Despite Censorship By Beef Magnate, Michael Pollan Spreads Message About the Real Price of Cheap Food

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Pollan took on Big Ag and cheap food in a panel discussion, after the protests of a meat industry chairman led to his speech at a University being canceled.

Award-winning food journalist Michael Pollan was invited to speak on October 15 at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo but after pressure from a university donor who is chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Co., the university changed his speech to a panel discussion.

Pollan, whose works include The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is the Knight Professor of Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s also no stranger to attacks from Big Ag.

Pollan used the forum to continue to challenge people to think about the ways in which we are growing food in our current fossil-fuel dependent system of agriculture. “We’re producing ourselves into a hole,” he warned the audience.

Joining him on the panel was Gary Smith, the Monford Endowed Chair of meat science at the University of Colorado and Myra Goodman, the co-founder of Earthbound Farm.

What follows is a transcript of the discussion, edited by the AlterNet staff for length and clarity.

Moderator: What is sustainability?

Michael Pollan: I would be remiss if I didn’t address a little bit the circumstances surrounding this event, which I don’t think we can let pass in silence. But one of the reasons we’re doing the panel and not a conventional speech is that there was a real challenge to the university posed by the government, and what is potentially a real threat to academic freedom. And as much as agriculture is what we want to talk about today, academic freedom under girds the ability to have the kind of conversation about agriculture we want to have.

Let me tie this back to sustainability. One of the things we understand from the science of ecology is that the best way to achieve resilience, in any system, is by diversity: biodiversity and intellectual diversity. And that having a diversity of views on this campus — you know, because universities are the place where these conversations should take place, without any kind of bullying, without any kind of threats. It’s critical to trying to figure out how to deal with the challenges that we have.

You could have a monoculture of a university — one that only tolerated one kind of thinking – and when the world changes, as it inevitably does, you would find yourself in serious trouble. But when you have a lot of different ideas, and they’re all nurtured, and they’re all brought into contact with one another as we hope to do today, that is where you get the resources to withstand shocks to the system. And god knows those shocks are coming.

Let me just talk about sustainability and the agricultural format, because I really do believe that it’s connected. You know, sustainability is a complex concept in one way, but it’s also very simple: A sustainable system is one that can go on indefinitely, without destroying the conditions on which it depends — or without depending on conditions it can’t depend on.

So take for example fossil fuels: a system that is highly dependent on cheap oil may not be a sustainable system when oil prices go up. A system that depends on large quantities of free or cheap water has a problem when those situations change.

So sustainability is really — it’s an ideal. There are sustainable systems. A forest. A prairie. I mean, these are sustainable systems; they can go on year after year. They don’t need inputs. They don’t destroy the conditions on which they depend. But as soon as we get involved and start changing things to feed ourselves, we get into more complicated relationships. So it’s a matter of degree, I would say.

Now the question is, ‘is the system we have sustainable today?’ I just want to offer one little prop to tell you where I think the problem is. I brought along something [laughter] from McDonald’s. This is a double quarter-pounder with cheese. Those of you in front can probably smell it. Anyone is welcome to have it [laughter].

Moderator: I believe the students might.

MP: Whoever asks the first question. And I’ve got some glasses here. Each of these glasses holds six ounces, Okay? It takes a lot of oil to make a modern fast food hamburger. An astonishing amount of oil. And I did a little research to find out just how much went into this.

The oil comes in in several different stages. There is the biggest part, probably: the petroleum needed to create the fertilizer to grow the corn, which is the diet, typically, of these animals. But there’s also the moving of that corn, the moving of the burger, the processing, you know, and getting it to a McDonald’s near you.

So oil. Six ounces. Six more ounces. Eighteen. Twenty-four. Twenty-six. That’s a lot of oil to make the burger! And you have to ask yourself: Is the system that produces that burger sustainable?

Moderator: Thanks, Michael. Myra, sustainability. Could you define it?

Myra Goodman: How do you follow that?

MP: With milk, maybe [laughter].

MG: To me, sustainability is protecting and preserving our resources so that they are there for our children, you know? And I think it feels almost impossible for me as a farmer and a manufacturer of a food product to not be consuming a lot of fossil fuels to get our food to market. And I think a big part of this conversation is the population that we’re supporting now on this planet, and I think if you look at … these perfect systems Michael talks about, I think that those little farms work well in a much less populated planet.

But New York City is our biggest market, and they don’t have the ability to grow any fresh greens there for more than half the year. And we know that eating healthy organic food — organic produce — is a great thing for them to be eating, versus eating this burger with…how many ounces?

MP: Twenty-six.

