Sustainable Food and Sustainable Universities

Posted by Trish Riley, November 3, 2009

1204391_cow_and_calfDiversity in producers strengthens one, diversity in ideas the other
By Christine Heinrichs

Michael Pollan is a tall, slender man, bald, with a mischievous twinkle behind his professorial eyeglasses. He’s seated among a panel of three along with a businesswoman and an older man on a stage at CalPoly Tech in San Luis Obispo. Pollan fusses with a paper bag as the announcer introduces them, reaching into the bag and lining up a series of water glasses on the table before him. He unwraps a McDonald’s Double Quarterpounder with Cheese as he begins his presentation. Filling the glasses, he demonstrates the amount of oil required to produce the popular sandwich: From oil-based fertilizer for the corn that feeds the steer, to the trucking required to transport corn to steer and steer to slaughter, ground beef to burger factory; the single sandwich uses 26 ounces of oil.

The object lesson illustrates a message so inflammatory that a major university donor threatened to withdraw financial support if Pollan were permitted on stage without opposing viewpoints. In a concession to the meat industry and the financial support it provides to the univeristy host, the tripartite panel was hastily assembled, replacing the original lecture format that had been scheduled.

Pollan, a journalism professor who has made a name for himself by exploring the realities of American food systems, delivered his message about food and modern food production methods at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, in October. His presentation, originally scheduled as a lecture, morphed into a panel under pressure from Harris Beef Company, adding two other speakers. What did Harris CEO David Wood think the company could gain by turning on the heat?

Pollan has written about gardening and food for more than 20 years, but his Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) crossed over to a wider, general readership and prominence. In it, he followed the pathways of four meals, including the route a steer takes from birth to burger. As Oprah found out when she raised questions about Mad Cow Disease and got dragged into court by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, beef ranchers do not tolerate scrutiny light-heartedly.

Note here that no one disputes any of Pollan’s facts. And he makes no claims of expertise. As he told the Cal Poly audience, “I’m a storyteller. I get my information from producers and academics.” It’s led him to the position that Harris Ranch finds so controversial that it took the unusual step of threatening to withdraw its pledge, variously reported at $150,000 and $500,000, for a new slaughterhouse if Cal Poly administration didn’t add opposing speakers to the bill, presumably to dilute Pollan’s message of criticism of industrial agriculture. University president Warren Baker decided to comply.

Before addressing agricultural issues, Pollan faced the issue of Harris Ranch’s influence on the event’s format. He drew a parallel between diversity in agriculture and diversity of ideas at the university. When donors threaten the university, their bullying undercuts the diversity of ideas. A monoculture university isn’t able to respond to change any better than a monoculture farm.

“When the world changes, you would be in trouble,” he said. “You won’t be able to withstand the shocks that are coming.” Later, he gave the university’s role another nod, as the “antennae of other models,” referring to managing changes such as the specter of $350/barrel oil.

So Myra Goodman, co-founder with her husband Drew of Earthbound Farm Organic, which oversees 33,000 acres of crops and is the nation’s largest organic produce grower, and Gary Smith, Colorado State University professor of meat science, were invited to join. J. Scott Vernon, professor in Cal Poly’s Ag Education & Communication Department, acted as moderator, valiantly and successfully guiding the discussion to meet the stated goals of spirited discussion in service of education.

So, what’s sustainable?

Pollan engaged the definition of ‘sustainability’ as agriculture that neither destroys the conditions required for it nor depends on unreliable conditions.

“It’s an ideal that isn’t fully met by any systems,” he said. “The relationships are more complex than that.”

Ms. Goodman agreed that farmers, as producers even of organic food, inevitably use a lot of oil. However, her goals include minimizing not only dependence on oil, but also use of toxic chemicals and relying as much as possible on packaging made of post-consumer materials. Sustainability, to her, is a commitment to “protecting and preserving resources for our children.”

Smith’s perspective ignored production entirely, focusing on delivery to the consumer. He praised the food technology that has created so many processed convenience foods from corn. Those products have freed women from the kitchen drudgery his mother went through to feed six kids on the farm. He aligned sustainability with food security.

“I’m proud the government helped us achieve food security,” he said. “They gave us the cheapest food possible, made it safe and convenient to eat.”

The claim that industrial methods are required to feed the world, with population projections pointing to 9.1 billion people in 2050, has surface appeal – no one is in favor of starving people – but the fact is, people are starving now. Production is only part of feeding the world. Distributing the available food and helping people produce their own food are crucial parts of solving the problem of hunger (or, as it is now called, Food Insecurity). Even Smith agreed, later in the program, that money spent on war would generate better results if it were spent helping people grow food.

Pollan noted that before WWII, every calorie of energy invested in growing food returned two in food energy. Currently, it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food. Hmm. How sustainable is that, regardless of how convenient it is?

Let’s hear it for Cheap Food!

Food produced in our industrial system is cheap, cheaper than in other countries. Government subsidies help keep commodity crop prices low, but ripple through the economy in other ways. Subsidies encourage monoculture crops, as farmers plant more of the crop that pays the highest subsidy. Those subsidized foods, mostly grains, undercut the agricultural economies of other countries. Local farmers are driven out of business in their home countries because they can’t grow food as cheaply as America can sell it. Mexicans migrating north across the border are often farmers who were driven off the land by NAFTA policies allowing the sale of subsidized grain.

Low prices also don’t include paying for expensive effects of externalities such as the emergence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens resulting from feeding subclinical antibiotics to animals (it makes them grow faster, and allows them to tolerate the crowded, filthy conditions in which they are kept), air and water pollution.

