Panel takes on ‘sustainable ag’ at Cal Poly

A capacity crowd filled the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly on Thursday to hear a controversial debate about so-called sustainable agriculture that featured agribusiness critic Michael Pollan.

In his opening remarks, Pollan addressed the controversy surrounding the event. He said the decision to hold a panel discussion rather than a one-man lecture, which came after Harris Ranch Beef Co. Chairman David Wood threatened to withhold a donation to Cal Poly’s planned meat- processing center, represented a “threat to academic freedom.”

Universities should be places where ideas can be discussed freely without the threat of bullying, said Pollan, who is a journalism professor at UC Berkeley. His remarks drew strong applause from the audience, which consisted of students, farmers, ranchers and interested members of the public.

Other members of the panel were Myra Goodman, founder of Earthbound Organic Farms, and Gary Smith, a Colorado State University professor and a defender of agribusiness.

Cal Poly Dean of Agriculture David Wehner praised Pollan’s willingness to participate in the panel, saying that students will benefit from the free exchange of ideas and opinions.

In the cordial debate, the panelists agreed on many issues, including encouraging children to enter agriculture and homemaking, increasing food choices for consumers, promoting research and innovation and teaching people worldwide to grow their own food.

The main area of disagreement was about whether today’s industrialized agriculture is sustainable, meaning that resources are protected for future generations. In his articles and bestselling books, Pollan has argued that it is not because it uses too much fuel and water and promotes unhealthy foods.

To make his point, he held up a McDonald’s hamburger and poured into glasses 26 ounces of liquid to represent the amount of petroleum that went into producing the burger. With oil prices expected climb again in coming decades, that level of energy consumption is not sustainable, Pollan said.

He also decried that, partly because of government subsidies, fatty and salty processed foods and drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup are cheaper than fruits and vegetables. The result, he said, is rising levels of diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and obesity.

“We are producing ourselves into a hole,” he said.

Smith, on the other hand, said he was proud to part of an agricultural system that produces cheap, abundant and safe food. Modern agricultural practices have given us food security, he said.

Gone are the days when mothers have to stay home all day cooking meals for their families, he said. Processed food has given soccer moms the luxury of producing meals quickly.

Smith agreed that petroleum consumption and the associated “greenhouse gas” emissions are a problem, but noted that agriculture accounts only for about 8 percent of the nation’s oil use, far behind transportation and manufacturing. It would be unwise to single out agriculture for its oil use and thereby make food more expensive, Smith said.

Pollan and Smith praised Goodman for being a pioneer in organic farming. Her company, Earthbound Organic Farm, is credited with inventing the popular spring mix bags of salad greens.

The three-year process of transitioning from standard to certified organic farming practices is a major financial hurdle for many farmers, Goodman said. She encouraged people to plant backyard gardens.

“If you garden, you immediately appreciate farmers,” she said.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.