Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pollan Mania

We've just finished 4 days of all Michael Pollan, all the time, here in Madison WI. Pollan's In Defense of Food was selected as the inaugural book for Go Big Read, one of those everybody reads one book programs for the UW-Madison campus. On Thursday, Pollan spoke to almost 7,000 people in our basketball & hockey arena, the Kohl Center. I did not go to that, but I went to see him as part of this panel discussion on Friday afternoon. One of the panelists was Susan Smith, who runs a farm with her husband; they're long time farmers' market vendors - I've bought my Thanksgiving turkey from them the last 4 years or so. Susan used to write for the local paper, and now is a science writer at the UW Medical School. She also teaches writing at the University and has done so for years. Other panelists were John Vrieze, owner of Vrieze Farms Inc., who runs a highly scientific and forward looking dairying operation with 2,500 cows, and a senior at UW-Madison majoring in agricultural journalism, Andrea Bloom - I thought she was a little scarey, in a young Republican way.

I am not sure exactly how it happened, but here at UW, a big land grant ag school, Pollan got portrayed as anti-technology, and anti-farmer. A group organized here called In Defense of Farmers, and got people to wear green t-shirts to the big Kohl Center talk. Maybe it's because Pollan says you shouldn't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Some of the things Pollan says are getting push back from Big Ag, and seems like that's as it should be. Because most of what he says is wrong about our food system happens after the food leaves the farm - I mean come on, we take potatoes and make 'em into potato chips and frozen french fries - and it's like 3 big companies that do it; we make a million different food additives from corn, not to mention that high-fructose corn syrup that some people say is what makes us fat. Except for that one little nagging fact that farmers can't make money if they don't grow what the processors will buy.

Pollan was also the keynote speaker at the Food for Thought Festival. I was a volunteer there so I got to see him again. Since we were bringing in such a prominent author, we ran a writing contest in conjunction with the fest, and I introduced the winners. The smaller crowd at Food for Thought was all pretty pro Pollan - no green t-shirts, lots of positive statements about small farmers, and even big farmers. Pollan talked a lot about the ingenuity of farmers, and traced the history that's in his books - how we got to where we are today by taking apart the munitions industry after World War II, and using cheap oil and chemical inputs to produce vast quantities of cheap calories, which is undeniably an impressive achievement. Today things have gone full circle, and we have too many cheap calories, and expensive oil, and global warming - we need to switch to valuing quality over quantity - and paying farmers that way! and make sure that it's not just the people with the time and money to shop at farmers' markets and cook good meals, who have the quality food - we need to have quality food for all - that's the remark that got the most applause, both times I heard Pollan say it, Friday & Saturday.

But near the end of his remarks, Pollan did say that we are going through Ghandi's stages in the sustainable food movement - first you're ignored, then ridiculed, than fought - we're at fighting now. Do we have to be? - If we're gonna fight, here's a good blog for it - and if we're gonna fight, let's please not let it be the sustainable food movement vs. small farmers - that's just nuts.

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