In Defense of Michael Pollan and a Civil, More Nuanced Food Debate

As a political observer following the shift occurring in our understanding about agriculture, I can’t help but be reminded that change does not come peacefully. In fact, as Michael Pollan prepares to speak tonight to a concert arena filled with hungry minds in Wisconsin — after his book, In Defense of Food, was chosen as the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s “Go Big Read” common reading for the university — a group called In Defense of Farmers has urged farmers to protest him by wearing green.

AP reported that the protest was organized by Laura Daniels, a dairy farmer with 260 cows in Cobb, Wisconsin. But the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s president (and dairy farmer) Bill Bruins also kicked up a lot of dust after the book was handed out to all incoming freshman and announced as the common reading a few weeks ago. (Wait, isn’t there a huge dairy crisis going on in Wisconsin that would be a more important focus for the Farm Bureau rather than getting angry over a book discussion?) In Bruins’ op-ed he states that “Pollan has narrow and elitist ideas about how you should eat and how farmers should (or shouldn’t) feed a hungry and growing world.” This is a odd claim, considering that right now we have a food system in which the poor are forced to eat fast food — proven to lead to heart disease, diabetes and obesity — while Big Ag profits. Sounds quite elitist to me.

Farm Bureaus have long been havens for agribusiness interests, and I’m not surprised by Bruins’ reaction. More surprising is the farmer backlash being stoked against “agri-intellectuals” and people who speak out and feel passionately about the future of our soil. Rightfully, these farmers ask, “Who are you to be telling me what to do with my land after ignoring us for so long?”

Daniels, age 33, grew up on a farm, but only began working as a dairy farmer herself four years ago. She discussed her work and her decision to become a farmer here in an interview with a representative for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Her interest in re-engaging with the land and her decision to farm is not unlike many of the other young people who consider Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma their sustainable bible, and who are returning to the land to try and change the food system with their own two hands. Daniels and farmers like her seem to be missing the point when they protest Pollan and other food system thinkers — the idea behind his writing and sustainable food advocacy work in general is to re-include farmers, long marginalized, back in the debate.

Indeed, farmers have had mostly corporate interests reaching out to them via the Monsantos of the world, the Farm Bureaus and other sponsored groups seeming to act in their interest for far too long. Corporate groups have marketed products to farmers as “the answer” to their problems, only to have super weeds and cancer crop up later as a result of their use. Corporate interests have removed farmers from the land with their short-term efficiencies, breaking down rural communities and making the way for a methamphetamine crisis, poorer health care services, poisoned rural water and air, and a less hospitable environment for small businesses. Meanwhile farmers are losing more and more of their freedom to choose how to operate their land — farmers can no longer save seed, which they have done for thousands of years, are increasingly dependent on subsidies from the government, and are caught in a bottleneck between corporations determining the price they will get for a product that cannot even be eaten by their families until processed. This is not how it has to be and that is why we speak out.

Here is my message to farmers like Daniels: Let’s work together. The people engaging the possibilities for agriculture want to have a dialog with you. Their concern is for our collective well-being as a nation —  no one is out to make billions in profit by thinking about and proposing new ideas about agriculture, digging up their lawns to plant vegetables, trying to affect policy, all while learning to cook and gaining appreciation for your labor. They are doing it simply because they are excited and engaged, and that is a good thing.

Let tonight’s discussion be the beginning of a civil dialog about food.

That’s exactly the idea behind what we are trying to do here at Civil Eats.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Michael Pollan and a Civil, More Nuanced Food Debate

  1. I’m a farmer AND a fan of Michael Pollan’s and I applaud your call for a more nuanced discussion. I agree that there are many people who want to have a part of that dialog, and many of them are farmers. Sadly there are some farmers who don’t want to be a part of the conversation, but it is worth noting that there are also many who have read Michael Pollan’s books who don’t want a dialog either. Having read their “sustainable bible” (to use your term), they see it as their mission to bring the gospel to the heathens. Farmers aren’t stupid, and they recognize the difference between a dialog and a scolding. So while I’m disappointed in the decision of the Wisconsin farmers to protest a book that I myself have recommended to college students, I’d remind folks that nuance and civility is a two-way street. For the record I am very pleased that is typically the case in this forum (and this piece), but I’m sure people who follow the debate in some other venues will recognize that is not always the case.

  2. Thanks for chiming in on this. I agree that both sides need to be civil in the debate, and try to understand each others point of view. I hope we can continue to do so going forward.