Cattle Company Forces Change in Michael Pollan University Lecture

cowWhere’s the beef? At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

After receiving pressure from the owner of an agribusiness — that just happens to be a major donor — the university decided to turn what was to be a guest lecture by noted sustainable agriculture guru Michael Pollan, into a “panel discussion” including a scientist favored by the beef industry, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In an angry September 23rd letter to the university president, David E. Wood, chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Co., wrote:

“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..”

Allowing Pollan to speak unchallenged had made Wood “rethink [his] continued financial support of the university.” Wood has pledged $150,000 toward a new meat processing plant on campus.

Pollan, who has encountered such resistance to his appearances before, told the university he could lecture, or he could participate in the panel, but not both. Cal Poly made its decision, and quickly assembled a panel featuring Pollan, Gary Smith, Monfort Endowed Chair in meat science at Colorado State University, and Myra Goodman, co-founder of Earthbound Farm Organic, one of the largest organic businesses in the country.

Cal Poly put a cheerful spin on the controversy in a press release covering the panel, which went off without bloodshed Friday morning. But Pollan sounded disappointed. “It’s part of what appears to be a more aggressive industry pushback against critics of industrial agriculture,” he told the Times.

The Agribusiness’ Dilemma

The sudden change of agenda comes as agribusiness has become increasingly frustrated with activists like Pollan, whose bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” charges that the business of agriculture in the US is unsustainable, polluting and inhumane. Wood’s sensitivity suggests Pollan and his ilk are having an impact.

The Los Angeles Times slammed Cal Poly and Harris Beef in a separate editorial Friday morning, referring to Harris’ 800-acre ranch along I-5 as “Cowschwitz,” and Cal Poly’s acquiescence to Wood’s demands “disgraceful.”

“Agribusiness gets plenty of opportunities to preach its point of view at agriculture schools such as Cal Poly, where the likes of Monsanto and Cargill fund research and most professors are trained in modern practices. Students seldom get to hear voices like Pollan’s, though. The university’s attempt to dilute his message in order to placate a donor is a shameful breach of academic freedom.”

Pollan, who is also a journalism professor at UC Berkeley, arrived in San Luis Obispo the day prior to to panel, to attend a sold-out $150-a-plate dinner at a local winery at which Pollan was the featured speaker. The dinner was a benefit for the Cal Poly’s Sustainable Agriculture Resources Consortium.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

4 responses

  1. Although the cattle company’s influence at the university is disturbing, I think the panel discussion will be fine. I just heard a discussion on NPR between Pollan and the farmer who wrote the “Against the agro- intellectuals”. It was a very productive discussion, and they found agreement on a number of points.

    We need to oppose some of the practices of industrial agriculture, but the industrial farmers themselves are the best possible agents of change.

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