MG: Twenty-six ounces of oil. So for our company, you know, we feel that we have made great strides in terms of how to farm on a large scale successfully, organically, without all these synthetic inputs, and we work really hard to reduce our use of fossil fuels and water and a lot of valuable resources. And then we’ve made some great strides — mostly with post consumer recycled materials. We’ve switched to post-consumer recycled cardboard and post-consumer recycled plastics with our clam shells. We were the first company to do that. But we’re still using a tremendous amount of resources.

So I ask myself: Am I leaving this planet better for future generations — I think in certain ways I am, we are. But in certain ways, we’re not, and I don’t know how to accomplish that.

Gary Smith: Well, the concept of sustainability has been around a long time. We really only started to use the word in the last five years. If you look in a dictionary, the definition is: “to provide nourishment for.” And the second definition is: “to be able to prolong or continue.” So basically, if you put it together, can you in fact provide nourishment for the foreseeable future?

The word sustainability, unless you qualify it, means nothing because it’s anything you could keep going. So you have to put some words in front of it. It’s really interesting. There’s a wonderful article by Liz Sloan in the last issue of Food Technology. She cited nine studies where they had actually gone up to people and said, “Do you use ‘sustainability’ or ‘green’ in making purchasing decisions?”

Fifty-four to 82 percent of them said yes, we do. They then asked, “What does it mean? What does the word ‘sustainability’ mean?” Sixty percent of them said, “Huh. I really don’t know.” And so they said in many of these studies, “Well, what do you think it means?” Of all the answers they were given, the number one answer was “natural.” Second was “organic.” Third was “locally grown.” Fourth was “humanely treated.” And then it got into small carbon footprint and so on.

So as those of us in universities begin to tackle sustainability, we say there is a “food supply sustainability;” there is an “agriculture sustainability;” And I like commissions like the Pew commission when they said: “What does sustainability mean to animal agriculture?” And the Pew Commission said: “The management of animal agriculture so that it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Now that doesn’t mean forever. And so our task, as people who are involved in agriculture is: We know things are going to change. We know how we’re doing at the moment. We want to be able to do the things that are necessary to make sure that we are able to feed 9.1 billion people in the year 2050.

So to us, agricultural sustainability is food security: Can we continue to do this the best we can, with all the science and technology we can put into the action, can we continue to feed the world’s hungry people?


Moderator: What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing the industry? How do we change, or move toward that ideal, that place that you might see out there that’s sustainable?

MP: Yeah, getting from here to there is a tremendous challenge, and I’m sympathetic to any producer who operates under a system that may or may not be working well for them, but it’s very hard to picture how to do it differently. One of the key challenges — just continuing with this oil issue – T. Boone Pickens says we’re going to have $350 a barrel oil within 10 years. We all saw what that did to the food system in 2008. It threw everybody’s input system through the roof. And transportation costs. You had big growers out here, when the price of broccoli went from three dollars per box to ten dollars per box to get it to New York City … buying agricultural land on the east coast to shorten the food supply.

So I think one of the metrics that’s worth thinking about is, to what extent you can squeeze fossil fuel out of your business model, and replace it with the only source of sustainable energy we really have which is to say solar energy. And the more sun in a system – the more energy that’s derived from sun and less from oil, you’re moving in the right direction. So I think that’s very important.

But it’s also very important for people to understand that I’m not an agronomist. I’m not a scientist. I teach writing; I teach journalism. And everything I have learned, I have learned by talking to producers and to academics. This is where my information comes from. And I am out looking for models, you know? Good, bad, medium.

And I think this is really where the university comes in. I think it is the university’s job to be the kind of antenna of the industry. The antenna, you know, looking at what’s next, testing new models. Figuring out, you know, how productive could you be putting cows back on grass? How well could local food systems — foodsheds — feed a given area? What happens to agriculture at $350 a barrel oil? And it’s a reason we all need to support the university, as a place where those questions — scary as they may be, threatening as they may seem, get tried out. Where we do our test tube experiments.

But as an organizing principle, think about that idea of … just to take you back to your grandparents’ age. Pre-war farming: For every calorie of fossil fuel energy we put into the system — the farm system on the farm — we got back two calories of food energy. Calories are just measurements of food energy; they could be anything — could be a Twinkie, could be oil. The modern industrial food system, which I completely acknowledge its achievements in terms of making food really, really cheap … that is quite an achievement, but you have to look at cost, also. As in everything in life, it’s a trade-off. That modern food system, it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of fast food, or processed food.

So that again … can we count on that? I don’t think we can.


