Oct 7, 2009


Education irresponsibility


This is really going to strike a nerve with many of our western readers who graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Michael Pollan, the food activist, journalism professor from the University of California, Berkeley, was invited to speak at Cal Poly to the College of Agriculture. Pollan will certainly share his narrow thoughts about production agriculture and its evils while bestowing the virtues of the organic movement.


I wouldn’t think most people have a real problem with organic agriculture, after all it’s simply a niche market. However, the underlying agenda for Pollan and his cast of foodies is to attempt to influence American policymakers toward the view that organic agriculture is more than a consumer choice. He is advocating that it is vital to the health of Americans.

Perhaps not so surprising, when the word got out that Pollan was going to speak at Cal Poly and that it was going to be a one-man show, the College of Agriculture was confronted by Cal Poly graduate and president of Harris Ranch Beef, Dave Wood, and his assistant Mike Smith, who is also a Cal Poly grad.

Ironically, one of Pollan’s latest books, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” was also circulated at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Each incoming freshman received a copy. Biddy Martin, chancellor of the university, started a program where the entire campus is asked to read the same book and hopes it will become a tradition. The book was chosen because it covered several topical national issues.

Apparently, many in the ag community are upset that Pollan is casting his one-sided views on college campuses without competing viewpoints. Pollan was to have had the floor to himself at Cal Poly until Wood intervened and asked them to provide a panel discussion with other food experts. Now I understand that meat scientist Gary Smith is on the panel to represent the views of production agriculture.

Obviously, Wood and many other graduates from the ag school are concerned about the direction of Cal Poly’s program. During their discussions with the dean of Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, they mentioned one professor who was teaching required course “Issues in Animal Agriculture,” who had a required reading list which included only “Fast Food Nation” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” presenting a very one-sided perspective.

During a phone conversation with this professor, Mike Smith asked him to define a sustainable beef production model and the professor used grass-fed and organic systems as examples. When asked about grain-fed production systems, he said grainfed systems were not sustainable and that corn should not be fed to cattle, especially not in largescale animal feeding systems. This professor continued with his opinion that water should have never been provided to farmers on the west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley and concluded that the area should be converted back to native forage. This is the area in California where they are already having serious water issues.

In response to questions about the suitability of teaching such views as a single viewpoint of agriculture, Dean Wehner of the ag school responded by stating, “I do not control the thoughts of individual faculty members. They are free to express their personal views on any subject. By the same token, they do not speak for the college of agriculture, food and environmental sciences. They speak for themselves.”

I think we could all go along with the idea of freedom in higher education, but I feel that the universities still have a responsibility to offer students all viewpoints on every issue. Apparently, Wehner doesn’t take responsibility for tenured faculty.

Needless to say, Dave Wood at Harris Ranch has taken this issue to heart and has challenged his alma mater to restore some balance to the school he holds in such high regard.

I don’t think folks like Dave Wood, or other Cal Poly alumni, would have a problem with Pollan’s lectures if it wasn’t for his association with other foodies who have made it clear they want to make food production a political issue, just like the environmental movement that has locked up many natural renewable resources.

If you want to eat local and organic, that’s fine, but when guys like Pollan and his buddies make their ideas a political agenda, it becomes a problem. I just want to know if the organic local model will be sustainable when we have to feed 9 million people in 2050. — PETE CROW