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Beef Industry Seeks Balance — And Gets It

By Leora Broydo Vestel | The New York Times

PhotoAlia Malley The appearance of Michael Pollan, the author and critic of industrial agriculture, rankled a member of the beef industry.

Beef industry executives raised a ruckus recently when they learned that Michael Pollan, the author of the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and a critic of industrial agriculture, would be giving a lecture on Thursday at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

The university has one of the country’s largest undergraduate agriculture programs.

Mr. Pollan, who is also an occasional op-ed contributor to The New York Times, had been invited to speak by the university’s Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium, a faculty-run group focused on ensuring students have exposure to areas like organic farming and community-based food systems.

David Wood, the chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Company, argued that allowing Mr. Pollan to appear unchallenged had him reconsidering future financial support of the university — including the $150,000 he pledged for the construction of a new meat processing facility on campus.

Harris Ranch operates a large-scale feedlot in California’s Central Valley that accommodates 100,000 head of cattle.

“I find it unacceptable that the university would provide Michael Pollan an unchallenged forum to promote his stand against conventional agriculture practices,” Mr. Wood wrote in a letter to Warren Baker, the president of Cal Poly.

In response, the university changed the format of the appearance from a lecture to a panel discussion.

Mr. Pollan said in an e-mail to Green Inc. that he declined an offer to do both a speaking engagement and a panel discussion. “I didn’t feel I should have to add a whole other event after a full-scale speech merely to appease an angry foodlot operator,” he wrote.

The panel now includes Gary Smith, a meat science professor at Colorado State University, and Myra Goodman, the founder of Earthbound Farm, the largest organic farm in the country.

(The discussion gets under way this morning.)

 

Mr. Wood applauded the university for negotiating a “compromise format.”

Mr. Pollan, however, was less supportive.

“My view is that I welcome this sort of debate we’re finally having about the future of food and farming in America,” he said. “However, I also feel this was an effort to silence my point of view. The need for balancing my presentation strikes me as a stretch. I was invited to balance the production-ag point of view most familiar to the student body.”

David Wehner, the dean of Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, said the format change had nothing to do with threats to withdraw funding for the new meat processing facility — a $5.1 million project that he said would be built with or without Mr. Wood’s donation.

“All along we had thought about having a panel,” he explained. The university would have organized one, he added, “if we had had our ducks in a row.”

Mr. Wehner told Green Inc. that at least part of the opposition expressed by Harris Ranch and others had to do with the fact that his department contributed $5,000 in discretionary funds to Mr. Pollan’s speaking fee.

“I think they objected to us sponsoring this,” Mr. Wehner said. “They’re not looking at us as a university where we have to give students different views.”

Mr. Wood said he supports academic freedom but that young students need to hear both sides of the story. “There’s academic freedom,” he said. “Then there’s academic arrogance.”

Mr. Pollan said he also questioned whether demands for balance would be heard when those supporting the use of genetically modified organisms and other modern agricultural conventions visit the university.

“I wonder if there will be balancing views invited in next time Monsanto comes in to talk about why we need G.M.O.s to feed the world, or Syngenta comes in to praise the virtues of chemical agriculture,” he said. “We’ll have to see.”

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