I don’t think it’s about “Do we want?” This isn’t about taste. This isn’t about “I like this kind of food and I like that kind of food.” This is about the fact that we’re entering a kind of scary time characterized by less fossil fuel, less water, climate change — which is an enormous threat to agriculture. It introduces a whole new level of uncertainty. There are already wine makers in the Napa Valley … they’re already saying it’s changing their economy, and they have to adapt and figure out new varieties.

So that change is coming whether we want it or not. And the challenge is, do you kind of go into it willing to be experimental, or do you fight?

Now, let’s take the oil example with the oil industry. Detroit did a fantastic job of defending itself against change. And they have the Congress of the United States, and all the representatives fighting back all the forces that said, “You know, you really need better gas mileage. This is a mistake.” And they won. But they lost by winning.

And we have to make sure agriculture — big agriculture, little agriculture, all different types of agriculture — doesn’t find itself in that boat.


Moderator: Myra … what do you see as the challenges you’re going to face, and how do you think we might be addressing those?

MG: On the macro scale, of course, knowing that our fossil fuel resources are limited and are going to get more expensive, going to get more limited. We’re going to get huge water problems in the state. Climate change terrifies me, especially as an organic farmer, because we don’t have these silver bullets to deal with pests. And everyone talks about climate change making pests a much bigger problem.

I also think when you’re a business owner, you also have to look at financial sustainability. And have to look at making an ethical profit, so you can afford to pay your workers a living wage, and get them to return to the farmers that they stay in business. And I think especially in California, what’s happening now is that retail has consolidated so much that the last thing I heard was five major retailers own eighty percent of the supermarket space, and there’s so many different farmers, and we have no power in these negotiations. There’s an auction system for a lot of this business, and you’re seeing our margins get really squeezed, and so I think our agenda for financial survival is something that we need to balance with these long term threats. And it would be great, like you were saying, in universities like this, where you’re not trying every day to make ends meet and make your payroll and make your company happy, to have some help with some of those big issues that we’ll be facing in the future.


GS: There’s no question that fossil fuels, and the emissions that are called greenhouse gases, are a huge problem. EPA did a study in 2009, and they said, “Where is most of the fossil fuel used, and in which sectors are the most greenhouse gas emissions created?” Number one on that list was the electricity generation. Number two on that list was transportation. Number three on that list was manufacturing. Number four on that list was eight percent of fossil fuels from agriculture.

It’s very, very difficult for those of us in agriculture – and I have owned a wheat farm; I own part of a natural beef company; I own a laboratory testing company that serves the food industry. Why do we out of our eight percent have to make the price of food increase in order to save fossil fuel? No. Let’s don’t have a “meatless Monday.” Let’s have a “no electricity Tuesday.” Let’s have a “nobody can drive a car Thursday.” Why do we focus on eight percent of fossil fuels? I want to feed people. And to tell them we’re going to solve their problems by making the cost of food higher?

Thirty-one states increased the level of poverty in this last economic downturn. Increasing the price of food is not the route by which to provide food security to us and the world.

[… ]

MP: It’s not as if this system is working so well for farmers. If you look at … what dairy farmers are doing — the fact that hog farmers today are losing forty-six bucks for every hog they’re growing. Corn and bean farmers this year are projected to lose eight dollars per acre on what they’re planting. This regime, based on high efficiency, expensive inputs and overproduction — sometimes done in the name of feeding the world — does not really serve the farmer very well. We’re producing ourselves into a hole. And yes, there is a larger population coming, but according to the UN, last year, we grew enough food in the world to feed — as things stand now — to feed 11 billion people, if we used it as food.

We didn’t. We put a lot of it in our cars, in our gas tanks. And we fed a lot of it to animals.

So we have to look at this question of overproduction. It’s almost like built into the DNA of how we do it in America. All of our foreign policies are about “faster, quicker, cheaper.” Has that really served us? Has it served us as eaters, and has it served us as growers?

The people who have managed to get out of that commodity trap … figured out another product — something that was, at the time you started, a really specialized niche, and found new markets. They built new markets. The problem is, over time, you’re another commodity, and it’s hard to keep innovating that way.

Also, cheap food. We all like cheap food. But if you look at what cheap food has done to us, it’s not all good. It’s true that we spend less than any people who have ever lived on this planet on food. As a percentage of income, it’s under 10 percent. I don’t know what other industry boasts about the fact that their products are so cheap. And cheap food has given us all sorts of health care problems. Three quarters of the money we spend on health care in this country goes to treat preventable, chronic diseases. And not all of those are food related, but most of them are.

So we can pay the farmer, or we can pay the doctor. We’re moving toward paying the doctor … and wouldn’t it be better to pay the farmer?

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