Big Ag’s odd obsession with You-Know-Who
I really really really didn’t want to write another post on Michael Pollan. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan. It’s just that reducing the whole of the food movement to Pollan’s work naturally ignores so much else that’s going on. But don’t blame me for this post. Blame Big Ag. These guys just can’t leave him alone — it’s verging on an unhealthy obsession. They seem to think that if they can just share a stage with him wherever he pops up, they’ll show him (and the audience) how wrong he really is. It’s happening all over the country.
First came the brouhaha over Ominvore’s Dilemma at Washington State University. Then it happened again at the Univesity of Wisconsin at Madison. In that case, the very presence of Pollan was enough to bring out hundreds of protesting farmers. Now we get word that an industrial livestock producer threatened to withdraw a $500,000 donation to Cal Poly until Pollan’s speech to students was transformed into a panel discussion so Big Ag interests could respond.
Big Ag has clearly decided that Pollan is a latter-day Lenin (or perhaps Trotsky?) leading a cadre of food revolutionaries who threaten to overthrow its hard-fought hegemony — rebut his arguments and perhaps the whole movement will collapse like a bad soufflé. All in reaction to a relatively unassuming guy who’s written some articles and a few books. Isn’t this all, like, a bit much?
But maybe Big Ag is right in viewing journalism as the gravest threat to the status quo. It’s not coming from the USDA. And Congress? Fuggedaboutit. Big Ag’s proxies on the Ag committees along with its ample lobbying dollars keeps reform at the margins. But jeezapete, those investigative reports really hit an oligopolist where it hurts! Michael Moss’s recent NYT exposé on ground beef has dominated the news cycle, given new momentum to stalled food safety reforms and single-handedly led to capitualtion by Tyson Foods on E. coli testing (at least in its dealings with Costco). Mind you, Costco — one of the most powerful retailers in the country — couldn’t on its own convince Tyson to test its meat. But a few thousand words from Michael Moss? Done and done.
Though it’s certainly not just Michael Pollan bringing the hurt to Big Ag; let’s not forget Eric Schlosser as the fast food industry’s thorn — he’s probably cut industry sales more than any transfat ban or anti-obesity campaign to date. And of course, one of the great 20th century pioneers of food system reform was Upton Sinclair, a journalist.
Still, despite Big Ag’s insistence — as in a storyline out of pro wrestling — on meeting its nemesis anywhere, any time and in any forum, it starts to seem like their obsession with Pollan isn’t getting them anywhere.
More and more, agribiz reps come out of some Pollan event sounding oddly mollified by what they hear. La Vida Locavore documented this phenomenon in Madison, Wis. Indeed Pollan himself in his latest Big Ag debate — this time on NPR’s Talk of the Nation — said much the same thing about Madison:
What happened there? They bused in several hundred farmers, all wearing green T-shirts that said, In Defense of Farmers. And they were expecting to hear a very different Michael Pollan … [T]hey were surprised that what I said didn’t conform to what the Farm Bureau was telling them I said … which is to say, I was talking about how to build new agricultural markets, so that they could diversify. I was talking about figuring out ways to get more of the consumers’ food dollar into their pockets. Right now, 90 percent of the consumers’ food dollar goes to middlemen, processors, marketers. And that in the kinds of alternative agriculture that we’re beginning to be talked about in this country, there are great opportunities for farmers…
And you know, when the farmers left that hall, they were kind of surprised, and I talked to some ag-journalists who said, yeah, we were on the bus with them going back, and they said they really didn’t find as much to disagree with in what you said than they expected.
Even Blake Hurst, the farmer and author of The Omnivore’s Delusion and Pollan’s ostensible antagonist on Talk of the Nation, could find common ground:
So I think Mr. Pollan is correct … I think that farm subsidies, the way they are now, probably do make the price of grain lower than it would be without them…
On the one hand, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that Big Ag has singled out Michael Pollan as their Public Enemy Number One — they have witnessed time and time again the power of the journalist’s pen, something that continues to elude their otherwise inescapable sphere of influence. But Big Ag has taken on a writer who — as a professor first at Yale and now at Berkeley — has long experience with public speaking, is pithy, quick-witted, not easily flustered and, it turns out, interested in amiably driving a wedge between farmers and agribiz interests. All Big Ag’s efforts accomplish is to give Pollan high-profile forums to broadcast his ideas (and punch holes in its own). I’m starting to wonder when Big Ag will figure this out.
And because too much Michael Pollan is never enough, I’ll leave you with the next phase in his plot to be the Tsar of all the Media: PollanTV. PBS has adapted Pollan’s wonderful Botany of Desire as a documentary mini-series. I guess Big Ag can’t escape him even if they wanted to: