The Sustainable Agriculture Research Consortium (SARC) has been getting a lot of unanticipated attention for its annual fundraiser featuring noted author and journalism professor Michael Pollan, but not for the right reasons. Cal Poly has been criticized by members of the agricultural community for hosting Pollan, who they say has controversial views on farming and food production.
Pollan, who will be speaking today at the Performing Arts Center as part of a panel, has written a number of books about food and the way in which it is produced including, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” Pollan has spoken all over the country and agreed to help SARC raise money at a dinner and give a free speech to Cal Poly students.
Pollan has been an outspoken critic of large-scale farming that in his view is taxing too many natural resources. Pollan warns against food production with a large carbon footprint because of processing, packaging or shipment. He only supports farming operations that have free range farming and animals that are fed their natural diet. His views on farming and raising livestock have garnered a large amount of criticism from traditional large-scale food production companies. This criticism has also been aimed at Cal Poly for hosting his speech.
Hunter Francis, the program associate of SARC, said it agreed to pay Pollan to speak at the dinner, which was expected to net $50,000 for SARC by charging guests $150 a plate at the event.
In order to help pay for the initial expense of hosting the dinner and to pay for Pollan’s speaking fee, SARC recruited several local organizations to sponsor the event. These organizations include the New Times, Hearst Ranch and several organizations affiliated with Cal Poly. The most notable of these organizations is Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Resources (CAFES).
David Wehner, dean of CAFES, said that Pollan’s total speaking fee was $20,000.
SARC is made up of faculty members within CAFES but does not report directly to Wehner. SARC is “sort of independent” from CAFES, Wehner said. This will change next year, as SARC is slated to become more involved in the college.
The issues that Pollan talks about are controversial and received a lot of concern from the agriculture community, Francis said. But having Pollan speak is a rare opportunity to hear the views of someone who has had such influential books, he added. The New York Times named “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” one of the 10 best books of 2006, as did the Washington Post.
Pollan was asked to speak in order to raise money for SARC, Wehner said.
“If you were gonna raise money for the baseball team you wouldn’t invite the Cuesta coach, you would invite the manager of the L.A. Dodgers,” Wehner said.
However, there were reservations among the CAFES department heads about Pollan because of some of his views about (conventional farms), so it was decided that there would be a panel to discuss different views on sustainability, Wehner said. At that time it was uncertain when that panel would be held.
The concern that was felt within the department then extended to prominent supporters of Cal Poly’s agriculture program within the community.
The most backlash came from Cal Poly alumnus Dave Wood, the CEO of Harris Ranch Beef, which is a large meat processing company, and a large contributor to CAFES. Wood wrote a letter to Cal Poly President Warren Baker telling him that he was reconsidering a $500,000 donation towards a new meat processing facility on Cal Poly’s campus.
The letter stated that he was upset at the direction that CAFES was taking. The first problem that Wood referenced was that Pollan’s speech was being endorsed by the university.
“I find it unacceptable that the university would provide Michael Pollan an unchallenged forum to promote his stand against conventional agricultural practices,” Wood said in the letter. “To add insult to injury, CAFES unashamedly admits to contributing $5,000 in discretionary funds to offset a portion of Mr. Pollan’s speaking fee. Had a balanced forum been provided, perhaps I would not have such a strong negative feeling towards the university.”
However, Wehner disagrees with Wood’s assessment that Cal Poly agrees with Pollan’s arguments.
“Whenever you have a speaker it does not reflect the views of (the university),” he said.
The other major concern that Wood had, according to the letter, was a conversation that his assistant, Mike Smith, also a Cal Poly alumnus, had with Cal Poly professor Rob Rutherford about what sustainability meant. Wood objected to the fact that Rutherford did not consider some of the practices that Harris Ranch uses to be sustainable.
“Mr. Rutherford then had the audacity to offer Mike an entirely unsolicited opinion that water should have NEVER been provided to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley,” the letter read. “As Harris Ranch operates one of the largest farms in this region, Mr. Rutherford implies that Harris Ranch should not be farming!”
Wood then questioned the validity of Rutherford’s class and his ability to teach it.
“Dr. Baker, please assure me that the views held by Rob Rutherford are NOT the norm among the faculty in the Animal Science Department at Cal Poly,” the letter said. “Can you provide me with any assurance this man’s personal views are NOT being taught to the students that attend his classes? Can you explain to me why Professor Rutherford is the only faculty member in the department teaching Issues in Animal Agriculture, which is a required course of all Animal Science students?”
Issues in Animal Agriculture is still a requirement on the 09-11 course catalogue for animal science majors but the New Times reported that the faculty recently voted to eliminate the course as a requirement.
President Baker wrote a letter back to Wood that offered a compromise to have Pollan answer questions from the audience and then have a panel discussion with other industry professionals. Baker also said that Rutherford did not speak for the university but defended his right to voice his opinion.
“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,” Baker said in the letter to Wood.
Teaching students about sustainability was an important goal of the university for all Cal Poly students, Baker said in the letter.
“It’s paramount for educators to engage their students in all aspects of such an emerging topic,” the letter read. “Clearly, for our agriculture students, sustainability is a huge issue. If we do not involve our students in the sustainability debate, we set them up to be blindsided when they embark on their careers.”
Wood then sent the final letter in the exchange that approved of the format change for the event but still chastised the university for hosting Pollan.
“Moreover, we are appreciative of recent actions taken by individuals within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) to bring a semblance of balance to the Michael Pollan event to be held on campus Oct. 15th,” the letter said. “It is truly unfortunate that decision makers at the university did not have the forethought to provide students both sides of the debate when this even was first being organized.”
Wood also included some quotes from Pollan that he found offensive.
“…we would like to provide a small sample of the many negative quotes attributable to this radical U.C. Berkeley journalism professor:
‘To keep the animals healthy on that corn diet, you have to give them lots of antibiotics, they won’t survive otherwise.’
‘To me, going on feed lots, chicken and hog operations, it has changed the way I eat. You can’t go through those places without being changed. You lose your appetite for certain kinds of food,’” the letter quoted.
Given the choice of having a panel after his speech or participating in a panel, Pollan decided to be a part of the panel. Gary Smith and Myra Goodman will also speak at the panel with Pollan.
Smith is currently the meat science Monfort Endowed Chair at Colorado State University. Smith has been a leading expert in meat science for more than 40 years and has published 334 full-length articles in refereed scientific journals, according to his Web site at Colorado State University.
Goodman along with her husband founded Earthbound Farms, one of the largest organic farming companies in the country. Pollan, an advocate of organic farming, criticized Earthbound Farm for the amount of fossil fuels that they use to ship and process their products.
“I am familiar with many of Michael Pollan’s books and think he is an incredibly intelligent man and a very creative and persuasive writer,” Goodman said in an e-mail. “I had a hard time with how he portrayed Earthbound Farm as ‘industrial organic’ in the ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ because I think his score card was too focused on our fossil fuel usage … ”
Goodman was invited to speak for the panel on Oct. 5 while Smith received his invitation several weeks ago.
Francis said that he thinks that the panel may be more valuable to students than a stand-alone speaker.
“It is very easy to find Michael Pollan’s talks on the Web,” he said. “It is a rare opportunity to see an exchange of ideas.”
The panel’s discussion will start at 11 a.m. and go till 12:30 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center today.