Who is responsible for Michael Pollan?

Legislators and consumers need to be educated using scientific resources to refute misguided, destructive and unsubstantiated rants.

Recently a controversy erupted when Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo cancelled a lecture by Michael Pollan and offered as a substitute a panel discussion on ecology and nutrition. This action followed closely after a thinly veiled threat by David Wood, Chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Company to withdraw a $150,000 contribution towards a new meat processing plant on the campus. In a letter to the University authorities he stated that the scheduled lecture by Michael Pollan would cause him to “rethink my continued financial support of the University.” After canceling the event Cal Poly offered Pollan the opportunity to participate in the panel discussion.

For those who are not familiar with Michael Pollan, he serves as a Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and is a prominent advocate of “natural” foods. He has gained considerable prominence for a series of books including the Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His mantra is “Eat food, Eat Sparingly, Mostly Plants.”

He has appeared on a number of TV talk-shows to promote his books and ideas. This has convinced this commentator that he is abysmally ignorant of biochemistry, the physiology of digestion, scientific nutrition or intermediary metabolism. His simplistic ideas run counter to accepted and conventional notions of science. They are however appealing to the naysayers of intensive food production, processed and convenience items and the menus of quick service restaurants. Admittedly there is a problem of obesity in the U.S. but this has more to do with improper choices and overconsumption based on ignorance rather than defects in existing agricultural practices or supermarket and restaurant offerings.

In reviewing the Cal Poly incident it is obvious that blame should be apportioned equally to all parties. The University obviously did not consider the impact of a provocative lecturer espousing unconventional albeit trendy ideas. If teamed with an opposing (read rational) voice the event may have benefited the student body and attendees. As originally scheduled, Pollan was provided with a bully pulpit to promote his unsubstantiated and ultimately destructive concepts.

David Wood was heavy handed in his letter to the University administrators implying that he would take his ball out of the game and go home, unless—. The threat to withdraw a substantial financial contribution can only be regarded as an attempt to limit freedom of speech and academic independence, especially by the University community and kindred supporters. The fact that the University backtracked over the invitation to Pollan is an indication of either their ambivalence over the event or their venality. As it turns out the University authorities are now viewed as being spineless or worse and Wood as a manipulative heavy. Pollan has gained considerable publicity and greater support from the incident from his ever-growing following.

In a commentary, Marshall Matz of Agripulse Communications questioned how Michael Pollan has gained popular support despite the opposition of the National Academy of Sciences, the Heart Association, the Cancer Society and the late Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Norman Borlaug, not to mention our accumulated knowledge of nutrition. Matz maintains that the passive attitude of the food and agricultural community has created a vacuum for activists and charlatans to propagate their views. Whether selling nostrums or “feel-good” books, these individuals are unopposed in their attempts to sway public opinion by sensationalism, mistruths and exaggerations.  

It is obvious that agriculture is literally hiding its light under a bushel (both corn and soybeans) that they are de facto contributing to alleviating hunger among the World’s most unfortunate billions.

Formerly a Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Matz knows his way around Washington and Congress. He suggests a broad initiative directed at legislators incorporating focused initiatives such as the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization provisions of the Farm Bill and galvanizing the National Institute of Food and Agriculture into action. We are only too aware of the power of lobbying as evidenced by diversion of corn to ethanol at the expense of consumers and the Nation. Perhaps we should emulate the effective lobbying of the Renewable Fuels Association and promote the wholesomeness of food and its ready availability.

Matz would promote a concerted program to educate legislators and consumers and to make use of the scientific resources and credibility of national associations of scientists to refute the misguided, destructive and unsubstantiated rants from the Pollans in our society.