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Gagging Michael Pollan


Even if agribusiness could shut Michael Pollan up, the outspoken author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and a journalism professor at University of California, Berkeley, it still has the Los Angeles Times to contend with.

Last week, the Times blasted California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo for downgrading a scheduled Pollan lecture because it received pressure from David E. Wood, a university donor who happens to be chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Co.

“Agribusiness gets plenty of opportunities to preach its point of view at agriculture schools such as Cal Poly, where the likes of Monsanto and Cargill fund research,” the Times wrote, calling the 800-acre Harris Ranch, near Coalinga, whose “smell assaults passersby long before the panorama of thousands of cattle packed atop layers of their own manure,”–“Cowschwitz.” Ouch.

And agribusiness has the University of Wisconsin-Madison to deal with.

The land grant, ag-based university, in the middle of dairyland, clearly doesn’t remember its roots. It gave Pollan’s In Defense of Food, another anti-agbiz screed according to industry, free to all incoming freshmen as part of its common book read program where everyone reads the same book, Go Big Read, in August.

“I have not seen the students this excited about something in years,” Irwin Goodman, horticulture professor and vice dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences told the Associated Press as the James Beard Award-winning book was discussed in French and political science classes and included in an exhibit on the history of food.

Protesting farmers who came to hear Pollan speak at the university’s 17,000-seat Kohl Center in September wearing matching green T-shirts which said “In Defense of Farming: Eat Food. Be Healthy. Thank Farmers.” were clearly outnumbered. So were bumper stickers reading No Food; No Farms and Don’t Criticize Farmers With Your Mouth Full in the parking lot.

Students get all their facts from writers like Pollan, the farmers, who were bussed in by Madison-based feed company Vita Plus, told the Capital Times. They have never visited a farm for first-hand knowledge of food production and don’t know what they’re talking about.

But efforts to open farms to the public are not always successful.

This month United Egg Producers’ “Opening the Barn Doors” media tour at Morning Fresh Farms in northern Colorado, for example, only confirmed the size of today’s egg farm that make humane conditions impossible (36 barns; 23,000 birds each, 23 million dozen eggs a year) and raised further questions about environmental blight by showing the press wearing white HazMat suits to enter the barns. (See: You want us to eat WHAT?)

Last month the American Egg Board rolled out a kid-focused “The Good Egg” campaign which includes sponsorship of Sesame Street, a Cookie Monster product placement and a feel good virtual tour to soften public opinion about egg farms. But nowhere does the campaign address the daily grinding up of newborn males even as they hatch at the hatcheries which supply egg farms to provide the industry with only females–a practice that United Egg Producers confirms is routine. Does the Cookie Monster know about that?

Nor can all that crowding and all those chemicals be good for you, Pollan has written and many studies suggest.

But agribusiness is also combating last year’s American Institute for Cancer Research and World Cancer Research Fund study that found the link between processed meats and colon cancer so strong, the organizations advised consumers to change their eating habits.

Trent Loos, an outspoken columnist with the agbiz weekly, Feedstuffs, says nitrosamines, found in processed or cured meat and widely believed carcinogenic, may actually be good for you, preventing and treating “cardiovascular and other diseases associated with nitric oxide insufficiency in the diet.”

“Nitric oxide is an important signaling molecule in the human body to regulate numerous physiological functions including blood flow to tissues and organs,” write Loos of research conducted by Dr. Nathan Bryan at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Texas, Houston. “The regular intake of nitrite-containing food appears to ensure that blood and tissue levels of nitrite and nitric oxide pools in the body are maintained at adequate levels.”

Some of the ag press has even picked up the theory–but don’t expect a Pollan book called In Defense of Nitrites anytime soon.

MARTHA ROSENBERG can be reached at:

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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