Michael Pollan's been making some pretty big waves lately—in the media, at colleges, with farmers, and little tots. Time to check in on what he's been up to and what it all says about the state of green food today.
Drama at Two Universities
In early October, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo downgraded a scheduled Pollan lecture because it received pressure from David E. Wood, a major university donor who also happens to be chairman of the mega-beef producer, Harris Ranch Beef.
Wood complained in a letter to the university saying that the lecture gave Pollan "an unchallenged forum to promote his stand on conventional agricultural practices." In response to the pressure, Cal Poly turned the solo lecture into a panel event.
Cal Poly wasn't the only university with Pollan hubbub—earlier this summer it was Washington State University. WSU chose Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma as the book of choice for the all freshmen common reading program. Then, citing budget woes (even though 4,000 books had already been purchased) the university chose to suspend the program. However, some sources said it just wasn't so and that the university had caved in to political pressure.
Then, Bill Marler, a WSU alum and personal injury lawyer specializing in foodborne illness cases stepped in with an offer to cover the costs to keep the Pollan read-a-thon on. With cash at the ready, the university accepted the offer and Pollan is now set to speak at the school in January (though he's still doubtful that money was the true issue at play).
The Hummer Comment
While talking at the recent Poptech conference on the link between eating and climate change, Pollan said, "a vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius." Turns out this statement might not be totally accurate and there were plenty of people ready to jump up and offer their opinion on the matter.
Not All Farmers Are Pollan Fans
Blake Hurst, a Missouri farmer and Farm Bureau official wrote a scathing critique of Pollan in an article published by the American Enterprise Institute titled, "The Omnivore's Delusion." Over in Wisconsin, many farmers (some wearing green t-shirts that said "In Defense of Farmers") protested Pollan at a recent talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But More Kids Might Be
But in addition to all this, he might be building a new fan base with the little ones. A young reader's edition of The Omnivore's Dilemma was published in October called, The Omnivore's Dilemma for Kids: The Secrets Behind What You Eat. The book, which is aimed at middle and high schoolers, is shorter than the original, but includes photographs, graphs, charts, and other visuals.
What This All Means
Instead of debating the issues of academic freedom at Cal Poly and Washington State University and whether Pollan will ever be buddy-buddy with industrial corn and soy farmers, let's focus on the dialogue here.
It means that what started as a small movement of people, often characterized as "impractical elitists," has become important enough to garner widespread attention. Before, the state of our food system was considered the norm and those who wanted to change it were buttonholed as ideological or out-of-touch. Now that ag-corporations are sitting up, taking notice, and feeling the need to put pressure on universities, we should all take that as a sign that this movement is going somewhere.
It's about time for other strong voices (and not just Pollan's) to step up and speak out. Both bloggers and scientists are getting involved, investigating Pollan's statements (and their readers are listening). As for the disapproving farmers, I say the more people at the table interested in contributing to the wider discussion, the better.
And that includes kids. Growing up conscious of what you're eating and aware of what it takes to feed the world is not a bad thing.
The future of food should not be elitist or class-based, but in many cases, it still is. Everyone should have access to healthy, sustainable food wherever they live. It's about time for other strong voices to step up and speak out.