Criticism from Harris Ranch Beef Company chairman - and potential donor - leads Cal Poly to change format of talk by author of 'The Omnivore's Dilemma'

A best-selling author who writes about food and sustainable agriculture practices will speak at Cal Poly today — but not as originally planned.

Michael Pollan, who wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “The Botany of Desire,” and has published articles in The New York Times, was originally slated to lecture in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people at the university.

But the chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Company, and a potential donor to Cal Poly’s planned meat-processing center, raised his opposition to Pollan’s appearance. So the event was changed to a panel discussion featuring two other speakers in addition to Pollan.

Pollan, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, is an advocate for healthy, environmentally conscious methods of farming and production — including feeding cattle with grass, reducing the use of petroleum on farms and decreasing pollution.

Harris Ranch chairman David Wood said he has problems with Pollan’s views about sustainable agriculture — which he says are unrealistic and not profitable — and expressed his displeasure with giving Pollan an “unchallenged forum.”

Wood, a Cal Poly alumnus who described himself as a “significant donor,” sent a letter to Cal Poly President Warren Baker in late September expressing his displeasure with Pollan’s scheduled talk.

Wood said Wednesday that he’s now rethinking a $150,000 donation he pledged to the university’s meat-processing center. Harris Ranch owner John Harris had pledged a $350,000 donation, and he’s rethinking his donation as well, Wood said.

Cal Poly’s Dean of Agriculture David Wehner said various options were on the table for the talk, including a panel discussion and that Pollan ultimately agreed to the panel format.

On the panel with Pollan will be Earthbound Organic Farm founder Myra Goodman and Colorado State University professor Gary Smith, who’s known for advocating conventional farming methods. The free talk will start at 11 a.m. in the Performing Arts Center.

Harris Ranch, based in Selma in the Central Valley, is the 15th largest beef processor in the country. Its products are available on the shelves of Scolari’s and Spencer’s Fresh Market in San Luis Obispo, Wood said.

Wood criticized Pollan for a lack of scientific basis for his advocacy and said, “You can’t feed the world based on his claims.”

“It’s not realistic to have 40-acre farms with a mule.”

But Pollan said the accusations by Wood and others who have opposed his speaking events are misleading.

“I see influence here being applied by a donor trying to bully an institution, and the question is whether they will succeed,” Pollan said.

When asked if Cal Poly is beholden to donors over an issue of academic freedom, Wehner said he couldn’t respond to that question.

“We’re trying to educate students and trying to prepare them for things they can face when they hit the real world,” Wehner said. “The goal is to educate the students.”