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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)

This year I watched "The Future of Food" and "Food, Inc" - and the feedlot conditions were egregious, disgusting, and incorporating a powerful lobby. So i'm vegetarian now, and can't believe how easy it is. And i've been meaning to research Monsanto to make sure I never buy any of their products. Thanks for reading/posting,

Disgraceful on every level.

Why should the public college need donations from Big Business?

Why should big business be allowed to threaten free speech, particularly when it's someone whose voice is as important as Pollan's.

Just disgraceful.

Harris Ranch has already given me a reason to not buy their products. This attempt to bully critics and limit donations now gives me reason to organize a boycott of this company. We, as consumers, have the huge responsibility of voting with our dollars and educating others about the practices of agribusiness. If we all knew what many of these companies were doing, we would not be buying their food products. They care more about profits than they do about our safety and health. Now they have gained the power to limit free speech. Watch the documentary Food, Inc. and prepare to be horrified by the practices of these corporations. They don't want us to know, but the truth will ultimately win out and force them to change their practices or fail.

I understand Pollan feels dissed by Wood. I don't understand why he would turn down the chance to verbally rip Wood to pieces in a follow-up discussion, since he would certainly have a chance to negotiate a fair set of rules for that discussion.

Why would Mr.Wood of Harris Ranch Co. be so worried about what Pollan has to say?

If Pollan is so wrong about the sustainability of their practices, it should be easy to show that he is. Or does he think the students at Cal Poly are so easily manipulated that anything an authority figure says will be taken as gospel? Either way, it doesn't sound good for Mr.Woods.

And I'm sure that there are regularly plenty of speakers at Cal Poly from agribusiness. As Pollan said, if Cal Poly requires this for his talk, then they should do the same for those speakers. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

In response to an above comment:
"A new meat processing plant on campus" enables students to do research in that particular field. Additionally, these facilities can be a source of income for departments by fielding outside work, which usually helps foster local businesses.
It's pretty typical. Dairy processing plants, beer processing, wine processing. It's near impossible to do research (for industry advancements in terms of food safety, preservation, flavor, packaging) without said facilities on campus.

In response to the article, I'm incredibly disappointed at this act of censorship. If the donor is so concerned why doesn't he/she give a talk expressing the differing point of view instead of making demands that deprive students of an opportunity. Step up and defend your beloved point of view instead of just tearing a person down because he doesn't believe the same thing as you.

Whoa! Big Business having undue influence on education as well as public policy? I'm shocked!

As much as Cal Poly SLO is a state college and part of the agricultural dominance of the state, it is very unsettling to see private industry stepping in and threatening away free speech and alternative ideas of living and thinking.
We all deserve to be educated on issues which touch our lives everyday, not told what to believe, which is what this article smacks of.

If you've ever driven I-5 and smelled the sickening stench emanating from the Harris Ranch feedlot from 10 miles away you will tend to disagree with Mr. Wood's opinion that what his company is doing is in any way conventional agriculture; there is nothing conventional about it.

There is no need to "balance" a discussion when one side is so clearly in the wrong. You don't generally have a physics lecture in which one side is maintaining that there is no such thing as gravity. Why must a sustainability lecture give voice to the argument that forcing cattle to stand in mountains of their own feces is a good thing?

Cal Poly punked out for the money. Where are the students on this? The guy should have been told to take his patronage and shove it. Definitely a lack of integrity at the top at the university. Funny how the monied interest all of a sudden believe in "the fairness doctrine" whenever they're criticised. Unending exploitation is not sustainable, but that doesn't really matter to dead enders anyway.

Yea, and maybe I'm missing something else but who actually thinks that conventional feedlots like the one run by Harris Ranch ARE a form of sustainable agriculture??? What exactly is sustainable about a conventional feedlot?

Why doesn't the beef lobbyist just ask for the chance to give their own speech another day? Why do they have to suppress Pollan's speech?

It's too bad Cal Poly doesn't have the rocky mountain oysters to tell Mr. Wood to keep his $150K.

This is preposterous! The first guest lecture I ever had at UC Berkeley was by Michael Pollon and it was the best guest lecture I ever had the pleasure of attending. He is a brilliant academic and I agree with Carol--private companies should not be allowed to dictate who can and cannot speak, teach, or do research at a university. And yes, Robert...why do they need a meat processing plant on campus?!

We as a community need to say NO to these types of scare tactics trying to control the academic debate in food politics. I'm all for panels, but a donor demanding one...no!