“The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are not enforced against agricultural operations,” Pollan said. “Take the government’s hand off the scale.”

Subsidies create other problems. Many farmers continue to lose money on their crops, undermining their financial security.

“You’re putting yourself at the mercy of grain speculators on Wall Street and ethanol policy in Washington,” Pollan said.

Pollan connected the dots on the dawning knowledge that diet causes chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Eating those convenient processed foods ultimately takes its toll in health. With health insurance and health care reform, the insurance industry and the medical community will see the advantages in managing health and controlling costs with diet.

“They stand to make a lot of money by reducing the amount of chronic disease,” he said.

Foundation elements of industrial agriculture, such as fossil fuel, water, and the vagaries of changing climate, are upon us, whether we face them or resist them. Pollan held the auto companies up as an example of industry fighting change. They successfully resisted building fuel-efficient cars for years. Eventually, reality, in the form of higher gas prices, caught up with them.

“Is agriculture willing to be experimental, or is it going to fight change?” he said. “We need to make sure agriculture doesn’t end up in that boat…It’s an opportunity, not a threat.”

Big Ag monopolies and the Government

Goodman noted her struggles with monopoly in the retail marketplace. With five companies controlling over 80 percent of retail space, the producers’ price margins are squeezed. On the 25th anniversary of her company, products that originally sold for $7 a pound now sell for around $1.50. In meat processing, four percent of packers process 84 percent of beef. That concentration results in uneven costs. Conventional beef costs $50 a steer to slaughter and process – a grass-fed steer costs $150.

Not mentioned at the panel is the USDA’s new initiative to explore monopoly in agriculture markets. They have partnered with the Department of Justice, which means they have an eye to prosecution, to hold workshops in 2010 on the subject. Comments are also welcomed on other subjects that could be explored. Go to for more information.

Teach the Children Young

Moderator Vernon prompted the discussion with questions submitted by the audience. How can the university help? What can teachers do to educate their students? What role can the government play?

As with the opening charge to define sustainability, Smith didn’t confine himself to the limits of the question. Disregarding some questions entirely, he riffed onto consumer lack of understanding of marketing terms such as organic, green and sustainable.

Smith said he accepted government regulation for practices such as manure management and erosion control. He presented the recent proposed increase in critical habitat in Colorado for Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse as an outrageous example of government folly. The audience applauded and cheered. “Is that for the mouse?” Pollan asked. YES!

The three found agreement on the need to teach kids about food. Pollan suggested that schools use gardens to teach them where food comes from. Support that with cooking classes and classes in eating. Earthbound Farms offers classes at its farmstand. Smith suggested reinstilling “real drive into vocational and homemaking classes.”

“Bring the whole food chain into the classroom,” he said.

“Everyone should learn how to cook and how to sew,” Goodman added.

So what did Harris Ranch gain?

Smith proudly noted that 98 percent of all beef sold in the U.S. in 2008 was conventionally raised. What is Harris Ranch so worried about? Is it because the handwriting is on the wall about its methods?

Conventional and sustainable farmers can learn from each other’s methods. Goodman related how conventional producers have benefitted from applying organic methods to improve soil with compost and cover crops. They have seen that protecting riparian and other wildlife habitat on their farms can reduce the need to apply expensive toxic pesticides. Goodman encouraged government and university investment in developing disease-resistant plant varieties, such as mildew-resistant spinach, to compensate for not using chemicals. Industry research focuses on products that can be patented, rather than seeds and processes.

“I’m personally really committed to organic, but we can take the best of both worlds,” she said.

Is that so bad that it can’t even be discussed without setting off tantrums among wealthy donors?

Smith’s dedication to industrial agriculture has disappointed him in some ways – none of his six children has gone into agriculture, and none even want the farm. He’s working on persuading the grandchildren, but isn’t having much success. Not to worry, there were interested young farmers in the audience willing to be adopted.

Perhaps the young farmer who inherits Smith’s ranch, whoever he or she is, will be using different practices to raise beef. Perhaps the ranch will work with wildlife managers to create a different kind of operation entirely, maybe even welcoming the jumping mouse. Is that so bad it can’t be discussed?

Pollan rejected the charge that his work has criticized farmers. “Criticism of agriculture is not a criticism of farmers,” he said. “We need to celebrate, encourage and educate farmers.”

Farmers can sequester carbon in their soil, reducing the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change. The food they raise can be part of improved health.

“Solutions are in the hands of farmers,” Pollan said.

“We have to help people who want to farm,” Smith echoed.

Finding better ways to produce food doesn’t have to put us at war with each other. As Dean David Wehner of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences said in his introduction, “We all ate before we came here, and we all ate different things.” Michael Pollan is the messenger of facts and ideas we all need to hear as we head into a future that will certainly challenge us, with drought and floods, crop disease and failure and ever more people to be fed.

Harris Ranch probably doesn’t care how absurd it looks. Its ability to exercise influence over campus events needs serious investigation, though. What are other companies buying and paying for? Cal Poly belongs to the public, for the benefit of its students and the contribution they make to our society. It’s not Harris Ranch’s corporate publicity organization.

Selling Cal Poly’s commitment to academic freedom for a new meat processing facility is way too cheap.

Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, in Voyageur Press’ FFA Livestock Series. Both books focus on raising traditional breeds in small flocks. She’s sorry the panel didn’t get to talk about poultry. She lives in Cambria, CA.