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Agribusiness Targets Michael Pollan

Agribusiness is not so happy with author Michael Pollan. (Alia Malley)

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

By Jane Black  |  October 15, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, Michael Pollan, sustainable food  
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Pollan and his followers need to tell us how mcuh their way will cost us. As a farmer and rancher its important to hear all sides. Many of these activists want to turn us into vegans.

I grow organic hay and raise organic lamb. I know the cost difference. Can Americans afford to have the price of 90% ground beef increase anywhere between 70 to 110% in cost.

My sheep are raised humanely. My lamb is comparable to the top grade of prime beef. There are nine grades of prime beef.

If I decided to raise lamb for the mass market my cost difference would be approx 67%. Yeah vegans and AR nut cases I ran the numbers. This is the difference between
doing it like everyone else does and following the guidelines set forth by Pollan and his cronies.

Currently lamb chop from my farm retail in Mid Atlantic butcher shops for $19 to 27 a pound.

My neighbors raise beef and do you really want to pay $5.50+ a lb for 90% lean when you can get in a club pack at Wegman's for $2.79. Do you really want to pay $3+ for boneless chicken breasts when Wegman's has them for $1.79 in a club pack.

Do you really want to pay $5+ for a gallon of 2% milk when Wegman's has it for $2.39 a gallon. Now I pay $4.50 for a half gallon retial of non homengized whole milk in a glass bottle every now and then as a special treat. It tastes better by far.
A gallon would be $8 for 2%.

Economies of scale will not bring down the prices that much and the costs may go up with the current fervor to save the planet from global warming. Don't tell anyone the palnet is going to get colder over the next 20 years.

Posted by: vaherder | October 16, 2009 7:52 AM | Report abuse

Ah, the American Corporate Solution to opposing viewpoints. Be very careful driving home Mr. Pollan, these goons might want to pull a "Silkwood" on you.

Posted by: fluxgirl | October 18, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations for a job well done, Mr. Pollan. You have them running scared.

More and more Americans are finding out what goes into their food, and realizing that they can't depend on industrial producers for safe and healthy food.

Posted by: pilgrim1629 | October 19, 2009 8:51 PM | Report abuse

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