended the university's approach to sustainability in a Sept. 28 letter. “Clearly, for our agriculture students, sustainability is a huge issue. If we don [sic] not involve our students in the sustainability debate, we set them up to be blindsided when they embark on their careers.”
He also stood behind his faculty, though he did say that the college would consider letting professors with more conventional views teach animal science as well. “A professor’s freedom of opinion is a piece of academic freedom; academic freedom, a pillar of American universities also calls for peer debate among the faculty as to what should be taught in the classroom…I appreciate your suggestion that perhaps other professors should be given the opportunity to teach the [Animal Agriculture] class, and I can personally assure you that [Head of the Animal Sciences Department Andrew] Thulin is reviewing all such options with an open mind.”
Pollan says the demand for equal time in an academic setting is worrying: “At Cal Poly, they are threatening to take away $500,000 in funding unless they can balance my presentation. They are shaping the way the debate gets played out. Will I be invited when Monsanto comes in to talk about genetically modified foods?”
Harris Ranch did not return calls by press time.
The controversy at Cal Poly is perhaps the most hostile example of the face-off between agribusiness and reformers. But tension has been building. This summer, Washington State University, a land-grant that receives research funds from the industry, was pressured to pull "The Omnivore's Dilemma" off the reading list for college freshmen.
Last month, 7,000 people packed the Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison to hear Pollan speak. Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food” had been selected for the first "Big Read" initiative, which encourages students and members of the community to read and discuss an important book. Local agricultural workers, many of whom wore green T-shirts that read “in defense of farmers,” were bused to the event.
Such controversies are only likely to grow. Pollan maintains a busy lecture schedule. In January, he will publish a new book, “Food Rules: An Eater's Manual,” which recommends, among other things, to steer clear of processed foods.
“It’s like the old Gandhi saying: First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win,” Pollan said.
“I don't know if it follows that then you win. I'm not ready to say that yet.”
-- Jane Black
October 15, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories: Food Politics | Tags: Jane Black, Michael Pollan, sustainable food
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