This looks terrible for Cal Poly. The ag people have always been dumb and angry, so no change there.

Oh I get it. He is happy to spew his left-wing-lunatic drivel, but chickens out when it comes time to debate the subject with industry professionals. What a loser.

Hmmm, do you all know where your food comes from?Do you have any idea how many people in our own country, let alone the world, would not be able to afford food if current agricultural practices were reverted to those used 40 years ago, as Mr. Pollan suggests? Mr. Pollan is promoting his unproven ideas (I mean he's a journalism prof at Berkeley after all). Not information on current practices in his profession. If he were informing the students about how he can sustainably produce enough food to replace industrial agriculture that would be different. I feel the panel discussion is the perfect forum. I mean would you let a well informed/educated hairdresser come and speak about their proposed views for cancer research without having information from cancer researchers?

Hope you all eat well today.

Looks like free speech is for sale in San Luis Obispo, and the price is a paltry $150,000. Cal Poly should return Wood's money should he press the issue.

Factory farming, like that practiced by Harris Ranch, has been well documented for its poisoning of ground water and heat-trapping methane.

Big Ag in the Valley needs to face the reality of a changing world.

Congratulations to Mr Woods. His efforts to stifle free speech are making him look foolish and greedy. Perhaps Harris Ranch Beef could learn something from dissenting opinions - if it would ever entertain them.

WOW, no mention of this on cal polys site, there will be a huge backlash because of this.
Ive already seen a boycott site already against harris ranch.
what were they thinking.

As a graduate of Cal Poly (early 80's) from the Dietetics & Food Administration program, I am appalled by this decision to prevent Michael Pollan from giving a lecture on the campus. This is a clear example of the suppression of intellectual freedom. The faculty should be disgusted by this decision.
The University should be a venue for open discussion of ideas without threat of "financial intimidation". I am a Registered Dietitian, Food Enthusiast, & a strong supporter of "eating local". Mr. Pollan has not always spoken favorably of Dietitians, yet I appreciate & deeply respect his opinions & well-written books. A society that allows a large financial interest to censor a speaker at a public university has a bigger problem than not having Mr. Pollan on the campus. Shame on you for blocking "open education" for the students.

Harris blew it. A panel is a great idea, but threatening to withdraw funding to throw their weight around and force suppression of academic freedom is awful. I will NEVER buy Harris beef again. They have crossed a line by trying to limit critical thinking and trying to control who gets to express their ideas on a public university campus. Harris should be ashamed of putting university leaders in that position, and should feel embarrassed about the message this sends to students.

I am a student at Cal Poly (not animal science or ag business) but understand these departments due to roommates and friends majoring in both. I am also a fan of sustainable agriculture. At this point Cal Poly is suffering budget cuts and can use all the help it can get to support struggling programs. The facilities paid for by big business donors are necessary for continued education in areas that provide everyone with food, whether they recognize where their meat and produce is coming from or not. The choice to do a panel is a fair middle ground, allowing the students to learn about less spoken of practices, while allowing more traditional producers to support their methods. Way to go Cal Poly, fight for the programs that bring me fresh meat, new students and my friends careers.

This is what comes from university leadership which refuses to organize its faculty, students and staff and face down the real battle which is ultimately not with Mr. for public funding to their boards of regents/trustees, state legislators, and ultimately the public. De-incentivizing public funding for higher education and opening yourselves up to even more politicization, pressure, corruption, from donors is not leadership. It's the opposite.

No one is stopping Pollan from speaking, he will be part of the panel, his voice will be heard along with the views of experts in the field he is critical of. This is a win-win! And is most certainly a better learning opportunity for students. I helped organize the farmers who attended Pollan's speech at Wisconsin, we were very respectful to Pollan and simply offered those attending the chance to talk to farmers about how we raise food for them in a caring and safe way, while using technology that Pollan disagrees with. Pollan is not all wrong, most farmers who have read his work know that. However, the small bits where he doesn't tell the whole story, or where he simply misrepresents the technology we use is enough to show up and tell our story OURSELVES. Pollan is a journalist not a farmer, and not a scientist, when we are talking about the important issue of food production ALL should be involved.

This is beyond infuriating. Cal Poly needs to step up and say no thank you to funds with such restrictive strings attached. What next – force kids to eat meat or run the risk of loosing scholarships?? The only redeeming value is that when the intelligent students and deans of Cal Poly hear the debate between Pollan and the meat industry, they will make the determination that meat consumption is not only hazardous to the environment and animals but, worse, disastrous for their health.

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