April 7 2010 12:00 AM

Critics of author Michael Pollan gear up for a debate when he brings his gospel on healthful eating to MSU next week



Greg Thon grew up working on his family’s 800-acre, 80-cow dairy farm in West Michigan and has milked cows every morning since middle school. Since then he has “fallen in love with agriculture.”

As an agribusiness management junior at MSU and a member of the Farmhouse fraternity, Thon’s peers have similar backgrounds. Some are seventh-generation farmers, he said.

“We respect our animals, whether we are raising 10 or 10,000,” he said. “We just want to do the best we can.”

So when Thon heard MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is co-sponsoring a lecture by acclaimed food and sustainable agriculture author Michael Pollan next week, he hoped his peers can put aside some of their strong emotions against Pollan and engage in a lively debate. His appearance at the Wharton Center is sold out.

“You have to remember: Emotions run high on both sides of this topic. Pollan is taking a shot at some of our livelihoods,” he said. “It’s about putting those emotions aside as best we can.”

As an author and activist, Pollan has written six books, most of which rail against industrialized agriculture and what he sees as bogus food trends in the United States. He coined the phrase: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Many in production agriculture feel threatened by Pollan’s portrayal of them in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and other books, namely for his critique of widespread corn use and animal treatment.

It may raise some eyebrows that one of the country’s premier agricultural schools is hosting one of the country’s most controversial agricultural writers. However, event organizers say MSU’s stature as an agricultural leader should foster this kind of debate.

“The debate is as hot as ever on issues like food production and human health,” said Frank Fear, senior associate dean for the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “As an educational institution, it is our obligation to be supportive of opportunities to have a debate.”

Thon, who helped organize a student only question and answer period before the lecture, agrees with Fear but has some reservations about Pollan’s work (which he has read multiple times), namely Pollan’s view on excessive corn production (“It’s one of the few uplifting things of the world,” Thon said) and beef production (“I don’t see a problem with raising cows on grain,” he added).

Despite large-scale protests and threats to revoke funding at the University of Wisconsin and California State Polytechnic University by agriculture groups, including the Farm Bureau, Pollan’s controversial lectures have reached audiences on both sides of the debate. Thon does not expect protests to be a problem at MSU, but also did not rule them out.

“We have some smart individuals and are a respectful bunch,” he said. “If anything, there will be a constructive debate.”

Laurie Thorp, coordinator for the MSU Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment and an adviser to the Student Organic Farm, uses the dichotomy of a large conventional agriculture university housing several sustainable agriculture initiatives as a way to inform students on both practices and allow them to decide for themselves which is best.

“First and foremost I help students become critical thinkers by exposing them to multiple perspectives,” she said. “It’s about empowering students with resources and perspectives, not advancing one paradigm over the other.”

Pollan’s visit is important to Thorp because we (as consumers) purchase and consume food on a daily basis and often without a lot of thought, she said.

“What I appreciate about Pollan’s work is that he has brought this discourse to national attention,” she said. “That is what I support.”

Fear has been organizing and participating in divisive debates for a great deal of his career, 32 years of which have been at MSU. For one to happen on a college campus, he asks, “What’s so different about that?”

What is interesting to him about Pollan, though, is that a symbolic spokesman of the non-dominant paradigm is causing a stir among the dominant paradigm community. Food and food production is important and often emotional for people, Fear said.

“It will be interesting to see it all play out,” he said.

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Dean Jeffrey Armstrong responded to questions about the college’s decision to co-sponsor the Pollan lecture in a blog post. He wrote that there are many aspects to this food production debate that should include varying, albeit contradictory, perspectives.

“The future of agriculture is a complex business and cannot be reduced to a simplistic ‘pro’ and ‘con’ debate. As such, the CANR should emphasize encouraging the expression and debate of many perspectives, recognizing that not all these perspectives are compatible. Hence, ‘sponsoring’ a talk should not be confused with endorsing what the speaker says. This is, by the way, true for every talk given on campus,” he wrote.

Fear said some faculty and student groups are less upset with Pollan’s message than they are with the format in which he is speaking: an hour-long question and answer with students and a longer time allotted that evening for a lecture.

Some hoped for a panel debate or for him to visit classes but that just won’t happen, Fear said, due to Pollan’s contract with the Wharton Center.

“I don’t have a problem with that — we will just have to live with it,” Fear said. “This is also a business and he has the right to put parameters on his availability.”

All of this comes amid Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s declaration last month of a “Michigan Meatout Day,” a statewide call for 24 hours of vegetarianism. Drawing so much criticism from agriculture and political groups in the state led Granholm to declare the next day “Michigan Agriculture Day.”