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California agribusiness pressures school to nix Michael Pollan lecture

October 14, 2009 | 12:07 pm

Michael Pollan. Credit: Library Foundation of Los Angeles

Agribusinesses across the U.S. have a beef with sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, but at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo it has taken on a definite sizzle. 

Threatening to pull donations from the school, a major California agribusiness has succeeded in turning what was to be a campus lecture by Pollan tomorrow into a panel discussion involving Pollan, a meat-science expert and one of the largest organic growers in the U.S.

"While I understand the need to expose students to alternative views, I find it unacceptable that the university would provide Michael Pollan an unchallenged forum to promote his stand against conventional agricultural practices,'' David E. Wood, chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Co., wrote in a scathing Sept. 23 letter to the Cal Poly president.

Wood has pledged $150,000 toward a new meat processing plant on campus. In his letter, he said Pollan's scheduled solo appearance had prompted him to "rethink my continued financial support of the university.'' He also criticized an animal sciences professor who said that conventional feedlots like the one run by Harris Ranch were not a form of sustainable agriculture.

Cal Poly officials said they had contemplated using Pollan's talk as the basis for a panel discussion at some point, but the negative reaction to the scheduled lecture from Harris and other agricultural interests propelled the plan onto the front burner.

"When we realized how significant a backlash was coming, we thought of having the panel right after his speech," said David Wehner, a Cal Poly dean.

"I'm frustrated and saddened by some people's attitudes,'' he said. "They've looked at this as us supporting his views and not supporting them. We don't have a political position -- we only educate students.''

In an interview, Pollan said he rejected the idea of appearing on a panel after his scheduled talk.

"I thought, 'Wow! You're going to add some whole other event at the behest of some cranky donors?' " he said of his response to the change. Pollan said he offered the university a choice of either having him lecture or participate in a panel.

Pollan, who teaches in the journalism program at UC Berkeley, has encountered resistance to his campus appearances from farm businesses in Washington and Wisconsin. "It's part of what appears to be a more aggressive industry pushback against critics of industrial agriculture,'' he said in an interview.

He said the Harris letter raised troubling questions about academic freedom.

"The issue is about whether the school is really free to explore diverse ideas about farming,'' he said. "Is the principle of balance going to apply across the board? The next time Monsanto comes to speak at Cal Poly about why we need [genetically modified organisms] to feed the world, will there be a similar effort? Will I be invited back for that show?"

-- Steve Chawkins

Photo: Michael Pollan (Credit: Library Foundation of Los Angeles)

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