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California agribusiness pressures school to nix Michael Pollan lecture

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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Comments () | Archives (68)

Maybe I'm missing something, but why does a university need "a new meat processing plant on campus"?

It's PEOPLE! Soylent Green is people!

Public colleges should not be reliant on large donations by private companies. The quest for donations is stifling free speech.

If you ever needed proof that all the bad things Pollan has to say about agribusiness are true, this should be it.

So "Eat food; not too much; mostly plants."

And this is a great example of why education should be completely state funded and free--the same reason why political campaigns should be 100% publicly financed. You don't get business interests using their money as leverage to control academia and policy. If agribusiness wants to challenge Pollan, then do so in the academic setting by rebutting arguments. The problem with donations like this is that universities have become dependent on donors who have certain special interests.

Universities with agricultural programs typically have campus farms and sometimes processing plants like dairy, winery, and I guess, meat processing. Ag majors should be hearing from industry experts on a regular basis and Pollan is one of those.

David Wood of Harris Ranch is an industry expert as well. I'm sure he would normally be allowed an Ag student audience at Cal Poly. I can only surmise that college students, who may have driven past the hellish looking Harris Ranch feedlot off Interstate 5 might be asking him some tougher questions than Pollan might have faced.

A few years ago, my daughter taught a community education course on agriculture through U.C., Berkeley. Among other activities over several weeks, they visited a mixed organic and conventional production beef ranch right next to Harris Ranch. In planning, they had requested a tour of Harris Ranch as well, but were denied permission.

I guess it remains to be seen whether Mr. Pollan's panel presentation will now be made more poignant due to the revelation of big agriculture's attempt to muzzle him. Harris Ranch seems to want a better reputation than they might deserve.

Yet another Berkeley wacko out to brainwash our youth with their communist agenda. Glad to hear sensible minds took a stand against him.

The school should be able to have anyone they speak without corporate interference. The statement from David E. Wood is ridiculous, since when do schools provide a counter view for guest lectures? Obviously Harris Ranch has something to hide. I end this to do some research into what Michael Pollan has to say about the likes of Harris Ranch.

Monsanto is an enemy of life itself. Boycott~

Troubling eh? Schools should have open forums, not political pressure from deep pockets.

A note to Mr Wood, I will never again eat beef, not because of you, you only re-enforce a good choice many years ago.

Omnivore's Dilemma provides imperfect nutrition advice because the science backing Pollan's advice to eat mostly vegetables was roundly rejected by the results of the largest randomized trial ever conducted -- the Womens Health Initiative which found no benefits from eating more fruits and vegetables. David Wood would be better served just by supporting speakers who base their talks on the best available science of randomized clinical trials.

And this is why Cal Poly is never going to be respected as a great university. Because it isn't. To a large degree it's the publicly-subsidized trade school for business. The "meat processing plant" the administrators are afraid to jeopardize is just a way for the meat packers to outsource their apprenticeship programs. If the college had any guts they would not only return the donation, they'd refuse to accept any from Harris Ranch in the future until Harris is willing to acknowledge the independence of the University. Which may be a long time in coming, because its clear to Harris Ranch (and now everyone else) that they're not.

Are there any questions now who's *really* calling the shots in our supposedly free and democratic country?

So much for free speech in higher education, and encouraging students to THINK, and think for themselves. Mr. Wood is giving us proof that Harris Beef is just another company like all those credit card companies and tobacco companies, sucking in young people for what the companies hope is a lifetime of umbilical money going straight for them. I barely buy beef, but my Harris boycott has begun, Mr. Wood. You may win a few, but you're losing *many* more than you'll win with this stance.

cal Poly slo stopped being an ag college more than a decade ago. time to move with the times. I like Harris beef, but I'd be willing to boycott it due to behavior like this.

A school needs a meat processing plant because it is has an agriculture program. Yes, people go to school to learn such things. It would be the equivalent of a chemistry lab for an agriculture/food program.
And, yes public colleges should not be reliant on private donations but without enough goevernment support and lack of adequate income from tuition - there are few alternatives.

The donors couldn't be satisfied just by having Monsanto or some other agribusiness giant come and talk to the kids at some other date? That just sounds like they're scared Pollan's view will actually be heard.

This nothing more than an attempt by a major agribusiness to stifle its critics. David Woods beieves that Cal Poly SLO exists to further the agenda of Harris Ranch. Do anything less and you will not receive any sort of support from him be it fiscal or moral.
The market place of ideas is an alien concept to David Woods.
Harris Ranches should also be able to easily rebutt Michael Pollan on technical issues in regards to animal science/meat science-if they have such a technical grasp themselves. This is because Michael Pollan is basically an English major with little understanding of how agricultural systems work in detail. The fact that they have not engaged in debate but instead try to squelch debate says more about david wood than Michael Pollan none of it good.

Does this mean that Cal Poly is just a glorified Vo Tech school? Not really an "academic" institution?

Perhaps David Wood failed to think through the wider implications of strong-arming Cal Poly to stifle Michael Pollen. I stop by Harris Ranch 8 times a year, have dinner, and bring beef home to family and friends. Not any more. Nor will I recommend their products to friends and business partners. Perhaps while Mr. Wood 'rethink(s) (his) continued financial support of the university...' he might also think about the type of person who coerces an educational institution into restricting freedom. I urge anyone concerned about this to boycott Harris Ranch.

Micheal Pollan will attract the kind of future ag student that will make Cal Poly a leading institution; by shutting him up we are sending a VERY bad message to current and future students: This is NOT the institution for you!

It's a sad day when the owner of a meet packing facility has the power to decide what college students should and should not learn to say nothing of the fact that it's downright scary that a college would accept his request. Colleges are suppose to be places where thoughts and ideas, of varying degrees, can be debated; to allow young minds to learn the facts and opinions of each side of any issue and decide for themselves what they believe to be good and not good. To allow an obvious "special interest" to deprive these students of the chance to learn about a topic based on the fact that the "special interest" does not agree with that opinon is to allow this country to take several steps backward. A difference of opinions and the debate of those opinions is what makes this country great; in fact, it's protected by the constitution. Shame on the CSU system. I do hope that Mr. Pollan sues on the grounds that his constitutionally protected right to have a different opinion than that of Mr. Wood has been infringed upon.

Oh great. So a prominent donor threatens to pull a $150,000 donation to the University unless they do what he says. Isn't that called extortion? And the university caves? What a wonderful institution of higher learning that Cal Poly must be.

Why can't Pollan just give his lecture and the students can decide whether they agree with him or not? It should be assumed that the Cal Poly students are rational adults who can do their own research on the topic and think for themselves, so I don't understand why there's some great danger in presenting them with Pollan's opinion alone. Pollan gains nothing by coming to the conclusions he does about the problems with the American food industry. Can we really believe that industry representatives are as unbiased in their positions?

Amazing how some supposed free-market capitalists (Harris Ranch, e.g.) are actually supportive of fascism when their ox is about to be gored.

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